The Strong Female Controversy/International Crisis

Ok, I’m going to attempt to lure my thoughts out and onto digital paper. It may or may not work. And yes, it’s not quite a controversy, but it seems people here and there are trying to make it one.

WARNING: I have no particularly direction for the post, so I may very well wander off topic and start ranting about why I can’t save my car in GTA 5, or something.

The topic is the ‘Strong Female’ in fiction. I would like to broaden this to include film/TV and games as well. The argument is that while male protagonists get to be all sorts of assorted adjectives, female protagonists only get to be ‘strong’. That can sometimes be replaced with ‘feisty’ or something similar. I think, like anything, there’s something to say for both sides of this argument.

Firstly, what are we talking about? What genre? What medium? Who is the writer? Let’s take science fiction as our first example. Chances are, the first few sci fi works you think of will feature a male protagonist. Perhaps a female sidekick or love interest. And yes, chances are if that’s the case, that sidekick or love interest will be portrayed as feisty and ‘strong’, but will lack any real depth.

Princess Leia

If you are over a certain age, then it’s likely that Princess Leia will be the first sci fi female your mind’s eye lands on. She’s a good example. She’s ‘strong’, right? She’s feisty. She grabs Han’s blaster and takes control of the situation, basically taking command of her own rescue. She’s always quick with the sarcastic retorts and stinging insults. And…that’s about it. What else is she? What does she actually do? Granted, I haven’t watched the films for a while, but all I remember about her is standing like an idiot in the open, shooting at storm troopers. Shouting orders at men. Scathing remarks. Being incredibly annoying. I think perhaps the reason she is so annoying is that she is such a flat character. She is nothing more than strong.

Something similar can be said for what’sherface with the blue eyes in John Carter (admittedly, I refer to the film, as I haven’t read the graphic novels). Strong and feisty, but little else.

Firefly Zoe

But what about, say, Firefly? Zoe is a strong female. She’s also witty, intelligent, loyal, loving, unnervingly cold… In fact, put it this way. If you were to read a description of her character without seeing her name or the term ‘her/she’, you might automatically assume that you’re reading about a male character. The same goes for River. She’s far more complicated and deep than the typical Strong Female.

What about Hermione in Harry Potter? She’s a pretty strong female protagonist, especially for a child. She’s also intelligent, cunning, quirky and eccentric. She’s more than the typical Strong Female who’s there to make the thing more welcoming to female readers. Ah, but she was written by a woman! Is that the difference? Do we get flat, uncomplicated Strong Female characters because most of them seem to be created by men? And men don’t know how to write and develop females?


I can’t say from experience, as I’ve never read it, but I hear that the female lead in Fifty Shades of Gray is a pretty poor example of a realistic female. Conversely, Lee Child seems to be good at writing female characters. I’m only partway through the second book, but I know that the female FBI agent in that is strong, intelligent, selfless, professional, resolute/stubborn, resourceful…and that’s at page 220 of 560. She’s not the typical weak female who lies in captivity crying and waiting for her knight to come and rescue her. Nor is she the typical Strong Female, who sits there with a scowl and a scathing remark whenever her captor enters the room, waiting for some weak man to come and rescue her so she can berate him for being late and/or stupid. Terry Pratchett can write a woman as well as he can write any man. A good number of his books feature a female lead, and they’re no weaker than those with a male lead. Those characters are no less rounded and complicated than the male ones.

Granny Weatherwax

It would be a lie to say that for every flat, 2D Strong Female, a properly developed one could be named, but let’s not pretend that’s the only kind there is. While we’re at it, let’s not pretend that all male characters are complicated, deep, thoroughly developed things. They’re not.

In fact, let’s go back to Harry Potter. The titular character is more 2D than the female secondary lead. As is Ron. The more action-oriented the piece of fiction – be it a novel, a TV series, a film, or a game – the more flat the male leads are. And aren’t those types of things where we usually find mention of Strong Females? When was the last time someone described the romantic comedy they watched last night, and called the female character a Strong Female? Or a straight up comedy, or even a drama?

Arnold Schwarzenegger

So, then, are we saying that because they are women and not men, these characters should be more developed, more rounded, more complicated? Shouldn’t all our characters aspire to this, regardless of gender? Do we ask if a female character is ‘strong’, while assuming that a male one is, because it’s some kind of novelty for a female to be strong, or because female characters are far more versatile than their stereotyped, typecast male counterparts?

And what are we actually saying when we say ‘strong’? Are we saying that, like Trinity, she can beat the hell out of people? Or maybe she can pick up tanks with one hand? Or is she emotionally strong? Morally strong? Strong in her convictions and beliefs? Is she strong in her muscles, her skills and abilities, or strong in her character? Does it perhaps depend on who’s talking? I never use the term, but if I did, I’d be willing to bet I’d mean something slightly (or completely) different to you.

