The Trouble with “Strong Female Characters”

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I was inspired to talk about this topic thanks to a freelance job I have writing about gaming culture AND this great blog post from Chuck Wendig. Wendig addresses something very important to me in his post: the idea of agency. 

What is Agency and Why Does it Matter?

Agency and ego are tied together in a character, creating a fictional person who thinks, reacts, and – most importantly – acts to move the story forward. The character has motivation. She does more than reacts – she acts and, because of her actions, the story moves forward. In fact, without her actions, the plot would not and could not exist.

A “strong female character” who kicks ass but has no depth or human desires is no better than a damsel who exists solely to be rescued. It isn’t ass-kicking that defines a believable, human, interesting female character; it’s a metric we should rid ourselves of because, in the end, shooting and kicking and magicking aren’t what makes a character interesting. Ass-kicking does not inherently equal agency.

Identifying Agency and Evaluating Character

There are several simple “tests” suggested to identify if female characters are even remotely three-dimensional. The first and probably most well-known is The Bedchel Test which asks if two named female characters in a book (movie, comic, etc) talk about something other than a man. It’s a simple enough test, but a startling number of stories “fail” it.

Comic book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick offers the “Sexy Lamp Test” that goes like this: “if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft. ”

We are, I think, all of us looking for characters who are interesting, who think, who act, and who have drives and desires.

The Strong Female Character

So often, female protagonists are described as “strong” almost as a justification – a defense of the strange decision to choose to tell a story about a woman. Are we ashamed, in some quiet way, as a culture, to be telling women’s stories? Is it so bad and scary that we must defend our female characters with the traditionally male definition of “strong?” Next time you see one of these so-called “Strong Female Characters” remember to dig deeper and see what she’s really made of.

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