Wonder Woman: The Essence of a Strong Female Character

by Jami Gold on June 8, 2017

in For Readers, Writing Stuff

Wonder Woman poster: Silhouette on a beach at sunset with added text: The Wonder of a Strong Female Character

We’ve had several conversations here over the years of what it means for a heroine to be a “strong female character.” Although on some level it seems like the answer should be obvious, articles continue to discuss the issue because we see so few successful portrayals of such characters—especially in movies.

Like many over the past week, I saw the Wonder Woman movie…and loved it. *smile* One of the many reasons I enjoyed the movie is because the Wonder Woman/Diana Prince character played by Gal Godot is a wonderful (ha!) example of a strong female character. I want to break down what created that sense of strength for me so we might push for more characters like her in our stories.

(I’m exploring her character without revealing plot point spoilers, but if you haven’t seen the movie yet, go! *grin*)

Why Are There So Few Good Examples in Movies?

Throughout history, society has valued women mostly for narrow roles, notably mother and sex partner. Notice that neither of those two main roles are about women themselves.

Instead, those roles center on and are defined by others—children or the (typically) male partner. In movies, even when we see examples of strength within those roles, that strength is usually revealed after an attack or threat that victimizes the woman or those she cares for.

For example, the “mother bear” type of strength is a response to a threat against her kids. The “revenge” type of strength is frequently a response to being jilted, abused, or the like.

In other words, in movies, women are often reduced to those two roles, which is limiting in and of itself. (Not that those roles aren’t important to women, but real women embody many roles at once.) Worse, any strength revealed in those characters comes only after she’s been dismissed, attacked, victimized, or had her weakness exploited as a plot point, often after making a big deal of her weakness being due to her gender or her role.

If we think about these characters in terms of character agency—how much they’re acting on and pushing the story in certain directions rather than merely reacting to how the plot pushes on them—we see that these strength-in-response-to-a-threat characters don’t have as strong of agency as most roles for men. In addition, as the threat (and often her weakness) is related to one of her roles, her strength is less about herself and more about asserting her value within those roles.

The Few Good Examples Are Criticized

At the same time, the lack of good examples means that any character that gets close is scrutinized. Rather than being one of many, she’s the sole recipient of generations of hopes and expectations.

No character could withstand that amount of pressure, so not surprisingly, people find ways to pick on any near-miss examples that come along. (This picking apart of a lone xyz-type of character is why more representation is important for any marginalized group.)

A good example of a strong female character who was picked on for being “not enough” is Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy. Some picked on her for wearing a skirt (*gasp*) at the end of the first movie, as though dressing in a less kick*ss way “lessened” her. Others picked on her for (the horrors!) showing vulnerability and needing rescue, as though needing help—ever—meant she wasn’t strong at all.

Real people aren’t perfect, and our characters shouldn’t need to be perfect either. Any character who was perfect wouldn’t seem realistic. It’s enough to make us think that we can’t win—especially when people start limiting the definition of strong for our characters.

The Many Types of Strength

The character of Ripley from Alien is the typical example of a strong female character cited by many. However, many of the aspects that people point to with that character as far as what makes her strong focus on the butt-kicking type of strength.

Yet in the real world, we can see many different types of strength all around us. Unfortunately, movies often do a poor job of highlighting those stories with female characters, and an even worse job of showing non-victimization-related strength in them.

In the real world, we know that women can show strength in caring for or helping others (not just mother-bear protecting them). We know women can show strength in standing up for what’s right or fighting for what they believe in. We know women can show strength in leadership or courage in moral, emotional, or physical battles. Etc., etc.

Stories that focus on these other types of strength should feature female characters just as frequently as male characters. In the real world, strength along these lines is just as common in women as in men, and stories should reflect that fact.

The Wonder of Wonder Woman

All of those typical issues underline why the Wonder Woman movie was so incredible to me. The movie obviously focuses on her—a female character—but more importantly, the story showcases her different types of strengths—not just the butt-kicking. In addition, the story never victimizes her, forces her into either of the usual female roles, or makes her seem weak because of being a woman. *cue Hallelujah chorus*

The movie doesn’t grant only her character this gift either. The first part of the movie depicts the Amazon women as kicking butt, yes, but it also hints at a rich tapestry of art, rituals, beliefs, and roles for non-butt-kicking members of the society.

