Fierce Femmes: The Problem with Strong Female Characters

As a young film buff, I idolized Strong Female Characters in movies. From Thelma and Louise to Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley, I saw engaging female characters who led their own plotlines, rather than being the “sexy lamp” that feminist film critics talk about.

Despite recent fanboy complaints, Strong Female Characters are nothing new in TV shows and films. It is true that in many blockbusters of the ’80s and ’90s, women and girls had a secondary role, though, and so any woman shown with both physical and moral strength, wit, and ingenuity was very exciting for me to see.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve started to question what made these characters “strong.” I’ve also paid close attention to what male critics and fanboys are saying about these characters. And I’ve realized that many Strong Female Characters still aren’t as fully fleshed out as their male equivalents.

First, let’s take a look at some male characters who have gripped the popular imagination.

Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) of Back to the Future is a well-developed character who embarks on complex adventures, while facing personal challenges such as bullying and questions of his own potential. He’s likable, unique, and smart. Elliott (Henry Thomas) of E.T. is a bit of an outcast with a complicated home life, but discovers more about himself through his interaction with E.T. The Goonies celebrates bonds of friendship among a band of boys who encounter a larger-than-life experience; a similar premise appears in throwback series Stranger Things. All of these stories revolve around the boys’ spirit and friendship ties in the face of grand adventure, thus positioning them as the classic folk heroes: those whose cleverness, survival skills, and moral integrity enable them to win the day.

Whether it’s hanging from helicopters or crawling through ducts, action heroes take folk heroes to the next level. Han Solo (Harrison Ford) straddles the science fiction and fantasy genres, representing the quintessential folk hero in the space opera Star Wars. On Earth, John McClane (Bruce Willis) in Die Hard is the everyman hero who saves his friends from terrorists, while David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) of Independence Day is the brilliant cable guy who outsmarts the aliens. Indeed, countless disaster films also featured male protagonists, often everyday folk who brave extreme danger, have a convenient skillset, and get the girl while fighting terrorists/aliens/volcanoes/giant bugs — the badass. Meanwhile, Arnold Schwarzenegger frequently played the epitome of Ultra Ripped Badass, a mantle recently acquired by Dwayne Johnson. All of these characters are shown to be funny or witty, with moral fiber even if they make some questionable choices, and ultimately so tenacious and, ahem, ballsy, that they triumph.

Now, let’s look at some Strong Female Characters.

I’m sure you guessed, but…SPOILERS AHEAD.

One major problem with Strong Female Characters is that they often have masculine traits. That’s not bad in and of itself, but why do we associate strength of character with physical strength? To be interpreted as a Badass, a Strong Female Character often is shown as ripped, wearing masculine clothing, or even bald. Consider Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in Terminator 2, Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in Mad Max: Fury Road, or Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien 3 (more on that later). Moreover, Strong Female Characters often don’t have a romantic interest or liaison, or if they do, it’s not going to work out. This is because women who are masculine are thought to be lesbians or unattractive to men or both. In film and TV, this translates into a simple lack of romance or sex for the Strong Female Character, with an unspoken assumption that women who would want such a thing are not Strong. Why must female characters sacrifice love to be strong?

As a costumer, I do dig the aesthetic of 18th- and 19th century clothing, especially for women. For practicality of fighting female characters, one must make some modifications.

In Pirates of the Caribbean, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) dons a corset — popular in London, she’s told — only to have it ripped off after a near drowning. Elizabeth evolves from a damsel-in-distress to a damsel-causing-distress, but the damsel aspect fades. Even masquerading as a man at one point, Elizabeth becomes increasingly tomboyish in her looks and behavior throughout the series. Elizabeth is the Strong Character who almost rivals Jack Sparrow in attitude (sorry, Will). And she is a woman, as the constant ogling reminds us, so she is a Strong Female Character.

Elizabeth’s complicated identity in a (very) complicated plot (or rather, a tangle of Christmas tree lights) somewhat occludes her relatability. What is the point of a Strong Character if they can’t be an idol for young viewers? What particularly is the point of a Strong Female Character whose character growth is shown as a shedding of femininity?

Yet Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) of Van Helsing is unequivocally feminine. She fights monsters and seeks to avenge her brother, all in a corset and heeled boots! She may be unrealistically beautiful, but her impressive stunts cement her status as a Strong Female Character. More importantly, her moral fiber, devotion to her cause, and relentless fighting on behalf of others marks her as a folk hero, especially with her sacrificial demise, while Elizabeth is more of a tomboyish Disney princess who gets the guy only to lose him to the sea.