The general consensus is that most weak female characters (weak as a character, not weak IN character) are written by men. That’s understandable, I suppose, because after all, men don’t understand a thing about women, right? Unlike all the totally believable male characters we churn out, we simply don’t know how to write a realistic woman. Women, naturally, can write perfectly accurate males, though. Just flick through a romance novel or an erotic short and you’d swear it was a biography, wouldn’t you? After all, women are another species altogether.

Yes, women think slightly differently about things. They have different priorities. They take a lot longer to put on their combat armour. But that’s a sweeping generalisation and they’re not as different as society has taken to claiming. Although the whole talking in the middle of a film is simply inhuman.

James Bond

Let’s stick with the Strong Male character for a moment. Think about a book/film/game that’s hugely popular. Now, who is it popular with? If a man was to say to his wife, girlfriend or female friend, ‘Let’s go and see…’, would she sigh and try to think of an excuse not to? Most likely. It’s generally accepted that most women (sweeping generalisation) do not like action films or sci fi. Is that because they contain guns and/or aliens? Or is it because the characters aren’t complicated creatures with depth of character? How 3D a character is James Bond? Maybe men want to be him, but do women really want to be with him? I doubt it.

So, is the complaint really about Strong Females being nothing BUT strong? Or is the complaint that because they are women, they should be more than strong? Because I don’t recall ever reading the term Strong Male in a rant about such characters. Perhaps this is being used as an argument in female equality. Perhaps it’s vaguely analogous to all those who complain about scantily-clad women on, for example, someone’s Facebook timeline. …and then post a topless cowboy and tag all their friends to come and drool over it. Or, with a stack of romance novels beside them (have you ever seen the covers of such books? Imagine a romance novel cover with a woman wearing as little… Would people let that stand?), type an angry comment about how that image their male friend just posted of a bikini model is objectifying women and offensive.

Perhaps the issue is that female characters should be more like American sitcoms. They should be the Alpha Female. Bullying and abusive to their depressed and emasculated husband/male protagonist with no will of his own. They should be the intelligent leader to their brain dead, useless, selfish, sexist (ironically) male counterpart.

Or maybe…just maybe…we shouldn’t give a damn about whether a character is male or female. What we should care about is ‘Is this a good character?’.

The real problem with hearing the term Strong Female, is that it’s quite likely that the referenced character IS indeed Strong, but not a strong character. I’d like to think the difference is becoming more widely understood.


So that is more or less my off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts on the matter. There is arguably more depth to the issue, but I don’t personally think so. I think the real issue is that we need to stop caring so much about whether characters are male or female. The argument used to be that there weren’t enough black characters in films (at least, one’s that are there for more than being the first to get killed off). Now, established white characters are being recast as black (Perry White, Nick Fury, even Pegasus). It has now become the case that people want male characters recast as female, and those characters have to be more than Strong.

To me, the prevalence of female characters is a more important issue. I have found myself playing games and thinking how I’d like more female protagonists (though I’m not sure why). Not only does it give female readers/viewers/players more characters with whom to relate (although arguably, any character should be written well enough to be relatable, no matter the gender), but it offers a slightly wider range of character options and…whatnot. But that’s not really the point of this post.

Before I go back to my editing (WARNING: My next novel only has two female characters!), I’ll talk briefly about female characters in my own writing.

Firstly, the sparsity. Admittedly, in the first book (and the following numbers are entirely off the top of my head, so I may be wrong), I have one female character of note. Yes, there are background female pirates, receptionists (not sexism, shut up), soldiers, etc, but only Juni is of any importance. In the second book there are four or five. Hundreds if you count the army of female warriors. Kira contains a single female: Kira herself.

Why are there so few? I don’t know. I don’t consciously think, ‘I better put a token female in here now’. My characters are what they are, whatever that happens to be. Some things just don’t seem to fit a female character. For example, book three of my NEXUS series features a young Necurian boy who is disenchanted with Necurian ideals. His character simply doesn’t feel very female to me. So why the hell should I go and make him female just for the sake of it? That said, I have considered it, and I haven’t dismissed the idea.

It also depends on the situation/setting. For example, as I look up now, over my computer screen I see twenty men and one woman. If I walked on to a military base, what ratio of females to males would I see? Yes, my series is set in the future, and things have changed, but generally speaking, how many women are inclined to go and join the military, regardless of whether they are encouraged to or not? I imagine even in the future, there would be a lot more male soldiers and pirates and assassins and whatever else. So it depends. But mostly, I simply refuse to make a character female for the sake of it. If a character is female then it’s because she’s female, not because I thought ‘oops, I’d best change some of these to women’.


