I Hate Strong Female Characters

Sabrina ZbasnikGuest Post
by S.E. Zbasnik

Like nonplussed and literally, the phrase “strong female character” has come to mean its antithesis. When people hear it, they picture a full fleshed out woman with her own wants and desires. What they get is a woman in a mini skirt and thigh high boots that occasionally punches people.

But, that strong female character cannot actually save the day. Her entire existence is for the main male hero. She may be spunky, and sassy, and is always met beating up some guys; but the second she teams up with MMH (main male hero) she abandons everything in her life to help him on his quest. She may even get captured and forget how to fight, allowing the MMH to do all the cool stuff while she waits around in a metal bikini.

Strong female character is a buzzword. People know it’s something audiences want, so they bandy it around. Have a female character? Well, she’s a strong female character!

We’ll give them a woman who’s trained her entire life to become a ninja chimney sweep. She’s forsaken friends, love, and a normal life to master the secrets of ninja chimney sweeping. She’s harsh, but witty, with a short fuse for those who waste her time. But this story won’t have a damn thing to do with her. No, it has to be about a white guy, mid 20’s, with a bit of a potbelly who is a screw up.

But this guy is destined to be the great ninja chimney sweep hero. You can’t argue. It’s destiny. Rather than the girl using her lifetime of awesomeness to defeat the dust monster clogging up the lungs of Earth, she must lose two to three weeks of her life training a perpetual loser. It makes tactical sense to send an untrained and untested rookie instead of the person who devoted her life to it.

It’s the “girls can’t save the world” trope. She may be confident, she may be talented, she may be terrifying beyond anything the villain can imagine, but she cannot save the galaxy. Only boys can do that. So they take that female character and relegate her to the prize waiting for the real hero to return once he’s finished falling into winning. Sure, she has a backstory and even a bit of autonomy, but it means jack squat when all she gets to do with that characterization is stand around waiting for a male to save the day.

Yet, the creators can run around screaming, “Look, we made a strong female character.” She can punch really hard. She won’t need any rescuing. She won’t do any saving either, but that’s not important. All that matters is we made one. We didn’t use one, but we made her.

That is not enough. Boys grow up watching men save the galaxy, but you can’t let a woman do it? Even if it’s part of an ensemble, she’s relegated to the half-naked hottie that goes along with whatever the leader wants. It’s a guy who’s the comic relief, a guy who’s the muscle, a guy who saves the galaxy. The girl waits around for a kiss and punches a few baddies, but not too many. We don’t want to emasculate the hero.

This is the fear with every strong female character. If we let her be too impressive, do too much on her own, then she won’t need a man to save her. What if she wanted one? She wanted one for his friendship, or his humor, or because he treated her like a person instead of a pile of sexy body parts? Impossible! Give her a stick to swing around, put her in a bikini, and call it a role model for little girls. Done!

This isn’t even touching upon the idea that not all strong women beat people up. Tactics, cunning, or emotional manipulation can a powerful woman make; but, in order for that to happen, a woman would have to be smarter than a man. We’re right back to emasculation terror. Maybe she knows some secret ninja woman moves that allow her to take out a few bad guys. That’s acceptable. But outsmarting a man? Unthinkable!

Girls must be shown as lesser than boys, even when people swear up and down that they’re not by hiding behind “it’s a strong female character.” To admit that women can be as capable as men is too terrifying for the average writing crop to admit.

That’s why I hate strong female characters, who are anything but.

S.E. Zbasnik published three fantasy books. Tin Hero and TerraFae follow a female heroine on a classic fantasy quest to mess with some elves and crack jokes along the way. Her most recent book is The King’s Blood. It’s got some magic, it’s got some witches, it’s got a black heroine in a medieval setting, and it has more puns per cubic meter than a clown car. Zbasnik has a Bachelors in Animal Science with a focus upon genetics, putting her one step closer to finishing that monktopi army. Learn more about her on her blog and at her Amazon Author Central page.

