You may have heard the term “strong female character” bandied about over the past few years — how we don’t have enough of them (we don’t), how we’re seeing so many more of them (we sort of are) or how many of them are put in “butt pose” on the posters for the movies or TV shows they’re in. You know “butt pose”: Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow with her back to us but with her head turned around to look alluringly over her shoulder. Well, of course you can’t kick ass unless you’re sexy and wear black leather. It’s the law!
Now don’t get me wrong. I love Black Widow. I love action films, especially with kick-ass leading ladies. Heck, I even love that outfit! (Yes, I totally cosplayed in it. Did you really have to ask?) Here’s the thing, though: our definition of what a “strong female character” is has to change.
The problem with kick-ass chicks in films is that no one really knows what to do with them once they finish laying waste to the bad guys. (Black Widow is an exception.) If they’re too tough or kick too much ass, writers (and studios, because they totally have a say) have to kill them off or have them brought down in some way. Sometimes they selflessly give up the spotlight to the male lead. Sometimes they’re raped and/or murdered. Sometimes they’re really just there as a catalyst to spur the male lead into action or revenge. Why? Well, guys, seriously! No guy is going to fall in love with a girl who can break him in half or out-shoot him, right? Sigh. That is a whole separate post.
I bring this up because if you look at your “strong female character” as a revenge catalyst, plot point or super hot eye candy alone, you’re missing the third word in that phrase. The trick is to write them as a character: well-rounded, with as many motivations, inner workings and qualities as your male characters. (Also, you don’t have to hook them up with someone. Just saying.) Geena Davis wrote a great piece on two easy steps to make Hollywood less sexist, and one of them was to try gender-swapping half the characters in your script and see if they hold up. Seriously, think of any major action movie and try it in your head. Interesting, right?
The other thing we have to consider is what we think of as “strong.” When we say, “that show has a lot of strong female characters,” are we saying that they all display traditionally “male” characteristics? Usually we are. Toughness, stoicism, physical power — these are all great and as a fan of action films, there is nothing wrong with that. However, we largely put the value on “male” characteristics and treat femininity as weak or less than. Speaking as a woman, believe me, they’re not.
Let me ask you this: Is Buffy a stronger character than Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Is Willow stronger than Tara? And as for Buffy, who is a well-rounded and well-written character, would she have been as amazing to watch if you only saw the scenes with her staking vamps and nothing else?