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Web Event 3: The Detriments of Strong Female Characters

iskierka's picture

For years, one of feminism’s great quests within pop culture has been the call for stronger female leads – for women who have a life of crime-fighting or crime-perpetrating or otherwise some sort of death-defying singular agency. It’s evidenced in the current trend of fiction-derived films released – Catching Fire gives us Katniss Everdeen, hellbent on destroying the oppressive system that forces her to kill again, and Thor 2 in turn supplies Lady Sif, ruthless and deemed by Thor himself as stronger than most of the male warriors. Of these, I chose to see neither – they’ll be on DVD someday, I can save myself the movie ticket now and watch it later. No, when I left campus to spend some time with a friend before buckling down to work, we instead went to see a movie that had been causing me internal conflict since its inception: Frozen. I braced myself for the worst, the complete elimination of the original tale’s feminist qualities for the sake of a traditional Disney template. When I left the theatre, however, I found myself pleasantly surprised, as well as questioning what comprised a female character. I entered the theatre wishing for a protagonist who would gladly take up the burden of a fight without necessitating any outside assistance, accepting the responsibility as her own, and I still thank the directors for taking the opposite direction. In looking into the characters as presented in that film, I found that is not the strengths of a character that make her feminist, her bold words or fighting ability or need to persevere without a man’s assistance, but instead her weaknesses that define her as a character.


When looking at women within action, there is a tendency to judge her based on her ability to carry a story on her own. Writers Joss Whedon and George R.R. Martin find themselves asked constantly why they write women with such strong plotlines and self-identities, thus being set on a pedestal within a community. However, for all their work, often times these women only achieve a certain strength, repeated across the board time and time again. Joss Whedon in particular has been known to insert powerful female characters into his work since early in his career – vampire-slayer Buffy helps lead the legacy for women in science fiction, and he is notable for his constant push for a Wonder Woman film. However, in his speech for Equality Now, he said, “So, Joss, I, a reporter, would like to know, why do you always write these strong women characters? I think it's because of my mother. She really was an extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool, sexy, funny woman. And that's the kind of woman I've always surrounded myself with.” In his push for more female characters, for stronger female characters, he has created a niche market that only accepts female characters fitting this template, leaving no space for the women who are quiet, scared, and need to find themselves within themselves. Wendy Brown, in her book Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics, calls for recognition of the same power implicit in expected these sorts of outspoken, powerful women. “The belief that silence and speech are opposites is a conceit underlying most contemporary discourse about censorship and silence. This conceit enables both the assumption that censorship converts the truth of speech to the silence and the assumption that when an enforced silence is broken, what emerges is truth borne by the vessel of authenticity of experience” (Brown 83). When the problem of strong women versus weak women is phrased in this context, the strong female as created by Whedon is seen as the ‘speech’, and the quiet, meek as the ‘silence’. He supports this notion a ‘truth borne by the vessel of authenticity’ by almost solely writing female characters by his personal interpretation. This leads in turn to what Brown terms a “fetish for breaking silence” (Brown 84): he means to idealize female characters by turning them into these outspoken, bold women, so that any female outside of his conventional writing habits can be read as weak in character rather than weak in development.  Whedon’s viewpoint locks out women who are ordinary, soft, and insecure from a standing in science fiction and fantasy writing, idealizing all women into a nigh-superhuman manufactured woman, putting them all to the same high standards and refusing to acknowledge their strength if they fall short.


Stemming from this idealization of women is a second issue, the lack of variety within female characterization. Because of these templates in female creation processes such as Whedon’s, many of them can appear, in terms of motive, identical. A Song of Ice and Fire writer George R. R. Martin refutes this repetition, stating, “Male or female, I believe in painting in shades of grey[….] All of the characters should be flawed; they should all have good and bad, because that's what I see. Yes, it’s fantasy, but the characters still need to be real.” And he follows true to his word: while he also writes superheroine characters who actively fight, taking on masculine traits (Brienne of Tarth as one of the strongest knights present, Arya Stark leaving her home to learn to be an efficient fighter and assassin), Sansa Stark exemplifies everything they are not. From the beginning, she is afraid, and she operates within that despite hating her situation for page after page. Her once beloved fiancé murders her father, and she must listen to her siblings falling one by one, and her prime defense is Wendy Brown’s silence. It takes four novels for her to work up the will to hurt another being, and even then she operates selfishly, so she can escape rather than for the betterment of a kingdom. Writing characters like these and setting them alongside one another emphasizes each trait and shows how women can exists in just as much of a variety as men. Lori Summers, a blogger, has received much recognition for her quote,