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39 thoughts on “I Hate Strong Female Characters”

  1. ROFLMAO!!!!!! Sorry but that was absolutely priceless. I can’t for the life of me think of a woman who saves the galaxy in print [it’s late and I’m tired], but Ripley of Alien movie fame does spring to mind. I saw it as a young woman of 20-something and have been inspired ever since. Sadly aliens are a little thin on the ground.

    Thanks for challenging us all to be a little more courageous – in our writing if nothing else.

    1. Then read my trilogy. The second and third books have just that — a female character, real and with weaknesses, but called to saver her world, without a strong male to beat her to it. Oh I feel like crowing now. Woo hoo. I bucked the trend. 😀

    1. Interesting. This gets done a bit. (Not as much as changing characters’ races even if the result is preposterous) In “Thick As Thieves” the male cop was changed to a woman pretty much for no other reason than for her to be a “tough guy” that the male role in the novel didn’t do.

  2. So true. Many of the women portrayed in so-called successful commercial novels are cardboard representations of real women. One or two dimensional females hover on the periphery of so many of these stories. They’re too often window dressing. I love reading about complicated women, and not necessarily strong women either, but female characters with a lot of layers.

  3. Argh. I share your sentiments, but now I have the phrase, “hate the player, not the game” stuck in my head, and I hate *that* phrase.

    I wince whenever one of my enthusiastic readers uses the phrase “strong female character” in their reviews, because I fear that potential readers are going to feel as you do, and dismiss it with skepticism. And yet, I cannot fault their choice of words. The description fits. As with the word literally, there are just as many responsible users as abusers, if not more.

    Both my novels have ensemble casts, and in both plots, the women win the day. Not that the male protagonists are passive, far from it, but their arcs run in parallel or in partnership, not in the rutted path of “savior and trophy princess.” An admin assistant who hates exercise, and a physical therapist with confidence issues are hardly gung-ho superheroines, but their decisions drive the action.

    Yes, “strong female character” has become a code to some. To marketers, it may mean, “Sassy, kick-ass female who inexplicably waits on the trophy shelf while the boys play.” I agree that readers and consumers of visual media should judge for themselves whether it’s used accurately, but please, I beg you, do judge. Don’t dismiss, even if it does make a great, catchy headline.

  4. An excellent post, S.B., and I agree with you. This is a major problem in speculative fiction in particular. Publishers don’t want to alienate the guys who read the books and watch the movies, so the women characters are relegated to supporting roles and given very little to do. Why doesn’t Black Widow have her own Avengers-spinoff movie franchise? You do the math.

    One of the things I appreciate about urban fantasy is that women characters *can* save the world without wearing sexy outfits (except on the covers — eyeroll) or deferring to some guy. And one of the things I most appreciate about being an indie is that I can write whatever I want. 🙂

    1. Ummmm…. most book buyers are women. The best-selling genres are read mostly or almost exclusively by women. Why would publishers worry what men, rather than women, think of the female characters.
      I’d say a big problem here is not really realizing what “strong” means. Hell I’VE read plenty of books with strong female characters, and seen films, too. I’d suggest that she check out
      “Alien”, “Head In The Clouds”, (hell, almost anything with Charlize Theron in it), “Terminator 2”. “Juno”, “Erin Brockovich”, “Snow White and Huntress”…

  5. o.k playing devils advocate here. I can’t speak for mainstream writers, Hollywood movies or even whats popular. What I can talk about is what we wrote. We have a strong female character who saves our guy several times over. Where does it say if you have a strong female character she doesn’t need a man or a partner? why can’t she fall in love, get dressed up,, be girly. Women are more than one dimension. Yes our book is called Kai’s Journey but Clover has just as much going on in the books as the main character. Did it start out that way? no, we are a pantser writing team. If you have a strong male character, does that mean he doesn’t need a woman or a partner? heck no. We are indie authors and that’s probably why, we do have a strong female character who can be a woman too.

    1. No reason she can’t dress in pretty clothes and fall in love. I don’t think that’s the part being objected to. It’s being inappropriately dressed for the job she’s on and having her become the damsel in distress as if she’s amnesia and forgotten all her kick-ass skills as soon as a man is in the picture that I believe is the complaint. I know it’s my complaint with many books.

