When asked in an interview why he writes strong female characters, fan favourite and feminist Joss Whedon replied, ‘because you’re still asking me that question.’ And that raises the question of why are people still asking that question?
The term ‘strong female character’ is a difficult one to define. Characters such as Nancy from Weeds, Nurse Jackie from Nurse Jackie, the sisters from Charmed and Xena from Xena: Warrior Princess have all been called strong females, but they’re all very different types of characters. The term, in a broad sense, means an independent female who doesn’t need a man by her side to do things, and doesn’t let the kitchen, chores or baby-making rule her life (we’ll temporarily forget Phoebe’s obsession in the later seasons of Charmed).
Former Heart of Glass literature editor, Emma Pearson, describes a strong female character as someone with a ‘LET’S FUCK THIS SHIT UP!’ attitude, and someone that ‘never makes mistakes.’ Weak ones, meanwhile, ‘are passive and wait around for the hero to do things.’
It seems that when it comes to female characters, it’s rare to find a character that has a vagina and a normal personality. She’s neither FUCKING SHIT UP or crying into her pillow because she can’t orgasm at the same time as the hero. One example is Skyler from Breaking Bad. She balances out her husband. She isn’t his slave, nor is she his boss. Few other characters like her exist. She’s neither strong, nor weak: just like your average person.
However, would an interviewer or critic class her as ‘strong’? Probably. She doesn’t sit idly by and let Walt get by with whatever he wants. She calls him up when he’s a dick. She leaves him when she finds out what he’s done. She cheats on him. She forgives him. You get the idea. She’s conflicted, like everyone: it’s not all black and white.
There are few other characters you can say that about. Netflix even has categories for strong female leads in TV shows and films (both of which appear on mine, if you were wondering). The list is questionable, containing everything from Orange is the New Black, to Gavin and Stacey to Secret Diary of a Call Girl. All very different shows. Are all (or any) of the female characters strong? Are any of them believable as human beings? (The characters in Orange is the New Black and Secret Diary are based on real people that were featured in autobiographies, so they run the risk of being hyperboles of hyperboles, and have most likely been watered down for the purposes of streamlining a script. I can’t comment as I don’t know the people the characters are based on, and haven’t read the books.)
Well, according to Hollywood, female characters aren’t human. They’re either flat, eye candy, or kick-ass. It’s a sad fact, but it’s true. Hopefully the time will come when all female characters are as well-rounded as the males, but until then, we’ll just have to go crawl back into our little boxes.
Note: The original version of this article was first published on the now-defunct Heart of Glass magazine.
What do you think? Why do we still say ‘Strong Female’? Is it a term that’s being used less and less, or is it still ever present when referring to female characters?