“Strong Women”: A Discussion

Here it is, my last post on Saturday’s for a while. It’s that time of year, school is wrapping up, assignments are drawing nearer, and this year it feels like everything is a little crazier and more dramatic because it’s the last time I’ll be doing it. So we are going to end off this string of posts with some discussion about a descriptor I have grown to hate, its implications, and a new way to talk about ladies in our stories.

The descriptor in question is “Strong Women”. This label is plastered on any and every female character that acts in any way shows traits of physical prowess, intellect, or guts (also, and most specifically, when they portray traits of masculinity). Dictionary.com defines strong in a few ways: “having, showing, or able to exert great bodily or muscular power; physically vigorous or robust”, “of great moral power, firmness, or courage”, “powerful in influence, authority, resources, or means of prevailing or succeeding”, and “aggressive; willful”. Now, you might be asking yourself “Allison, why do you hate two little words so much? Don’t you want women to be strong?”. Well dear readers, of course I do! There is nothing inherently bad with the word strong, and of course if we have male characters in stories that are strong, then we should have female characters of the same calibre. There are strong women in the world, seeing their stories is wonderful. Where my problem lies, faithful readers, is in the term being used improperly, and in a way that perpetuates ideas of weakness as uninteresting and championing masculine traits as the only ones to be deemed empowering.

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What kind of characters come to mind when you think of the word strong? How about strong women? I know that since the influx of Young Adult book series being turned into movies and television shows I am sure one of the people you thought of was Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. Maybe Tris from Divergent? Maybe some superheroes! Supergirl? Black Widow? Okay great! That is amazing. All of these women are strong, and they are great characters. I am not arguing for one second that these women do not possess strength in their respective fields. They are spectacular role models for young girls and other women and a plethora of characters like this should exist, because as I’ve previously discussed, there is no shortage of male character who exist in this way. In contrast however, there is also no shortage of male characters in television, movies and books who portray a wide variety of characteristics. Anti-heroes are widely accepted in male characters, Walter White anyone? Holden Caulfield? Hamlet? Severus Snape? Tyrion Lannister? I’m sure you can name a thousand of them. Can you name any women though? Definitely Amy Elliott Dunne from Gone Girl and arguably Olivia Pope from Scandal that we’ve seen in recent times. But it’s a little harder to think of ladies who embody these traits, or rather who are allowed to exist as an anti-hero. Are Amy and Olivia strong characters? I would say yes. Are the perfect? I would say no. Does that matter? Yes.

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It matters because of the ways that representation matter. My colleagues, and dear dear friends Mackenzie and Shannon have been on this little journey with me, of focusing on very niche groups of fandom and popular culture and have raised so many questions about representation. How does it work, why does it matter, how is it implemented, what are the implications? Representation is such an important part of consuming this media to me, and so in order for me to understand and fully engage with the books I’m reading, or the shows I’m watching, I need some help. I find that the classification of “Strong Women”, and the ways that the title is stamped on any lead female who has any physical strength is actually hurting female characters. It is wonderful to be assertive and to be strong willed. However, by labelling Katniss, Hermione, and Tris “strong women” we are putting them in a box that doesn’t allow for them to be much else. I don’t know about you but the Katniss Everdeen I read was severely self involved, indecisive, half deaf, mentally ill and wildly misguided. Can you see how the media and franchises capitalizing on projecting Katniss as a strong kickass woman is reductive, and why I can’t stand it? Katniss is strong, she is physically capable, she has talent with a bow like no other. That one instance of her strength however, does not erase the nuances in her character. It doesn’t overpower the fact that she is mentally unstable and self involved (also, not white). She was never really the reason for the revolution, it was Rue. Katniss was shoved into being something she wasn’t ready to be. I can’t help but think that by classifying her as a strong woman, something is lost. Especially because of the prevalence of this title used in interviews, magazine covers, and shoddy attempts at creating interesting characters. It matters that Katniss is more than just strong.

