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The Strong Female Character Trope, Explained

Whether she’s saving the day with her smarts or her physical strength, the Strong Female Character offers a fierce, independent answer to the damsel in distress. But this archetype who is, to some, a symbol of empowerment is to others a reductive cliche. Some regard her as too simplistic, little more than a marketing tool., rather than a welcome feminist corrective, resulting in characters that have been made so powerful—and so scrubbed of imperfections—that they lack any depth or development. Here’s our Take on who the Strong Female Character really is, her powers and her pitfalls, and whether she can evolve.

TRANSCRIPT

Maria Rambeau: “Call me ‘young lady’ again, and I’m gonna put my foot in a place it’s not supposed to be.” - Captain Marvel

Whether she’s saving the day with her smarts or her physical strength, she’s not like the rest of the girls. She’s the Strong Female Character — the fierce, independent answer to the damsel in distress that to some is a symbol of empowerment, but to others a reductive cliche.

You can usually recognize the Strong Female Character by her heroic role in the story. She’s brave, with a take-charge attitude. She’s blessed with exceptional smarts. She also possesses an unbreakable will that refuses to be tamed. Above all, she demonstrates qualities that are underrepresented in most female characters, who have been coded as more stereotypically feminine.

The Strong Female Character has become one of our most controversial and endlessly debated tropes. Although she may seem like a welcome feminist corrective, some regard her as too simplistic, little more than a marketing tool.

So what actually makes a female character strong — and are the many beautiful badasses we’ve seen over the years giving us a full picture of female strength, or just something that looks good on a poster? Here’s our Take on who the Strong Female Character really is, her powers and her pitfalls, and whether she can evolve.

The Stereotypes of Strong

The Strong Female Character arguably has its roots in Greek mythology, where goddesses like Artemis and Athena held powerful sway over the mortal world. And while they didn’t have divine powers, the heroines in stories by Jane Austen or Louisa May Alcott had the willful, determined personalities that would come to define the archetype.

Elizabeth Bennet: “I am determined that nothing but the very deepest love will induce me into matrimony.” - Pride and Prejudice

But it took a while before the Strong Female Character was so well represented on screen. For decades, most movies favored the damsel in distress, who existed solely to be rescued.

Women characters began to gain more agency through the femme fatales of the 1940s and ‘50s, who oozed confidence and challenged expectations of how a lady should behave. And on TV, career women like The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Mary Richards had smarts and independence, while 1970s shows like Police Woman and Charlie’s Angels gave us take-charge women who didn’t need anyone to protect them. Some of these women were actual superheroes.

Wonder Woman: “Women are the wave of the future, and sisterhood is stronger than anything.” - Wonder Woman, 1x1

And as blockbuster franchises like Alien, Terminator, and Jurassic Park pitted women against unstoppable monsters — and saw them triumph — an archetype of the modern Strong Female Character emerged. She was one who embodied all those traits: She was willful and resourceful, bold and brazen, and underestimated at your peril.

These days, the women we call Strong Female Characters can be broken down into several types.

The Hot Heroine

The first and most obvious of these is The Hot Heroine. Her powers are mostly physical — and usually self-evident. Whether she has full-on superpowers, or she’s simply exceptionally skilled in combat, she’s an imposing threat to anything standing in her way. She’s usually strong enough to save not just herself, but the world. She’s also almost uniformly beautiful, her immense strength bottled up in an undeniably attractive package.

The Brains Behind It All

The Brains Behind It All is strong because of her extraordinary intelligence, which she uses to do extraordinary things — either for others or just for herself. She’s cunning and quick on her feet, and she often knows how to manipulate people to her will. She’s also headstrong, and she doesn’t allow anyone to mess with what she’s accomplished.

The Only One in the Room

When a Strong Female Character triumphs in a male-dominated field, she becomes The Only One in the Room. We often see this subtype in period pieces, where women fight and claw relentlessly to succeed in a space designed to exclude them.

Katherine Johnson: “So, yes, they let women do some things at NASA Mr. Johnson, and it’s not because we wear skirts. It’s because we wear glasses.” - Hidden Figures

In these portrayals, the Strong Female Character faces sexism at every turn, so that her personal triumph becomes a symbolic victory for all women.

The Queen with the Iron Fist

When a Strong Female Character manages to surpass her male counterparts and take the top rung of the ladder, she becomes the Queen with the Iron Fist.

Cersei Lannister: “This is what ruling is. Lying on a bed of weeds ripping them out by the root one by one before they strangle you in your sleep.” - Game of Thrones, 2x2

She’s highly successful, capable, and commanding. She’s also feared. It’s clear that she’s willing to do anything to hold onto the power that she’s attained — no matter who it might hurt. And often she’s seen as possessing not just an iron fist but a stony heart: She’s learned to hide or even erase all traces of vulnerability, allowing no opening for anyone to challenge her rule.

