Saturday, November 21, 2015


Brawny.  Beastly.  Brave.  Powerful.  Demanding.  Vigorous.  Competent.  Robust.  Fierce. Determined.  Aggressive.  Authoritative.  Forceful.  Triumphant.

Do any of the above words describe your favorite female character?  Maybe all of them?  What if none of the words describe her?  Is she still strong?

Readers, viewers and gamers - especially females - are almost assaulted with the phrase "strong female lead" (SFL).  It's even a Netflix category, at least in my account: "Period Dramas with a Strong Female Lead" or something like that.  Directors, producers and screenwriters are raked over the coals if their works don't feature enough "strong female leads".  People everywhere have "rediscovered" the Bechdel test and are applying it not only to new films but old favorites.  If you've never heard of this test, read the comic below.  It was originally written by an America cartoonist Allison Bechdel, waaaaaay back in 1985:

Image from

SFC #1: Diplomatic, intelligent, passionate,
self-sacrificial, determined.  Can handle firearms.
Image from
The thing is, a movie can still be "good" without passing the test.  It can even have an SFC without passing the test.  Two of my all-time favorite trilogies, the original "Star Wars" series and "Lord of the Rings", actually fail this test. However, they contain some of the most amazing, powerful, BA female characters in the realm of sci-fi/fantasy: Princess Leia, Arwen, Galadriel, and Eowyn.  I'd be hard-pressed to find someone who didn't consider these ladies strong characters.

But - wait a minute.
SCL #2: Wise, commanding, compassionate, noble.
 Likes coffee.  A lot.
Image from
What makes a character - in particular a female character - strong?  I mentioned this in my last post, specifically in regards to some of the characters in Once Upon a Time, but I didn't really explore it a lot.  I mean, who defines strength?  The words I used to open this post are all considered synonyms of "strong", but I don't know if they are all necessary for an SFC.  What makes an SFC?  What qualities does she have?  What qualities would make a female character weak?  Does it depend on her environment, the setting of the movie or book?  I don't think a lot of people would consider the lead characters in movies from the 30s, 40s, and 50s to be "modern" SFCs.  Maybe Scarlett O'Hara.  Maybe Cleopatra.  Maybe Gilda.  Are these women SFCs in our time period, or during their own, or not at all?  Can a woman who just wants to be loved be considered an SFC?  Could a stay-at-home-mom or chicken-roasting housewife be an SFC?  Why or why not?

SFC#3: Fierce, loyal, brave, devoted,
skilled.  Unlucky in love (at first.)
 Image from
We lay the contemporary definition of feminism on so thick when we adapt fairy tales and historical fiction and non-fiction that I think it's hard for us to see a lot of female leads from the past as "strong" by today's standards.  If they're not speaking up for themselves, or smashing the patriarchy, then they're meek and weak and awful role models.  Yes, that's a generalization, but let's see...everyone knows the Lizzie Bennett is the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, right?  She thinks for herself and expresses her own opinion and still ends up with the right guy in the end.  Swoon.  Her older sister, Jane, is gentle and soft-spoken, long-suffering and forgiving.  She struggles with the loss of her beloved, but chooses to carry on with her life.  Is she weak?  We would probably consider her to be, yes, because she doesn't actively fight for what she wants.  But when we remember the society in which she lives, we need to view her differently.  She truly wants to make her parents happy, and knows that all four of her not-always-obedient sisters have the potential to break her parents' hearts, embarrass the family, and bring lasting shame on their name.  To choose your family's reputation over your own happiness seems ludicrous to us today, but when her family's future was on the line, Jane was willing to quietly wade through sadness and disappointment in order to spare them embarrassment or worse.  Self-sacrifice can be a sign of strength.  We see Lizzie as strong, but some of that strength came from a selfish, proud place.  She didn't think twice about embarrassing other people, as long as she had the chance to speak her mind (we see Austen's Emma Woodhouse struggling with the same attitude).  

SFC #4: Confident, talented, devoted,
 loving.  Retains sense of humor despite danger.
 Image from
Jessica Jones is the latest SFC to burst onto the Marvel/Netflix scene.  As her story unfurls, we learn that she is physically extremely strong - "gifted" - but deeply emotionally damaged due to severe sexual and mental abuse.  She has been diagnosed with PTSD and self-medicates with alcohol.  In my opinion, it would be more a show of strength to ask for help rather than to shut one's friends out of one's life - so I don't see her, at least early on - the same way I see Princess Leia, who, when we meet her, has already made sacrifice after sacrifice for the cause of peace, having found something to believe in.  Apples and oranges, maybe, but it's something to consider.  What kind of strong is the SFC?  Does she grow in strength as her story is told?  Does her kind of strength change?
I haven't watched Scandal, but from what I've read and heard about Olivia Pope, it's unlikely
SFC #5: Powerful, fearless, gifted, courageous.  Actually capable of
physically smashing the patriarchy.  Image from
that I personally would admire her. From what I gather, she's dangerously manipulative, influential, and selfish.  (Please, fans of the show, correct me if I'm wrong!) I can't deny that she is a strong character, but it's interesting that "strong" doesn't necessarily mean "likable", "virtuous", or even "at least vaguely morally upright". 

It looks like I'm uncovering more questions than I have answers.  What do you think?  What makes a female character "strong"? How does her femininity, her sexuality, or anything else play into it?  Who are the SFCs that you admire?  Are there female characters you admire that you would not consider "strong"?  Why do you admire them?  If you can compare them to male characters with similar paths or personalities, what do you see?  How much of the SFC's environment contributes to your perception of her strength?

Does this feel like a Literary Analysis essay test yet?

Yes?  Then my work here is done.  Think on these things, friends.