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Strong Female Characters – Depth over Strength

The media is witnessing a considerable rise in strong female characters – a trend fueled by factors such as growing feminist awareness, demand for female representation, and more female creators. Recent films and TV series feature more female characters who not only break out of traditional feminine roles, but also are protagonists of their own films. For a long time, female characters have been secondary to male, often main counterparts, despite holding significant roles; usually fulfilling nurturing or supportive purposes for the men. On the screen, the strong woman is unyielding, powerful, and does not cower in the face of adversaries. 

While this trend appears as a victorious wind to female audiences, it is not free from pitfalls that may be difficult to detect. With the increase of strong female characters and subsequent discussions about female representation in the media, there has also been criticism of strong female characters lacking depth. In a video essay, the YouTube channel The Take, illustrates the “Strong Female Character Trope,” a term that refers to this type of character. By showcasing different characters from iconic films and TV series, the video demonstrates that the strong female character frequently displays her power either with her smarts or her physical strength. The latter is clearly visible in the superhero genre, which easily encapsulates the strength of their female characters in visually enticing methods. Wonder Woman from DC Comics stands as a notable example, just as her title suggests. Though superheroes such as Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel (from Marvel) give female audiences satisfaction in finally watching women in a field that has once been dominated by men, it is necessary to point out that such characters possess abilities beyond ordinary humans and are therefore, innately strong. In connection to this fact, the majority of these powerful women are highly skilled in combat. Whether they are fighting mobs or extraterrestrial monsters, their fight scenes are highlighted to make clear of their immense strength. 

When poorly written, strong female characters can send potentially harmful messages instead of actually empowering women. In one way, they risk implying that women, in order to be strong, must not show vulnerabilities. Examples such as Carol Danvers from Captain Marvel who represent the archetypal physically strong woman, are depicted as near invulnerable – but burdened with the cost of being forced to suppress their feelings. A number of other characters who fit this trope display similar traits as well. Ripley from the hit sci-fi film Alien, is another physically strong and resilient heroine, who powers through for survival with weaponry and seemingly neverending toughness. Her journey is a relatable feminist trail, as she is initially constantly talked down to by male coworkers, and eventually trudges through a rough environment by her own powers. Regardless of the treatment by the male crew or the constant troubles and fears of going up against a violent alien, Ripley maintains her tough façade to the point she remains as the final survivor in the end. Her somewhat masculine, unfaltering character, could be partially explained by the fact that she was originally set as a male character. In addition to being one of the very few female characters in the film, it could be considered that she had little choice but to “man up” in such a harrowing situation. 

Characters like Beatrix from Kill Bill and Lorraine from Atomic Blonde are undoubtedly refreshing in a sense, offering female audiences a much-awaited excitement and fulfillment as they witness women like themselves, refusing to conform to gender norms and ploughing through enemies (especially men) with prowess. But on the other hand, such depictions can be particularly damaging to women who struggle with mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety; further pushing them to mask their insecurities and put on a tough façade. Despite progressive changes for gender equality such as the #MeToo movement, women still experience persistent challenges surrounding their gender. In addition to wage gaps, sexism and misogyny pervade everyday life in multiple forms, ranging from subtle to outright aggressive. These conditions inevitably force women to harbor a will or need to outperform; even more for women who work in male-dominated fields. In a way, tough female characters can inadverdently send a problematic message that in order to be strong, women must mask their vulnerabilities and suffering no matter how harsh the conditions are. 

Another potentially harmful implication is that femininity is inferior or weak. Many times, these female characters are seen or advertised as strong for not aligning with stereotypically feminine behaviors and habits. Domesticity and girlishness are frequently treated with scorn, which are seen as signs of weakness. Especially in action films, where female characters are ruthless fighters with little facial expressions, the women take on more conventionally masculine roles. 

In order to make inspiring female characters, creators must emphasize character over gender; giving realism and complexities to their stories instead of simply selling female characters for the sake of gaining feminist points. In other words, crafting female characters that unapologetically embrace their femininity. To offer true comfort to female audiences, strong female characters should be allowed to be genuine characters – that is, to remind women that it is all right to not embody the “strong female character” trope at all times. 

Anna Kono

Waseda '20

Anna is a graduate from Waseda University in the SILS department. Likes art, animals, anything that is dandy and stylish. Needs to go to the sea every now and then to recharge.
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