Strong female character is more than just an annoying trope. When the word “strong” is the standard we use for the legitimacy of female characters in film, we completely miss the mark.
Strong Female Character can shoot a gun and take a punch, but she does not cry. Strong Female Character is sarcastic and witty, but never nervous or uncertain. Strong Female Character is angry, but never vulnerable. Strong Female Character doesn’t need a man, but she’ll land one anyway.
Hollywood seems to be able to get behind the strong female character idea the public has been pleading for, but only on the contingent that “strong female character” becomes yet another trope to serve opposite to the damsel in distress. Filmmakers proclaim that they are writing a diverse story which is somehow representative of women when utilizing this cinematic cliché, relishing in undeserved public approval and praise for their so-called representation. Audiences beg for strong female characters, and filmmakers are happy to oblige — but only on their conditions.
In reality, the strong female character is no more than a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The phrase sounds harmless and even beneficial to women in film, but as Sophia McDougall, writer for New Statesman magazine, points out, “It’s there to distract and confuse you, so you forget to ask for more.” The trope has become a marketing ploy for lazy male filmmakers to say, “We did what you asked! There’s a strong women in this movie! She doesn’t care about love! She knows karate! She even wears leather jackets!”. Strong female character sounds like a positive thing, but upon further inspection, there is no substance. She’s terse, detached, and dispassionate; that’s about it.
"Audiences beg for strong female characters, and filmmakers are happy to oblige — but only on their conditions."
One of the most prominent features of the strong female character is that she has qualities that are predominantly perceived as masculine. Strong female character would never concern herself with fashion or makeup; thanks to internalized misogyny, she believes she’s better than that. She’s the sister character to the manic pixie dream girl, yet another toxic film trope that trivializes and diminishes female characters. The two tropes go hand in hand; they are characters that seem special and different on the outside, but deep down, they lack true depth. Manic pixie dream girl, just like strong female character, remains static throughout the film and exists only to liven up the men around her. Manic pixie dream girl, though ten times quirkier than strong female character, would never like the things all the other girls like. Manic pixie dream girl and strong female character aren’t like other girls. Partaking in traditionally feminine activities is something they look down upon. Strong female character is yet another idealized, oversimplified caricature that satisfies the male gaze—if the manic pixie dream girl is the record that changes the man’s life, strong female character is his dream car.
'The problem is not that there aren’t enough “strong” female characters in the movies — it’s that there aren’t enough realistically weak ones.'
Strong female character is more than just an annoying trope. When the word “strong” is the standard we use for the legitimacy of female characters in film, we completely miss the mark. Though the phrase certainly originated from well-intentioned activists seeking better representation, strong implies that vulnerability or deeply felt emotion in female characters should be frowned upon. Because weakness has been ingrained in society as an inherently negative female trait, any semblance of weakness in a female character is perceived as diminishing rather than strengthening in terms of complexity.
Carina Chocano of the New York Times explains, “...the problem is not that there aren’t enough “strong” female characters in the movies — it’s that there aren’t enough realistically weak ones.”
Because weakness is associated with women and thought to be an unfavorable trait, Hollywood has overcompensated to an offensive point. The strong female character trope was born out of the reluctance and refusal to display women in all their intricacies. Producers and directors have taken the easy way out in creating female characters that can pass off as three-dimensional by handing them a gun and writing quips into their dialogue. They pat themselves on the back as the public praises their badass character, receiving undeserved recognition for characters that, in actuality, are frightfully underdeveloped.
"We need female characters like Lady Bird, Hermione Granger, Ellen Ripley, and Elle Woods."
Rather than ask for strong female characters, I suggest that we instead demand complex female characters. We don’t need female characters that are stoic and stoic only; we need female characters with quirks and passions. We need female characters that don’t see traditionally feminine activities as inherently bad. We need female characters that are vulnerable and have flaws. We need female characters like Lady Bird, Hermione Granger, Ellen Ripley, and Elle Woods. We need female characters that are fierce, but also weak. Real people are weak sometimes, and that is not a bad thing; the depiction of women in film should reflect that.