Tuesday, 14 April 2015

What Makes a Strong Female Character?

If you've been following my blog, you should already know that I am an active feminist considering my numerous articles pertaining to the treatment of women in cinema. I've got so many articles on the subject it can be hard to keep track. Having a strong female character is a selling point for me in most films. I have been known to criticize films that lack strong female characters when there has been no apparent reason for it (I don't care what the trolls on IMDB say, I still stand by everything I have said about Black Sea and Outpost 37, there is no reason why either of those films had to have all-male casts).

Ironically, a lot of my favorite movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Lawrence of Arabia, Zulu, The Thing, and The Hurt Locker are films that have either all-male or predominantly male casts. Most of those films had some sort of justification for doing so, however. While I have indeed made a case for why Captain Nemo could be played effectively by a woman, this possibility would probably not occur to people working in 1954 though it doesn't seem to have occurred to any filmmakers since, considering later adaptations of the book simply tried to shove in a love interest, which of course brings up yet another absurd misconception I've discussed at lengthZulu and Lawrence of Arabia were both based on historical events in which only men were involved. The Thing could have worked with a female lead, but by utilizing an all-male cast, John Carpenter subverts his own slasher formula (which generally favors the virgin girl) making it harder to predict the outcome.

2001: A Space Odyssey was also being made at time when the space program was still very male-dominated (the only two women who had been in space at the time were both Russian, the first American woman in space did not happen until 15 years later). It is slightly more progressive than other films of its time in that it does depict female astronauts, even if they are mostly background roles and given little focus. The Discovery crew is still all-male, although considering three of them die in hibernation before we get to know them it makes very little difference. Many later science fiction films drawing off of 2001 also attempt to include at least one major female character, sometimes even making her the protagonist.

Still, I find a strong female character to be a great selling point for any film. You put a strong female lead in and I will go to see it. More movies need to do precisely that, and the studios need to realize that strong female characters are what people want to see. That leads me to precisely this question: what exactly is a strong female lead? When the subject of great female characters comes up, people usually either Ellen Ripley from the Alien series or Sarah Connor in the Terminator franchise, but there are plenty more examples of well-written women appearing in movies. What exactly does make a great female character? How does one go about writing such a person?

To be fair, there is no one true way to write a "strong female character". It takes skill, that much cannot be denied, but precisely what is required depends heavily on the film and the story. After all, there is a big difference between how a strong female character might be treated in an action film compared to a romance or historical fiction movie. In all of these genres, the definition of a "strong female character" is going to be interpreted differently. In an action movie, she'll be expected to get tough. In a romance, the female lead has to have a solid chemistry with her partner, one in which she does not come off as too submissive. Historical fiction often deals with periods and cultures that were repressive towards women, so the writer will have to get creative in making a female lead "strong" while also working around the social restrictions imposed at the time (not unlike how many of history's strongest women made their names).

Writing a "strong female lead" is more or less the same as creating a strong male lead. A "strong character" should have the right balance of qualities to fit within the world of the film. They should have a certain amount of depth, and perhaps a back story in some form even if it is a simple or partial one. Independence can be a great quality in a character of either gender, but even that can be overdone. Playing up one quality too much is an easy pitfall for anyone. One of the main reasons the Rambo films don't work (aside from Sylvester Stallone's horrible acting) is that there is not enough time spent on developing the protagonist and allowing the audience to develop a connection with him. Rambo lacks any sort of character depth, and his personality amounts to taking off his shirt and waving a machine gun around. He has no motivation, goal, or anxieties, basically nothing to make him seem human enough for the viewer to care what happens to him.

Depth is naturally a crucial part to any strong female character. The female lead in any movie does not always have to be "strong" in a literal sense (though many of them are), but they should be complex and intelligent. One of the best female characters in my stories was a mentally ill astronaut who almost killed both herself and her crew over a probe (it's complicated). This particular character worked because of her complexity, and the fact that we got a glimpse into her mind. She does in fact have a reason for behaving the way she does.

This element is especially crucial when dealing with female leads in historical fiction, especially if we're discussing a film set in say... Victorian England. This was a period that had some very clearly enforced gender roles, with women usually being seen as inferior (and only a handful of jobs available compared to the many offered to men). Understandably, writers wanting to authentically represent this period in history will want to factor into account the popular opinions of women. At the same time, their audience will have trouble accepting these world views, and the best way around the problem is to give the female characters sufficient depth of character and perhaps some skills that can prove useful in the story.

