Why the term ‘Strong Female Character’ is more harmful than helpful | by Connie Lane

Guest post by Connie Lane

Often, writers seem either to write feminist characters and describe them as a ‘strong female character’ or the character is labelled as such by those who review or promote the movie. This is not only damaging for both men and women; it is also simply incorrect. I could give many reasons to justify my point of view, but I will limit myself to 3 main points to explain.

1. It is comparative.

Describing a female character as strong, to me, implies that her strength is an anomaly. That the norm for a woman, or for a female character, is that she is weak or unable to be self-sufficient and that, therefore, this woman ‘isn’t like other women’, she is ‘different’. Being told that you or a character you like ‘isn’t like other women’ is not a complimentary statement, instead it is demeaning. What does this say about this person’s thoughts about the ‘other’ women? These sort of offhand statements place a societal norm on womankind which is often negative, unimpressive or unimportant. Not only does it compare the woman to ‘other women’, but also to the men who supply the ‘strong’ ideal she is measured against.

2. Male characters aren’t limited in the same way

Sophia McDougall astutely comments in her post entitled Why I Hate Strong Female Characters that characters like Sherlock Holmes aren’t simply labelled as strong. Is Sherlock strong? Of course he could be described as such, but it’s entirely too simple a way to describe him. Try this with other male characters. Try to place them simply in a box only for ‘Strong Male Characters’, and you will find that it is an wholly uncomfortable place for them to be because “they’re used to being interesting across more than one axis and in more than two dimensions.” If male characters cannot comfortably fit into the ‘strong’ character space, why do we place female characters there and assume that it is enough? It is inappropriate to write and advertise female roles as such if you wouldn’t do the same with regards a male role.

3. It is ‘compensatory’

This final point may need a bit more explanation. Feminism is meant to be the pursuit of social, political and economic equality between genders, regardless of sex, sexuality, race or background. To call myself a feminist means that I would want to be treated with the same respect and given the same opportunities as anyone else, and if I experience or witness injustice, inequality or disrespect I work to bring about change. Over time different interpretations of feminism have developed which now makes so many people reluctant to describe themselves as feminist. But if you say that you believe in equality, guess what, you’re a feminist. Feminism, in its truest form, should rejoice in people having equal choice and be themselves. I could go on, but Bustle explain it far more concisely here. Remember: being a feminist does not mean that you hate men/hate femininity/burn bras.

But I digress. Returning to my final point, one of the most toxic forms of misguided ‘feminism’ is ‘compensatory feminism’. ‘Compensatory feminism’ demands justice for past misogyny or mistreatment by targeting those who some see as representing past perpetrators. It demands that in seeking equality, those who may have hurt you deserve to be hurt. It’s ‘an eye for an eye’ masquerading as breaking the glass ceiling. I sometimes see people attempt to create ‘strong female characters’ who embarrass, hurt or degrade men in order to better themselves. This characterisation is VASTLY UNHELPFUL. If a woman really wants to better her situation she shouldn’t bring someone else down just because she can, whether they are male or female. She should be able to fend for herself if she wants to, but she should also be comfortable with asking for help or helping others become stronger. Punching a man just because one can, or forcibly kissing someone because you want to, doesn’t make a character strong; if a male character isn’t praised for their aggressive, or even, abusive behaviour, then neither should a female one. Writing and promoting female characters should meet the same standards that writing and promoting male characters meet.

In my ideal future there are many things I would like to see. I would like to see as many lead roles for women as there are for men (as in 1:1 rather than 3:1). I would like to see plots and storylines motivated and pushed forward by female characters rather than just having them as the fodder who are only there to define and develop their male co-parts. I would like to see female characters who are more than overly simple stereotypes. But more than anything I would like to see male and female characters that are celebrated for their complexity and their humanity, humanity which is prone to change and develop and grow and contradict. Ultimately, I would like to see accurate representations of men and women, portrayals that aren’t two-dimensional and who don’t need the added adjective in order to make them seem interesting.




Connie Lane. 22. Writer/Blogger/Dramaturge. Based in Hull/Manchester. Loves art, going to the theatre and sushi



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