Making a Better, Smarter “Strong Female Character”

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This article includes discussion of some plot details from Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jessica Jones, the sixth season of Game of Thrones, and Spy.

I’ll probably sound old when I say that the 1990s were an era of unprecedented girl power in film and television. Buffy Summers not only slayed, slayed, and slayed all day but was surrounded in the culture by tough women like Xena, Sydney Bristow, Max Guevara, Sarah Connor, and Ellen Ripley. Each iconic character revolutionized the trope of the hero’s journey by embracing distinctly feminine concerns and desires: What does it mean to be a teenage girl with great power and great responsibility? What is the story of a woman on a redemptive path or searching for her identity? What does it mean to be a mother? How do we choose our families? As a result, elements of their respective genres—superhero, fantasy, spy-fi, postapocalyptic, and horror— were made fresh too. And it wasn’t done by simply casting an actress in a male role or franchise. (Though, that has the potential to be subversive too.)

But that wave of revolutionary badass babes seemingly went out with the tide. Heroines that followed were weak echoes of their groundbreaking predecessors—if they existed at all.

A slick catsuit, quasi–martial arts know-how, and big guns (figurative or muscular) became signifiers for “Strong Female Character.” In the absence of actual character development, she was too often all brawn and no brain.

That term, famously repeated over and over by Joss Whedon in his 2006 Equality Now speech and now available printed on t-shirts, is, of course, meant to suggest “complex female character.” Perhaps physically strong, perhaps strong of character, but a character with motivation and agency, one who is foregrounded in the narrative and is not merely a catalyst for the male hero’s story. She doesn’t just look tough; she is tough. And that toughness is, or should be, as much internal as external.

And when it’s not, how could that portrayal be any better than a damsel in distress? Are they both restrictive and reductive roles for women?

Not necessarily. And, certainly, not recently.

The past few years have seen the emergence of tough women in genre film and television who are complicating what it means to be a Strong Female Character and complicating the proverbial damsel in distress. As they evolve, both archetypes—traditionally positioned as oppositional—are reinventing the rules of narrative storytelling and offering new ways to look at heroism, agency, and what it means to be resilient. As moviegoers become more aware of systemic race- and gender-based discrimination in Hollywood and the way that discrimination impacts the stories told onscreen, they also become more aware of character tropes. In turn, they celebrate characters who buck tired trends. The higher caliber of some modern female characters can be seen in the bravery and resilience of Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the curiosity and determination of television’s joyous Supergirl, and the honorable actions of Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones. Heck, it can even be seen in Lana Kane and Malory Archer in Archer—both meta, yet nuanced, commentaries on Strong Female Characters. These characters upend expectations about what toughness looks like, where it comes from, and how it is used—particularly when it comes to women and stories about women.

Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black.

Take, for example, BBC America’s Orphan Black, a series starring Tatiana Maslany as roughly a dozen clones who unravel a conspiracy. Along the way, Orphan Black smartly explores scientific ethics, reproduction, fertility, and sisterhood. Each clone has her own distinct identity, but across the board, they’re all pretty tough women. Some of these women carry guns, sure, but no character is just a “badass” who’s good with a weapon. Among the sister-clones are a hacker, a scientist, a soccer mom, a maniac, a power-hungry executive, a good-hearted dingbat, and a troubled detective—all of whom carry an internal fortitude that reflects individual strength. Since the women are literally clones, Orphan Black feels like a satire of two-dimensional representations of female characters—these women, who are genetic replicas, have more depth and personality than many of the women we see on TV.

In the New York Times Magazine, Lili Loofbourow reinforced this notion:  

Orphan Black seems to suggest that the dull sameness enforced by existing female archetypes needs to die. ... What emerges is a full, generative map of the possibilities that emerge when you let the Strong Female Character and her lonely sisters from other genres mix.”

Marvel’s Jessica Jones is another modern “tough” female character who’s not solely defined by her body and her weaponry. In the Netflix series based on the comic book series Alias, the private detective grapples with feeling both extremely powerful and powerless. Jones, superpowered after an accident, is a victim of other traumas, and she suffers from PTSD and the aftermath of abduction and assault.

Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones.

At the Muse, Stassa Edwards addressed the complex undertaking of the show, which is widely lauded as feminist. “At its heart, Jessica Jones is a simultaneous exploration of how power and strength are exerted, all the while gently acknowledging that those are both deeply gendered terms. ... It’s that play between the power of men and the strength of Jones (and her female compatriots) that drives the show.” Edwards noted that in exploring both physical and psychological strength, “Jessica Jones is an unraveling of the stereotypes that form the [superhero] genre”.

Characters like Jessica Jones and Orphan Black’s clones stand out from a media landscape that’s still full of flat “Strong Female Characters.” Elsewhere in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there are more traditional damsels. 2016’s Deadpool (a satire that may not have been satirical enough to subvert the trope) is one recent example, as it shows a girlfriend who is captured so she can be saved by the male hero. Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy, introduced as a kick-ass lone wolf, quickly devolved into a romantic interest who was also a mother figure. (Hero Peter Quill literally saw her as his mommy.)

A fan cosplaying Black Widow from the Avengers.

The tough female character who’s drawn the most discussion in recent years is arguably Black Widow. Fans of the Avengers character, an ex–KGB spy whose real name is Natasha Romanova, are frustrated that she’s gotten short shrift in the Avengers films. Marvel has also declined to back a movie centered on Black Widow despite the devotion she evokes in fans—hundreds of fans staged #WeWantWidow flashmobs around the world last year, and in a recent poll of people who went to see Captain America: Civil War in theaters, most moviegoers said she was their prefered choice to get her own movie. Still, she doesn’t even get much screen time in Avengers films, meaning the complex character she embodies in comics is reduced to just a few lines and plot points onscreen. Feminist critics were split over whether her role in the last Avengers movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron, was a step forward or backward. In the film, it’s revealed that her motivation to become a hero stems from being forcibly sterilized by her spy-training program. Some critics saw this as a disappointing reduction—like the be-all, end-all for women is producing children and that her declaration that she’s a “monster” for being unable to bear children is unsettling. Others thought the storyline worked as a nod to women who struggle with the devastation of infertility, that addressing a specific, feminine story doesn’t reduce her agency, it complicates her tough character. As Alyssa Rosenberg argued in The Washington Post

“She’s a hero reckoning with what it means to be both female and merely human in a testosterone-heavy, super-powered environment. ... Isn’t the whole point of having women as well as men be superheroes and swordfighters that they bring a new range of perspectives to our experiences of these very old stories?”

Gwendoline Christie as the warrior Brienne of Tarth.

A more multifaceted representation of “tough” women is seen clearly in Game of Thrones. Much of the show’s resonance comes from making several complex, flawed female characters central to the story. Viewers have called out Game of Thrones for its gender politics in past seasons—mostly for its gratuitous sexual violence—and in this most recent season, it feels like the writers are listening to fans’ criticisms. Back in March, HBO announced that showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss were putting the series’ tough women front and center, course-correcting the excessively violent story that had made some viewers stop watching last year.

       Read This Next: Marvel's Jessica Jones Names a Most Evil Villain—Abuse. 
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One of the most interesting developments this past season was traditionally tough women and characters traditionally positioned as damsels making profound alliances. Take the alliance of warrior Brienne of Tarth and Lady Sansa Stark. Brienne is a trained fighter, one of the toughest people in the brutal world of Game of Thrones. This season, she swears her sword to Sansa Stark, a character once reviled by viewers for being a girly girl consumed by courtly desires. But Sansa is also a survivor—she persists through violence and abuse not because she’s a “badass” but because she contains an innate courage. It guided her through sustained trauma and became more powerful than any physical weapon ever could be.

Brienne of Tarth and Sansa Stark, played by Sophie Turner, in the sixth season of Game of Thrones.

After detailing the litany of horrors Sansa has been subjected to, Nikki Stafford wrote in her recap of the season six finale, “The Winds of Winter”:

“So yeah, she’s been through some stuff, and while the men have been trained in weaponry and war from the moment they were big enough to pick up a wooden sword, she was trained in embroidery and how to curtsey, and yet by osmosis this little girl has grown into a woman who can help strategize against the enemy.”