The only thing is of course that the writer will have to factor into account the restrictions that would have been imposed on women during the Victorian Period. A woman who wanted to break the mold would therefore have to be very smart. This would have had to be the case for many women of power in the past, including female monarchs like Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria. Women would have to be able to think outside the box, and find less obvious ways of obtaining their power. These characters might not be warriors (though history is not without its stories of warrior women, many of whom were also quite smart), but their strength would be in their mind and their cunning.

While not technically a work of historical fiction, Game of Thrones offers several great examples of such situations. The show is set in a patriarchal society, which should hardly be surprising since the kingdom of Westeros is obviously inspired by Medieval Europe (only now with zombies and dragons). This means that in order to depict strong female characters (of which there are many), George R.R. Martin had to get creative in writing their personalities. While a few of the women completely subvert the world's expectations of gender and become warriors themselves (Brienne of Tarth and Arya Stark), many of them instead have the strength of wit and creative thinking.

Danearys Targaryen certainly has to work for her power, but she gradually manages to assemble an army and even a small empire all through out-of-the-box thinking. She accomplishes far more than her brother, who attempted the same thing only to suffer death by molten gold before he could do anything even remotely useful. The same arguably goes for many of the other female characters in the show, such as Cersei Lannister (who also happens to be one of the top schemers) and Catelyn Stark (who for three seasons was perhaps the only person keeping what was left of the Stark family together).

Intelligence is a great quality for any character. Unless it is intended for humorous effect, stupidity is generally a very easy way to keep audiences from enjoying anyone. Certainly a lot of the best female characters can be complimented for their intelligence, but that alone does not necessarily make a great character. While it can certainly help, it is also possible to make a character too smart, perhaps to such a level where they become less believable. Simply having a woman being able to shoot a gun does not automatically make her a strong character, nor does simply having her be intelligent.

Intelligence combined with depth is a very good way to put your female lead on the right path. She has to have just that right balance of qualities. Making her intelligent can be effective to be sure, but she should also be human. Part of what makes Ripley work as a character is that while she is tough and resourceful, she still has emotions. Throughout Alien, Ripley is obviously frightened by the titular monster, and during the climax she actually has a lot of difficulty staying calm when she finally expels the monster that killed her crewmates into space. What makes her strong is that she is able to overcome those anxieties, and even when overwhelmed with terror she is never ready to give up.

Many people remember Ripley taking on the Queen at the end of Aliens. These people often forget that the the same movie begins with Ripley struggling to cope with the disorientation of waking up 57 years after the events of the previous film and finding out that her daughter has died of old age. It is made extremely clear that Ripley is severely traumatized by her experiences aboard Nostromo, so much so that she is initially reluctant to join the marines. These moments all help to show that even though Ripley is competent and more than capable of taking care of herself, she is still affected by everything she has been through and is not perfect.

Another great example would be Maya in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty. Much like Ripley she is a tough character who spends the whole movie becoming increasingly determined to catch Bin Laden. She never gives up her search, and ultimately succeeds in finding him despite a mountain of obstacles. At the same time, she does have her emotional struggles to cope with. When a close friend is killed by a suicide bomber, Maya is clearly affected by it and struggles to cope with her loss (although at the same time, it also gives her further drive to keep hunting Bin Laden). Later on she also has to deal with further mental strain when she cannot pull a car out of the driveway without being fired upon. Also worth noting is the final scene in which Maya begins crying, unsure of what to do with herself now that her determination has finally paid off.

On the other hand, you also want to make sure that the female character does not get too emotional. This is a very easy pitfall to encounter. If she spends too much time crying instead of getting things done, that is generally a sign that something is wrong. What you need is just enough emotion to make the character seem human, while also trying to balance it out with her other qualities. Ripley would never have worked if she spent all of Alien cowering in the corner with Lambert, but if she had not displayed her fear during the climax the scene would have been much harder to believe. Aliens would have made no sense if the time dilation experience by Ripley were not addressed, or if there was no psychological effect stemming from all of her crewmates being wiped out by the alien.

Then of course, we move into the trickier areas of female representation. Perhaps one of the most common and widely-despised roles for women is the damsel in distress. This particular role is seen as an icon of sexism in the media, seeing as it is almost always a woman who gets captured and has to be rescued by a man (there are cases of the reverse, but not as often, and very few, if any, of women being saved by women). The worst cases are of course where it is the central driving force of the narrative, and the whole story is about the man's quest to rescue the princess or whoever is serving as the female lead. In general, my advice to writers would be to avoid this situation at all costs. Hollywood has more than enough distressed damsels, and we don't need any more.

