watch

The Tough Girl Trope, Explained

She’s a Tough Girl. Anything a guy can do, she can do just as well, or even better. So what does the Tough Girl represent in our culture, and why is it essential to be more than just “tough”? What really makes a “Strong Female Character”?

TRANSCRIPT

Bryce: “Time to save the universe again, then, is it?”

Lara Croft: “Absolutely.” - Lara Croft: Tomb Raider

There’s no better icon of Girl Power than the “Tough Girl” character type. Anything a man can do, she can do just as well or better.

Cable: “I’d ask who you are, but you’ll be dead in a second.”

Domino: “I’m Domino, and doubtful.” - Deadpool 2

We can trace her roots all the way back to Greek mythology, whose all-female warriors the Amazons; Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom; and Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, personified female strength. This type rose to popularity in the ‘70s, and in modern times, iconic onscreen tough girls like Trinity, Ripley, or Furiosa have made this trope a staple of the action and superhero movie genres.

But why do movies and TV rush to equate female strength with being able to beat everyone up—and why is the Tough Girl often… kind of boring?

If we look closer at the tough girl onscreen, we can break down the characteristics that define her:

She has extreme physical strength. Often superbly capable with amazing fighting skills, the tough girl disproves the stereotype that women are fragile or weak.

Oz: “Need a hand?”

Buffy: “No thanks. I’m good. [stakes vampire]” - Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 4x1

Her decisions are guided by logic, not emotion.

Lambert: we take our chances and hope somebody picks us up.”

Ripley: “Lambert, shh. The shuttle won’t take four.” - Alien

Since many of these characteristics are traditionally associated with men, the Tough Girl can come across as a simple, formulaic creation: (male) physical power, plus (male) rational temperament, packaged in a (female) athletic body = “Strong Female Character.”

But the Tough Girl only becomes interesting when there’s more to her personality, and her story.

A compelling Tough Girl might be so hardened because she’s experienced great pain or trauma…Or she may be tough out of necessity because she’s a professional in a man’s world or trying to survive in a brutal, cutthroat environment.

Furiosa: “Out here, everything hurts. You wanna get through this? Do as I say.” - Mad Max: Fury Road

It helps if she has other women in her story to define herself against, and she’s most captivating when she’s got her fair share of flaws, which combine with her superpowers to form the complex psychology of a real person.

Trish Walker: “Is there whiskey in this?”

Jessica Jones: “Oh yeah, that’s mine.” - The Defenders, 1x1

Here’s our Take on what the Tough Girl represents in our culture and why it’s essential for any good character to be more than “strong.”

The Two Types of Tough Girl

There are two fundamental types of Tough girls onscreen.

Let’s start with type 1: The Only-Tough Girl. This character’s whole personality is that she’s tough. She’s frequently not the protagonist of the story - she’s more likely there to support a man and service his development. The Only-Tough Girl exemplifies what writer Tasha Robinson termed “Trinity Syndrome.” Referring to Carrie-Anne Moss’ character in The Matrix, Robinson writes of “the hugely capable woman who never once becomes as independent, significant, and exciting as she is in her introductory scene.” The movie never considers that Trinity might be the One herself; her role is to fall in love with this person and facilitate his transformation into a hero.

Trinity (to Neo): “Now get up.” - The Matrix

So while the Only-Tough Girl arrives with a bang, and the movie announces she’s superficially edgy, awesome (and of course strong), she isn’t allowed to contribute meaningfully to the plot. She’s more or less the “token woman.”

The Tough Girl is set up as the polar opposite of the Damsel-in-Distress. Yet these two inverse character types tend to be strangely similar in their limitations. Both are accessories in a male story.

One positive example of the Tough Girl — Sarah Connor in the Terminator franchise — takes on true complexity because she illuminates this relationship between the Damsel and the Tough Girl types. She begins as a helpless Damsel in the first movie,

Sarah Connor: “Am I tough, organized? I can’t even balance my checkbook.” - The Terminator

but transforms into a fierce fighter by the 1991 sequel — an evolution made possible by actress Linda Hamilton’s intensive physical training.

The Only-Tough-Girl is often the lone featured woman in her cast. Sophia McDougall argues that often an interesting male character has a “huge range of other characters of his own gender around him so that he never has to act as any kind of ambassador or representative for maleness.” But if the Tough Girl is the only woman with significant screentime in her story — she takes on the burden of epitomizing all women. Thus she can’t really show weakness in any way, or this could be interpreted as a statement that women are weak. The end result is a character who’s forced to be perfect, and therefore boring.