Secondly, strength. Juni (who is THE female character) is a strong female. But not a Strong Female. So far, she’s in one and a half novels. She’s a side character in book two. I’ve received one complaint that she was a strong character to begin with, but by the end she was weak. Personally, I don’t see a character beginning to show emotion as weakness. In fact, I see that as strengthening a character. Through most of the book, she is cold and hard as nails. She doesn’t allow anything more of her character to show. This may give the false impression of a Strong Female, with no more to her. But that IS her character – not allowing people to see deeper into her. By the end of the book, she is opening up. Unfortunately, the rush of the unfamiliar trust and liking causes her to open up too much, and by book two, she is shutting down again. This internal conflict will be explored and expanded going into the future.

So, I think I could maybe summarise my thoughts into: Who cares? No one complains about the Strong Male, so why is it all-important when it’s a female character? The important thing, surely, is to have good characters. Full stop.

What Is She…Besides Strong?

A few months ago, I read an article about strong female characters. The author gave an account of why she hates them. The gist of it is that male characters get to be all sorts of things, while female characters get to be ‘strong’. I don’t disagree, but I find myself unable for the moment to put together my own thoughts on the matter.

I recently did a character interview with Mary Fan. In that, my own female protagonist, Juni, is mentioned. It made me think about how I want to get back to those characters and build her character. To show more of what’s underneath her steel shell.

Juni is strong in all sorts of ways. But her strength also hides things. Things that take a lot of digging to get to. Her strength is not just in her physical skills. It’s the strength to survive the lonely existence she’s been given. It’s the strength to abandon the security of the only life she knows and follow the new and frightening feeling of trust. It’s her strength of character. On the surface, Juni may appear to be a typical Strong Female, added for sex appeal and token equal opportunity. She’s certainly strong and appealing, but she’s far from typical.

Juni Lien

Juni Lien, using her appearance to distract Travis Archer from the knife she may introduce him to

Who better to give an opinion on the subject than Travis Archer’s interviewer, Mary Fan? Author of space opera Artificial Absolutes, she has written a female protagonist who’s more than just a Strong Female.

What is she, besides a Strong Female?

The words “strong female protagonist” always bothered me. It took me a while to pinpoint why, and the simplest way to explain it is this: it lumps every female who isn’t a wilting weakling into one category. There are so many different kinds of strengths, so many quirks and nuances to each character, and yet they all get reduced to simply a Strong Female.

What’s more, most Strong Females these days—especially in sci-fi and fantasy—are incredibly bland, and as many stereotypes are thrust upon them as the wispy princesses of yesteryear. To be a Strong Female, it’s taken for granted that she knows how to fight, that she has a perpetually tough attitude, that she’s always collected. In other words, she’s perfect. Just like her pretty-girl predecessors, except in a different way. Take away the martial arts and one-liners, and what’s left?

When I was writing Artificial Absolutes, the first thing I decided was that my protagonist, Jane, wasn’t going to be a combat-trained superwoman who always knows how to deal with whatever situation she’s in. At the beginning of the novel, she’s just an office girl with dreams of being a composer, so when she finds herself in the kind of dangerous action scene familiar to sci-fi fans, she doesn’t suddenly transform into an unflappable military cadet. She panics and screams—like most people would—and, at one point, is absentminded enough to forget her weapon, which she barely knows how to use. She does put on a tough attitude, but she also gets scared and, when tragedy strikes, cries. In spite of her fears, she does her best to be brave when faced with situations her sheltered life never prepared her for. She ultimately wants to be strong, and she holds her own through the space battles and gun chases, but I wanted her anxieties, her fears, and her weaknesses to show as much as her dogged determination.

Jane Colt, protagonist of Artificial Absolutes

Jane Colt, protagonist of Artificial Absolutes

As for violence, well, the fighting sexpot has become a well-known cliché of the spec fic universe. Nothing wrong with being both attractive and combat-trained, but again, strip away the perfectly choreographed kung fu scenes, and who’s there? Not to mention, violence is often too glorified in action stories, where no one seems to care about all the bystanders in the building Superman knocked down. When it comes to Strong Females, it’s practically fetishized—she’s expected to fire two guns at once in a skin-tight outfit and needle-sharp heels. There is plenty of violence in Artificial Absolutes—it’s an action book, after all—but not just for the sake of pretty explosions. Most of Jane’s scenes of violence are against drones, where she’s unafraid to let the shots ring out because she knows she’s fighting a lifeless bot. There are a few moments when she gets physical against a person, but those are due to a blind rage she hasn’t yet learned to control. They’re more flaws, not assets.

I’ve gotten mixed reactions to this character, with all her flaws. Some people love that she’s a person first and a sci-fi heroine second. Others don’t enjoy her as much because she does act like most young people trying to figure out their lives, which means she argues and complains—although, to her credit, she always takes action to fix whatever’s bothering her. But love her or hate her, if you took away the space opera, she’d still be a human being, not an action figure.

Mary Fan

Mary Fan

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