More powerfully, we’re not told about Diana’s or the Amazon society’s strengths, we’re shown those strengths by women of many sizes, shapes, and colors. And if a picture is worth a thousand words, a hero shot in a movie is worth a million. *grin*

Ways that Diana’s strengths are portrayed throughout the movie include:

  • From her childhood on, other characters constantly tell her no. She ignores them and follows her passions anyway.
  • As a beautiful woman, she could have taken advantage of the seductress role to get what she wanted, but she never does. She’s secure enough in her abilities to believe she’ll succeed without manipulation.
  • When she is butt-kicking, she’s not acting out of competition or a desire to prove herself. She merely follows her heart on what she believes is right.
  • She doesn’t react defensively when faced with sexism, as again, she’s secure enough to not need to prove herself. Because of this lack of reaction, she’s never turned into a victim.
  • She’s allowed to coo over a baby without the act “weakening” her or pigeon-holing her into the mother role.
  • Her naïvety is never shown as stupidity or foolishness. Instead, she’s simply uninformed about modern culture, which reflects the purity of her history.
  • Even her physical strength is shown as coming from her goodness, compassion, kindness, and determination to live up to her potential.
  • Her character arc isn’t about learning to value x or figuring out she was wrong about y. Her arc explores how she can use her traits to help the world.

In other words, unlike so many other comic book movies, which focus on physical strengths or egos or overcoming a masculine trait like arrogance, she is the embodiment of the feminine spirit. (I mean that not in an exclusionary way, focusing on gender, but on the types of traits that are usually seen as feminine rather than masculine. Just as women encompass feminine and masculine traits, so do all, including men and non-binary.)

Even better, the movie never diminishes the Steve Trevor character. He’s not reduced to the “love interest,” “comic relief,” or any other narrow role. He’s shown as fully supporting her strengths and being a hero in his own right.

Is the movie perfect? Of course not. But Diana’s character was everything I hope the heroines (or for that matter, the heroes) in my stories to be. Heck, she was everything I hope to be. *grin*

This is the potential of strong female characters. This is what we should expect from storytellers. This is a story I want to see more of. *smile*

How would you define “strong female character”? What examples from stories can you think of? What makes those characters “strong”? If you’ve seen the Wonder Woman movie, do you agree or disagree with my assessment? Do you have any other thoughts about her character or the story and how it relates to strengths?

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21 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Ashley June 8, 2017 at 12:18 pm

I hadn’t thought about it until this post, but the mother in “The Blind Side” is also this sort of rounded, strong character. She’s a force of nature who drives the story, and she’s doing it not because she or her family are threatened (they’re not), but because she sees someone who needs help.

I’m looking forward to seeing Wonder Woman!

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Jennifer Barricklow June 8, 2017 at 12:56 pm

I really enjoyed the movie and found myself chuckling or laughing out loud at points. (I’m pretty sure I was grinning like an idiot through most of it.) Though I had a few minor quibbles, my overwhelming feeling was (and remains) sheer delight.

I love how this movie has started conversations about strength and stereotypes and gender roles, about societal conventions and morality and violence, about relationships and responsibility and identity. I’ve been participating in some of those conversations among friends, and now your analysis will be part of those conversations as well. Thank you!

As for other examples of strong women characters, the first thing that came to mind was The Zookeeper’s Wife. Though I see it as a film about what it means to be human, the protagonist is a woman, and we experience the story mostly through her.

Actually, Wonder Woman is also about what it means to be human. Not being told what it means, but seeing and experiencing what it means. That’s one of the things I enjoyed about it. (And the ass-kicking – loved the ass-kicking!)

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Susan Gourley June 8, 2017 at 2:09 pm

It’s on my agenda for this weekend. Can’t wait to see it with my daughter. One of my sons already saw it and said it was really good. I actually roll my eyes at female heroines who have to beat up males to show their strength to readers or viewers. Physical bad-ass-ness doesn’t impress me. Another attribute that TV and movies like to give strong women is the woman just being mean as if kindness is a weakness. Can’t wait to see this movie.

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Sieran June 8, 2017 at 2:52 pm

Recently, I realized that though I follow the writing discussions on strong female characters, I do see many female characters who are strong, where their psychological strength is not always related to their male love interest (the female character probably gets cut some slack if her love interest is female :D) nor related to her children.

Some examples that come to my mind are two of my favorite heroines from Shakespeare’s plays: Viola from Twelfth Night and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing. I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone, but both girls show elements of emotional strength, like compassion for someone in need, fighting for what’s right or being determined to survive, being resourceful and brave, and just being an all-around interesting and cool person. None of these emotional strengths I listed had anything to do with a male partner or her children! Anyhow, I think a great way to write a strong female character, is to treat her like a person rather than like “a female.” If she feels like a unique individual with her own personality, she would probably reveal her strengths to the reader naturally without the author imposing any traits on her. That’s my opinion!

Some days ago, I wrote a short dialogue-only story for a competition with a group of writer friends and acquaintances. In my dialogue, I mocked gender stereotypes and also mocked counter gender stereotypes. I poked fun at the ideas of what a “strong female character” *should* be according to different people.