Joss Whedon famously responded to the question, “Why do you write such strong female characters?” with “Because you’re still asking me that question” (although that’s the end of a long comment). Whedon’s universe of works, including his creations, Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse, along with films such as Cabin in the Woods and The Avengers, aim to have a relatively mixed group of characters. Rather than the four-to-one ratio often seen in the science fiction and fantasy genres, Whedon regularly has equal numbers of male and female characters — and yes, women are often in charge. However, his Strong Female Characters have some problems.

Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is undeniably strong — physically. And she’s a well-developed character. Over the course of the series, you learn her positive traits, such as her wit, devotion to her family and friends, and street smarts, but also her negative ones: her arrogance, her lack of curiosity, her problematic relationships. She epitomizes the Strong Female Character to many — but at what cost? She is unable to sustain a healthy relationship. The one relationship portrayed as “normal,” with Riley (Marc Blucas), is somewhat codependent at times, toxic at others, ultimately selfish on her part. Is the Strong Female Character doomed to live without a romantic or sexual relationship?

Moreover, Buffy’s successes are rather short-term. She regularly dispatches vampires and demons, but when it comes to Big Bads, she stumbles, only saved by her friends, affectionately called The Scoobies.

In fact, it’s often a male character who saves the day. Buffy succumbs to the Master and drowns. Xander (Nicholas Brendan) revives her. Buffy can only defeat Adam when she magically joins forces with Xander, Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), and Willow (Alyson Hannigan). Willow goes dark and Giles is the only one who can bring sufficient magic to challenge her; in the end, only Xander can talk her down. At the conclusion of the series, it’s Spike (James Marsters) who destroys the Hellmouth. Buffy’s only sole victories in stopping an apocalypse are in killing Angelus (David Boreanaz) and, later, killing herself.

Buffy admits that she has been lucky, very lucky, and largely due to her friends’ support, but it is interesting that the ostensible heroine, a Strong Female Character, is not only so prone to stumbling and despair when it comes to men, but often loses only to have her male companions play an instrumental role in achieving “her” victory.

As many have pointed out, the Strong Female Characters in Whedon’s works are also quite susceptible to sexual violence. At least on Game of Thrones, the female characters’ arcs enjoy a period of growth after sexual violence, but in Buffy and Angel, such violence is almost incidental. Don’t get me wrong: Buffy explores the dark side of high school and college sexual violence in episodes such as “Go Fish,” “The Pack,” and “Reptile Boy.” But those incidents are just that, and none of the characters question some of the problematic attitudes they have towards their sexual partners. Indeed, toxic relationships and acts of violence in sexual relationships are somewhat normalized on the show, even romanticized, as in Buffy and Angel’s highly problematic relationship. Willow violates Tara’s (Amber Benson) mind through magic. Despite this egregious act, we’re meant to cheer when they get back together. Spike’s attempted rape of Buffy becomes the hingepoint of his personal growth, not hers.

On Angel, Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) is twice impregnated by a demon, and the second time leads to her death. To that show’s credit, it doesn’t shy away from the problems of Cordelia and Connor’s (Vincent Kartheiser) vaguely incestuous liaison, and in fact makes their sexual encounter a major plot point. Many fans were appalled, which is exactly the reaction one should have. Unlike on Buffy, neither character really grows from that point; their arcs plunge to their deaths, in the form of a memory wipe for Connor and a fatal coma for Cordelia. At least there’s gender equality in all of that.

The Strong Female Characters on Buffy and Angel are highly flawed, albeit well-developed, and border on being anti-heroes. It’s curious, then, that Whedon is so often lauded for his Strong Female Characters. Although physically or magically strong, they don’t match the folk hero archetype deployed in their male equivalents, and often, their flaws are presented as primary to their being, while the deep flaws of Xander, Giles, Angel, and Spike surface only in some episodes and they, more often than not, end up saving the day. Perhaps we should praise Whedon for offering Flawed Female Characters in equal numbers to Male Folk Heroes.

Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) was a hero to this young dino fan. In a primarily male cast, she stood out as a Strong Female Character who took no bullshit and happily dug in massive piles of dino poo to help diagnose a sick Triceratops. Dressed in boots, shorts, and an adorable salmon-colored top, Ellie was a scientist first and sexy character second; her blond hair and good looks were secondary to her intelligence and, as Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) observes, tenacity.

Steven Spielberg expanded Ellie’s role in Jurassic Park, noting that she didn’t have much to do in the book, where she is identified as Alan Grant’s graduate student. Her relationship with Alan (Sam Neill) is somewhat mysterious in the film, with clear sexual interest and a single shot of him caressing her butt. She happily flirts with Ian, who later asks Alan if she’s available, only to be swiftly shot down by a defensive Alan. While other movies might have shown Ellie falling into Alan’s arms at the end, the closing scene is much more subtle, suggesting that as Alan’s views on children have changed, Ellie might be interested in having children with him. The Strong Female Character is not a prize to be won by the male hero, but rather an individual with her own goals and desires.