However, sometimes the "distressed damsel" is necessary to the narrative in some way. In the event that it is, there are a few things one can do to reduce the unfortunate implications. The first thing I would say is to avoid narratives that require a damsel to be held captive throughout. It also helps to give the damsel some depth of character; don't just have her cry and wait to be rescued. Maybe give her some strengths she can display while being held hostage. Holly McClane may have spent most of Die Hard being a prisoner of the villains, but she was also the person who took responsibility for keeping the hostages organized and did everything she could to help them under the circumstances (she also gets to punch a nasty reporter in the face after finally getting out).

Princess Leia spent most of A New Hope a prisoner (and she did have to get rescued by the male heroes), but she at least put up a fight before being captured and her strength was in her ability to resist the Empire's implied torture without giving up the information they wanted. It also probably helped that her action girl characteristics were played up in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (though even those weren't perfect by modern standards), but in the context of the original film, she was a big deal simply for being a strong leader who did not easily give in to her captors. If she had, those Death Star plans would never have reached the rebel alliance and the victory at the end of the film would not have been possible.

In terms of the rescuing, I would also say we need more characters like Cassandra Anderson in Dredd who are able to rescue themselves. I have written several of these in my own scripts, but others should as well. In fact, out of my entire body of work: including my scripts, novels, and short stories, I have only had one woman who actually needed to be saved by a man, and those were very specific circumstances. In that instance, the woman (who was otherwise a very strong character) had suffered a severe head trauma and the man who saved her was literally the only other person there, and thus the only one who could help her. Also, it was somewhat balanced by the fact that there was also a danger that posed just as much a threat to him, so he was saving himself at the same time. However, I would say the best thing to do if a story must go this route, is to try and have a balance in the cast, with a strong female lead having a role in rescuing the damsel in distress.

Ultimately, there are many ways one can approach the subject of writing a "strong female character" depending on the context and genre of the story, but there are a few elements that seem to be consistent. The two most important parts appear to be depth of character and intelligence in just the right balance: enough depth to make them human but enough intelligence that they can handle whatever situation they face. A strong female lead does not necessarily have to be capable of handling firearms or beating people up (though qualities like this often help). What she should be is self-reliant. Even if the story features a romance, she should still be able to carry her own weight in the relationship without being dependent exclusively on the man (Jane Smith Mr. and Mrs. Smith being a great example of such a character). In any case, we need more strong female characters, and I hope this advice will be beneficial to other writers interested in making a difference.


  1. Very good article. You mentioned lots of wonderful characters and made a ton of great points. I think the most important thing you say is that the character should be strong in a way that fits the film's universe. They can't all be strong in the same way. Without having any women beat up men, Woody Allen has created a wealth of strong women for the screen.

    Bringing up the name Woody Allen also reminds me of something that can also work well and that is a great female character who is not strong. Allen recently gave us one in Blue Jasmine. The titular character, played by Cate Blanchette was amazing one, but hardly strong. The same can be said of Meryl Streep's role in August: Osage County. However, it helps that they are counterbalanced by strong females within the same movies. The thing is, none of those are great characters. In other words, a weak female character doesn't necessarily have to be the product of sexism.

    Sidenote: Not sure if you read it, but a few weeks back on the Day of the Woman blog there was an extremely interesting post detailing why Carpenter's The Thing is actually a feminist film. I would put the link here, but that's a pain to do on my phone. If you need it, I'll come back and post it tonight when I get in front of a real computer.

    1. I think I actually read that one. If memory serves correctly the idea was that The Thing was actually an allegory for the failure of patriarchy. Surprisingly enough, that actually was not too unusual for 1980's horror films. The Shining is another iconic horror film to cover similar themes, although a bit more directly.

  2. Great post about a cause that's close to my heart :)
    I'm happy you picked up on some TV characters as I think that challenging 'the norm' needs to come from the bottom up. If people get used to - and know that they enjoy watching - strong and real female leads, hopefully that will be reflected in more blockbusters.
    I read quite an interesting article the other day about female roles in romcom in the light of Bridesmaids: https://www.the-pool.com/arts-culture/film/14/did-melissa-mccarthy-kill-the-romcom-
    Not sure I agree with all the points, but it did raise a few I hadn't thought about.

  3. Well I thoroughly enjoyed reading this eating my lunch at work. It's the kind of post I wish II'd thought of, but I know I couldn't do the subject matter justice as you have. Some excellent points here!