why strong female leads don't work (and what does)

by - 8/15/2017



"This movie has a strong female lead!" "We need more movies with strong female leads!" "a lack of strong female characters in this story..." 

and so on and so on, into eternity, people demanding "strong female leads/characters". There's a pushback against the lack of well-developed, strong, independent female characters in media, says the internet, and we have to fix that. Female characters are put under the microscope, examined for strength and well-written-ness and representation, a checklist of qualities they should fulfill before we scream and flail and applaud them all across the internet for everybody to see. "Strong female characters" capable of handling themselves are heroes, a response to men dominating stories, women putting men to shame. They're role models/icons/amazing hero goddess queens who can do no wrong. Or they're not diverse enough, or they're poorly-written, or they have to be saved by a man, or they don't have enough dialogue, or they're dominated by the male lead, or they're not there at all and the movie is a huge sham, and so on and so forth. "Why couldn't this story have been about [female lead] instead?" or "Why didn't this movie have more women in it?" or "an all-women version of [insert story here]." 

No. 

no no no no no

Listen, I love my female characters as much as anybody! I love watching girls kick butt. I love watching girls wield lightsabers (or blasterssss) or drive fast cars. I love watching girls be awesome and I love it when awesome girls head up a story! Of course I do. I'm a [young] woman, and it's important for me to see female role models in media. That matters, I agree. But 

"Strong female leads" almost never work. And they're not empowering.

"What's wrong with you?" you ask. To which I respond "a lot of things," but that doesn't apply here. 

I don't enjoy most of these strong female leads. 

I don't like it. I don't want to see it. Actually, I think it's a little bit insulting. When we laud female characters for beating up all the men and being the STRONGEST AND MOST POWERFUL STRONGER THAN ALL THOSE DUDES we more than anything turn women into a competition, into a strength test, into misdirected anger against men, into agendas and unrealistic images. We attempt to shove women into male roles to prove how strong they are and ultimately turn them into a joke, because of the simple but radical truth that men and women are different. 

I want to watch real strong women, and I want to watch women in women's roles. 

Let's look at a few examples, shall we? I want to throw out some female characters praised as strong and badass and hardcore that really...don't work, and the amazing ladies that do, and why I think that is. (obviously based on my own opinion of what works and what doesn't, but.)

female action heroes

A big one right now! (at the time I'm writing this Atomic Blonde just came out, so I've been hearing a lot about it.) We want more female action heroes! We want a female James Bond! We want to watch some female spies kick butt! 

Except no, we don't, because that doesn't work. (Because again, the whole "men and women are different" thing.) Female action heroes, for the most part, attempt to sell us the idea that women can fill the exact same Jason Bourne/super-spy/etc role that men fill, that they can knock out a whole host of thugs, when...that really isn't how they work. I'm all here for female action heroes! But you cannot put them in the same situations, give them the same heavy physical missions, without suspending disbelief to the point where it's just insulting. 

Here's an example using Atomic Blonde. (it's a political channel, yes, but ignore that in favor of the actual science and proof and argument regarding female action heroes alone.)


Not to use myself as an authority, but I'm currently a green belt in karate/mixed-martial-arts, and I've been around it for a LONG TIME. I've fought dudes way bigger than me. I've watched other girls at higher levels fight dudes. I've been around a lot of it. With technique, with skill, you can absolutely beat up a guy twice your size, both on the ground and hand-to-hand. (I've seen it happen. I've beat dudes before, mwhaha.) But you cannot go about it in the same way, and you're going to have some difficulty. When female action leads beat up a whole stairwell full of thugs with ease, when they perform physically improbable/impossible feats in order to beat up those dudes, as fun as it is to watch...it's insulting. If the only way your female lead can #beatthosemen is through defying physics, what's the point? 

WHAT DOES WORK:

Sliding on over to one of my all-time favorite movies and a truly incredible action star who happens to be a woman....all hail the queen, IMPERATOR FURIOSA of Mad Max: Fury Road. 


