“Strong Female Characters”? No thanks.

NewStatesman piece is going around this week called “I Hate Strong Female Characters,” and it’s actually pretty good. Sophia McDougall makes the not-new but needs-repeating argument that we conflate the presence of “strong female characters” in our media with equality. She points out that a) implying strength as an unusual asset for female characters is belittling (would we crow about a film with strong male characters? HAH) and that b) boxing female characters into narrow tropes of success (she can roundhouse kick!) reduces human complexity and replaces one archetype with another. Putting Scarlet Johnson on the cover of the Avengers does not equality make, even if she can roundhouse.  See Margaret Lyons’ similar argument regarding The Newsroom

Khandi Alexander as LaDonna Baptiste-Williams on Treme

Khandi Alexander as LaDonna Baptiste-Williams on Treme

Though I wouldn’t state my position with quite the extremity McDougall’s essay title suggests (though that’s probably just a smart editor baiting for clicks), I generally feel the same way. The female characters that I am thrilled to see in TV and movies are complicated, multi-faceted, not-always-right, not-always-wrong humans. While there’s an aspirational part of me that will always love CJ Cregg (The Jackal is forever in my heart), CJ is not complicated for me. She is strong and devoted and loyal and smart, but I always agree with her. She never makes mistakes. Never behaves badly, or selfishly, or shows weakness that isn’t also designed to show strength. She is an idealized version of what I want a press secretary to be (Remember “Crackpots and These Women?” Bartlett idealizes her too) and never forces me to confront hard truths or tough ethical dilemmas.

There’s room for the CJs, of course, but it’s also important that we show that women can be messy and difficult (This is the age of the anti-hero, right? How about an anti-heroine?) They can be good people who make mistakes, or bad people who aren’t always bad, or, you know, just people who are hella complicated because they’re humans. Here are a few of the characters that I generally like because they are forceful, ambitious, strong, driven but who are sometimes dishonest, weak, foolish, selfish, conflicted, etc. 

  • Deb Morgan (Dexter)
  • Skyler White (Breaking Bad)
  • Piper Chapman (Orange is the New Black…actually, everyone on Orange is the New Black)
  • Rayna James, Juliette Barnes (Nashville)
  • Jeanette Desautel, LaDonna Baptiste-Williams (Treme)
  • Peggy Olson (Mad Men)
  • Carrie Mathison (Homeland)
  • Claire Underwood (House of Cards)
  • Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones)
  • Diane Lockhart, Alicia Florrick (The Good Wife)

There’s something to be said for the fact that I could pull this list off the top of my head. I do think things are getting better, with more and more interesting (not “strong,” but interesting) roles for women. So what do we want? I think McDougall sums it up well:

What do I want instead of a Strong Female Character? I want a male:female character ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:1 on our screens. I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness. Badass gunslingers and martial artists sure, but also interesting women who are shy and quiet and do, sometimes, put up with others’ shit because in real life there’s often no practical alternative. And besides heroines, I want to see women in as many and varied secondary and character roles as men: female sidekicks, mentors, comic relief, rivals, villains.

Related Post: Things that are not the opposite of misogyny

Related Post: The best two minutes on TV about sex ever. 


Filed under Gender, Hollywood, Really Good Writing by Other People

11 responses to ““Strong Female Characters”? No thanks.

  1. I actually just wrote a post on the, “I Hate Strong Female Characters,” article. I also used the Newsroom as an example of realistic and empowering female characters. Anyways great post!

  2. I hear Nurse Jackie is a Dr. House-type anti-hero, but I’ve never watched it. We definitely need more of them!
    Speaking as someone who watches comedy more than drama, I also think Leslie Knope, Liz Lemon, and Jess (Zooey Deschanel’s character on New Girl) fall under this category of strong-yet-flawed.

  3. Catherine

    This is so true, you cant just stick a girl in a film with some guns and fighting knowledge and call it a strong female character just to tick a box. And I am equally tired of seeing one girl stuck in a TV show or film as a kickass sidekick, or a damsel in distress, or a seductive villan, etc, etc next to an entire cast of men just to fill the female quota. Less sterotypes! More brilliant characters and stories and development!

    I agree that ‘Orange is the new black’ is so fantastic, I cant wait till the next season.

    Have you seen any films by Nadine Labaki? She has made two fantastic films about womens lives in Lebanon that are funny and romantic and feel very real and genuine.

    Love the blog!

  4. What is your opinion of Olivia Pope from Scandel? She falls into this category for me, only because her morals are so … fluid, I guess.

    • Oh man… this is such a good question. I think she fits this bucket. She’s so… yea… fluid morals is a good way to put it. She’s so powerful/strong/driven when it comes to everyone else’s problems but kind of moony and weepy when it comes to her own. I think that meets the criteria of “complex” 🙂

  5. THANK YOU. I’ve been trying to write about my feelings re: Piper on OITNB and the extreme hatred most women I know feel toward her character. Same goes with Sookie Stackhouse on True Blood.

  6. I think what it is is we don’t want to be boxed in as a certain type in roles or life..

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