2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road corrects the lone-female problem by showing effectively three generations of tough girls, and Charlize Theron’s Furiosa takes on emotional power in her mission because she’s helping other women. Fury Road assiduously corrects the other traps of the Only-Tough Girl as well. Furiosa and male lead Max aren’t a couple, but a great team, each taking a turn rescuing the other. Nor does he overshadow her in ability. At one point after Max repeatedly fails to shoot the approaching enemy, he even hands the gun to Furiosa, knowing she can do it. Thanks to its conscious attempts to avoid common Tough Girl pitfalls, this installment of the classically macho Mad Max franchise was hailed as a “feminist action film” by Eve Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues” and a consultant on the movie.

So what turns an Only-Tough Girl into a strong woman who’s genuinely empowering and inspiring to female viewers?

This brings us to Type 2: The Tough Girl Plus. In addition to her strength, she has other qualities that make her interesting. Like a sharp, logical mind, morbid determination, or wit and playfulness.

Buffy: “If the apocalypse comes, beep me.” - Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1x5

Often this kind of Tough Girl is the main character (or one of them) and she’s not the only woman, so she doesn’t have to stand in for femaleness in general.

One of the all-time best examples of the “Tough Girl-Plus” is Ripley in the Alien franchise.

Ripley: “I can handle myself.”

Corporal Hicks: “Yeah, I noticed.” - Aliens

Ironically, a big reason this part was so good — and appealing to star Sigourney Weaver — is that it wasn’t written for a woman. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon and co-writer Ronald Shusett wrote all characters as generic males, referring to them only by last name, then marked them as unisex in the working script.

Sigourney Weaver: “It was written in a very straightforward way, this was a kind of direct person who didn’t have these scenes where she was suddenly vulnerable, and she didn’t throw her hands up and wait for someone else to save her. She was a thinking, moving, deciding creature.” - Interview with AFI

This story underlines that to write a riveting Tough Girl, you merely have to approach her like you would a male character — which is to say, conceive of her as a complex individual with agency. Ridley Scott’s direction in Alien also treats Ripley no differently from the males — nothing in her costume, makeup, or camera framing is visually reminding us that she’s a woman. Her face is frequently lit half in shadow — a stereotypically male lighting technique that emphasizes her serious dilemma (rather than bathing her in an even, soft flattering glow to emphasize her beauty).

As a person, Ripley displays both stereotypically male and female qualities. She’s traditionally masculine in that she’s logical and cool-headed in a crisis. Meanwhile, men she works with are histrionic and impulsive, overcome by emotions. Like a stereotypical female, Ripley also displays a nurturing side (going back to save the cat) but her caring nature isn’t presented as a womanly characteristic — simply a human one. As a result, what stands about her is not her gender, but her humanity.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer also imagined a world where a woman was put in the type of singular heroic role usually given to a man.

Rupert Giles: “One girl, in all the world, a Chosen One. One born with the strength and skill to hunt the vampires.” - Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1x1

Buffy was fiercely loyal and appealingly quippy, and her life was interesting because she had to balance her Slayer duties with being a normal teenage girl.

Buffy: “I was afraid that I was gonna be behind in all my classes, that I wouldn’t make any friends, that I would have last month’s hair. I didn’t think there’d be vampires on campus.” - Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1x1

So the “Tough Girl-Plus” type proves that only in combination with her other human qualities does a woman’s toughness become genuine and gripping to watch.

Tough in a Man’s World

An important subcategory of the Tough Girl is the Tough Girl-Professional. She works in a high-stakes, male-dominated field like law enforcement and regularly confronts intense pressure without cracking.

Dave Jennings: “She’s been leading our kidnap response team for three years. Put her through the grinder since she got here, and she hasn’t blinked. She’s in the front line.” - Sicario

She likely also faces some bullying or exclusion from her mostly male colleagues. In this context, toughness is a job requirement — The Tough Girl-Professional needs to act like a man in order to be taken seriously.

But over time, keeping up this hard front can have adverse side effects. This career woman often has few close relationships. In Zero Dark Thirty, C.I.A. agent Maya ends the movie by herself on a huge plane, unable to answer a simple question: where home is.

A related subtype is the Tough Girl-Born-of Pain. Extreme suffering, usually in her backstory, is the key to unlocking this woman’s strength.

Gamora: “When Thanos took my homeworld, he killed my parents in front of me. He tortured me, turned me into a weapon.” - Guardians of the Galaxy

In fact, one of the definitions of “tough” is “able to endure hardship or pain.” The best example of the Tough-Girl-Born-of-Pain may be Uma Thurman’s Bride in Kill Bill, who goes on a ruthless quest for revenge after she’s brutally attacked on her wedding day. The seemingly fearless Furiosa also survived a formative trauma. And Lisbeth’s backbone in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is likewise a response to the misogynistic violence she’s endured. The story comments on how her fortitude comes at a cost, as (for all her badass qualities) this emotionally scarred person lives a lonely life.

