Bookish Musings: Feminism and Double Standards in Books – Strong Characters

 
 

“Strong female character” is a pretty common phrase nowadays.

I even used to include a tag for it in my book review posts. I mean, we all know (or should know) that sexism is still a problem in our world, and I just wanted to do my part by pointing out the female characters who could help combat the sexism, who could show that women are just as good as men, etc.

But one day I decided to remove the “strong female character” tag from my blog.

Why? Because I stopped and asked myself, what even is a strong female character, and why is it that only certain characters are worthy of this recognition?

It’s a term that’s really doing more harm than good in my opinion, and I have multiple issues with it… so let’s discuss!


What is the Definition of Strong?

Somehow, the current meaning of “strong” seems to have become something along the lines of tough, emotionless, stoic, able and willing to fight, physically strong and skilled, etc.

But to me “strong” has nothing to do with being physically strong or kicking ass. To me it means staying true to yourself and not letting your circumstances turn you cruel, no matter what shit life throws your way. But that’s my personal definition, which means many people might not agree with it. And it’s a very broad definition. If I used that to classify characters as strong, well, most of them would fall within that classification.

So how on earth does one decide who gets to be considered strong? Who gets to make this definition?

The second, more pressing issue with “strong female characters” though, and the part where double standards comes into play, is…

 

Why is the word female in there?

Why do we never talk about “strong male characters”? Is it just automatically assumed that all male characters are strong simply because they’re men? But women aren’t and therefore have to prove themselves to be like men before they can be considered strong?

Or are we just excluding male characters altogether by saying they’re not strong? Or saying that we don’t give a crap if they’re strong or not because they don’t deserve recognition and we should only focus on the women?

Or is it simply based on femininity and masculinity? And so men automatically get considered strong because they’re generally more masculine, and we throw the “strong” label on there to point out the masculine women? But then where does that leave feminine men? Are they still strong because they’re men, or have they been kicked out of the club for being too feminine? And why, exactly, is femininity even considered a weak thing? And what about anyone who’s transgender? Or those who identify as both genders or genderfluid or agender or any other non-binary gender? Should we start including terms such as “strong non-binary character” or “strong feminine male character” or “half-strong character”? When put that way, it does seem rather ridiculous to include a gender in the term at all, at least to me. And it all seems so arbitrary.

So whatever the reasoning behind the label “strong female character,” it seems sexist and harmful to someone.

 

My Final Thoughts

As I said, I used to use the term myself, so this post isn’t about berating anyone who uses it. The problem is that pointing out “strong female characters” seems like a great, feminist thing to do, but it’s deceptive because I feel it’s actually doing more harm than good by spreading this idea that most women, and possibly all feminine people, are automatically weak.

But strength is about more than kicking ass or being a leader or saving the world. YOU are strong. And so are the people around you. And the characters you read about. Even the most broken and flawed of characters, and people, can be strong. Because everyone is fighting battles, and strength is what keeps us going every day. Strength is about being true to ourselves, standing up for our beliefs, being understanding and kind to others, and doing our best in this ridiculous world, and that’s something anyone can do, regardless of gender.

 

More Feminism and Double Standards in Books Posts:

Love Triangles
Sexual Promiscuity
Emotion
Strong Characters

 
 
 

Talk to me!

What's YOUR definition of strong?
How do you feel about the term "strong female character"?
Do you think it's doing more harm than good, or do you think it's still a beneficial thing?
Why do you think we never talk about "strong MALE characters"?

 

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  1. Laura

    I totally agree with you! I’ve used this term many times myself, but when you really think about it, it is pretty harmful. I definitely feel like women in books have to earn the title of ‘strong’, whilst with men it’s pretty much assumed unless you’re told otherwise.
    A ‘strong female character’ seems to now just be shorthand for a tough, tomboyish character who can fight well, but personally I see strength more as an emotional thing. On the surface a character could seem weak (eg. they cry when bad things happen), but if they are surviving and getting through those bad things that happen to them, then they have strength.
    Great post! :)

    Laura recently posted: How did you choose your blog name?

