What Makes a “Strong” Female Character?

Is Wonder Woman or Atomic Blonde your ideal “strong” female character? Muriel Stockdale offers insights that might make you think twice about how to create a truly inspiring female character.


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Amy Adams (right) as Louise Banks in ARRIVAL by Paramount Pictures. Photo Credit: Jan Thijs

I’ve been thinking about the portrayal of women in entertainment for quite some time now because I’m working on a pitch for a TV series. The portrayal of women is changing but is it changing fast enough or in the right direction?

When I watch British programs (I am a Brit), streaming services or cable channels I am hopeful. Portrayals like QE2 in The Crown, Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, Claire in Outlander, the entire female cast of Big Little Lies and even Lagertha in Vikings present rich, in depth, real-life facets to all kinds of women.

When I watch a mainstream film, the female characters prevalent usually disappoint me. Charlize Theron’s Atomic Blonde and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman are brilliantly performed and engaging characters, but I have many problems with them.


Atomic Blonde: Atomic Failure or Atomic Success?


Why is it that so many ‘strong’ female characters in film must fight like a man, grab weapons like a man, and lead like a man? It is almost as if the characters were written as men and switched over to fulfill some marketing directive.

How many times after the release of Atomic Blonde did you hear that Charlize Theron should be the next Bourne or Bond? OK, we want to see women in powerful roles but do we want them to be cutout characters? Take Victoria and Abdul, for example, the film appears to be about a very powerful and important woman. Instead it portrays a sad, failing queen who needs to be saved by a handsome young man.

In light of daily revelations of sexual abuse, power plays and misogyny, it is imperative now that we get these portraits right, whether they are heroes or villains. I get tired of tropes like if the character feels low, she downs a shot of scotch, or if she feels angry, she punches a bag. I feel a bit nauseous when I see a huge blockbuster poster with a woman pointing a gun. Though it seems that guns always solve the problems of the story in blockbusters, that is not true in real life and certainly not true for women.

I enjoy a good blockbuster; I loved The Hunger Games and Divergent but is there anything real about Katniss or Tris? Can we really tell them apart from each other? Can we get past this cut out cartoon of a strong woman?

The Bechdel-Wallace test gives us too thin of a structure by which to evaluate the importance of female characters in a story.

1. The movie must have at least two women in it,
2. who talk to each other,
3. about something besides a man.

If we want to be strict about the test in evaluating Big Little Lies it would fail because, really, the elephant in all rooms and all the conversation is about that man (no spoilers here). But the portrayal of the women and their interaction is complex, interesting, true, set in real life and brilliantly performed.


How the Bechdel Test Should Be Used


I think a show has failed the Bechdel-Wallace test even when a lead female is kickass and the requirements are met if that show does not create a well-rounded and grounded woman’s story. Apparently, Wonder Woman and Atomic Blonde both passed this test, but I did not feel like they did in either film while watching. The vast expanse between say Big Little Lies and Atomic Blonde for delving into the dimensions of the women portrayed is profound.

An all time favorite of mine for great female characters is Damages with Glenn Close and Rose Byrne. I binge watched that gripping and somewhat horrible story of manipulation, power and abuse in awe. These were not nice characters but very engaging. This is a show about women who deal with their problems in ways that women might, same with Downton Abbey, The Bletchley Circle and The Good Wife. There are a slew of strong female leads in Game of Thrones. Then there is Homeland with Claire Danes as a perennially conflicted and deeply flawed character. These are all TV though, where are these women in film?

What am I looking for here? I am not sure, but I know it when I see it. I also know it when I see what I don’t like. I can add to the gun toting, scotch guzzling and bag punching that I don’t like to see women fighting martial arts. I cannot ever imagine punching someone in the face and can’t imagine how that might solve a problem without creating greater problems. Meanwhile, what would a successful defense of rape look like? I don’t rule out that kind of a scene, I don’t think I have ever seen one.


INTERVIEW: Claire Danes and Screenwriter Daniel Pearle, on A Kid Like Jake


I am much happier with Amy Adams character Louise Banks in Arrival than I am with Rey in The Last Jedi or Jyn Erso in Rogue One. Both are too similar to too many other female rebels populating science fiction. I love that Bank’s foiled the need for battle in Arrival. Louise used her mind, and her intuition to solve the problem of the story. We need more stark departures like this from the typical tropes of male-like female characters.

I get it that the canvas for a film is much more compact than that of a TV series but can we please focus on more real female characters in film, too. Hidden Figures was a huge success; surely that film can pave the way. Instead we have touted strong female characters like Moana in Moana, Belle in Beauty and the Beast, the Bellas of Pitch Perfect, and as mentioned before Atomic Blonde and Wonder Woman. Again, I cry out for more strong female characters that are more than cartoon cutouts.

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3 thoughts on “What Makes a “Strong” Female Character?

  1. donag

    Late to this discussion, but I couldn’t agree more. “Strong” women need not be violent, even when they are taller than the male in the conflict. Wonder Woman can get away with it because she is a goddess, I assume, but even there, the early Greek goddesses did not behave like super heroes do in today’s film franchises. (Anyway: I’m more than a little bored with super heroes nowadays.) The strong women depicted in Little Women, Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” along with the controversy about the author’s sexuality are memorable. Also, not to mention Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes” amid her flirtation with Communism. Powerful women punch with ideas, not fists.

  2. jeffguenther

    I must admit I rather liked Wonder Woman. But that was years ago and perhaps the character should be judged against that day’s standards and the very low (almost deus ex) bar that superhero concepts set for the writer.
    I drifted off to sleep during The Force Awakens. There’s some irony there. Right in the middle of the big light saber duel. MC perfection = no tension = no viewer involvement. Not a strong female character, there. Not a character, at all.

  3. Mayfwriter

    I share your distaste for the concept that one creates strong female characters by having them be physically violent, even highly successfully so. For me, a character’s strength, whether man or woman, depends on how strongly they adhere to their values in the face of the most intense adversity which a writer can dream up.
    A similar error, which, no matter what the gender of the lead character, can lead to really bad action adventure films, is the idea that conflict is action and/or violence. Conflict is the clash of closely held values and may lead to action and/violence but in no way must necessarily do so. Despite gargantuan changes in time, place, and culture, people still watch and enjoy movies based on Jane Austen novels which are indeed filled with great intense conflict, yet present that without much if any violence.

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