The Problem with the Strong Female Character

In recent years the feminist community has been calling for an increase of “strong female characters” in popular media, be it books, movies, video games, or any other form of storytelling. And I think that was probably a mistake.

Don’t get me wrong; the intentions were good. Of course we need better representation of women in pop culture. The mistake, I think, was in the word choice of our war cry. We demanded strong female characters, when we should have demanded complex female characters. Of course we want to see more “strong” women in popular media. Of course we have grown tired of being the damsels in distress, the passive princesses waiting in the tower to be rescued. But I am also tired of being the two-dimensional love interests, the tragic death that inspires that male hero, the busty background decoration, the sexy but silent prize to be won.

As a result of this linguistic misstep, the layer of grimy misogynistic film that currently covers popular media was given a crack to seep through. “Look,” the writers said. “We gave this one a gun. She even knows how to use it. Now sit down, shut up, and leave us alone” Our desire for more balanced and more progressive representation was met with faux-feminist films like “Sucker Punch” and are you happy now nudges in the form of characters like Doctor Who’s River Song and Shelock’s Irene Adler. (Okay, so maybe I specifically have some Steven Moffat issues, but the point stands). On the surface it certainly seemed like progress, but if we measure progress on a scale of Princess Peach (constantly kidnapped and 100% useless) to Princess Zelda (constantly kidnapped, but plays mild roles in the plot and sometimes shoots a bow in the final battle), we are setting ourselves up for a low scoring game. What the early crusaders of this battle failed to recognize, or at least failed to articulate at the time, is that a character can be strong and still be two-dimensional, male fantasy fulfillers, or exist for no reason than to complicate or further a male character’s story.

strong female character

Let’s take River Song, for example. I do not believe anyone would accuse her of being weak; she knew how to take care of herself, was extraordinarily headstrong, and certainly never let anyone boss her around. On the surface she seems like exactly the kind of character we have always wanted. But the more you consider her role in the story, the more apparent it becomes that she was more of a plot device than anything. She was a mystery, a point of confusion, someone neither the viewers nor the Doctor could make sense of (which, as it turned out, are the only kinds of female characters Moffat is capable of writing; oops, am I ranting again?). She is a recurring and prominent character for three seasons, but as soon as the truth about her past and her identity was revealed she was phased out of the story, a convenient and timely removal that Moffat had built into her character from the very first episode she is featured in, “Silence in the Library.” On top of that, her entire life revolves solely around the Doctor. She is kidnapped as an infant with the intention of training her to kill him; when she finally meets him she falls in love with him instead and spends the rest of her life chasing him throughout time and space, until at last her story ends (begins?) with her sacrificing herself for him in “Forest of the Dead.” In short, River Song did not exist independently of her relationship to the Doctor, and as soon as her role as the mystery in the plot came to a close her character was removed entirely. Not exactly my idea of brilliant representation.

strong female character

Compare River Song with Sansa Stark. She is far from being physically strong and she is certainly not a fighter, as is emphasized by the repeated juxtaposition of her and her younger sister, Arya. Sansa is abused both physically and psychologically, and while her sister would likely have lashed back with fists and steel, Sansa never once attempts to fight her way out of King’s Landing. She is, perhaps, one of the more universally hated upon characters in the series, with many a feminist decrying her for being so “weak” a female character, which just seems unfair to me. First of all, she is 13 years old. Second of all, what would you have done?

Many compare Sansa to Arya to prove how weak she is for never fighting back against the Lannisters. But take some time to consider whether Arya would have survived King’s Landing, considering her quick temper and impulsive behavior. Sansa, I argue, and will argue to the end, is so much stronger than anyone has given her credit for, just not in the typical sense. She proves time and time again just how intelligent she is as she navigates the harsh world she has found herself in. She learns the game being played around her, and slowly but surely she learns to play it herself. When Stannis attacks King’s Landing Sansa attempts to convince Joffrey to lead the Vanguard in hopes that he will be killed, but does so in a way she cannot be punished for and that appears to be a sign of respect for Joffrey as the true king:

“So you’ll be outside the gates fighting in the Vanguard?”
“A king doesn’t discuss battle plans with stupid girls.”
“I’m sorry, Your Grace. You’re right, I’m stupid. Of course you’ll be in the Vanguard. They say my brother Robb always goes where the fighting is thickest. And he is only a pretender.”