    1. Kristen Burns

      Yes, you totally get what I was saying! That’s exactly what it seems the definition has become, but I also see strength as being an emotional thing, not a physical thing. And crying or showing emotion doesn’t make someone weak, as long as they keep pushing through. Thanks!

  2. Greg

    I think there was a time when “strong female character” meant a character who didn’t take any crap and stood up for herself, didn’t need a man to protect her necessarily, etc. And that was a reaction to women being portrayed in a sexist way. I think we’re way past that though (not saying there’s not sexism, just saying yeah there’s a spectrum now- we can have strong or weak characters, masculine or feminine or neither- it’s all good) so I would say you’re right- it’s an antiquated notion. I’ve used the phrase myself many times- and you also differentiate between just being tough vs being true to yourself- another good point. I’m going to think of this now the next time I praise a “strong female character.” Maybe I just need to ditch that. :)

    Great post. You’re on a roll w/ these…

    1. Kristen Burns

      Yeah, I feel like that was what I originally felt “strong female character” meant, and I love those characters who don’t take crap from people. But I feel like the definition has become completely twisted to no longer mean that, and really it’s still an arbitrary definition anyway. For example, it doesn’t make someone weak just because they need someone to protect them sometimes. I mean, isn’t that why we have cops and everything? I sure as hell wouldn’t be taking down a burglar if he broke into my house lol. So yeah, I no longer use “strong female character,” though I might occasionally refer to a character as strong and explain *why* he or she is strong since, as I said, I think everyone has different definitions (I’m remembering one review in particular in which I talked about a male character who was abused being strong because he stayed true to himself and all that).

      Thanks! I don’t have any more double standard posts planned, but I’ve got some other topics!

  3. Ashley G.

    Love this post! You make some very good points. One of the things I’ve been noticing about things that seem like feminism is that they often reverse sexism. It’s hard to see sometimes when we start excluding the men or that we’re actually saying women are better than men without realizing it because it’s so hidden. And we always seem to forget that strength comes in many different forms. It’s not just physical strength, but there’s mental strength and emotional strength, etc. and not just female characters have it. Excellent point!

    1. Kristen Burns

      Thanks! And I couldn’t agree more, sometimes people take something that’s meant to be feminism but twist so far that it goes straight back into sexism or they just become sexist against men instead. But true feminism shouldn’t be about insulting men, it should be about accepting everyone. And when we talk about “strong” characters, I feel like that kind of strength is not about physical strength at all but rather the emotional and mental strength you mention, and male characters deserve to be recognized for that just as much as female ones!

  4. Lola

    I have considered writing a post with this exact topic (or more focused on why i prefer realistic characters over strong ones), but I found it difficult to come up with the right way to write it. I agree with this post so much. I always used to dislike the term strong female character and try and avoid it in my reviews nowadays as I feel the term is at once a difficult one, because what does strong even mean? And at the same time it gives the implication that only strong characters are good ones.

    And yes I also would say strong has more to do with staying true to yourself or being afraid and doing it anyway, or mental strength or standing up for what you believe in, but it really depends on the context and the word strong is so vague, hence why i rather describe the exact things I like about the character instead of the word strong. Like saying a character has physical strength or fights for what they believes in, instead of calling them strong.

    In most cases strong seems to be used for physical powers or emotionless, which are both things I care less about in characters. I can enjoy reading about a character who can kick ass and fight, but what’s more important to me is that I like them as a character overall and that it makes sense or I understand why they are the way they are. I care about them being realistic and their personality and character making sense. And I rather have them show emotions than being emotionless.

    Although I also don’t think everyone should stop using the term, I just personally prefer to avoid the term strong. I might’ve used it in older reviews, but I try my best to not use it now anymore. And if a reviewer uses the term strong in their reviews I would like to know what they mean with the term as else it’s hard to gauge what it means.

    I personally mostly care about if a character acts realistic of consistent with what we know of them. It’s okay to be sad and devastated when your boyfriend or girlfriend leaves you, especially when you cared about him/ her. That doesn’t make you weak and carrying on like nothing is wrong doesn’t make you strong. It’s just a different way of dealing with it. I like seeing those differences and a character their behavior tells you more about that character. Great post Kristen!