Armansky: “She’s had a rough life. Can we please not make it any rougher?” - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

These examples remind us that, whether she’s shaped by a hostile work environment or a terrible trauma, too often a woman must be tough because she’s oppressed by a man’s world.

Frederick Chilton: “You know, we get a lot of detectives here, but I must say, I can’t ever remember one as attractive.” - The Silence of the Lambs

So while the Tough Girl’s defining quality is admirable, it’s also a depressing symptom of a cruel, messed-up society. It’s not something we want to hold up as an ideal for young women — because why should any girl have to be so tough?

Gabrielle: “You don’t have to be strong all the time, Xena; sometimes it’s good for the soul to be soft.” - Xena: Warrior Princess, 1x2

The Tough Girl’s power is measured by a male metric — through this lens, toughness essentially comes down to physical strength and repressing emotion. But The best tough girls excel because they hold onto their feminine qualities. Sure, 1998’s Mulan was decidedly not a girly girl, yet she outshines the other soldiers thanks to feminine values like her profound love for her family and her creative way of thinking. At the end of Sicario, Kate can’t bring herself to pull the trigger on her immoral colleague. While this could come across as weakness, her enduring sense of decency and morality is a good thing — unlike everyone around her, she hasn’t been corrupted.

Alejandro Gillick: “You are not a wolf. And this is the land of wolves now.” - Sicario

Mad Max’s Furiosa and Star Wars’ Leia both represent the (arguably feminine) value of hope.

Admiral Holdo: “When I served under Leia, she would say that hope is like the sun. If you only believe in it when you can see it-”

Poe Dameron: “You’ll never make it through the night.” - The Last Jedi

Their convictions may appear illogical and unrealistic in their dark, pessimistic (male-dominated) worlds, but in the end, that hope is earned, and they usher in better, peaceful eras for their societies.

So it turns out that having a softer side is crucial to winning audiences over. It’s also important for our female role models to glorify stereotypically feminine strengths, instead of swearing them off. William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, argued in 1943, “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”

Diana: “Only love can truly save the world.” - Wonder Woman

Perhaps the real question we need to ask is what toughness looks like according to a female metric. We don’t live in a primeval age where brute strength determines who leads — so there’s no reason that aggression should be held up as an asset to emulate. A stereotypically male zest for violence or power only leads to a broken world. But expressing your emotions openly, being sensitive to others, using what power you have to help the less powerful— these are the qualities that have the potential to heal it.

Diana: “I’m willing to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.” - Wonder Woman

From Strong to Flawed

Female characters who embody pure strength risk becoming unrealistically perfect Mary Sues. And many viewers just can’t relate to someone who has no major flaws or weaknesses.

Consider how few of our culture’s most fascinating male protagonists would be summed up primarily as “strong.” McDougall argues that “If Strong-Male-Character compatibility was the primary criterion of writing heroes, our fiction would be a lot poorer. But it’s within this claustrophobic little box that we expect our heroines to live out their lives.” While it’s a great message that Captain Marvel (the MCU’s first woman to get her own movie) has been labeled the franchise’s most powerful character, she’s defined by her unprecedented strength. So her writers’ next challenge will be making sure she’s more than just that and developing her into as much of a layered individual as beloved male heroes like Tony Stark.

In recent years, interest has grown in flawed female characters, who may be a response to the male antiheroes that have long dominated prestige TV, these women have real problems. Because why should the guys get to have all the fun?

So when we think about the strong female character, maybe we should start focusing not on whether she can win fights, but on whether her writing is strong —whether it feels true to a real, multi-faceted person. Movies like Terminator and Die Hard are unquestionably designed with a male audience in mind. But in many cases, the stereotypical tough girl doesn’t feel like she’s really for women. When she’s treated as eye candy or is only there to support the male protagonist, this isn’t how most female viewers want to see themselves.

If we broaden our understanding of what a “tough girl” looks like, we can find many more unexpected examples who aren’t ass-kicking spies, but who do exhibit awe-inspiring, real female strength. While their power might go overlooked because of their femininity, make no mistake, they’re as resilient as any macho male hero. The real question isn’t what strong women look like, it’s whether the world can handle the sheer force of their combined might.

Captain Marvel: “I’ve been fighting with one arm tied behind my back, but what happens when I’m finally set free?” - Captain Marvel

So… are you ready?

Ripley: “This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.” - Alien