More specifically, my dialogue involved a female and a male cousin. The reader learns that the female cousin is the older, taller, and physically stronger one (i.e. a “strong female character” stereotype and also a reversal of the traditional stereotype of the frail female.) At the same time, the male cousin claims to be the emotionally stronger one (which is at odds with the gender stereotype that the woman is emotionally stronger than the man, where the man is only physically stronger.) However, we learn that the male cousin’s “greater emotional strength” is actually about him being a braver person, and he does seem to be the braver one in this scene, or at least, the one who is less scared and less worried. (This goes against a strong female character stereotype where the girl is more courageous than the boy.)

Yet, through the dialogue, we gradually realize that despite the boy cousin’s “emotional strength/ greater courage,” he is also the one who is less in touch with emotions, at least with his female cousin’s feelings. The female cousin seems more aware of the emotional and relational sides of things, while the male cousin is focused on what they’re doing (going on an adventure, what to do in the adventure, where to go, etc.). So that fits the gender stereotype of the girl having more emotional and interpersonal sensitivity than the boy, whilst the boy is very action and task-focused.

Thus, in my dialogue, the cousins follow and break both traditional gender stereotypes and the trendy “strong female character” stereotype. This way, I make fun of all these traditional AND modern gender stereotypes, that in the end, there is no clear pattern whether I’m following a “traditional female storyline” or a “gung-ho, tough and rough female storyline.” Therefore, my characters aren’t my tools to make or break stereotypes; they are their own person. They are simply being human.

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Deborah Makarios June 8, 2017 at 4:10 pm

Seems to me there’s a shortage of non-asskicking strength displayed in a lot of movies these days, regardless of the character’s gender.
I liked the movie ‘Belle’ – the place she has in society limits her power, but she exercises the power she has without fear and shows what can be accomplished by someone who refuses to stop asking the questions people would rather not face. Plus she’s based on a real person (Dido Elizabeth Belle), so yay! Check out the portrait of her ‘photobombing’ her cousin…

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Varina Suellen Plonski June 8, 2017 at 8:31 pm

I just saw Wonder Woman this past weekend, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I love, love, LOVE your checklist! And I agree that each point reinforces the assessment of Diana’s strength of character.
And then I looked at my MC for my story, using your checklist as a filter. I am pleased and proud to announce that Ari Dillon is equally as strong! I’m going to pull that checklist and add it to my notes for future character reference.

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Kim B June 8, 2017 at 8:44 pm

I love Ripley, but not just because she kicks butt at the end of Aliens. She’s smart, focused, dedicated to her job, and she doesn’t take crap from the men who are around her. When they have to escape from the alien, she is the one who leads the party, including the men. She shows a nurturing side in taking care of the little girl Newt, yes, but it’s not shown as a weakness.

I also love Sarah Connor from Terminator. In the first movie, she’s totally blindsided by the terminator that comes after her and yet she doesn’t crumble or rely on a man to take care of her. Yes, John Connor shows up, but he’s part of the problem, not the solution. They have one, short, love scene and then she’s back to taking care of him. In the second movie, of course, she’s a total badass. She is completely dedicated to what she knows needs to happen even though everyone around her is treating her like she’s crazy. She makes connections, gets weapons, and does everything in her power to not only protect her son, but save the whole world. All while a crazy terminator robot is after her.

Princess Leia was always one of my heroines as a girl. Strong, spunky, and unwilling to allow the men tell her what to do. When they broke her out of her prison, they were clueless. She was the one to take control and save the day. She ended up becoming a general. How cool is that?

And Buffy! What’s not to like about Buffy! She’s smart and funny and can also kick butt! She always does what she wants and often doesn’t even listen to Giles. 🙂

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Donovan Quesenberry June 9, 2017 at 5:05 am

Ditto. Love all those characters, also.

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Sieran June 9, 2017 at 10:00 am

Omg I especially love Sarah Connor! She’s definitely strong in both physical and psychological strength. (But you meant Kyle Reese shows up, not John Connor, right? ^_^)

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Kim B June 9, 2017 at 1:48 pm

Oops! You’re right. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it!

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Donovan Quesenberry June 9, 2017 at 5:29 am

Greetings,

How would you define “strong female character”? Two words. Honor Harrington, an example of a strong woman living only within a series of novels.

What I find most attractive (strong) about Harrington, and/or ladies in real life, is exactly what Kim B wrote above. Ripley is “She’s smart, focused, dedicated to her job”. Those are the type of ladies I work with every day and report to on the job. So I connect with them on the page. Harrington and Ripley would have liked each other, I think. I like both of them.