  6. I agree that this is a discouraging trend. Some things take far too long to change. You are correct that this is the case on most instances. Yet, there are now books that DO have genuinely strong female characters who do not wimp out and let the guy take over. Lynne mentioned some in Urban Fantasy. I have seen a few others. Robin Hobb has one in her “Liveship Traders” series, which I love. What we need is good characters, period. Gender ought to have little beating on what they do or accomplish. It IS coming, albeit far too slowly. I also think it is important to allow our “strong women” to have a soft side (males too) and to be in relationships. I try to achieve both in my writing.

  7. I am frequently disappointed with books labeled “strong female character” for the reasons you state. On the other hand while reading this I was able to think of a number of books I’ve read with “real” strong female characters… Women with full agency. Some were the heroines, some were evil villains, some were the main protagonist, some were major secondary characters. I’ve found them in both trad and indie books. Covers have not been good indicators of what’s inside. Reviews have to be careful read to weed out women with full agency versus your well described and more typical “strong female character”.

  8. I fear that a large part of the problem is this assumption that boys won’t read books with female main characters, boys won’t see movies with female heroes. It’s all about boys, boys, boys. You’d think Hollywood execs were teenage girls the way they go on about boys. We’ve become obsessed with gender dimorphism. Girls are only pink, boys are only blue, to the point we have color coded servingware for kids and god help you if you eat off the wrong one. And since separate is never equal, it enforces the coded message of everything boy = good, everything girl = bad. Which is when you get that in order for girls to be interesting, to be worthy of listening to she has to act masculine, almost hyper masculine. She has to punch things through walls, she has to belch and fart, she has to never ever talk to another girl and declare herself “one of the guys.”

    It is the nature of the beast, but because the female voice is equivalent to 1/10th of a male, those boys are the ones who can still enact real change. Getting boys to watch movies like Brave, to see other girls not as some unknowable species but a person like them is a huge and necessary step. It’s coming slowly. Things like My Little Ponies crossing the gender demilitarized zone helps greatly. Rising up and demanding it, making voices heard is all that gets through. Like the recent Assassin’s Creed fight about including female assassins. We’re sick of being treated like some abnormality. We’re over 50% of the population, not some tiny subset you have to cater to. I fear it is a fight that will never end.

    1. One thing to remember–my mother’s generation had NO kick-ass, save the day women to look up to. My generation wasn’t much better–I remember reading Ian Fleming and wishing for a female equivalent to 007 (one of the main reasons I write the women characters I do). Times are changing, albeit slowly. I prefer to keep writing the kind of women I want to read about, knowing that things are changing for the better. People are becoming more conscious of the images their children are subjected to (at least, that’s my experience). Yes, there are still hold outs, but they’re becoming the minority.

        1. Okay–what about Captain Niobi (Matrix Reloaded)? Or Captain Chacon (Avatar)Or the Hunger Games or Michelle Rodriguez in just about anything? I don’t read much scifi, and I’ve heard there’s a lot of women-bashing within that community, but the remedy for that is more female scifi and fantasy writers.

          1. In other genres, how about Mallory Kane in Haywire? Trinity in The Matrix, Evelyn Salt in Salt, The Bride in Kill Bill? There are several more, but you get my point. There have been and will be more. What we need is more women in the upper echelons of Hollywood willing to take chances on female leads who are strong and save the effing world. Slap me silly and call me Sally, but I dare say it’s happening.

        2. This. When I graduated HS in 1985 I swear there were more women in geek spaces and in technology. Not only have we gone backwards but we’ve rewritten history.

  9. Awesome post, SB! I completely agree. Although there are a LOT more kick-ass women in fiction these days, you’re right–there are still stories that default to the male doing the saving. No offense to the alpha males out there, but every time I come across that kind of thing I do an eye roll and throw the book as far as I possibly can (well, you know, unless it’s my Kindle. That would just be stupid.)

