Silhouette of woman in forest

Female Characters Need to Be More Than Just “Strong”

Last night, Carly and I sat down to watch The Incredible Hulk (we’re watching our way through the Marvel Cinematic Universe right now because we’ve each only seen like, four Marvel movies tops). It was an okay movie. Not terrible, not amazing, but one of the things that irked both of us was the (lack of) female representation. There is one (1) important female character in that movie. Betty Ross is supposedly a very intelligent cellular biologist, but do we ever get to see her using her badass science knowledge to accomplish anything? Nope. Is she reduced completely to a plot device to deepen Bruce Banner’s character? You betcha.

I left that movie with a sour taste in my mouth, wishing that Betty had been afforded the same privileges as every man in that story. A chance to show her capabilities and talents. An opportunity to have more than one dimension, a backstory, strengths and weaknesses. Complexity. To be honest, it pissed me off. Because, as a woman, aren’t I defined by more than just my relationship to a man?

Now, this movie is over a decade old now, and there has been real movement in both Hollywood and literature to step up and change this. We’ve seen franchises that were previously dominated by white men have women and people of colour at the forefront. We’ve seen female characters who were previously forced to hide during the battle scenes, step forward and wield the knife.

But we’re not there yet.

Don’t get me wrong. I adore Wonder Woman and Rey, Inej and Katniss. These characters are complex and offer depth to the idea of nuanced female protagonists, but when these characters are discussed, we often gloss over all of that. We don’t talk about how Katniss struggles with PTSD but still fights her way through each day, or how Rey shows moments of kindness and compassion when faced with complete darkness. We talk only of their physical strength, of the qualities that make them ‘badass’.

It does an incredible disservice to women to say that the only way we can be strong is if we can drive a knife through someone’s ribs without batting an eyelash or if we can strike a punching bag hard enough to send it swinging. Are characters like this strong? Absolutely. But they are not the only ones.

What about the women who use their words and wits as weapons? Who paint their lips red and put on heels to step on the hearts of their enemies? Or the ones who leave their faces bare and wear kicks as they stroll through the day without letting anyone tear them down?

What about the women who cry themselves to sleep at night, but still gather the courage to face their inner demons when the morning comes? Who fight just to make it through the day without breaking? Or the ones who have felt the dark grips of depression or anxiety and have clawed their way out again, even if they slip occasionally?

What about the women who wash blood from their hands and cry into the sink over the life they’ve just had to strip away? Who lift a blade or gun with care and reverence. Or who refuse to pick one up altogether?

What about the women who are the strength in their family? Who pick up the pieces of their partner when everything else is shattering around them? Or the ones who have the strength to leave?

What about the women who embody every one of these things and more at different points in their lives?

We are complex. We contain multitudes. We are deserving of more than just characters that show us physical strength.

Because Starr Carter doesn’t charge across a World War I battlefield, but she is just as powerful as Wonder Woman. And when Inej mourns for a stolen childhood, that doesn’t make her weak. In fact, weakness makes us strong. It is in those moments of weakness where we find our humanity, where we dig down and find the strength to carry on.

I think we have a duty as creators to think about this as we build characters, regardless of gender. When we reduce our female characters to one dimension, everyone suffers. We need to break the mould. We need to craft characters who are both hard and soft, strong and weak, intelligent and foolish, careful and impulsive. We need more nuance.

What are some qualities that you look out for in strong female characters? Do you have any recommendations for books, movies, TV shows, video games (seriously, anything) that handle nuance well? Reach out in the comments or on social media to let us know! We’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. We’re always eager to listen and learn.

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