For those of you ladies who may dismiss the “kick butt” aspect of a strong female character, just remember half of your potential customers are men, so–. Xena: Warrior Princess , Kill Bill, The Iron Lady, Gravity. Salt, Hunger Games–they all kick butt.

Just sayin’. 🙂

Stay Well,
Donovan Quesenberry

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Donovan Quesenberry June 9, 2017 at 5:48 am

Miss Congeniality, Tomb raider, The Blind Side (smart, Christian, and Southern—Oh My!), The Hobbit—the Elf Chick, Anne of Green Gables, Revenge, Harry Potters Hermione, Homeland—Mathison, Nikita, Alias—Bristow, AND I ALMOST FORGOT, Marvel’s Agent Carter—Peggy Carter.

Wait a minute, what were you saying about too few strong female characters? I do think I disagree with you, Jami. “So Few Good Examples” — B*S*. We got lots of GREAT examples of strong women on the written page, in TV, and in Movies. And I pray to God we keep getin’em. I love it. 🙂

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Kim B June 9, 2017 at 7:51 am

I can’t believe I left out Hermione! Harry would never have accomplished everything he did without her.

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Sieran June 9, 2017 at 10:13 am

Yeah I feel like strong female characters aren’t that rare either. Or maybe we were mostly talking about action movies? (I realized later that my examples from Shakespeare’s plays were out of place in this discussion. XD)

Oh, I definitely don’t think there’s anything wrong with ass-kicking girls. 🙂 I believe the worry is that she might be strong ONLY in physical strength/ fighting abilities. But I have to admit that I don’t know many female characters who are only strong physically. Even the Powerpuff Girls aren’t merely tough fighters (not even Buttercup.) Yup, shamelessly talking about cartoons too, lol. And there were one or more Powerpuff Girls movies.

At the same time, I think it’s unfair to the fictional girls that they can’t be strong physically but not emotionally without being criticized. But if it’s a fictional guy, if he’s strong physically but not so strong emotionally, no one bats an eyelid! It’s as though boy characters have more freedom to be whatever they want. For example, I have met many girls in my real life who are physically strong but may be (from what I know) less compassionate and also less emotionally sensitive. I don’t mean any disrespect to them, but I’m just saying that it’s a kind of injustice that we as a society have higher expectations for female characters than for male characters… The very need for the concept a “strong female character” is sad to me as well. We never needed to create a concept called the “strong male character.” 🙁

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Kim B June 9, 2017 at 1:57 pm

My issue with the strong female characters who are there to only be physically strong is that it equates “strong” with traditional masculine strength. A woman whose husband dies and who has to take care of her five children alone and works two jobs to make it happen is strong. But we often discount it as a feminine strength, and not the same as “being strong.” I don’t know if this is making any sense, but that’s how I see it.

We need to identify strength in many more ways than physical strength or the ability to fight. One of the things I liked about Ripley was that she was a female scientist back in the early 80’s. That took strength just to be able to break through the male hierarchy that was the world of scientists.

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Sieran June 11, 2017 at 7:47 am

I agree with you, but I actually think that it should be common sense by now that physical strength is only one type of strength, right? In fact, the people I talk to tend to see emotional, psychological, artistic, intellectual, and other types of strengths as more valuable and hard to come by than physical strength… So yeah, I guess I’m not worried here because I assumed most people were already past the point in believing that physical strength is the only laudable kind. But maybe not.

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Donovan Quesenberry June 21, 2017 at 5:33 am

Gees. I agree with all of you ladies. Over the past 10 days I re-read “Ride the River” by Louis L’Amour. Okay, older book, but the POV character is Echo Sackett, traveling alone in the 1840s along the Ohio River Valley, and trying to figure out how to have her first boyfriend. She is extremely strong, smart, yet vulnerable and naive. I’ve loved the book for a long time. So, again, I don’t think we lack strong, female characters at all. I just think we need more and more of them.

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Julie Glover June 9, 2017 at 6:28 am

I couldn’t read this yesterday morning, because I was seeing the movie in the afternoon! But now that I have, I agree with everything you said here. I especially love that you mentioned how Steve Trevor is portrayed as a hero in his own right. I’ve long said that truly strong men are not threatened by truly strong women; we can recognize our differences and play into our strengths in a way that complements one another.

I’m ready to go see this movie again! And take my husband this time. 🙂

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Laurie Evans June 10, 2017 at 7:32 pm

Great article. I can’t wait to see this movie.

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Pam June 15, 2017 at 2:35 am

Am I the only one who is a bit disappointed by Wonder Woman? Yes, she has some awesome strengths (not just physically), but she feels too strong to me, too perfect. She has bad traits, but they hardly cause her trouble. At one point I was begging Miss WW to make a mistake, just to get rid of that Mary Sue-ish feeling that grew quite strong in me.

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