Why Writing Strong Female Characters Is[n’t] Hard

For the past several months I’ve been compiling what different people on the internet have been saying in regards to creating strong female characters, while also observing how others feel about those three words in general.
While not a topic you’d think would necessitate a lot of discussion, the truth is that there’s a lot more to this discussion than “Yes, I like them they’re great and we need to see more of them.”
As a disclaimer I would like state that I let the research in this post come to me. I did not do Google searches for “female writers’ opinions on strong female characters.” All of the quotes and articles below I found organically, if we can use that word to describe my internet browsing habits.

Asking a Few Writers “Why?”

To begin with we have three male writers answering different forms of the question “Why/How do you write strong female characters?

GEORGE R. R. MARTIN is the author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series of fantasy novels, and producer of its TV adaptation Game of Thrones, which is responsible for one of the most cosplayed characters right now, Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons.

Interviewer: “There’s one thing that’s interesting about your books. I noticed that you write women really well and really different. Where does that come from?”

Martin: “You know, I’ve always considered women to be people.”

GREG RUCKA is primarily known for writing comics, and a few of the characters he’s written include Wonder Woman, Batwoman, Sergeant Rachel Cole-Alves [the female Punisher], and Tara Chase, protagonist of his own Queen and Country.

“Q: How do you write such strong/well-realized/positively portrayed women?

A: I don’t. I write characters. Some of those characters are women.”


JOSS WHEDON is presently most well-known for the third highest-grossing film of all time, The Avengers. Prior to that he was the mind behind shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Dollhouse.

[in response to: “So, why do you write these strong female characters?”]

“Because you’re still asking me that question.”

Just as the three questions all follow a similar format, the general responses from these three writers has proven to be basically the same: characters first, gender second.

We can’t have just writers, and male opinions, when discussing this topic, though, so what follows are two actresses’ [though I suppose “actor” is gender-neutral now, isn’t it] thoughts on strong female characters.

2 Actresses [Actors] on Female Characters

MEGAN FOX is best known for playing Mikaela Banes in the Transformers films, and far less so for playing Lilah in Jonah Hex. She will be appearing in the 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as April O’Neil.

Interviewer: “Megan, when you read the script [for Transformers], were you happy that your character got to kick some butt and wasn’t just the damsel in distress?

Fox“Both of the female characters in the movie were very strong characters. Rachel [Taylor]’s character is very intelligent. I thought that they were representing women very well.”

NATALIE PORTMAN has starred in films such as Evey in V for Vendetta, Padmé Amidala in the Star Wars prequels, and Jane Foster in Thor and the upcoming Thor 2: The Dark World.

“I want [female characters] to be allowed to be weak and strong and happy and sad – human, basically. The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a ‘feminist’ story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.”

Where Fox equates strength with intelligence, which in and of itself is not a terrible argument, Portman takes a step further by stating that female characters can be, well, anything, provided that they’re relatable.

The Arguments Against 

Having heard Martin, Rucka, and Whedon speak out about strong female characters, the issue still remains why anyone would have a problem with them. By all appearances what these three writers are doing is a very good thing.

The issue with strong female characters lies in the fact that those three words have to exist, strung together, in the first place. A secondary problem is the interpretation of those words and the execution in making them a reality.

To begin with, Sophie McDougall wrote an article on NewStatesman titled “I hate Strong Female Characters”, and while that title isn’t very specific the subtitle speaks volumes:

Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.

To elaborate on that, though I’m not sure I have to, there is no such thing as “strong male characters,” because that’s what they are by default. That on its own is a problem because our cultural perception is that we need to state that if and when women are strong.

Still, those words exist, and creators are aware of them and want to draw in the audiences looking for these characters. They do this by focusing on the first word: “strong.”  Now that word can mean many things, but, as Shana Mlawski points out in “Why Strong Female Characters Are Bad for Women”, for many creators it has a rather unimaginative [and stunted] definition.

“While these women would still be young and hot, of course, they’d also have one characteristic that made them more masculine.  That could be physical strength or a superpower (see Liz Sherman in the first Hellboy movie), the ability to shoot a gun properly (see Princess Leia), or it could be something more metaphorical, like being able to out-drink a guy (see Marion from Raiders of the Lost Ark).  Writers patted themselves on the back, saying, “You wanted Strong Female Characters?  Well, now they’re strong.”

McDougall recounts in her article how she was watching Shrek with her mother, and how she mused that Princess Fiona’s ability to defend herself was admirable. Her mother’s response was to roll her eyes and say “All the princesses know kung-fu now.”

Strangely refreshing is Mlawski’s central argument within her piece, which is that what we really need right now are weak female characters. “Not ‘weak’ meaning ‘Damsel in Distress.’ ‘Weak’ meaning ‘flawed.’”

To take just one more of her quotes, and to sum up this section, she also says:

“I think the major problem here is that women were clamoring for ‘strong female characters,’ and male writers misunderstood.  They thought the feminists meant [Strong Female] Characters.  The feminists meant [Strong Characters], Female.”

This entire post feels more or less like I’m beating you over the head with the same thing over and over, but this is important and the more voices adding to it the better. I want to end with words from two women, one a 19-year-old author and the other a 40-year-old scientist and writer [as well as my all-time favourite imagery regarding the discussion sandwiched in between] :

 “Feminism isn’t about making women stronger. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.”

“Screw writing “strong” women. Write interesting women. Write well-rounded women. Write complicated women. Write a woman who kicks ass, write a woman who cowers in a corner. Write a woman who’s desperate for a husband. Write a woman who doesn’t need a man. Write women who cry, women who rant, women who are shy, women who don’t take no shit, women who need validation and women who don’t care what anybody thinks. THEY ARE ALL OKAY, and all those things could exist in THE SAME WOMAN. Women shouldn’t be valued because we are strong, or kick-ass, but because we are people. So don’t focus on writing characters who are strong. Write characters who are people.”

4 responses to “Why Writing Strong Female Characters Is[n’t] Hard

  1. “They thought the feminists meant [Strong Female] Characters. The feminists meant [Strong Characters], Female.”
    This quote means so much to me- the difference between the tough “manly” girl and an actual real girl. The women should get to be real characters, with flaws AND strengths (and strengths that aren’t macho/muscle based).

  2. Pingback: Shame Day: Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and Writers Who Kill Everyone | Culture War Reporters

  3. Pingback: A Story for the Average Woman: Maleficent on Rape and Motherhood | Culture War Reporters

  4. Pingback: Shame Day: David Finch, Wonder Woman, and Feminism | Culture War Reporters

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