For those of you who weren’t readers of YA back then, the early 2000s were filled with female protagonists who were bland and defenseless. I’d call them damsels in distress, but damsels usually have more personality. These girls were blank slates. You know, the Bella Swans of the world. An empty void for the reader to step into and watch passively as everything goes to shit around them. It had become an epidemic. Where were all the positive role models for teen girls?
The answer came in the late 2000s: the Strong Female Character! These characters are better than their predecessors because they can fight. They’re warriors. The problem is, once you peel back that layer of badassery… you find a slate pretty much as blank as the damsels. It seems writers believe that physical strength is interchangeable with being a strong character. Unfortunately, they are mistaken. And now we’ve got characters like Aelin Galathynius from Throne of Glass and Fallon from The Valiant. Sure, they’re tough, but there’s not much more to them.
When we asked for strong female characters, we meant strongly written. This means writing well-rounded characters with strengths and weaknesses, specialties and flaws. In essence, characters that feel like people. If I can’t tell you anything about a character other than the fact that she fights good, you’ve failed just as badly as your predecessors.
What’s more, this shift is lauded under the guise of feminism. “Hey, look! This girl can kick ass as well as any man! Better, even! She is now a feminist icon!” That’s not what feminism is. That’s not what equality is. They’ve put value on the wrong thing. These characters tell us that the only way women can be equal to men is if we fight as well as they do. As if that’s the only thing that matters.
A feminist story would be one where the female and male characters work together as a team, utilizing all their strengths. A feminist story would revolve around a well-rounded character, treated with care and detail. Being good at fighting isn’t synonymous with feminism. And writers— especially YA writers and television or movie writers with young audiences— would do well to remember that.
Along with making these Strong Female Characters excellent fighters, they also eschew femininity. Any girl who likes dresses or fawns over boys is beneath her. Hey, writers! You know the easiest way to tell if your character is or isn’t feminist? Does she hate on other girls for no reason but to make herself look better? Guess what! She’s not feminist. Bringing other girls down accomplishes nothing and just makes unity harder among women. How can we ever expect men to respect us if we can’t even respect each other?
Now, some authors have tried to circumvent this. Aelin loves pretty dresses. So does Alosa Kalligan from Daughter of the Pirate King. But herein lies the distinction between them. Sure, Aelin loves pretty dresses and puppies, but she still looks down on other women. She spends an entire book belittling Kaltain for being a society girl and berates Lysandra for being a prostitute (an occupation she was forced into as a child, by the way). Aelin likes “girly” things, but hates girls.
Alosa, on the other hand, has an entire pirate crew made up of women. She’s given them positions based on their strengths and values each and every one of them. She revels in being around other women. At the end of the day, she’d leave all the pretty dresses in the world behind for her crew. You see, it doesn’t matter if a warrior character also likes “girly” things if it doesn’t extend to who she is as a character. It’s inconsequential and clearly only there to circumvent the claim that these Strong Female Characters hate “feminine” things.
Ultimately, the Strong Female Character is just as much of an empty vessel as the damsels of yore. It doesn’t matter who she is, as long as she knows how to kill a man. Any good character— female or not— is complex. Why? Because humans are complex. And, no matter what world your story takes place in, no matter what medium, all stories are ultimately about humanity. If we can’t see ourselves in your characters, you’ve failed as a writer.