Why I Hate "Strong Female Characters"
Like nonplussed and literally, the phrase “strong female character” has come to mean its antithesis. When people hear it they picture a full fleshed out woman with her own wants and desires. What they get is a woman in a mini skirt and thigh high boots that occasionally punches people.
But, and this is vital, that strong female character, cannot actually save the day. Her entire existence is for the main male hero. She may be spunky and sassy and is always met beating up some guys, but the second she teams up with MMH (main male hero) she abandons everything in her life to help him on his quest. Perhaps she manages to get captured and somehow fully forget how to fight allowing the MMH to do all the cool stuff while she sits around in a metal bikini.
Strong female character is a buzzword. People know it’s something audiences want, so they throw it in for anything. Have a female character? Well, she’s a strong female character!
But, she’s only got three lines and you didn’t even name her beyond “Busty Hottie?”
Yeah, but look, she totally stabbed that one bad guy in the eye. Strong female character!
I stated once that “if your female character doesn't exist outside of the prism of your male character's existence, you do not have a ‘strong woman.’”
Quite a few male writers had to rush to my somnolent twitter feed to inform me I was wrong (of course I am, I'm just a girl), that all of their characters are strong females because they hit things. Sometimes they hit things really hard. Maybe one's like a B cup, a large B cup of course. And then they drop the bomb, “well it passed the Bechdel Test so they're all capable characters, can't accuse me of sexism.”
Let us break down the Bechdel test for those who have yet to hear of it.
In order to pass all you need are
- Two named women
- Together in a scene (only one scene necessary)
- Talking about something other than men
That is bloody it. The point of it was to show how rarely movies passed, that so much of media falls upon the 25:75 ratio. One Sue Storm to the three other fantastics (soulless scientists not withstanding). It was to give data for how rare it is for women to exist outside or to have a point beyond the main male character’s purpose.
The test was supposed to draw attention to the dearth of female characters, instead so many men found it a convenient excuse to prove they can't be accused of sexism.
Throw in a character named Candy talking to another named Mandy about how awesome shoes are, then back to the guys actually saving the world. Boom, Bechdel Test passed. This is a totally feminist work with three dimensional women.
I'm not a big fan of playing the reverse game, but imagine the utter shit fits thrown if all you needed to prove you created a fully fleshed out three dimensional male character is that you have
- Two named men
- Together in one scene
- Talking about something that has nothing to do with women
This Brochdel Test is passed by, oh, just about every movie in existence. Men can have pasts, they can have motivations, desires, needs, wants outside of sex.
Women have that one scene where the love interest gossips with her best friend, who will probably never be seen again.
I despise the always tacked on female character in action movies because she's there for one reason, to polish the main character's penis. Once that's done, she's nothing more than an animated set piece, occasionally transformed into a breathing MacGuffin. Oh sure, maybe she throws a punch or two, taps a stick lightly against a rat of unusual size; but if you removed the male character, she would cease to exist. All her motivation comes down to is making the male protagonist happy (ifyaknowwhatImean nudge nudge); without him around she'd stand blank like a Stepford robot in the kitchen, making sad beeping noises, waiting for someone to switch her off.
No, passing the Bechdel test does not mean you have a fully culpable, capable, or even somewhat realistic female character. If you're uncertain and concerned you could try asking another woman and, this is the really important part, listening to her. Don't ignore the words flowing out of her mouth and mentally fill in her criticism with diamonds/babies/yogurt/chocolate/pumpkin spice latte and change nothing. We've been doing this woman thing a hell of a lot longer than you. We may just know what we're talking about.
So I say we need to have a second level of the Bechdel test; if you are basing the idea that you cannot be accused of sexism upon this test, then you need to pass the second level.
- Have a named female character
- Whose life does not revolve around a male character
- Maybe have some pancakes to celebrate?
I'm guessing, much like the original Bechdel test, most media will fail.
There’s another approach to creating the false “strong female character” that’s grown in popularity as male writers try to shoehorn in a female character but keep all the interesting stuff with men.
We’ll give them a woman who’s trained her entire life to become a ninja chimney sweep. She’s forsaken friends, love, and a normal life to master the secrets of ninja chimney sweeping. She’s harsh, but witty, with a short fuse for those who waste her time. But this story won’t have a damn thing to do with her. No, it has to be about a white guy, mid 20’s with a bit of a pot belly who is almost a total screw up.
But this guy is destined to be the great ninja chimney sweep hero. You can’t argue with it. It’s destiny. Rather than the girl using her lifetime of awesomeness to defeat the dust monster clogging up the lungs of Earth, instead she must lose two-three weeks of her life trying to train a perpetual fuck up. Because that makes tactical sense, to send an untrained and untested rookie instead of the person who devoted her life to it.
It’s the “girls can’t save the world” trope. She may be confident, she may be talented, she may be terrifying beyond anything the villain can imagine, but she cannot save the galaxy. Only boys can do that. So they take that female character they built up and delegate her back to being the prize waiting at home for the real hero to return once he’s finished falling into winning. Sure, she gets a backstory and maybe even a bit of autonomy, but it means jack squat when all she gets to do with that characterization is stand around waiting for a male character to save the day.
Yet, the creators can run around screaming “Look, we made a strong female character.” She can punch really hard. She doesn’t dream about boys. She won’t need any rescuing. She won’t do any saving either, but that’s not important. All that matters is we made one. We didn’t use one, but we made her.
That is not enough. Boys have grown up watching men save the galaxy for eons, but you can’t let a woman do it? Even if its part of an ensemble, she’s relegated to the half naked hottie that goes along with whatever the leader wants. It’s a guy who’s the comic relief, a guy who’s the muscle, a guy who saves the galaxy. The girl waits around for a kiss and punches a few baddies, but not too many. We don’t want to emasculate the hero.
Because this is the overriding fear with every strong female character. If we let her be too impressive, let her do too much on her own, then she won’t need a male to save her. What if, instead of needing a man, she wanted one around? She wanted one for his friendship, or for his humor, or because he treated her like a person instead of a pile of sexy body parts? Impossible! Give her a stick to swing around, put her in a bikini, and call it a role model for little girls. Done!
This isn’t even touching upon the idea that not all strong women beat people up. Tactics, cunning, or even emotional manipulation can a powerful woman make; but in order for that to happen, a woman would have to be smarter than a man and we’re right back to emasculation terror. Sure, maybe she knows some secret ninja woman moves that allow her to take out a few bad guys. That’s acceptable. But outsmarting some big baddie? Unthinkable!
Girls must always be shown as lesser than boys, even when people are swearing up and down that they’re not by hiding behind “it’s a strong female character.” To admit for a moment that women can be just as capable as men is too terrifying for the average writing crop to admit.
And that’s why I hate strong female characters, who are anything but.