Why Strong Female Characters In Media Fall Flat

by Eve Andrews
Strong Female Characters

How we depict our fellow humans is changing. The representation of wider demographics is becoming all the more acceptable in mainstream media, with prior inaccurate interpretations being reexamined and adjusted for newer content. This includes the increased desire to see interesting female characters within all forms of fictional media. A sensitive topic, it’s become quite a hotly debated issue. Nevertheless, it has been the catalyst for a lot of change within modern fiction – for better and for worse. Along with the rise of compelling women in fiction who exacerbate strength in thought-provoking, complex ways, there has also been a rise in characters masquerading as the ‘strong, brave, admirable female protagonist’. And yet, when you really start to hash them out, they’re revealed to be disappointingly empty.

Once again, we’ve seen this occur in the newly released Velma series from HBO Max, in which audiences have found what was promised to be a progressive and compelling female protagonist to be absolutely insufferable.

Of course, it’s still not uncommon for a female character to be automatically chalked up as annoying, which is extremely frustrating when done without so much as a second thought. However, what about the times when these claims aren’t entirely unfounded? When hordes of people (women included) all seem to have reached the same conclusion? They just don’t like them. What’s the reason for this? And why is this a problem? 

The first thing I want to clarify is that this is not a rant piece about ‘how our society in this day and age is so backward and small-minded, but I, a middle-class nobody, am so #enlightened, and you should listen to me, blah blah blah’. Because this isn’t the case at all. It’s a classic diva response to say, when a character or story is ill-received, that ‘the audience just didn’t understand them’ and that, somehow, it’s their fault. Too often, though, the problem lies within the manufacturing of content, not with the audience

Women have been misrepresented within fictional media since the beginning of recorded history, a problem that arguably reached a public peak during the dawn of cinema, a platform that perpetuated the ditsy damsel in distress trope to a ridiculous degree. Now, over a century later, media outlets are seeking to change that – and that’s great! But is it possible to go too hard in the opposite direction? Short answer? Yes. 

Let me explain. Although it can feel a tad more transparent, classic cinema tropes don’t do men many favours either. There’s a deeply familiar depiction of men being the big, buff, heroes, there to save the damsel without so much as flinching as they dance through unimaginable danger with a dashing grins on their face. Most people would be scared when it comes to some of the situations these characters are thrown into, but for a big, brave man? Never. Fear is for the weak

How many gentlemen can truly relate to that? Not too many, I’d wager.

Take a character like the 1960s James Bond, for example. He sails through relentless deadly peril, swaggering from one sexual conquest to the next, all with perfectly oiled hair and a self-satisfied smirk on his face – just because he can. No other reason. He just can. Okay, he’s strong, we get it, but what else? Now, place him next to a character like Constable Ichabod Crane from Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. Fearful and desperately squeamish, we see him thrown into a situation crawling with ghosts and gore – everything he hates. But, motivated by a strong sense of justice and morality that he developed as a result of his childhood, he makes a conscious effort to force himself through it all, his sights ever set on his eventual goal. Sure, you often catch him gagging in disgust as he recoils in the face of blood and danger, and he faints a few times from sheer unbridled terror, but he willingly battles on anyway. He consciously places mind over matter in favour of sticking to his values. Now that’s interesting! And a much more genuine depiction of strength, if you ask me.

Now, much like the various demeaning tropes that women have been constrained to, these dull archetypes frequently assigned to male characters rob them of their individuality and, in extreme cases, their humanity. And it’s the frequent failure to recognise this that’s leading to yet another growing problem with the depiction of women in fictional media today. 

Rather than crafting complex, human personalities with fears, flaws and disadvantages, the ‘strong female character’ archetype is becoming little more than a simple role reversal, under the pretext that showing the woman is capable of measuring up to the man is enough – but it isn’t. Why? Because this takes everything we don’t like about the poorly written, two-dimensional male characters, simply plastering them with long hair and lipstick and calling it a day. This results in cold, apathetic female characters, who walk around unprovokedly sassing everyone and smashing things up just to prove that they’re tough. Sound familiar? Now picture these exact same traits in a male character. Still sound familiar? Exactly.

Now, I’m not saying that a female character like this will be inherently bad – there are plenty of ways you could make it work. But what doesn’t make it work is presenting it as some sort of goal; that strength alone is enough to make any character compelling. 

Now, in the same spirit as earlier when we stood our male heroes, Mr Bond and Constable Crane, side by side, let’s take a look at two ladies who also represent two very different interpretations of strength – one of which is vastly more appealing than the other. This time, I want to draw your attention to Bo-Peep from Pixar’s Toy Story 4 and Luisa from Disney’s Encanto, both of whom were written with the intention of being strong female characters. However, when writing these two lovely ladies, it was Encanto that came out on top (trust me, as a raging Pixar fan, it pains me to point this out). 

Ever since her first appearance in 1995s Toy Story, Bo-Peep was depicted as a gentle, soft-spoken lady with a mild manner and a kind heart. However, when Toy Story 4 was released in 2019, Bo-Peep’s character underwent a sudden shift, her voice lowered by several octaves and swapping out her pink, frilly dress for a pair of blue trousers – because removing her femininity makes her strong, right? She became an expert in parkour, notably more extroverted and quite mean-spirited at times. A rather brow-raising departure from what she used to be. Now, this could have been interesting if this had been presented as a gradually developed change, with Bo-Peep having to adapt her personality in order to survive alone in the big, bad world. But instead, they tried to make out that she was always like that, attempting to erase her previous character entirely. Insulting, if anything, as they essentially just called their audience stupid. Once again, it stems from the age-old idea that toughness is the only worthwhile virtue when it comes to how we interpret strength.

The character of Luisa from 2020’s Encanto, on the other hand, completely flips the script on this – in terms of brute force, this lady could run Mr Bond into the ground with her left pinky! Yet she makes a point of not wanting this to be her defining trait. In fact, her physical strength is so used and abused and all-consuming in terms of her outward identity that she’s shown to be teetering on the edge of resenting it. She even had a whole banger of a musical number dedicated to these internal struggles! Luisa loves and takes pride in her exceptional abilities, but there’s more to her than her physical strength alone, and that’s something that she desperately wishes other people would see.

No one talked about Bo-Peep after the release of Toy Story 4, while Luisa went on to be one of the most memorable, well-loved characters in Encanto, with many older siblings identifying with her struggles on a deeply personal level – sisters, in particular.

There are endless other examples I could sit and witter on about but, for those who made it this far, you probably get the picture. Swapping out one lazy form of writing for another doesn’t work. Yes, women can be tough, exceptional, and physically powerful. But physical strength alone isn’t a personality. Every person, regardless of gender, has fears, flaws and weaknesses. Erasing all unflattering and imperfect traits turns them into little more than a bland vision of the unattainable.

What’s even worse is peppering these visions with negatives masquerading as positives. I don’t care what’s between your legs; needlessly smashing up other people’s property doesn’t make you ‘tough’, and treating everyone around you like trash beneath your feet doesn’t make you ‘sassy’ – it makes you a prat. End of. The same principle applies to fictional characters. If you want them to be a prat, then go for it! Dislikeable characters absolutely have a role to play in fiction. If not, though, and you want your strong female character to connect with your audience on some level, and this is your current base? It might be time for a redraft.

Okay, let’s end all this on a positive note! Despite this growing issue, there are nevertheless so many well-written female characters out there that deserve more appreciation – so who are some of your favourites? Let us know your picks in the comment section below, or head over to the Wild River Comics Discussion Club!

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