    Lola recently posted: Review: Yours Truly by Jen Meyers

    1. Kristen Burns

      I do remember you mentioning that you prefer to talk about how realistic characters are rather than “strong.” And you’re right, a character needn’t be strong to be well-written, developed, interesting, etc.

      I think we mostly agree on our definitions of the word, but it is a vague word since plenty of people have other definitions, and context is always important. I also try to point out what I specifically like about characters.

      I also completely agree that it seems to mean physically strong and emotionless, but that doesn’t make me like a character. I mean, I already had an entire post about how I like my characters to be emotional lol.

      That’s fair, to avoid using the term. Thinking back on my reviews, I know I used it in my review for Chasing Sunrise, but I did include an explanation of what I meant, why I felt he was strong. So I also think it’s fine to use it in a general sense, I just think that the fact that as a society we only have “strong female character” as a thing and that it often is reserved for the emotionless, masculine characters is what’s troublesome.

      And of course I agree that being upset about things doesn’t make someone weak. So I think we have pretty much the same viewpoint on this :-) Thanks!

  5. Paula Berinstein

    I think what a lot of people mean by strong, Kristen, is “assertive.” But I don’t personally care whether a character is strong, weak, or whatever. I like complex characters, which I think Lola is calling “realistic.” So I think the whole debate is a non-issue.

    1. Kristen Burns

      I think assertive was kind of the original definition, but I feel like it’s become twisted to mean emotionless, and that’s definitely not my definition. But I agree, it’s realism and complex characters that I like.

  6. Literary Feline

    I had not really thought about it before, but you are so right. I think we use “strong” as a catch-all phrase, even when there are much better words out there to describe the character.

    1. Kristen Burns

      So true! We’re all readers, and many of us writers, can we really not think of some better, more specific words to explain what characters are like?!

  7. Molly @ Molly's Book Nook

    Well, you kind of know my thoughts on strong female characters in terms of feminine roles. But I do agree with most of this. I feel like it’s on the rise because of the feminism movement. There’s a lot of “GIRLS RULE THE WORLD” mantra’s going around. Personally, I’m not a feminist, so that whole thing irritates me in itself. So, the “strong female character” label bothers me sometimes, too. Especially if I see people calling someone weak just because they’re in a feminine role. A female can show strength in many different ways, even if they’re in the kitchen. >.< But to your point, adding male or female is kind of unnecessary with this label. It can easily be said that the book has a strong character, or a strong lead, or is told from a strong point-of-view. I wouldn't say that using the word female really hurts anyone, though, unless it's used to put down roles (like I was talking about in my feminism post).

    Again, great post! You always get us thinking!

    Molly @ Molly's Book Nook recently posted: The No-Good Reading Slump: How To Get Out Of One

    1. Kristen Burns

      I remember seeing your post a while ago, but that’s why I have to ask, why don’t you consider yourself a feminist? Because your stance on things, on how women should be able to do what they love and what makes them happy, regardless of what’s feminine and all that, is exactly what I think feminism is about. Women being able to choose for themselves and be themselves and not be judged or shamed for it. I mean, I completely agree that anyone can show strength in many different ways and that being feminine or in a feminine role doesn’t make someone weak at all.

      As for the word female, it’s not that it’s a problem if someone is using literally just to describe a character who happens to be female. I just feel it’s a problem because, as a society in general, we don’t actually have the term “strong male character” or even “strong character,” and that begs the question to me of why women are the only ones who have to earn that title.

      Thanks!

      1. Molly @ Molly's Book Nook

        I don’t agree with the current feminist movement. Maybe in the purest form it means equality, but the way it is used today, I feel, is more of a “women are better” sense. I don’t think women are oppressed (in America). I don’t want to go too in depth because I feel like it’s a political topic, but I just don’t agree with a lot of what modern feminists are fighting for.

        For the word female, that makes sense. I feel like it’s a created phrase by women, though. You see all the time authors and readers praising the “strong female character” — usually female authors and female readers. So, a self-fulfilling prophecy (sort of).

        Molly @ Molly's Book Nook recently posted: Slump defeated & a giveaway!

