The amount of writers who unwittingly fall into this category drives me bananas. The worst part? A lot of it comes down to lazy and unimaginative writing. So if your WIP features a “strong female lead” (or any female, for that matter), especially one that likes to kick ass, keeping reading. You’re representing women. Don’t fuck it up.
Being Tough Means Being Masculine, Right?
You know the kind of tough girl I’m talking about. The dress-hating, gun-toting, snarky, I’ll-kick-your-ass-sideways, heroine who, for some reason, is always super short? The type of “strong” female who tends to be overly masculine for the sake of displaying her extreme badassery? No?
Yara Greyjoy from Game of Thrones is an excellent example of this phenomenon. Let’s be honest, Yara is a great character and a total badass. She lays claim to her father’s throne after his assassination, and when she’s passed over in favor of her uncle, she steals his best ships and gets the hell out of dodge. She’s a fierce warrior, commands her own crew, and is not only respected by her men but revered and admired.
She is also incredibly problematic when it comes to showing what a badass woman looks like.
First, Yara was raised as a “surrogate son” by her father after her three brothers were lost in a rebellion. It’s why she was taught to fight, sail, and command in the first place since all those things are highly unusual for a woman to do in a super patriarchal society. This implies the only way that a woman would ever be respected enough to lead a group of men is if she assimilates into their masculine world, rather than challenge it.
Yara’s sexuality is also problematic when it comes to showing the world what a tough female looks like. She is an out-and-proud lesbian, which is so fantastic to see represented in fiction, except that her lesbianism is depicted through stereotypical, uber-masculine behavior often associated with power-driven womanizers. She’s a “man’s (wo)man,” who hangs out in bars and brothels, getting drunk with her men and slapping waitresses’ asses, often with a half-naked woman on her lap. Give her a penis, and you’d never know she’s supposed to be a woman.
Why? Because Yara doesn’t have a feminine bone in her body. It’s what makes her an incredibly complex and interesting character. It also adds to this notion that the only way a woman can be seen as strong is if she lacks traits typically associated with other women.
Rejecting Femininity To Show Strength
The transformation undergone by Beatrice “Tris” Prior in the Divergent series is a less-extreme example of how female characters are often given male characteristics to signify toughness. When we first meet Tris, she is part of a faction that values humility. Her transformation begins when she leaves to join another group that values strength and bravery.
The first thing she does is change her name from overtly feminine Beatrice to the more androgynous Tris. She also decides to cut her long, flowing hair- a style commonly recognized as feminine. I fully agree that long hair isn’t the most functional hairstyle when you spend your time jumping off trains, but Tris doesn’t just cut her hair. She hacks it off into a super short, notably masculine, pixie-cut that, for some reason, represents her “tough” new lifestyle.
Tris is also described as small and girlish in build, which is repeatedly portrayed as a weakness. It puts her at a significant disadvantage during her initiation trials, where proving one’s value often requires feats of physical strength. Much of her transition from “normal” to “badass” involves bulking up and offsetting her small, feminine build.
Tris continually rejects experiencing softer emotions (like empathy, forgiveness, and understanding) as not to appear weak. When her ex-friend feels so much guilt over hurting her that he throws himself into a chasm, rather than show empathy or understanding, Tris calls his suicide “cowardly.” Though she does inevitably blame herself for his death, her initial unwillingness to forgive him (and hypercritical assessment of his death) perpetuates this stigma that if Tris wants to be seen as tough, she cannot afford to be soft in any way.
How We As Writers Can Fix It
Allow your female characters to be feminine! Let them retain some traits typically had by women! Why can’t a female well-versed in mixed martial arts wear makeup if she wants to? Ronda Rousey is notorious for it. It makes sense a female soldier would prefer shorter hair and pants, but why does she have to hate wearing a dress? What’s wrong with neutrality?
And another thing: why are so many “strong female characters” only capable of expressing anger? When did having emotions become the same thing as being weak? Why must women have the emotional span of teaspoon to be considered strong?
Even the phrase “strong female character” is problematic. It leads with this connotation that the average female isn’t strong. That normal women are boring and fragile. Have you ever heard anyone describe Sherlock Holmes or James Bond as a “strong male character?” No? That’s because it’s not a thing!
Celaena Sardothien, from the Throne of Glass series, is a great instance of a female fighter who can retain some degree of femininity. When we first meet her, she’s a dirty, offensive, ex-assassin condemned to work out the rest of her life in a prison camp.
When she agrees to compete as a champion in a series of games, she’s freed, and right away, we learn that Celaena actually has quite a vanity streak. She takes a lot of pride in her appearance, eats up attention, and never passes up an opportunity to wear an extravagant dress. She’s outwardly emotional, much to the confusion of other characters, and fights with ingenuity when brawn isn’t enough. She can hold her own with a sword and form meaningful relationships with other women.
It’s important to keep in mind that femininity isn’t fixed. There are varying degrees, and not all women adhere to the same feminine protocols. Many women actually do hate having to wear a dress. Some women do have the emotional span of a teaspoon. Not all women are loving or warm or motherly. But very rarely does a person (and this includes men) lack feminine qualities altogether. There’s no need to be so extreme!
Strength Isn’t Always Physical
This whole idea that a woman needs to be trained in combat and fight evildoers to be considered a “strong female” is also problematic. Why do physical displays of strength have to be the only displays of strength?
Take, for example, Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada. As the editor-in-chief of a prominent New York fashion magazine, she clawed her way up from the bottom through hard work and sheer determination. Ruthless, arrogant, and an obvious megalomaniac, there is no question that Miranda is a powerful character.
She’s infamous for her icy attitude, high turnover rate, and borderline-abusive treatment of her subordinates. Yet, despite all the things that make her a terrifying, high-powered executive in a highly masculine role, Miranda still somehow manages to stay a woman.
How did the writers manage to pull off a strong character with masculine qualities without completely turning her into a pseudo-man? By including traits and details commonly associated with women to balance her out.
Fashion has a reputation for being a female-oriented industry. This is because appearance is something commonly attributed as important to women, regardless of whether or not it’s true. Putting Miranda as head of a fashion magazine, rather than business or technology, gives her a subtle feminine edge.
Secondly, Miranda is always dressed to kill. Even when wearing pantsuits – a usually masculine look – she retains a feminine flare by having them tailored to her figure, perfectly accessorized, and complete with chic high heels and impeccable makeup.
Retaining femininity goes beyond Miranda’s appearance as well. At one point, Miranda confides in her assistant about her failing marriage and the worry she has over how it will affect her daughters. Allowing Miranda to have this moment of sympathy gives us a glimpse into a softer, more motherly side that is often attributed to women.
Both Celaena and Miranda use their appearance to demonstrate femininity, but a character doesn’t have to be overtly girly to be womanly. Masculine women do exist, just as feminine men do, and it has no bearing on how tough they are.
It’s not about finding balance; it’s about finding the right balance.
Majority of women are actually pretty badass. (Crazy, right?) The ones capable of holding their own in a fistfight aren’t the only ones who can make a difference or lead a dystopian revolution. Don’t get me wrong: I love a female who can kick some ass. What I don’t understand is why she has to stop being a female in order to do it.