The Emotionally Resilient

But our final type has learned to channel that vulnerability and turn it into a strength, offering an Emotionally Resilient spin on the Strong Female Character. Trauma, heartbreak, loss — the Emotionally Resilient woman has been through it all, and still, she rises, her power stemming from her indomitable free spirit.

Rosie Betzler: “We have to dance to show God that we are grateful to be alive.” - Jojo Rabbit

She leads with her heart, her strength coming from an innate perseverance and resolve.

All of these subtypes are meant to be a celebration of a woman’s best qualities — to acknowledge the power she possesses to control her own destiny. So why do some see this trope not as liberating, but limiting?

The Weaknesses of the Strong Female Character

The Strong Female Character has certainly played an important role when it comes to representing women on screen. Yet that representation has also been seen as largely symbolic: The Strong Female Character has often been criticized as mere pandering, resulting in characters that have been made so powerful — and so scrubbed of imperfections — that they lack any depth or development.

Often the Strong Female Character’s strength is her only defining quality. And it tends to overshadow all the other things that go into making a fully realized character — particularly weakness. This flaw is most evident in the Hot Heroines. Inspiring as she may be, Captain Marvel’s Carol Danvers is largely limited to fight scenes and one-liners, with our understanding of who she really is limited to the fragmented flashbacks of her past. As New Yorker critic Richard Brody noted, the “recovery of identity in Captain Marvel is realized with little curiosity or interest … Her ability to overcome her own failures and men’s derision … is all that’s known of her, and, more significantly, all that she needs to know in order to know herself.” The film attempts to engage with these larger criticisms by showing how she’s forced to suppress her feelings.

Yon-Rogg: “There is nothing more dangerous to a warrior than emotion.” - Captain Marvel

When she’s able to stop, we see how she channels those feelings to become even more powerful. But ultimately, it’s still all in service of developing her physical strength, rather than her character — and it perpetuates the notion that her strength is all that’s interesting or useful about her.

Still, at least Carol Danvers gets to be the star of her own story. Other Strong Female characters often fall victim to what critic Tasha Robinson described as the Trinity Syndrome. Named for Carrie-Anne Moss’s character in The Matrix, the Trinity Syndrome describes the tendency to introduce a strong, capable woman with genuine potential as a character, only to fail her by giving her nothing to do — and usually, by reducing her to a trophy for a stronger man to claim as his reward. Robinson attributes the Trinity Syndrome to the evolution of the Strong Female Character into a selling point, one that allows filmmakers to “point at her on the poster and say ‘See? This film totally respects strong women!’” — even when she only exists to serve a male character’s journey.

Even when they’re not giving themselves to stronger men, the Strong Female Character trope often celebrates women only when they’re displaying characteristically male traits. When we first meet Sansa Stark on Game of Thrones, she’s decidedly feminine and meek. In order for Sansa to be crowned Queen in the North, she has to become hardened and cold — a transformation that takes place over a series of traumatic events visited upon her by a series of men.

Sansa Stark: “Without Littlefinger and Ramsey and the rest, I’d have stayed a ‘little bird’ all my life.” - Game of Thrones, 8x4

In addition to glorifying Sansa’s own abuse, this only reinforces the idea that femininity and strength are mutually exclusive. As actress and screenwriter Brit Marling wrote in a New York Times op-ed, the Strong Female Lead has a narrow range of strengths that are defined by how manly they are: “physical prowess, linear ambition, focused rationality. Masculine modalities of power.” As Marling says, “What we really mean when we say we want strong female leads is: ‘Give me a man but in the body of a woman I still want to see naked.”

From suppressing her emotions to doling out violence, the Strong Female Character shows that she can hold her own against men.

Wonder Woman: “I am the man who can.” - Wonder Woman

But as The New Statesman’s Sophia McDougall explains, this need to prove herself is inherently sexist. The Strong Female Character trope often shows us the “underlying deficit of respect the character starts with, which she’s then required to overcome by whatever desperate, over-the-top, cartoonish means to hand” — just to bring herself up to the man’s level.

Harley Quinn: “I’m telling you, if you want boys to respect you, you have to show them you’re serious. Blow something up. Shoot someone!” - Birds of Prey

As McDougall points out, notably, there’s no such thing as a Strong Male Character. Our stories just assume that strength is innate in men, just waiting for the chance to reveal itself. More importantly, they suggest that strength is uncommon in women. When strength is given to female characters, this is somehow considered special.

The Rise of the True Strong Female Character

For a female character to be truly strong, perhaps we have to change our definition — away from those narrow, and primarily masculine ideals. A character like Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road is clearly strong in a way we’ve become used to: She’s physically fit and skilled in combat, intelligent and resourceful. But perhaps her greatest strength is her empathy. This is what drives her to turn against Immortan Joe and free his captive wives. Furiosa is tough but vulnerable: Her hardened exterior hides an incredible inner pain —

and we see how she draws her power from it.

Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games is similarly driven by empathy: Her love for her sister spurs her to take her place in a deadly battle royale. Katniss is a killer, but also compassionate — and when she’s forced into the role of the Hot Heroine, she eventually learns to use her femininity to her advantage, and when to suppress it. As the author Nicola Balkind writes, “Her masculine traits are not simply active and violent, they are coping mechanisms, instincts to protect and survive.”

Flaws don’t just make for a more interesting character — occasionally it’s what makes these characters strong in the first place. Chihiro from Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away begins as a spoiled 10-year-old girl who clings to her mother and is generally scared of taking risks. But after she’s catapulted into a strange new world, she’s forced to confront those fears little by little and learns to assert herself. If she were already perfect, her journey would have far less resonance. As Miyazaki himself said, “It was necessary to have a heroine who was an ordinary girl, not someone who could fly or do something impossible … I asked myself the question whether my friend’s daughter or her friends would be capable of doing it … Because it’s through surmounting these challenges that this little Japanese girl becomes a capable person.”

The truly strong female character is someone who similarly surmounts her own challenges — not by being a superhero, or by adopting masculine traits, but by simply rising to the occasion, persevering, and growing, while also lifting up other women.

Rosa Diaz: “We work at a police force full of dudes. We got to have each other’s backs, okay?” - Brooklyn Nine-Nine, 1x9

We don’t often talk about characters like Cher in Clueless as “strong,” even though she’s driven, unusually confident, loyal to her friends, and gifted with the extraordinary power of persuasion. Cher also takes agency over her own story — she goes after what she wants, and she fixes the things about herself that get in the way.

On Sex Education, the young women run the gamut from the more girly Aimee to the more outwardly tough Maeve. But importantly, neither is portrayed as stronger than the other — and when one needs support, the others rally around her. It’s a reminder that women don’t always have to be independent badasses to be strong. Instead, they can draw a collective strength from each other.

In a society dominated by men, the mere existence of women is a feat of resilience. But this means that female strength often manifests in forms that don’t necessarily catch the eye like a beautiful Amazon in spandex. A strong female is a woman who’s not just a Hot Heroine, the Brains Behind It All, or a Queen with an Iron Fist. She’s also a woman who’s secure in her femininity, aware of her weaknesses, and dedicated to being her absolute best for the people she loves.

Flawed as the trope may be, the Strong Female Character has been a source of inspiration to women, helping us to find those qualities within ourselves. But hopefully, the trope can expand to let us see the many other, less obvious things that make her truly strong. Maybe eventually, she can just be a female character.

Jo March: “Women. They’ve got ambition and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty.” - Little Women

SOURCES

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Balkind, Nicola. “Is Katniss Everdeen Actually A Strong Female Character?” HuffPost, 11 Jun. 2014. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/katniss-everdeen_n_5481087.

Brody, Richard. “The Faux-Progressive Politics of ‘Captain Marvel.’” The New Yorker, 11 Mar. 2019, www.newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/captain-marvel-wants-you-to-know-its-a-capital-d-democratic-movie.

Chocano, Carina. “A Plague of Strong Female Characters.” The New York Times, 1 Jul. 2011. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/03/magazine/a-plague-of-strong-female-characters.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

Corley, Brianna. “Why I’m Sick of ‘Strong’ Female Characters.” The Current Sauce, 20 Nov. 2019. https://currentsauce.com/2019/11/20/why-im-sick-of-strong-female-characters/.

Cuccinelli, Marielle. “The Failure of Strong Female Characters.” Impacting Culture Blog, 31 Jul. 2019. https://impactingculture.com/the-failure-of-strong-female-characters/.

Dionne, Erin. “The Fallacy of the Strong Female Character.” Erin Dionne, 9 Mar. 2018, www.erindionne.com/post/2018/03/09/the-fallacy-of-the-strong-female-character.

Kane, Vivian. “How Are We Still Having the “Strong Female Character” Debate?” The Mary Sue, 17 May 2018. https://www.themarysue.com/strong-female-characters-over-it/.

Koehler, Michael. “What Does ‘Strong Female Character’ Really Mean?” Lights Film School, 5 July 2018, www.lightsfilmschool.com/blog/what-does-strong-female-character-really-mean.

Marling, Brit. “I Don’t Want to Be the Strong Female Lead.” The New York Times, 7 Feb. 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/07/opinion/sunday/brit-marling-women-movies.html.

McDougall, Sophia. “I Hate Strong Female Characters.” NewStatesman, 15 Aug. 2013, www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/i-hate-strong-female-characters.

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