        1. Kristen Burns

          That’s fair. I never really label myself either way, but I suppose, if I had to choose, I would call myself a feminist. But that doesn’t mean I stand for what every other person who labels themselves as a feminist stands for. Some people have twisted and convoluted it, but I know what I believe and support.

  8. Got My Book

    I agree that the trend to only label a woman as strong if she can fight is disturbing. I like to point out females who I think are strong, but I use a lot of different standards and include the why. It may be someone who stands by her convictions, or who endures difficult circumstance without giving up. I do it since I want people to recognize that there are lots of different kinds of strengths, and sometimes just getting out of bed in the morning counts.

    My Most Recent Discussion: Make New Friends, but Keep the Old: ReReading

    1. Kristen Burns

      Exactly! I have no issue with anyone using the word “strong” to describe any gender, it’s just the definition it seems to have taken on that’s bothersome to me. But I too sometimes describe a character as strong and then explain why, and I completely agree that there are different kinds of strengths, most definitely including the kinds you mentioned. Sometimes just getting out of bed does count.

    1. Kristen Burns

      Yeah, of course strong characters can be literally, physically strong as well, but for me I use to mean more about emotional/mental strength. Thanks! I’m glad it’s given you something to think about :-)

  9. Genni @ Ready, Set, Read!

    I would have to say that I do talk about whether or not the main character is a “strong” in my reviews, but I definitely see where you are coming from. It makes me rethink using the term. My definition of strong is a person who rises to adversity and remains true to themselves no matter what. Whenever I do have a female main character who is on equal standing as a man, I always refer to her as a strong female character. But I guess that is something to change, isn’t it? Just because a woman isn’t equal to a man in society doesn’t make her any less strong. This really opened my eyes, Kristin! Amazing discussion post. :D

    1. Kristen Burns

      Oh I have nothing against the word “strong” in general. I’ve used it in reviews to describe both female and male characters. It’s just the fact that it’s so often only used to talk about females that bothers me. Like, I never had a tag for “strong male characters” even though I did used to have one for “strong female characters” because that’s, you know, the common thing. And it’s the way we tend to classify females as strong only when they’re “like a man” or have masculine type traits. But that’s why I eventually reevaluated my use of the word. Referring to a character as strong for rising to adversity and remaining true to themselves is a perfectly good time to use the word though, I think, for either gender—it’s similar to my definition even :-) I think it also helps if reviews include what they mean by “strong” since we all have different definitions, you know? I’m really glad you enjoyed the post, thank you!

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  11. Trish @ Between My Lines

    I love your thoughts on this. My definition of strong is someone who is resilient. And yes I’ve thrown out ‘strong female character’ time after time in reviews and never really considered why I was including the word female in there. Now that I think about it, it’s not empowering and you’ve really made me think twice.
    Good thinking Kristen.

    Trish @ Between My Lines recently posted: Postcard to Keeper of the Light by Diane Chamberlain

    1. Kristen Burns

      I agree that resilience is a great definition of strength. I used to use “strong female character” too, so I totally get it, but I’m glad I could make you think twice about it :-) Thanks!

  12. Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight

    So, this is an amazing post! I had never thought of it, but WOW, it makes a LOT of sense. Because you are so right- why do we have to qualify all female characters- or anyone!- as strong or… weak? I mean, if she isn’t strong, is she just weak by default? I don’t know, but now that you mentioned it, I am not comfortable with iT! I mean, I think I get why it was originally used- because frankly, there weren’t a lot of female characters doing previously male-character-dominated things. Like fighting battles and leading revolutions and ummmm becoming Mockingjays ;) So when those characters started popping up (thank goodness they did!), I guess there needed to be a way to say “HEY LOOK, this isn’t just a thing dudes can do!”. But I think you are so right that we have hopefully moved beyond just the idea of a meek woman and a tough guy being the only viable options- because hell, those aren’t even the only gender options, like you said! This was a VERY eye-opening post, thank you so much for sharing it!

    Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight recently posted: Monthly Minutes at Midnight: June 2016

    1. Kristen Burns

      Thank you! You make a really good point too, if someone isn’t strong are they automatically weak? Is there no in between? I really don’t mind use of the word strong though, I just feel like it’s something that should belong to all genders and should maybe have a broader definition. Though I don’t use it much because the definition is just so skewed, and I feel like most characters are strong. But yeah, it probably did come about because of what you said, though I do think we’re past the point of needing to point those characters out. I’m glad you enjoyed my post!