    Keep agitatin’ and writing women who save the world (or the day, or the dude). Most women under the age of 40 (and several over) I’ve spoken with assume the female character in the book they’re about to read is capable of doing anything she wants to–and are sorely disappointed if they get anything less. Things are changing–and that’s just cool on so many levels 😀

    1. I’ve been raging about this problem since I was a kid in the ’70s. Somedays I’m so discouraged that more progress has not been made.

      1. Things ARE changing. It helps to look at the long view. And to keep teaching our kids that girls are awesome. Maybe it’s because I live on the left coast (or maybe it’s because I’m old-ish), but I see progress and don’t get as discouraged. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop working it from my end, though.

  10. You and I must be soul mates. I’ve been screaming for years for a female hero who is an aberration in her world not because she’s a female hero but because she is a hero, period. (I have written a series, published, but I won’t move the focus from your story to mine on your post, S.E.) I believe she should fight with the best of them, be sarcastic when necessary and not look for some man to save her when she gets her knickers in a knot. Romance is fine, but the two must be equals. Between your post and the comments, I can see we are not alone in wanting to see a woman step up and save the world.

  11. This post made my day! In an era when so many think tanks and NGOs are trying to get the word out that, actually, it is women who will save the world, maybe it’s time for fiction to wake up. I certainly hope so. Off to check out your books. 🙂

  12. You are obviously reading the wrong books. I don’t think you’d find that the female leads in “For Your Damned Love”, “Boneyard 11”, or “Bailin’ ” fit your patterns at all. Try any book by Thomas Perry, especially the award-bespangled “Butcher’s Boy” series of the Jane Whitefield books.
    If it has to be SciFi, I’d suggest WIlliam Gibson. “Pattern Recognition”, “Mona Lisa Overdrive”, “Idoru”, “Spook Country”, “Zero History”. “Count Zero”

  13. When you get frustrated with this trend go and read CJ Cherryh’s Chanur series. You’ve got to love a species where their worst curse is ‘May all your chilren be sons’!

    As one who fought very hard for equal rights, equal respect and equal pay I am disapoointed in the generations of women who have followed.

    We wanted to be better than the men and lead a better way of male/female relationships. Instead the rights we won have been used exactly as the men did and do. Girls busy binge drinking, goggling at men and making loud comments on men’s physical attributes or lack thereof, propositioing men and demanding sex.

    The ‘strong woman’ is part of this type of freedom.

    1. It’s been a long time so mu memory may be flawed but i believe Ursula LeGuin wrote a book about a society where females dominated and the sexes were kept entirely separated.

  14. And, to add one more: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo trilogy. I don’t know if that book would have made it if the author had tried for a N. America release before Europe caught on.
    I know I enjoy reading books with a true, strong female protagonist. Good to hear the Indie books listed here that are recognizing what readers want.

  15. Is “femininity” really a problem? Here’s my take on a strong female lead: A woman with the courage to triumph over adversity–e.g., to fight a debilitating disease or help her family through a tragedy. You need look no further than your neighbors to find these everyday heroines. If we turn them into fictional characters, they don’t have to “kick butt” to be strong. Nor do they need a man to rescue them. The most memorable heroines are those that display inner strength; the most memorable heroes are those that support the women they love. Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox now…

  16. For a not strong, not sexy, but totally self-reliant and brave female – a little girl – who saves the world (yeah, not the galaxy, sorry), try Momo.

  17. In my Dragonslayers Saga books, there is a “strong” female character: Colonel Eagle Tryggvesson. She’s in charge of a Special Forces unit and finds it a daunting task. However, she does not tolerate her male teammates (especially her second in command) losing their military bearing. She isn’t afraid to put them in their place because rank has its privileges, and she’s not about to be run over by a group of testosterone-charged warriors. On the battlefield, she knows her limitations and lets them do the fighting. When it comes to the politics of running a unit like that, she’s well-versed in the war of the words with the higher-ups. Eagle provides the stability and backbone to the team who would otherwise self-destruct with infighting. Her male teammates respect her position in the unit. Sorry, no metal bikinis here though.

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