Feminism has been calling for “more strong female characters” for a long time now, but this tends to cause a lot of confusion- what exactly does “strong” mean in this context?
The dictionary defines strong as “having the power to move heavy weights or perform other physically demanding tasks.”
But… being strong doesn’t really make a feminist character, does it?
Feminism, especially third wave feminism (which found its roots in the individualism of the punk rock movement), calls for women to be whatever they want to be, instead of what society tells them to be. If you want to be a traditional stay at home mom? That’s fine. If you want to be a self supporting career woman? That’s fine too. If you want to be tough and independent and totally slay in you high heels and lipstick? That’s fine too. You don’t have to be one thing or the other, and there’s nothing inherently strong in acting in ways that society deems masculine.
Because this is another thing that feminism points out- our culture places higher value on things that are deemed to be masculine. From occupations (being a doctor is traditionally a male dominated job, while being a nurse is more “feminine”) to clothes (it’s fine for a girl to wear men’s clothes like jeans and boots, but not culturally acceptable for a guy to wear dresses and heels), whatever people have deemed as feminine is therefore also considered to be weaker or demeaning.
But here’s the real kicker: liking girly things- whether you’re a girl or a guy- doesn’t make you any weaker of a person.
So this brings me to the point that I’ve been trying to get too: being strong in the sense of physical strength (a trait deemed masculine, although there’s really nothing masculine-or feminine- about it) doesn’t make a character feminist. Hating high heels and dresses doesn’t make a character feminist. Punching a couple of people in the face doesn’t make a character feminist.
So… if being strong doesn’t make a character feminist, then why do feminist keep asking for more strong female characters?
Because it’s a misunderstanding. It’s that simple.
A strong female character is not a woman who punches some people in the face and then hooks up with the male protagonist at the end of the story as a prize for his victory over evil or whatever.
A strong female character is a female character who is three dimensional and interesting. She has her own goals (other than supporting another character, usually the male lead). She makes mistakes. She has her own backstory. She isn’t just used as motivation for another character (again, usually a dude). She’s allowed to be just as flawed as the male characters, instead of being expected to be perfect- conventionally beautiful and strong and totally uninteresting.
Bland, perfect female characters are not feminist. Flawed, three dimensional female characters are feminist.
Yet people keep misunderstanding this. A good example can be found in animation- this graphic sums it up pretty well.
Men are allowed to be diverse and unique, but women are expected to be pretty and attractive basically all the time. Although body type is only one side of the coin, it’s a good example, one that’s easier to explain than personality.
As the head animator of Frozen (which is hailed as hugely feminist) said,
“Historically speaking, animating female characters are really, really difficult, because they have to go through these range of emotions, but you have to keep them pretty and they’re very sensitive to — you can get them off a model very quickly. So, having a film with two hero female characters was really tough, and having them both in the scene and look very different if they’re echoing the same expression; that Elsa looking angry looks different from Anna being angry.”
Well, yeah. I can understand why it would be difficult to make two different characters look different when they look exactly the same. Here’s an idea: stop worrying about making the characters pretty. Let them be expressive and unique instead.
This picture of the main characters of Frozen makes a very good example:
Olaf and Sven aside, the differences in body type are pretty clear. Olaf and Hans are very different- Kristoff has a bulkier build, while Hans is tall and slim. But Anna and Elsa are exactly the same, just with different clothes and hair and makeup.
And honestly? The same thing goes for their personalities. Hans is manipulative and cruel, and that all stems from jealousy. Kristoff is awkward and dorky, but he’s also loyal and understanding. They’re both flawed, interesting people. Anna and Elsa? Less so. Anna is clumsy, but only when it’s charming. She’s loyal, and naive, and… that’s about all there is to her character. Elsa is more interesting than her sister- she is flawed. She cares for her sister, but she makes mistakes out of fear. But in the end, Anna is the main character who takes the center stage, while Elsa is more of a plot device.
And just look at this gif comparing the faces of Elsa, Anna, and Rapunzel (from Tangled). Aside from makeup and Anna’s freckles, they have hardly any noticeable differences. They’re… pretty, but in a bland way.
Another Disney film, Big Hero 6, provides a very good example of strong, feminist characters. Even though the main character is a guy, there are plenty of women in his life- supporting female characters who are strong and interesting and multi-faceted and very, very feminist.
This lineup of characters displays just how diverse the movie is- even the women.
Honey Lemon is tall and skinny and not very curvy at all. She loves traditionally girly things, but that doesn’t make her any weaker. She’s not very physically strong, but she’s very smart, and cares deeply about her friends. GoGo is shorter and curvier, and prefers more masculine things- she likes car chases, has choppy hair, and acts much less empathetic than Honey Lemon. She’s still caring, but it doesn’t really show- most of the time, she acts pretty rude. The two of them are flawed, and interesting,
So, I’ve been talking about this for a while… now I want to see your thoughts! What do you think makes a feminist character?