How then, could Joffrey refuse to lead the Vanguard, being reminded that the false King of the North always leads his? Of course, Joffrey is a certified coward and runs from the fighting as soon as the opportunity arises, but Sansa’s clever comment should not be ignored. She knows she cannot fight with force; she must instead fight with wit and clever words. And she does so at every opportunity.

My point is Sansa is by no means a “strong” female character in the traditional sense, but that should not disqualify her from being considered an excellent character in terms of representation. She has strengths and weakness, fear, courage, hope. She cannot be reduced to her physical weakness anymore than a real person could.

If what we want is better representation of women in media, we need to be calling for female characters that are every bit as complex and diverse as real women are. I want every girl and woman to have characters they can relate to, and forcing pop culture from one extreme to the other is not going to achieve that. And beyond that, it encourages the continued creation of two-dimensional characters. Sansa has been derided as a terrible female character, where River Song has been acclaimed as a fantastic female character, but personally, I prefer a thoroughly developed female character doing the best with what she has to a female character who exists solely to complicate a male character’s story, but who happens to be an excellent shot with a pistol.

What about you?


If you are interested in reading more about this new-ish form of subtle sexism that has emerged in pop culture in recent decade I highly encourage you to check out Enlightened Sexism by Susan Douglas. I did not want to take up a ton of space in this post going into it, but she offers a really excellent analysis of these faux-progressive characters and plot-lines.

*Disclaimer: In talking about Sansa I am speaking directly about her as a character in and of herself and not about the horrific way her character has been treated by the writers of the show. As a character, she is phenomenal. But the writers have shown her nothing but disrespect in recent seasons. These, for me, are both valid but different issues.*

*This was originally posted on my previous blog, Paperback Planes. All content is mine, but was not posted to first*


  • I have nothing to add to this. You are spot on with your examples and the idea that “complex” is more desirable than “strong” or a “badass”.

    • Katie Conigliaro

      I’m so glad you think so! There were so many characters I considered, but I thought these 2 really exemplified the problem, because so many people praise River as such a fantastic character and attack Sansa as an awful character because she’s “weak.” And I will defend Sansa to the death, haha.

  • I honestly agree with this 100000000%. I felt the exact same pangs of “what have we done?” when people started to scream more at Hollywood for having more strong characters. Not because I didn’t want it, but I immediately saw what was ahead.

    I’m going to use an example that’s controversial, but that’s. the. point.

    Marvel’s Avengers. Black Widow. Natasha. Brilliant woman. Bad as heck! Holds her own. Can woo a man but also don’t *need* one. Proved to us that women can kick butt; while we never got that feature film for just her we wanted, we got her. It was a crucial step. Now, let’s look at Avengers 2. Sorry if this is spoilerific. You can ignore me if you think so…

    While I think it was poorly written and rushed, we were presented with a scene and a chance to see Black Widow as more than this strong being to be reckoned with. (And not only is she “strong,” she’s very intelligent and skillful.) Natasha and Bruce. Right off the bat you can tell that they were about to ship the two together. I personally didn’t have a problem with this, but my problem was they kinda just said “screw you” to everything you thought they were doing with this canon arch and pushed the two of them together instead suddenly in this movie. Then they rushed it because they only had this movie to do it. What we ended up with was the climactic scene in a bedroom where Natasha is telling Bruce how much she cares, but Bruce is determined he’s too broken (and really, biologically can’t even get heated or excited in any sort of romantic/intimate setting so he felt like he’d never be a good partner to anyone) to love her. This is when Natasha–after spending not that long ago in the movie being faced with her demons of her past, feeling like she was a robot and a monster of sorts–tells Bruce it doesn’t matter because she’s infertile so she’s a monster, too.

