We are so over Strong Female Characters.
Strong Female Characters were useful a few years ago when there was a dearth of women on film and most were so rubber-limbed, glass-ankled, or prone to fainting spells they literally needed to be carried out of danger by a man. Sure, there were always a smattering of tough-as-nails women at the movies: Silkwood, Thelma and Louise, A League of Their Own, Swing Shift, A Cry in the Dark, Yentl, Terms of Endearment, Fried Green Tomatoes, Silence of the Lambs, The Piano, Aliens. But most of the great female protagonists in these movies were the exceptions that proved the rule. Films with strong female characters were anomalies, not the pattern.
But today, Hollywood has taken our love of strong female characters and converted it into something dully literal. Strong female characters have become Strong Female Characters, a mutant sub-genus that has less to do with actual women than T-Rexes: physically intimidating, but mentally nonthreatening. But muscle strength isn’t all that interesting on its own — otherwise, Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme would be where George Clooney and Brad Pitt are on the Hollywood A-list. As Sophia McDougall argued this summer in the pop culture feminist critique of the year, strength is too often a substitute for personality where female characters are concerned.
The Mary Sue points out in yet an interview with Neil Gaiman about — you guessed it, “Strong Female Characters,” because he and Joss Whedon are apparently the world’s only authorities on writing interesting women — that “strong female characters don’t necessarily have to have Hulk strength, they need to be strongly written.” Well, sure, we all want female characters to be strongly written, but the problem is no one knows exactly what that means anymore.
So let us propose another idea towards solving the crisis of lame female characters: create women and girls with agency.
If a director or screenwriter is interested in meeting the bare minimum of feminist standards, a female character should have the wits and a big enough part in the story to propel and shape the plot significantly on her own accord. We all enjoy seeing women kicking ass, but we’d enjoy even more watching a woman whose decisions are important and taken seriously by the characters around her. Female protagonists and main characters villainesses would automatically fit the bill, but many sidekicks and love interests would not. And it would not count if, say, a female character’s kidnapping triggered the plot because, obviously, that wouldn’t be something she made happen, just something that happened to her.
Like the Bechdel test, the “female characters with agency” solution is an imperfect one. But we humans really enjoy our one-stop solutions and easy fixes, and plot-driving female characters is the one we need right now. Because the problem with the representation of women on screen isn’t just that there are almost five times as many male characters as there are female ones, but also that the relatively few women characters who do appear are constantly reduced to roles of passivity and, thus, inconsequentiality.
Female characters don’t always have to win, but we’d like to at least see them try. The time has passed when we are satisfied with a woman character holding a gun or kicking butt as a cheap, insincere nod toward equality. We’re done with strength. Now we want to see the struggles.