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Can you, dear readers, see how writing and creating “strong women” isn’t what people think it is? What is this idea promoting? Personally, I think that it perpetuates ideas that masculine traits are the ones that should be rewarded. By ignoring the fact that Hermione can be ruthless and also clueless at times, by labelling her “strong” because she is smart, takes away from the ways that her other traits are important as well. That isn’t useful to me. If we are going to talk about representation, and if we are going to believe it matters, we have to go deeper. Value should be placed on characters, and the marketing surrounding them, because they are people. Not because the are strong, or they have traits of masculinity that we deem worthy. I would like more than that though. I want psychotic women, I want Amy Dunne’s. I want an anti-hero so fucked up its terrifying. We never question these characters when they are presented to us in male form, or at least if we do it is with less scrutiny. How come after Gone Girl came out there were think pieces about how Amy Dunne was the monster that every feminist would turn into at any minute? I never saw such discussion about Walter White to this extent. Every single dude I’ve ever met between the ages of 18-28 who has seen Breaking Bad idolizes Walter White. “Such a great anti-hero!!!!!!”. I’m sorry but how is it fair or accurate that these male characters get treated so differently in discussions of character types and analysis. Nah. Let’s get this across the board. Female characters don’t have to be good or morally right to be interesting, or to exist in our books, shows and movies.

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I would like more Sansa’s, more Izzy’s. I want to see women kicking ass, but also I want to see women struggle with real life issues, I want them to be sad. I want them to have boyfriend troubles, I want them to have supportive friend groups. I want them to be smart, I want them to be not so smart. I would love to see women be valued on television for all of the reasons they are people. I would like the bonds and relationships forged through shared life experience. I want the special thing that makes female friendships so amazing explored. I want it all and more. So let’s stop talking about women in terms of strength. They can be strong and be interesting, but they can be weak and be just as interesting. Multi-faceted people cannot be limited to such descriptors.

It’s time to start working on the ridiculously large pile of essays and assignments I have to do in the next 3 weeks. I hope I’m inspired again once school is over to keep up these Saturday posts, as there will always be something to talk about, and always things I want for ladies. Until then however:

TBA: You’re in luck! Still two more Shadowhunters posts. This weeks is 1×12 and Alec is going to get married! Or is he? And then the finale! I will be talking about both of them on this blog again, just sometime in the next few weeks after finals are done! Wish me luck 🙂

P.S. Not talking about it yet but if you want to watch a FANTASTIC episode of TV, watch episode 1×12 of Shadowhunters.

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2 thoughts on ““Strong Women”: A Discussion

  1. whyamatters says:

    Very true Al! Too often are female characters only allowed to be one thing even though their very human existence guarantees them having more than one positive attribute and way more than one negative characteristic. Further, it doesn’t even have to be a discussion of “positive and negative” characteristics so much as it needs to be a discussion of humanity and what makes characters real! When I identify with characters, I first identify with their weaknesses, their niches, their ticks, their problems, their less than savory aspects. Tris first stood out to me because she was conscious of her selfishness, and unconscious of her selflessness. By labeling Tris as only a “strong woman” for what she does for her brother at the end of Allegiant, you take away her agency, her weakness for a brother that abused her, her journey to self sacrifice, her absolute stubbornness. Adelina from Marie Lu’s The Young Elites is a great example of a anti-hero. You should check her out!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. shannonmray says:

    So funny that Mackenzie mentioned Adelina because I was literally about to come down here and start demanding you to read The Young Elites because she is so interesting for many of the reasons you mentioned! She is so dark and motivated in a very precarious direction, but as a writer Marie Lu causes the reader to really sympathize with this girl as to why she feels the way she does, even when the audience may not agree with her actions. As a writer myself I’m also in agreement that we need more female characters that have flaws and character traits that sit outside of the idea of this perfect role model of a strong female character.

    It’s been lovely to be on this journey together!

    Liked by 1 person

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