However, despite Spielberg’s efforts, Ellie still occupies the background for much of the film. She’s absent from some of the film’s most riveting scenes, often stuck indoors while she worries about everyone else (and raptors). She has no moments in which her skills and wit allow her to triumph; rather, she screams and runs a lot. In fact, it’s the girl, Lex (Ariana Richards), who hacks the park’s systems to help the group escape. Lex is also better developed, with her quirks such as her vegetarianism and self-described “hacker” identity contributing to the progression of the story. Still, both are Strong Female Characters, moreso because their identities are not reduced in complexity for the sake of showing them as strong or masculine.

I recently read a piece here on Medium praising Jurassic World for not succumbing to “PC culture” by having a Strong Female Character. Indeed, a recurring complaint about the movie was that its icy deuteragonist, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), is shown running in heels and a skirt. The costume choice seemed impractical or sexist to some, affirming to others who seemed to really enjoy seeing a woman run in ultra-feminine clothing. In the sequel, she dresses more practically. However, no one could say that she was less feminine and it’s hard to overlook Bryce Dallas Howard’s stunningly beautiful face.

Claire, however, is more of a Strong Female Character because she is not masculinized simply for practicality. It makes perfect sense for a professional woman who doesn’t expect to venture out into the wilderness from her air-conditioned existence to be caught in a dino maelstrom with heels and a skirt. Although she is certainly out of her element, she adapts quickly, even braving a T-rex at the climax of the film. Even though her status as the male protagonist’s love interest is played for comedy, she retains her own identity, and indeed, portraying her as a sexless Strong Female Character would have been a poor choice. The sexual dynamic between Claire and Owen adds a human reality to a film that relishes in epic scenes featuring hungry dinosaurs.

Full disclosure: I deeply admire Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and I love the Alien films. Ripley is the no-nonsense badass I’ve always dreamed to be, and I can’t help but cheer at “Get away from her, you bitch.”

Ripley isn’t particularly physically strong, but she is a Strong Female Character for the sheer force of her personality…wait. Ripley is a background character for much of the first film, which portrays Dallas (Tom Skerritt) as the good-looking hero among a band of gruff misfits. Ripley’s almost annoying, in fact, coolly citing protocol while the rest of the team helps the ill-fated Kane (John Hurt). Ripley seems to be unsympathetic, more concerned with following the rules than Kane’s plight or any sort of team spirit. By the end of the film, Ripley is the last woman standing, largely due to her cautious attitude and technological know-how. And yet, you don’t really have a sense of who she is besides “survivor.”

It’s in Aliens, directed by James Cameron, purveyor of Strong Female Characters, that Ripley is shown to be a defiant and capable fighter. She’s given a love interest, Hicks (Michael Biehn), and she learns to fight with everything from a machine gun to a mechanical loader suit. She’s also shown to have a maternal side, and in a deleted scene, learns about the fate of her daughter, who passed way while Ripley was preserved in hypersleep. This backstory explains Ripley’s immediate protectiveness toward Newt, a young orphan she finds. Indeed, the relationship between Ripley and Newt is a driving force of the film, thankfully moreso than the romantic interest.

Alien 3 plunges Ripley into a male-only prison. In both of the two very different versions of this film, Ripley sheds her lovely curls as per protocol, but it has the effect of de-feminizing and de-sexualizing her, right? Nope, Ripley enjoys a liaison with Clemens (Charles Dance), and in the film’s famous shot of the Xenomorph’s face next to hers, Ripley is neither feminized nor masculinized…simply tested. She prevails. Alien 3 offers multiple moments at which other films would have prodded a Strong Female Character (or any female character) into a position of neutrality and artificiality, whether in bravado or iciness. Instead, Ripley is brutally tested by violent prisoners, the Xenomorph, and questions about her own future — yet never loses her stubborn will or ability to throw shade. It’s in Alien 3 that Ripley’s personality is finally developed for us.

Later films in the series also have featured female leads, but Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) in Prometheus is a Strong Female Character who falls into many of the aforementioned pitfalls. She’s portrayed as cool and disinterested, she has a minimal personality, and she’s impregnated by a monster. In contrast, Daniels (Katherine Waterston) in Covenant is given a human touch: near the beginning of the film, she screams in agony when her husband dies. She’s feminine yet tough and clever, and her arc involves the discovery of her own potential. She also gets a badass moment fighting off a queen Xenomorph. Die, bitch!

But really, there’s no comparison to Ripley, the ultimate Strong Female Character who absolutely deserves your applause.

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Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list:

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