Furiosa is an A+ female action hero whom I adore, because she's not a dude. She doesn't have to fulfill the role of a dude and she isn't asked to. She is a woman being a woman, and that makes her effective, because we aren't asked to believe anything improbable. She's a woman protecting other women, acting out of protection and compassion, and she uses uniquely female traits to do so, which is AWESOME. She's tough, yes, and more physical, but she plays to her own strengths. She doesn't kick the crap out of men ten times bigger than her with ease. She uses cunning, and mental tricks, and general sneakiness. She uses a gun (the great equalizer, really) and REALLY FAST APOCALYPSE CARS WITH SPIKES and in hand to hand combat, she doesn't defeat them with ease, because she can't, but that doesn't detract from her strength. She isn't a replacement for or the physical equal of the male lead, Max (whom I also love). They each have different strengths, weaknesses, personalities, and those compliment each other, because she isn't forced to one-up him on every occasion. And it's believable. Female action heroes find their strength from their femininity, from their compassion and caring, and there is nothing wrong with using these feminine traits to have some different tactics. In fact, it's kinda great. (the following fight scene is beautiful and i love it but also it's a very good example of their varying strengths and how to HAVE A FEMALE FIGHT IN A WAY THAT ISN'T OVERPOWERED AND STUPID GOSH)

honorable mentions for great and still-feminine female action heroes include all the wives from Fury Road, Mako Mori (Pacific Rim), Jyn Erso (Rogue One and yes, I'm totally counting her, KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT), etc.

female superheroes

Granted, this is a bit different, because superheroes have, you know, superpowers. So this is one instance where women easily crushing dudes is fun as heck to watch and not irritating, because of super-cool super-powers and such equaling everything out. But. There are still some problems here, especially with female heroes with less powerful powers and such. 

Lookin' at you, Black Widow. 

I love Black Widow! I love her comics! There are some especially good comics that make her slightly more human and realistic and actually make sense, while playing up on her feelings and femininity, and I like those. (Black Widow by Nathan Edmondson is my favorite by far.) So this is mainly directed towards MCU Natasha, as much as I love her also, and the way she's often treated by fans and critics and writers.
Image result for black widow gif
best black widow scene by far, honestly.
Movie-Black-Widow has no superpowers, not really. She's a super-secret super-awesome agent in skintight gear (not the problem here, actually) who BEATS EVERYONE WITH EASE, especially in the first few movies in which she appears. Which is a shame, because she has the potential to be a lot more, and the more mental aspects of her missions are much more interesting. Maybe the biggest shame about MCU Black Widow is the way we celebrate her insane fight scenes but the moment she showed some feminine features, some feelings and vulnerability, that was torn apart. Remember Age of Ultron, the movie that isn't half as bad as people complain about it being? Remember that time when the writers were ripped up and down because Black Widow showed sadness and regret over the fact that she couldn't have kids? Remember when that feeling (a perfectly normal and understandable and female feeling) was shunned and rejected and called sexist? Remember when she dared to have a romantic arc and people got REALLY REALLY ANGRY ABOUT IT because she had actual feelings? Remember all that? Because I do, and I'm still angry about it. Black Widow is reduced to the typical female hero and not allowed to have any female qualities, and it kind of sucks. This doesn't work, and we need to stop treating female characters this way. 

WHAT DOES WORK:

So NOW let's shift to another amazing female superhero-who-doesn't-really-have-superpowers, Iron Fist's Colleen Wing
Image result for colleen wing gif

I love Colleen! A martial arts master, a sensei, a leader and teacher, a hardcore woman who's also allowed to have feelings. (keep your Iron Fist negativity away from me, or maybe don't, because I'm ready to Fight.) Colleen is able to hold her own, but that's due to her incredible technique, and for the most part this show does a beautiful job at showing that. While she's able to win, while she beats up people and it's great, she also has difficulty, especially when there's a size/strength difference or the odds are stacked against her. She struggles and gets knocked down a lot, and it's her technique that wins, and not easily. She's also allowed to have real, actual feelings, to be a sensitive and compassionate person with a love interest. She's also deeply feminine and her strengths lie in that -- she's a teacher, she cares for and nurtures and looks after her students, she's not emotionally closed-off, people and relationships are important to her. The following is one of my favorite show/movie fight scenes, because it accurately shows both technique and the realistic difficulty of fighting dudes when you're much smaller than them. 



honorable mentions: Elektra Natchios (Daredevil), Wonder Woman (which I have never actually seen, but from everything I see she's a great example of this also and deserves credit from even my marvel-loyal self), Kate Bishop (Hawkeye), Misty Knight (Luke Cage)


I could keep going forever, but in the spirit of keeping this post slightly less than book-size, I'll have to continue with my other grievances later. For me, it boils down to this: 

women aren't men, and pretending that they can fill the same roles or super-powering them in order to achieve that isn't powerful, it's insulting. 

It suggests that our own different strengths are less, that we should be able to do everything men can do and fill the same roles in order to be strong, and I hate that more than I hate most things. 

Stop doing this. Stop writing "strong female leads" and maybe just...start writing actual women, for a change. 

*rage over, for now*

- Aimee

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29 Comments

  1. Preach it, girl! This is so true and needs to be said. Thank you for being brace enough to do it.

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    1. Dude I have so many thoughts I could do this forever.

