What Makes a Strong Female Character?

There are two things that I devour (and I mean devour) on a regular basis: YA fiction and teen cult shows from the turn of the century.* Both feature a fair share of kick-ass women in lead character roles. As an audience, we’ve done a pretty good job of praising these women and affirming the shifting tone they’ve set for an entertainment industry that is typically dominated by male heroes. I commend that. I really do. But I also take issue with this praise, and not just because these women are overwhelmingly white, perfectly toned, and have flawless hair, skin, and other…features. I have an issue with the way we revere them, the way we describe them, even.

The way we label them as “strong.”

I’m not trying to suggest that the Katniss Everdeens and Syndey Bristows do not deserve to be considered strong female leads, because they absolutely do. And I love these characters; I one hundred percent adore them. I admire them. At times I wish I could be just like them.

And therein lies the problem. Because if that’s what being a strong female looks like…then I’m totally missing the mark.

Sometimes it seems as though a female lead character can only be one of two things: a damsel in distress or a warrior who fights like one of the boys. These two archetypes are forever polarized, perpetually at odds with one another. And they don’t reflect the typical female experience at all. Neither one of them do.

It’s disappointing to me that in our increasingly creative and innovative society we struggle to imagine a female character that exists (un)comfortably between these two extremes. When we do, we often relegate her to the role of sidekick. Some of my favorite female characters–the smart and sassy Mac, the upbeat and capable Kaylee, the clever, loyal, and adorably awkward Willow–are given a backseat to their tough-as-nails female counterparts. And while I love Veronica and Zoe and Buffy just as much as the next person, they aren’t the women I can relate to. They aren’t the ones that I see my own failures and triumphs reflected in. They are strong–yes, by all means they are strong female characters. But so is Mac, even though she is shy; and Kaylee, even though she is bubbly; and Willow, even though she is nerdy.

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These are my strong female characters. These are the ones I celebrate and praise.

I believe that we will soon see more Macs and Willows being given their own status as female leads. And I believe that they, in turn, will help redefine and reshape what we think of as a “strong” female character. I’ve been encouraged by the new Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt, in which the lead character restarts her life in New York City after spending fifteen years trapped in an underground cult. The show’s creators could have gone so many different directions in the way that they portrayed someone who has endured such a horrendous experience. They want us to see their female lead as strong–that much is evident just in the title and theme song (“females are strong as hell”). But Kimmie’s strength is so different from the typical kick-ass character they could have depicted. She is sweet and optimistic and sincere. She is determined and refuses to give up, even in the face of remarkable obstacles. She is positive and cheerful and incredibly resilient in the aftermath of her trauma.

That, to me, is strong.

That, to me, is kick-ass.

That’s what I want to see more of in YA fiction and in my favorite shows and movies. That’s what I want to portray in my own fiction writing: women who are relatable, women who are complex, women who are real.

Women who are strong–in every sense of the word.

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*To be fair, there are way more than two things that I devour on a regular basis. Others include popcorn, cupcakes, dark chocolate, and news stories about weird scientific discoveries. But why are you bothering about those when you could be reading the rest of my really fantastic blog post?