This show might be rooted in medieval fantasy, but these are contemporary feminist politics wielded by Strong Female Characters, and a lot of them at that.

One more example. Because tough women protagonists are not only challenging the trope status quo in superhero, fantasy, postapocalyptic, and science fiction genres—they’re doing so in spy-fi too.

The 2015 film Spy is about multiple tough women that turned out to be so much more interesting and subversive than its marketing suggested. Director Paul Feig’s understanding of genre and gender tropes means they are used or modified for engaging (rather than lazy) storytelling. When we meet Melissa McCarthy’s character, Susan Cooper, she’s a Moneypenny to a 007 type. She’s good at that job, but it’s a CIA desk job she’s allowed herself to be stuck in—a result of the manipulative charm of Agent Fine, the dashing male field agent to whom she’s assigned. Susan, an analyst ranked at the top of her class, as well as a classified field agent, is also a classic victim to imposter syndrome, which her mentor has exploited.

When a mission goes bad and compromises the identities of agents, only someone who is virtually invisible can do the job. Cooper, considered “tame” by office coworkers, volunteers as tribute. First, she does so out of a sense of duty to Fine, but then it’s because it’s her true calling.

Melissa McCarthy as Susan Cooper in Spy.

Before sending Cooper on the mission, her boss reviews an impressive old training video and recognizes that structural patterns have kept her from her potential.

Cooper isn’t just some gender-swapped action hero or “female James Bond.” Spy subverts Bondian tropes not just by having women be quicker-thinking, more resourceful, and more resilient than their male colleagues, and not just by satirizing the absurdity of spy-adventure films and the men in them.

Spy also privileges female friendship and collaboration, explores female fears about self-worth and resistance to personal growth when it’s at the expense of a man, addresses how women in charge can smash glass ceilings, and shows how the people doing the behind-the-scenes, unglamorous support work (often women) are invaluable to the mission. Cooper’s colleague and best friend, Nancy, is a constant source of practical and emotional support: “Don’t worry,” she says. “I’m here for you, okay. I’ll talk you through it. Everything’s going to be fine.”

As Megan Garber wrote for The Atlantic:

“Which makes Spy, ultimately, yet another incarnation of the oldest tale there is: the story of a woman who is way more badass than she seems to be. ... But the badassery, importantly, is defined here not by looks or the interest of princes, but by competence. Spy is about women—field agents, support agents, criminals, bosses in every sense of the word—who are very good at their jobs. It is also about men who are not very good at theirs. There's Ford, all swagger and silliness; there’s Fine, simpering and suave and smarmy. Susan, in the field, dispatches with men quickly and easily; it’s the women who put up a fight.”  

Not every one of these women should resonate with every one of us. What matters most is that we have a multitude of complex and diverse female characters we can talk about, get excited about, debate. The fact that we, especially as feminist media consumers and critics, have characters like Black Widow, Jessica Jones, Sansa Stark, and Susan Cooper, who are of so much nuanced substance that they can be debated and read from multiple perspectives, brings a richness to popular narratives that rises above, and revises, archetypes.

       Read This Next: Marvel's Jessica Jones Names a Most Evil Villain—Abuse. 
       Read This Next: Don't Hate on Sansa Stark's Powerful Femininity

by Jennifer K. Stuller
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Jennifer K. Stuller is Co-Founder and Director Emeritus of Programming and Events for GeekGirlCon -- an organization dedicated to the recognition, encouragement and support of women in geek and pop culture and STEM. Stuller is a writer, scholar, media critic, and feminist pop culture historian. She is an author and contributor to multiple publications, including Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology, and the editor of Fan Phenomena: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She has spoken at national and international conferences and regularly appears at the Comic Arts Conference, the Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses, and San Diego Comic-Con International. She is a frequent presenter on the topics of media literacy, geek activism and community-building, ever endeavoring to use her powers only for good.

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