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?