I’ve been thinking about strong women protagonists lately as I write the sequel to The Seeds of Winter. I tend to value strong women in my creative outlets. The characters I write, the movies and TV shows I watch, the books I read, and even my avatars in the video games I play all include strong women protagonists.
Writing the protagonists that carry your story is tricky. Writing strong women protagonists can be even more so, especially if you’re a writer who is conscious how the facets of your character’s personality and actions relate to and represent woman-ness (did I make that up?) and how they will be perceived by readers. It’s easy to overthink it. Is she strong enough? Is she too strong? Is it the right kind of strength? Is that even a thing? It’s about finding a balance and complexity that transcends traditional perceptions about a woman’s role and motivations and avoids simply swapping the gender of a conventionally masculine character.
Although women’s roles are diversifying in popular media, the motivation and role (in film and television, most notably) for many women protagonist’s strength and actions was traditionally based around men. Much in the same way that sexual violence seemed to be the go-to trope to move along many plots involving woman characters, women protagonists often existed as the scaffold to the male protagonist’s success, a receptacle of suffering whose only agency was to endure in the hopes of being rescued, or, if the woman was the hero, she was often a demure virgin spurred into heroic action by a threat involving her man. (The outcome of such an endeavor was inevitably her success and consequential retirement from being a hero since she had attained all she wanted out of life, or her literal or spiritual death since she had sacrificed herself literally or figuratively so that said man could continue to exist in all his heroic splendor.)
And yes, these observations can absolutely be applied to male protagonists. It’s just that it wasn’t the standard for them.
Fortunately, literature, although not free from these issues, doesn’t seemed to be quite as steeped in them. From classics such Jane Eyre, The Color Purple, and The Handmaid’s Tale, to contemporary stories like Harry Potter, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and The Hunger Games, strong women protagonists have long been represented. Thanks to many women (and men) before me, although the Men Act, Women Are trope is still present, women protagonists commonly play an active role in their own narrative. They have their own agency, their own battle for something much greater than themselves or that sparkly hot guy who watches them sleep.
That being said, there exist strong women tropes that I find still problematic, some of which persist from the “feminine-first” days, and some which result from going too far the other way and trying too hard to make a woman strong. And of course, none of this is helped by the conflicting opinions of what being a strong woman actually means.
I’ve compiled a list of the “strong woman” trends in fiction, some of which I love and some … not so much. And yet, even some of the ones I don’t care for can still suck me in when written well; I’m basically huge hypocrite because the One True Love trope still makes me swoon when handled correctly.
Without further ado, the strong women tropes that annoy the crap out of me include:
- She can command a battleship, slay an alien overlord, and skin a rabbit with her teeth. But she also DOESN’T KNOW JUST HOW BEAUTIFUL SHE IS. Don’t worry though, someone (usually a man) will tell her, and she can finally feel not only strong but like a REAL WOMAN.
- IT’S ALL FOR YOU. And you are a man. Whether for filial or romantic love, there are no limits on how far she will go or how much she will compromise herself for a scrap of that love.
- She can fight, she can swear, she’s got balls the size watermelons …in fact, THE ONLY DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HER AND STEVE IS HER BODY, which always has curves in just the right places.
- She absolutely CANNOT LIKE GIRLY THINGS. Being a strong woman means she can’t know how to cook, enjoy wearing dresses, or buy a cupcake just because it has a widdle pink frosting kitty on it.
- SHE HAD TO BE GOOD AT TYPICAL “MAN” THINGS. To be strong means she must know how to change a tire and plumb in a toilet.
- HER STRENGTH MUST BE PHYSICAL. Being able to crack walnuts with her thighs defines her as strong because her capability for violence = strength.
- She has to have a VERY DAMAGED PAST. No happy childhoods allowed. Happiness makes her WEAK.
- She has to BE SUPER-SASSY AND MOUTHY, bordering on obnoxious.
- She is SELF-DESTRUCTIVE, rebelling against anything sensible or in her best interest for no logical reason.
- She has VERY RANDOM “STRONG” SKILLS. These skills are usually physical, and JUST MAGICALLY APPEAR, allowing to her to definitively beat the Big Bad when nobody else could even get close.
- She has to be MOTIVATED TO ACTION BY PHYSICAL, USUALLY SEXUAL, ASSAULT. While a valid reason in itself, this device seems to be a standard default for some authors as though that’s the only thing that could possibly motivate a woman to be strong.
- The Purity Sue….not only does she deflect arrows, bullets, and roundhouse kicks, but penises and vaginas too! Because BEING A VIRGIN MAKES YOU STRONGER.
- She must be a white hat. SHE CANNOT BE MORALLY AMBIGUOUS OR MACHIAVELLIAN because being strong always means making the “RIGHT” DECISION.
- She does NOT NEED TO BE RESCUED. Ever. And definitely never by a MAN.
- She is INCAPABLE OF LOVE OR RELATIONSHIPS, or even being nice. And she’s antisocial because, of course, she’s a LONE WOLF.
And here is what I LOVE in strong women protagonists:
- She isn’t particularly strong in the beginning. Nor she “weak.” She’s just … normal, a woman going about life when HER ENVIRONMENT SUDDENLY SHAPES HER. Shit happens, and she gets on with it. And not in a melodramatic
- SHE DEVELOPS HER STRENGTH THROUGH SHEER WILL AND DETERMINATION. She’s not magically chosen and doesn’t suddenly inherit a skill-set which she’s automatically great at. While these elements can work very well, the protagonist still needs time to acclimatize to them, to learn, to practice.
- SHE GAINS STRENGTH FROM HER RELATIONSHIPS. She has close, strong relationships with people that she trusts — thus raising the stakes even higher.
- SHE MAKES NO-WIN DECISIONS. She doesn’t please everyone. She lives in gray areas and makes decisions with no good solutions. It’s messy, and ugly, and hard, but she makes those decisions with grit and accepts the consequences.
- SHE HAS SEXUAL AGENCY. She wants sex, so she has sex, in or out of a relationship and does not lose strength, morally or physically. Even if it means one or MORE partners (clutch your pearls, Purity Sue!)
- SHE SACRIFICES TO BECOME KICK-ASS. She chooses sacrifice, not just endures it.
- VIOLENCE IS NOT HER DEFAULT RESPONSE. She suffers, strategizes, bides her time under oppression and plays the long game and has, to me, a much more interesting kind of strength.
Do I strictly follow these guidelines in my own writing? Hell, no, but I try. How do I get around some of these issues? A great piece of advice I once heard (and I wish I could remember the source of) is to write personality first, gender second. So I do. And I still don’t get it right every time.
Which Strong Woman tropes annoy you? Which ones do you love?