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  14. Katie @ Doing Dewey

    I still have mixed feelings about this term. I feel as though there isn’t equivalent use of the phrase “strong male character” because there are plenty of strong male characters in literature, while there’s a dearth of strong female characters. I typically use this label to describe female characters who don’t take anyone’s shit and aren’t necessarily likeable and I like to point out this kind of character because I think we’re missing diversity among female characters. I feel as though female characters are expected to always be likeable, while male characters are not, in the same way women can be expected to be more socially compliant than men. I agree with you that the term can be problematic though. My biggest problem with it is that characters described as “strong female characters” are often those that embody stereotypically male characteristics and as you point out, femininity should not be equated with weakness.

    1. Kristen Burns

      See, I don’t feel like there’s a dearth of strong female characters, I think it’s just the common definition that’s a problem. I mean, you mentioned that the ones getting that label are usually the ones with more male characteristics, and there might not be a lot of female characters that fall under that definition, but under my definition, for example, I think there are lots. I do see what you’re saying though about them more likeable and socially compliant though. I never even thought about how the females are more expected to be likeable whereas people tend to still like the men even when they’re roguish and morally ambiguous and rude. Basically, antiheroes are popular, but only if they’re men.

  15. James

    All I have to say is thank for coming at it in a gender neutral way. As a fan of stories with both strong male and female characters. It’s frustrating how often I have to settle for one or more of the following, strong females but weak males, flat stereotypical “strong females”, weak females that happens to be the protagonist,stories where the “strong female” still checks all stereotypical female character boxes(I’m looking at you twilight),stories where masculinity is treated like a illness, and last but not least the assumption that the audience is female, is it so hard to believe men would like strong female characters to.

    1. Kristen Burns

      I’m so glad to know my post is appreciated! I completely agree. I’m a female, yet I like to see strong characters of all genders, so why would male readers feel any differently? And every gender character can be strong or weak, so it’s weird how the females are always the ones focused on, and how characters get forced into specific stereotypes or given specific traits.

  16. Roberta R.

    Hi! I’m usually shy when it comes to commenting on old posts, but since you recently boosted this one on Twitter, I decided to read it (because it DID sound interesting) and to join the party…

    Quote:
    “Should we start including terms such as “strong trans character” or “strong feminine male character” or “half strong character”?”
    LOL, if you put it this way, it IS ridiculous to use that label. And all the questions you asked yourself thorough this post are valid. This is proof that the world is changing (though too many people are resisting the change and trying to force others into old, harmful stereotypes). I believe that the “strong female character” trope/definition was born for the right reasons, and it probably was useful for a while, but now it sounds just like another limitation to the endless possibilities and nuances of a character…no matter if female or not (quote: “Or are we just excluding male characters altogether by saying they’re not strong? Or saying that we don’t give a crap if they’re strong or not because they don’t deserve recognition and we should only focus on the women?”). I honestly can’t remember if I ever used it or not – but even if I did, I plan on avoiding it altogether from now on. Though on the other hand, I have problems with the “whiny” label as well – more often than not, it seems to me that a character is called “whiny” when they muse/are angsty about something for more than a chapter. So, maybe, the notion of “strong (especially female) character” is so ingrained in our psyche that we don’t give her (or him, but the adjective “whiny” is usually aimed at girls…) the luxury to feel sad and helpless anymore…

    Great discussion post BTW ?.

    1. Kristen Burns

      No worries, I love all thoughtful comments, even on old posts!

      It really does sound ridiculous when you start replacing the word ‘female’. I agree it’s a well-meaning term, that’s why I never get angry when people use it, but I don’t like the implications of it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with referring to a character as strong (without the gender qualifier) as long as you explain why, since everyone has a diff definition. Whiny can be problematic too. And yeah, it does usually get placed on women just for having feelings. But that’s another reason I don’t like this whole notion of “strong female character” that’s been created—women don’t need to be stoic and emotionless to be strong! Emotions are strong too!

      Thanks :-)