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  2. Okay yes I LOVE THIS. I actually have a really hard time writing realistic emotions for my girl characters (I think one of my MC's is turning into the "strong female lead" type character and NO I SHALL NOT LET THAT HAPPEN.), so this was incredibly helpful for me.

    Alright, question though - what about female characters that have lived really hard lives, and so they've kinda learned to turn off most of their more vulnerable emotions to protect themselves, in a way? Because I've got characters like this, and I DON'T KNOW what to do with them. Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? *wants the Aimee's opinion* xD

    ~ Savannah | Scattered Scribblings

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    1. I know you asked for Aimee's opinion, but imma give you mine because I can and NO ONE CAN STOP ME.

      I think that female MC's who have a difficult past are allowed to be more emotionally closed off from relationships. I think it's okay because it sounds believable. Like in real life, if you have a rough past, then you're probably going to be more emotionally distant from people. It's not like it's only fictional characters who deal with that.

      So yeah, that's my two-cents for you. Hope you don't mind my barging in and throwing my opinion at your face.

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    2. I think obviously it's okay!! It's a thing that happens, and it does change you, and I have no problem with more closed-off, relationship-challenged, emotion-distanced women. (See Furiosa, above, and most of the others.) I think you deal with that in a realistic fashion. Here I would be more dealing with women being written and treated as thought they're the exact same as men, which isn't true, not necessarily the fact that women need to be emotional or more "caring" or something. :)

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    3. Awesome, thank you both! That's epic - I've always been a little worried about that with some of my characters, but I guess I'll just roll with it now xD.

      ~ Savannah | Scattered Scribblings

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  3. I have been trying to figure out how to say this for so long. I want women who don't have to be men, to be thought of as strong. Great Post!

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  4. YESSSS YESYESYES FINALLY LIKE *HAS NO WORDS* JUST YES

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  5. YES! This post, Aimee. Thank you for giving the smackdown on why we need female characters who aren't trying to fill a male character's role.

    I think Wonder Woman is a really good example. (Of course you might hate me because I'm talking about the new 2017 DC Wonder Woman.) She's a good female lead because she's not just barging in and kicking butt without actual training. Like, she freaking trained for a really long time in the beginning of the movie. So it actually sounds probable that she can kick butt because she's had the training.

    You should see it, it's really good and it was filled with themes that I think you talked about in your Rogue One review on your old blog. Wonder Woman was (at least to me) a movie about ordinary people choosing to do the right thing even when it wasn't the easy thing to do.

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    1. Wonder Woman definitely looks great in that regard! Obviously I haven't seen it (and don't intend to, honestly) but it looks very well done and I like the way they did Diana from what I've seen. I'm here for things like that.

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    2. Ah, okay well if you don't want to see it that's fine. But I am sad that you won't get to witness the amazing-ness of that plot twist. XD

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  6. YAAAASSS. When I saw the title of this post I wanted to scream and reach through the computer screen and highfive you. You hit on one of the BIGGEST issues I have with our current culture. I actually just recently did a post semi-similar to this about how Cinderella is actually an amazingly "strong female character" even though she doesn't wield a blade and is actually gentle and has *GASP* FEELINGS. I just feel so strongly about this. Someone actually asked me just yesterday about writing a guest post about this very subject, so I'll probably be ranting about it even more soon. Heh.

    BUT THIS POST. THANK YOU!!!!!! What confuses me the most is how all these females are claiming we girls are just as good or better than men. Because we can BE men and NOT be feminine. But...aren't we actually DEGRADING ourselves claiming this, not lifting ourselves u? By being ASHAMED of being able to give birth and be girly and have feminine qualities, we're literally saying, "Everything about being a girl is stupid, let's kill that part of ourselves and be like MEN." That...that makes no sense to me. Excuse me, but I think growing a HUMAN inside one's body and then pushing them out takes some serious strength! And I realize the point is everyone wants to prove that females are more than JUST child-bearers. Sure, okay, that's fine. But we shouldn't be downgrading the importance of having children!

    And then there's the whole how dare female characters have EMOTIONS. Noooo. If they're not fighting tooth and nail every. single. scene. with no emotion to speak of, than they're considered WEAK. Well, guess what? Having emotions is STRENGTH. Loving and caring for people is STRENGTH. It's EASY to hide emotions away. It's takes true strength and courage to let your emotions loose. And what really gets me is when all the fangirls go crazy over when a male characters shows any form of emotion. We love it! But when a GIRL shows emotion. Welp, let's pull out the torches and pitchforks because how dare those producers make her such a weak female character??? Uuuugh. Someone save me now. Besides, all those emotionless, macho characters are BORING. There's no depth to them. They're just a pair of muscles. Is that honestly how we want the world viewing females? THAT'S how we're claiming "equality"???

