Yup. You read that subject line right! My second favorite (in sequence, not necessarily preference) panel from my AWP experience was titled Girls on Fire: Beyond the “Strong” Female Characters in Books for Young Readers, and it was all about the patriarchy-supporting nightmare “strong female characters” (SFC) have become and why writers should be striving for so much more.
(The panel was focused on YA literature, but a lot of the discussion is pertinent to character development in general. So don’t be put off, adult lit writers!)
Strong female character defined
The panel started off with a discussion of what makes or seems to make a female character strong in current literature. This was not a discussion of female characters who exhibit traits like resilience or confidence. “Strong female character,” in this case, is less a type of fictional person and more like marketing jargon used in the industry. The types of characters that get labeled this way exhibit some pretty troubling patterns.
According to the panel, a “strong female character” is usually white, straight, cis, beautiful (intentionally in that she likes to be pretty, but more often accidentally/unknowingly), and emotionally invulnerable. Essentially, she’s a collection of traditionally high-valued masculine characteristics wrapped up in a hot-girl package.
This seems to stem from the notion that boy/male readers won’t want to read about girls/women unless they can identify and/or, at the very least, want to sleep with them. Think about it. When was the last time you heard anyone discuss a “strong male character”? That’s because male characters are assumed to be strong by defaul, especially if they are main characters. The vast majority of the time “strong female character” is a euphemism for “boys will like her too.”
She’s not a complex person
SFCs kick ass and take no gruff. End of list.
Whereas male characters are allowed to be interesting across multiple dimensions, if a female character is “strong” she is typically devoid of complication, let alone any traditionally feminine characteristics. (Alternatively, those “girly” qualities might be tossed in as a nod to complexity. “See, she’s tough AND likes makeup.”) Any sign of complexity—like insecurity or self-awareness—immediately veers into unlikable territory.
She’s not like “other girls”
Of course, the implication here is that other girls are not strong or kick ass. They happily take shit from the men in their lives and care about frivolous things like how they look. (It’s only okay to care about how you look as an afterthought and only if you’re not trying to be beautiful.)
This all serves to reinforce the very sexist notion that there are characteristics inherent to males and females by nature of their male or femaleness, and that the default-female characteristics are all personality flaws. By being “a different type” of woman, the SFC has become a better type of person.
SFC and Women of Color
At this point, I’ve been focusing on female protagonists, who far and away tend to be white. My theory is this is because society can only take small steps toward diversity/inclusion and moving too far from the dominant image too fast scares people. Since the dominant image in American society is decidedly white and male, the easiest step to take and still get to congratulate yourself is a white female. However, you still have to make concessions and thus the SFC is born.
The panel did have a separate discussion of what it means for a female character of color to be “strong,” saying strong in the masculine sense is also the default for these characters. They also have the added pressure of doing everything right. These characters aren’t given the freedom to make poor choices or show true emotions because it will reflect poorly on their race and their gender.
Those pressures are heightened when they are actually given the opportunity to be the main character, but they also exist when women of color appear in secondary roles as well. See the stereotypical sassy black friends and struggling single moms.
What to do instead
Rather than shooting for a “strong female character,” how about writing a realistic and complex one? Conceive of your character as whole people, warts and all, who happen to be female. They don’t have to handle every situation perfectly, in fact they should screw up a few times for the sake of conflict if nothing else. Allow them to take space to have realistic emotional reactions to the events of the story. Show them asking for help.
Write about diverse characters who express varying types and degrees of strength. Strength isn’t all muscles and violence. There’s emotional strength, ranging from stoicism to someone who’s unapologetically feelings the feels. There’s intellectual strength that can come in the form of making decisions with confidence or knowing when something is outside your expertise. Strength can even come in the form of self-love, which can be especially radical for female characters as being self-deprecating seems to make them more palatable, according to the industry.
Ultimately, your female characters should grow and learn and change, just like the historically good male ones do. One-note characters are a bummer, no matter their gender.
The best piece of advice given at the panel was to remember that you’re not writing to uphold society as it exists today, you’re writing for the reader who needs your character. Don’t leave her hanging.
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