 “Screw writing “strong” women.  Write interesting women.  Write well-rounded women.  Write complicated women.  Write a woman who kicks ass, write a woman who cowers in a corner.  Write a woman who’s desperate for a husband.  Write a woman who doesn’t need a man.  Write women who cry, women who rant, women who are shy, women who don’t take no shit, women who need validation and women who don’t care what anybody thinks.  THEY ARE ALL OKAY, and all those things could exist in THE SAME WOMAN.  Women shouldn’t be valued because we are strong, or kick-ass, but because we are people.  So don’t focus on writing characters who are strong.  Write characters who are people.”


Summers’ quote shows that, by sticking to this template of time and time again writing women in the same fashion, there are so many who are locked out by basis of apathy and inaccessibility, having no relatable female character to call their own. By emphasizing strong women, writers remove the need for the scared woman, the physically incapable, the one who tries her hardest and can’t get what she needs. Women are necessary by their variety, not by their strengths, and the idea of the strong women has demoted everyone else to a detriment.


Returning to Brown, the strong female character has slowly begun to eliminate the ability for females to retreat into themselves and embrace their silences. “Both [those supporting speech and supporting silence] equate freedom with voice and visibility, both assume recognition to be unproblematic when we tell our own story, and both assume that such recognition is the material of power as well as pleasure. Neither confronts the regulatory potential in speaking ourselves, its capacity to bind rather than emancipate us” (Brown 86). The more readers and watchers rely on these full-disclosure strong females who pour themselves into their wit and ability, the more they learn to shame those who have something to hide. Returning to movies of the past year, Elsa from Frozen was taken to be a villain because she was scared to share her power over ice and snow, and Pacific Rim’s Mako Mori was an overenthusiastic upstart who wanted nothing more than to pilot a jaeger. Directors train the audience not to trust them until they fully come to terms with their backstories, with the pain they have experienced and caused. And, in each case, this forcefulness turns the plot for the worse: Elsa casts a nigh-eternal winter, and Mako very nearly accidentally destroys one of the last bases for the Pan Pacific Defense Corps. These women find safety in their secrets and their anxieties, and when outside circumstances force them to come to their weaknesses and become stronger by them, the results are metaphorical catastrophes. These weaknesses protect them, and through their weaknesses watchers find common ground to connect.


For all the merits of strong female characters, it is instead in the weaknesses and the silences and insecurities that these characters truly find themselves. When feminism calls for more women to take on these roles of bruisers and assassins who bare their stories for the world, it ignores the necessity of this silent voice and the characters who admit that their weaknesses can be too difficult to overcome. Strong female characters undermine the validity of fear and anxiety and try to funnel all women into the single trope of “extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool, sexy, [and] funny.” Every so often, let female characters cry and cower and prove that there is no shame in weakness. 

Works Cited
Brown, Wendy. Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2005. Print.
Martin, George R.R. "Game of Thrones's George RR Martin: 'I'm a Feminist at Heart'" Interview by Jessica Salter. The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 1 Apr. 2013. Web. 8 Dec. 2013. <>.
Summers, Lori. "The Mad Tumblr." The Mad Tumblr. N.p., 30 May 2013. Web. 08 Dec. 2013.
Whedon, Joss. "Make Equality Real." Speech. On the Road to Equality. 19 June 2006. Youtube. Web. 6 Dec. 2013. <>.


Anne Dalke's picture

"write a woman who cowers in a corner"

your argument is a surprising one: it involves a celebration of a weak, silent, insecure female film character, as a way of figuring the variety of ways that there are to be women.

You draw on Wendy Brown's work to make your argument--though you misstate her position: she most explicitly does NOT call for recognition of the power in outspoken women, but actually challenges that presupposition, in her challenge to the "fetish for breaking silence," and request that we select it more often.

I also heard very strong echoes of Judith Butler's argument embedded within yours (though you don't mention her): her emphasis on our shared vulnerability goes even further than you do in suggesting, not just that individual women are weak--and should be featured as being so, but that all of us live precarious lives, and in acknowledging that we can begin to form a coalitional politics based on that shared identity.

So: why focus only on the women here?