    And THAT'S what really gets me. The call for equality. This culture is practically making a call for us females to GET RID OF the traits that make us females. But I don't WANT "equality". Not like that. I want the world to realize MALES AND FEMALES ARE DIFFERENT. And that's a GOOD thing. If all females became male-like then...we'd be missing on half of how the world is supposed to work. God made males a certain way to do their part, and He made Females a certain way to do their part. And when we come together with all our DIFFERENT strengths, we can work TOGETHER and make the world actually function the way God intended it to. We shouldn't be fighting for equality. We should be accepting that we're DIFFERENT and USE our differences to make an awesome team.

    Ahem. ANYWAYS. I could literally write a book on the subject. I should really stop now before this comment becomes a mile long. I just so appreciate this post. I'm sooooo tired of what people believe makes a "strong female lead". >.> It's really encouraging to see others have these views about it, too, and speak out. Thank you, Aimee! You're the best!

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    1. MAN I LOVE CINDERELLA SO MUCH. I'm gonna have to link to your post in another post I do soon! She's such a good example and I love her muchly. <3

      I would so much rather watch a movie or read a book about women being women, you know? Showing our strengths in all their glory. Because women ARE strong in our own right! We HAVE KIDS for heaven's sake. We CrEATE LIFE. xD We raise families and guide small humans into becoming adults. We support and take care of our communities. We manage things. We multitask like a boss. We can be businesswomen, scientists, and so on and so forth, but there's nothing good that can come out of pretending that we're the same and can do everything the same way. It sets women up for failure when you try to hold them up to everything dudes do and it's just a mess.

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  7. Oh, thank goodness someone pointed out the physical improbability side of female action heroes. That's driven me crazy for ages. Denying the physical differences between men and women and creating such unrealistic characters is almost as degrading as ignoring female characters altogether. As a side note, I'd like to add that I think the main issue with Natasha's character arc in AoU was the presentation of the whole romance, not its existence. It felt contrived and extrenuous, and while I don't necessarily mind the existence of the ship (let her have feelings, gosh), their interactions felt pretty forced and out of character, you know? I just wish it was written more naturally.
    Oh yeah, watch Wonder Woman. I think you'd enjoy it. I'm a sucker for historical fiction and films with good characters and strong themes about choosing to do what's right and self sacrifice and stuff, so it's exactly my taste. It's also based in Greek mythology and stuff, which is cool as heck.

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    1. I'm there with you with Natasha. It really was awkwardly shoved in, and I'd be the first to critique that, because awkwardddd. It just bothered me that people were offended about the idea of her having *gasp* feelings and a love interest in the first place! And especially when she expressed feelings of regret regarding her backstory and was slammed for it.

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  8. This is really true. Women fighting men should be written in a more realistic way. I honestly don't have much to say about this because I don't watch much superhero shows but it was nice to think about how this is an actual problem.

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    1. Yeah, I'm a fight geek so I have a lot of rage about it, lol

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  9. I have been WAITING for someone to say this! You are so right.

    And yes, I totally count Jyn Erso - I was quite happy with the fact that she saved dudes sometimes and dudes saved her sometimes. It was balanced, and she was still feminine while being awesome alongside the male characters.

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  10. I agree with a ton of the points you've posed, Aimee! I've done martial arts when I was younger too, and when I sparred against guys (as I was the only girl who stayed up in the higher levels until I had to leave for reasons), when the guys kicked, it hurt, and I did have to strageically think different as to how to work my way around my opponent. And yes, some of those sparring matches actually resulted in losses, but what more could I do?

    It's funny, too, because I remember talking to people about Black Widow's arc and it IRKS me so much because why can't people realize that women warriors also have feelings?

    We do need wholesome strong women, and not just strong fighting women. Thank you for writing this. ^.^

    xoxo Abigail Lennah | ups & downs

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    1. I just want more actual strong women, y'know? That means so much more to me than watching women defeat physics in order to look triumphant.

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  11. BLESS THIS POST. Send it to the ends of the earth. Shout it from the rooftops. Thank you.

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  12. THANK YOU!!! This is spot on! Women and men are different. One is not inferior, but to try to make a woman everything a man is is rather insulting.

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    1. I mean, how dare you suggest that men and women might be different... :P

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  13. I like this post very, very much! I really appreciate how well thought out your posts are. You put a lot of thought into your posts and it shows.

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