Sunday, 13 March 2016

Why I've Stopped Using 'Strong Female Character' in my Reviews

I'm a feminist so when I see women in books being awesome and kickass, I'll point it out. But, mulling it over as I sat down with a cookie this morning (actual breakfast food is overrated) I realised that the phrase 'strong female character' isn't necessarily what it seems.
When I've used the phrase in the past, I've meant it to mean a bunch of things. In that respect, it's a bit of a lazy term, really, isn't it? And when someone is referred to as a 'strong female character', it tends to be because they have stereotypically masculine traits. You might not use the term for that reason - I don't, or not consciously - but it has those connotations now. Traits of a 'strong female character' include but aren't limited to...

  • Physical strength
  • A leader, but still obeys the male characters
  • Emotionless
  • BANTER. #Bants
  • Athletic

Why is a woman only strong when she's displaying masculine traits?

And, on the rare occasion when 'strong' doesn't have that masculine connotation, why is it a surprise when a female character is strong? Why do we place emphasis on the gender? It's been hammered into us that a woman with masculine traits who wouldn't pick up a lipstick if it had life-saving qualities is 'better'. (Side-note: when we're told we're 'not like other girls', it's a compliment. Why? Ugh.) When I spot a strong female character in a book, I'm happy and slightly taken aback because I'm not expecting it. Why am I not expecting it? Why aren't we expecting it? What even is a strong female character, really?

I'd also like to know: why do we limit them to 'strong'? Why is 'strong' the absolute best thing a girl can be? There are so many personality traits to choose from. Why do we take a character's personality, thoughts, feelings and experiences and lump them all into the word 'strong'?

It's been drilled into us that women who like things that are typically feminine are weak. It's the 'you're not like other girls!' thing that I mentioned earlier all over again. 

When I asked on Twitter if you like the term 'strong female character', this is what you said:


And you told me your thoughts on the matter, too. (Thank you!)


So, a mixed bag. I couldn't fit everyone in this post so if you'd like to see more responses, click here.

Honestly, this post was surprisingly difficult to write. I've deleted and re-written several sentences where I'd subconsciously worded them in a sexist way because, no matter what your stance is when it comes to gender equality, so much rubbish has been ingrained in us from birth. Who remembers the saying 'if a boy is mean to you, it means he likes you?' Don't even get me started on that one.

Do you like the term 'strong female character'?

23 comments:

  1. Thanks for this - it's awesome, Amber!

    I have to admit I'm always a bit surprised too, when I come across a strong female character in fiction. It's really sad to think about now that you've mentioned it!

    I do use the phrase strong - or kick-ass - female character... but I include characters who are suffragettes, or have beat cancer, or that are unselfish and protective of others... Which don't really imply anything about male characteristics to me. I also use it when talking about girls who 'just don't give a damn' - female characters who are themselves, who don't pretend to be something different because of societal pressures. So I understand the hesitation with the terminology..
    I guess we (I!) need to figure out some alternatives :)

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    1. Thanks, I'm glad you liked it!

      That's how I used it too, but the way it's been used to describe female characters in recent years (think Katniss in The Hunger Games, Tris in Divergent etc) has kind of changed its implications.

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  2. I like the term "strong female character" when it means a female character who is properly fleshed out. I like it when it describes a girl who isn't just a trope and one who has a life outside of the male characters in the narrative. I think that what happens a lot of times is the word "strong" is taken literally, and since we tend to associate strength with masculinity the definition of "strong female character" goes from "three dimensional character who is also a girl" to "girl who doesn't act stereotypically girly," which seems kind of iffy to me, since it relies on the assumption that girly=lesser. That's only my understanding of it, though, and I could totally be missing something!

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    1. Yep, that's it. And because of this, as I said in my comment above, its implications have kind of changed due to it being so strongly (ha) associated with masculine female characters.

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  3. Generally I don't like using the term 'strong female character' because I feel like it raises the expectation for females (outside of the novel) to ensure that they have to look 'strong' - there is already a pressure on women through the media to look 'skinny' and 'pretty' so it does get on my nerves that some novels portray women as 'strong'. Normally when I read a novel that has a 'strong female character', that character has muscles and is physically strong; but does that mean other characters who deal with relationship abuse, discrimination, mental health issues, ect, mean that they're not strong? I think not. Every woman is strong in their own kind of way, so I really find it aggravating when most novels portray strong females who are athletic. News flash: 'strong female characters' are not just people who punch things and saves the day.

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    1. That's true. It's like how men are expected to be strong, and that's had some really damaging effects. Now the same thing is happening to women - it's just another thing society expects us to live up to.

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  4. I stopped using "strong female character" a long time ago (not that I've reviewed in a long time, but I mean before that... haha) because it just seems so unnecessary - but then again, how do you say it? I'd argue that it doesn't need mentioning, but also, it does but in a way, it does still matter in a feminist element... there's no balance really!! But this is such a good discussion, Amber :D x

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    1. I know! You want to point it out, but at the same time, it shouldn't have to be? It's annoying. We need alternatives. :)

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  5. Mmyeah, I don't care for the shorthand. It's like the word "literally": Use it in too many (even opposing) ways, and what does it even mean anymore? What exactly are you trying to tell me about this girl? The phrase alone creates a blurry picture at best, and conveys nothing at all at worst.

    For guys and gals both, if I can feel the character is a /person/ -- not just a role on the page/screen/wherever -- then that's strong enough for me. And even then, it's not a measure of how much I'll actually /like/ them. So "Strong Female Character"? Not an effective way to market to me at all.

