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The Fallacy of the Strong Female Character

We're celebrating Women's History month with 31 days of posts focused on improving the climate for social and gender equality in the children’s and teens’ literature community. Join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter #kidlitwomen

My nine-year-old daughter just asked me what I’m writing about.

“Well…it’s a post about how most of the time, people call certain female characters in books “strong.” And if those characters are strong…”

“That means others are weak,” she said.

“Exactly. And do people usually talk about books featuring male main characters as “strong boys”?”

She shook her head, then was quiet for a minute. “Here’s evidence you can use,” she said. “It’s like that girl you showed me on twitter the other day. She was afraid to wear her Star Wars shirt to school because she thought other kids would say Star Wars is for boys. Star Wars is for everyone. It’s not fair that girls feel that way.”

Instinctively, she gets it. She’s picked up on the pervasive cultural bias that there are two types of females: strong and weak, that there’s no need to label boys as strong, and that if a girl goes outside her perceived lane, people notice. defines “strong” as:

  1. Having, showing, or able to exert great bodily or muscular power; physically vigorous or robust

  2. Accompanied or delivered by great physical, mechanical, etc, power or force

  3. Mentally powerful or vigorous

  4. Especially able, competent, or powerful in a specific field or respect…

Not one of my characters has muscular power or is physically vigorous. Yet, the characters in my books are frequently labeled “strong.” My characters are smart. They are thoughtful. They make mistakes. Sometimes they push back against authority, sometimes their story involves them finding their voice and confidence.

I’ve sat on panels with other fabulous writers whose novels feature “strong female characters”, and their characters are assertive, courageous, and outspoken. And until recently, I thought highlighting this group of characteristics as strong was a good thing. After all, I’m all for girl power, using your voice, and being the director of your own story.

But now I see things a little differently.

Our descriptors of the word “strong” are typically centered around active female characters who make decisions, get themselves into situations, and get themselves out of them.

This is the exact same thing that any character—male or female—does in a well-written story (spare me your argument that there are passive characters out there, to whom life happens. They are rare and quite boring, and not often found in children’s literature.).

We equate self-sufficiency, personal agency, and outspokenness with masculinity, and passivity with femininity—no surprise there. But then I realized that by labeling our characters as “strong,” by lumping together those active decision-making characteristics, we have set the expectation that all other female characters are weak. After all, only the ones who are labeled strong must be strong!

There’s another piece to this puzzle: “strong” character elements—agency, outspokenness, impetuousness, bravery, assertiveness, etc—are stereotypically masculine traits. What about female characters who are clever? Or open-hearted? Or nurturing? Self-sacrificing*? The characters who aren’t normally risk takers, but push themselves to take risks in their story? These are the publishing industry labeled “quiet” books. What makes these books so “quiet” is that they are centered around characters with stereotypically feminine traits--traits that aren’t associated with power or strength.

(And hey, look at what happens when those female-centered traits end up attached to a male main character: Leo the Late Bloomer. Ferdinand the Bull. Frog and Toad. William, from Charlotte Zolotow’s William’s Doll.)

As we’ve seen in other essays this month, labeling books as “boy books” or “girl books” gets us nowhere. And although I believe we started with good intentions, identifying female characters as “strong” does us no better (unless a character does display “great bodily or muscular power”). Instead, let’s focus on what the book offers our reader: a window, a mirror, a shared experience, a new world. We can highlight our characters’ unique personality traits and qualities. We can take strength off the table, wear our Star Wars shirts with impunity, and give our children more than the choice between strong and weak.

*Katniss Everdeen aside. She is self-sacrificing—it’s the premise for the whole series—but she’s physically powerful/dangerous, extremely outspoken, assertive, and spends a lot of time explaining that she’ll never bring a child into the world. I could go on at length about the epilogue to that series, and Katniss’s embrace of motherhood as the ultimate achievement of character growth, but that’s for another essay.

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