    I took this to mean two things, and I think this was honestly the intention of the writers, but again, they rushed the heck out of it and it was pooooorly executed:
    1) Natasha had just had her mind controlled by the Scarlet Witch. In doing so, she had several nightmares and flashbacks to her time when she was stripped of her humanity (not just femininity, in meaning her fertility), and so she was not in her usual mindset. She was faced with the several operations, the rigorous training and the mental, emotional and physical abuse she endured before she became the Black Widow as just a young woman. For once, we got to see Black Widow not be coy, but be torn open and vulnerable. That isn’t to say she was suddenly the “beautiful but broken” type that is also just as tired as the “damsel in distress”. It just means we finally got to see her truly face something fierce: her own past and what her humanity even means to her anymore. We got to see her feel something more than just something that made you smile that you could tip your hat to.
    2) It’s very unfortunate, but many women who are infertile, I believe go through this feeling of like they aren’t a “woman” because they can’t produce a baby. But damn it, being a woman is what you make of it! And it’s okay for RIGHT AFTER Nat be reminded of that torment (because it wasn’t like they put her to sleep for that operation or anything) that she suddenly feel disgusted with more what’s happened to her than herself, but who she became for them as a result.

    People completely overlooked the layers of torment happening to Nat in a short period of time, and all of the feminists (I am a feminist, but I was not one of the ones screaming) said, “THIS IS SO PROBLEMATIC! YOU CAN’T SPREAD THIS KIND OF MESSAGE THAT INFERTILITY MEANS YOU’RE MONSTROUS!”

    I. Get. It.

    But that day that the world exploded was the day that we did Nat’s character a huge injustice. Suddenly, no one was willing to accept that Nat felt *anything* other than strength. They didn’t like the gritty reality, or how she expressed it. But that’s her, that’s her feelings, that’s all Nat. And somehow along the way we forgot how to feel that sympathy and show understanding and instead screamed hellfire at the director and writers for not making Nat how *we* wanted.

    It’s honestly such a shame. And it happens all the time, but Natasha was probably the loudest I had heard in some time. Alongside accepting feminism and loving and embracing it, we also live in a society that coddles and cries out about “ableist” language any chance it gets. On a sociological level, it’s intriguing. But it’s really sad to witness as a random, everyday citizen.

    I’m done rambling now.

    • Katie Conigliaro

      I am so terribly sorry for not responding until now! I am positive I responded on my phone, but disqus and my phone don’t exactly have a friendly record.

      I totally agree that we needed to have a more nuanced discussion about Natalie. I actually had a whole post on that planned back when the movie came out, but school got in the way and by the time I would have had time to write it I felt like the conversation had died down to much for it to be productive to bring it back up. I had some issues with the Nat-Bruce romance, but not so much with the fact that they took that route so much as how random it seemed. It was just dropped into the beginning of the film as if they had been establishing it throughout the Marvel movies- I honestly was worried that I had missed something without realizing it.

      The whole conversation surrounding her infertility was, at least from what I saw, dramatically oversimplified. Though I will admit that I don’t recall her saying that her infertility made her a monster? I have only seen the movie once. That I would likely have had a problem with depending on the context; I’ll have to rewatch the movie and get back to you on that one.

      I personally am all for calling out ableism issues, but often people seem to take it to such an extreme that even when characters with disabilities etc are represented well people insist they are being romanticized or accuse them of being “weak” characters. It is incredibly frustrating. I had the same issue with many conversations surrounding TFIOS. SO MANY people actually fighting cancer were so happy to have characters the represented their experiences and showed that they are more than their illness, and yet numerous people who have never had such an experience accused it of romanticizing illness, as if the idea that someone who is sick can also experience love is inherently a romanticization, despite how many pages of the book were explicitly dedicated to fighting against the romanticization of illness and the common occurrence of reducing people who are ill to their illness.

      Look at me ranting back haha. Sorry for the novel and again for taking so long to reply! Thanks so much for your thoughts (:

      • Hahaha no, I really love your thoughts!

        I still need to read and watch TFIOS, I know I love his writings, so I know I’ll love it–just need to get to it. As for Nat’s infertility, the real problem I think was the pace of the scene, because she lopped it into the same two sentences as her saying “I can’t have children,” as a response to Bruce saying he can’t make love/have children with her. And then said, “Looks like I’m a monster, too,” as a follow up. But I think, as we both discerned, that she really meant that what she had been through made her feel inhuman. I think Nat would have come to terms with being infertile if that was her genetic makeup, but she had her fertility ripped from her in order to make her superhuman, and that was what really she had to cope with. 🙂 I loved hearing your thoughts back! 😀

  • Very true. Have you ever heard of the term “fighting fuck toy”? It’s the stereotype of we-gave-her-a-gun-and-a-spandex-skin-tight-unitard that is supposed to be “strong”. We sure need complex characters of all genders.