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    1. Exactly. 'Strong female character' is so not effective marketing when the phrase doesn't mean anything! Plus, who's to decide who's strong and who isn't?

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  6. I'm personally guilty of using this word *cough* but your post has me questioning this term. I'm probably gonna avoid using it in the future.L

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  7. This is my new favorite post. Seriously. It's completely true what you say, why the heck do we view a female as being "strong" if she's displaying male tendencies? Why can't a girl who likes staying indoors reading and having cats be strong in her own way, why is always the fearless, emotionless leaders that are considered strong? This is such a brilliant post and it really made me think. Excellent post, Amber!

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  8. I must admit that I've never thought of this like that but it's definitely an eye-opener, it saddens me to know that so many things that have been ingrained into us since birth seem so normal but if you think about it they really aren't! Great post! :D

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  9. I'M FAMOUS. But yeah I agree with everything that's been said. I think the fact that people are recognising that there are issues with the phrase is a reminder that we're still moving forward. A few years ago it was a huge development to even have depth full female characters at the front and centre of such commercial projects. The fact that thibgs are changing, however slightly, and that people are gaining awareness, gives me hope. Brilliantly written, by the way. Couldn't have said it better.

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  10. Hey Amber! I just ADORE the conversation that was prompted your post. Although it does seem like a mixed bag, I think that a majority of people at least recognize the subtle sexism in the phrase "strong female character". One of my own personal beefs with the term is that as a reviewer I've never used the phrase 'weak female character' to describe an unassertive girl, because being unassertive is a character trait that is applicable to both genders! I'm not sure what the awesome alternative to strong female character is, to describe an unapologetic, badass personality but I'm confident (or at least hopeful) that we'll get there. Again, awesome post.

    xox

    -Mary

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  11. I'm guilty of using the term a lot, but I don't see it as a problem. If you dig into any statement you're going to find something 'wrong' with it. When it's something that's described as 'you might not even see it' or 'it has invisible connotations' I do think we need to step back. If the majority don't see it that way, why try to convince them that it is?

    Personally, I use 'strong female character' as a concise way of letting the reader know that the character is female and physically, mentally and emotionally competent in stressful situations. And I think the majority see it that way too. The meaning is sound, it's a good thing, but if we try to attribute things that aren't there to it we are effectively manipulating the meaning.

    I saw someone say that it's usually used to describe a female leader, a traditionally masculine role. There are two things about this that I have to ask: How is it a problem to have a female as a leader? And would you really read a full-length novel about someone who stays in, has tons of animals and reads a lot? Those things describe me perfectly, but I would never pick up a story that focused on only those traits.

    If you see the statement as a masculine thing that weakens femininity then the solution would be using it more rather than not at all. Blur the lines of the connotations so that gender isn't an issue. There are a plethora of novels with a female lead that I'd still describe as a 'strong female character' that doesn't fight battles or win all the time.

    I sometimes get really annoyed with things like this; the things that the majority don't see or even think about but 'they are things that affect society'. In reality, forcing people to see a different meaning than they actually see is the real danger.

    Great discussion, Amber. I love that you can write a post within a contentious subject while being kind to everyone no matter which side they fall on.

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    1. Thanks for adding your input, it's always interesting to hear other opinions.

      Yes, I used 'strong female character' in that way, too, but I realised that 1) it's a lazy term to sum up a whole bunch of things without actually saying something of meaning and 2) we never apply the same phrase to male characters. Take Divergent, for example: Tris is *always* said to be a 'strong female character' but Four isn't... because it's a given. It's a harmful phrase to both genders.

      You said the majority doesn't see it that way, but my poll and the other comments say otherwise. And 'forcing people to see a different meaning than they actually see is the real danger' is simply not true. No one's forcing anybody, and actually I'd argue that that's just education. It's good to see other opinions and thoughts on something. If we went with our first thought all the time and refused to think about other options, we wouldn't learn or grow as people.

      As for your two questions: did anyone say it's bad to have a female leader? I think that's great and I hope we see it as frequently as we see male leaders in literature. As for reading a book about someone who 'stays in, has lots of animals and reads a lot' - yes, I would read a book about someone like that. In fact, I have. Everyone reads different things.

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  12. Yeah, I hate the phrase 'strong female character'. Like you say, it tends to reinforce the 'masculine = strong, feminine = weak' divide. By holding up 'strong female characters' as the ideal, the implication is that a feminine - or weak - female character is bad. If a character is well-developed, or takes on a leadership role, or is stoic or brave, it's better to use THOSE words to describe her than the catchall 'strong'.

    The other problem I have with the phrase is the ambiguity of what 'strong' applies to. Is it the character as a person, or is it her as a literary device? ie, is she a 'strong' person, or is she a well-imagined, compelling character? I don't have a problem with the latter definition - it distinguishes between the women who are allowed to run the gamut of human behaviour and carry their own arcs and those who exist for the male characters' benefit - but that's not often how the phrase is used. And, again, you don't have to call her a 'strong female character' in order to get that across; say the characters (male and female) are vividly-portrayed, or discuss the individual characteristics that make her a strongly-portrayed character.

    So, yeah, not a fan of the phrase ;)

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    1. I hadn't thought about the latter definition, which I guess I wouldn't have a problem with, but how can you tell when that's what the writer is referring to? And, like you say, that's not often how the phrase is used.

      Great points!

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  13. This was a really interesting post, Amber! I've never really thought about the phrase as praising 'male' attributes but instead hesitate to use it because it (unintentionally, at least) brands other females as 'weak' in whatever way which I don't really like.

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