Fiction, Literature, Movies, Reading, Television, Writing

STRONG female characters? How about we just write better.

This is a post I’d been working on for about two weeks before the new Doctor was announced, which I wrote about last week. I bumped up this post today as I think it ties in well about our changing view of female characters.

Strong female characters, or the lack thereof, has been a hot topic over the last decade. But I think the need for ‘strong’ female characters has been misinterpreted of late. Strong doesn’t mean action hero.

Alcott’s original illustration of Jo March

A ‘strong’ female character has to be as multifaceted as her male counterparts. A male hero over the course of the movie can be many things; boyfriend or husband or father, and a diligent CIA agent, a good mate to one and all, and the gun-toting action hero who’s the saviour of the world.

Unfortunately, the female lead will often fall into one type. She’s the hero’s mother, girlfriend, wife and there to support or be the motivation behind the male hero’s development. She’s there for a thematic purpose. The hero must put his goal ahead of her; resisting her allure will allow him to save the world. Or he needs to save her from the bad guy, thereby achieving his redemption in the eyes of the audience.

The actress Maisie Williams (I’m a huge fan) once said in an interview:

When you get a script they always include a sentence or two about the character, something like – Jason: 36, strong, built, quick, witty and a description of his personality. Then there’s his girlfriend – Sarah: hot, blonde. And that’s it! ‘Hot looking but in a cute way.’ That’s your character!

Radio Times 

Here’s another example from the script of the Matrix Reloaded:

The Merovingian smiles, gesturing to them. He is a perfectly preserved mature man who speaks with a French accent. There is a sharpness that extends through every part of him, from the cut of his suit to his razor-thin smile; he is like a surgeon’s blade.

Beside him is his wife Persephone; sex and death squeezed into a woman’s business suit made of latex.

In other words, a ‘strong’ female character is simply a well-written character. A female character who isn’t ‘strong’ is a badly written character. For example, Tony Stark’s character from the Marvel films (not to mention the comics) is a genius, vain, arrogant, alcoholic, indomitable, loyal and caring (in his own unique way) with real weaknesses like daddy and abandonment issues. Whereas female characters are ‘strong’. It’s enough to make you scream.

So whether it’s intentional or otherwise, there are key issues with the portrayal of women in popular movies which prevents her from becoming a well-rounded character:

  • Damsel in distress
    Damsel in distress! Chivalry by Frank Bernard Dicksee

    We all know this one. Screaming lady tied to train tracks. Your Princess is in another castle. The macho male hero must rescue her. It’s as old as the silver screen itself, not to mention literature!

  • Trinity Syndrome
    Named after Trinity from the Matrix movies, these are female characters who are introduced as kickass characters, but after their first scene, they are relegated to a minor role, become nothing but a support for the male lead. Another example is Wyldstyle from The Lego Movie.
  • Theme vehicles
    Often female characters can be included in a plot because they’re driving an important theme or message in the plot. Men have to prove themselves to their woman, usually by taking on the message the women are embodying.
  • Bechdel–Wallace test
    This is an interesting idea created by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel. In order for a film portray women in a positive way, it must fulfil the below three requirements:

    • The movie has to have at least two women in it
    • who talk to each other,
    • about something besides a man

Now, the Bechdel-Wallace test is pretty controversial so I won’t dwell on it too much here. I might do a future post on it. But using these criteria is it interesting and a little concerning to realise the movies which fail this test. For more info, check out this website.

But despite the gloom and doom, I don’t think things are as dire as people like to claim. The fact is, they are out there, our well-written female heroines. Are there as many of them as there are males? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean they’re non-existent.


7 thoughts on “STRONG female characters? How about we just write better.”

  1. I love the inclusion of the Bechdel-Wallace test and how shocking it is that the majority of films/ tv shows can fail such a simple standard!

    However, the Trinity Syndrome is a light-bulb moment for me;- I had no idea it was a concept! To me, it feels like its a way for the Powers that Be to claim ‘look at this fierce female character!’ when in reality it’s one trick pony and marketing technique so they can pretend they tried?

    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so true and unfortunately rampant. Look at Valka in How to Train Your Dragon – completely kick ass character introduced as a supreme trainer of dragons – despite her entrance, her only part in the movie is to be the missing mum/wife and to give Hiccup the pep talk. Also Black Widow in the Avengers movie – an incredible character and yet she’s only there to look sexy while fighting and be Bruce Banner’s love interest. It’s a pity. Glad you liked the post!


    1. Glad you enjoyed it! Keep creating your female characters – the more brilliant examples we have, the easier it will be to create more!


  2. I love the points you brought up in this post. Making multi-faceted characters is so much more important than getting hung up on their gender. Cardboard cutout characters are a weakness in any story, like you said.

    Liked by 2 people

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