We all know her. We all hate her. We see her once a year in the Summer Blockbuster movies. She flies in on a rope, camera firmly fixed on her buttocks as she kicks several of her opponents down, somersaults through the air, her cleavage barely managing to stay in her shirt. All of this fighting just makes her sweaty and ready to cu…kick more ass, of course. She aims a gun at the villain’s head.
A nearby henchman grabs her by her delicate wrists and she crumbles like a wilting flower to the ground, only to be saved by the token love-interest, a burly and brawn male hero.
Ladies and Gentleman, I give you the media archetype of the Strong Female Character. When people demand to see more women in kickass roles instead of constantly being portrayed as the hapless victim, this is the cardboard cutout we are given. The Strong Female Character (or SFC) is meant to make us believe that this is a fighter for gender equality, which of course would explain why in comic books her spine is usually broken to ensure that both breasts and ass can be completely visible at all times. And yet, she’s not allowed to be sexual, because that would deny her virtue and make her seem like a slut. She just happens to have her boobs falling out of her shirt every other moment.
Let’s be honest, the reason the SFC is not allowed to show a sexual interest is because heterosexual men find a woman with control of her sexuality threatening. Sexuality can be seen as a token of power, and to give any power to a woman seems considered to be almost taboo to many filmmakers and modern comic-book writers. I’m not making a broad general sweep, and in fact, I consider comic-book readers and writers to be probably some of the most evolved parties when it comes to recognizing these pathetic excuses for feminist “girl-power” characters.
So, let’s go over what defines an SFC, and what makes her different from a strong character who just happens to be female.
An SFC will never seduce a man, but will always be the one seduced by the token love-interest. A strong character who happens to be a female will be doing the seduction, or will participate in a fully consensual act. She might even have multiple partners. A strong character who happens to be female might also resist any sexual encounter, even though she herself remains a sexual being, as the parties throwing themselves at her are not what she is looking for in a sexual partner.
An SFC will fight her way to the death…so that her death furthers the story arc of another male character. This is commonly known as the women in refrigerators trope. A strong character who happens to be female’s death will be the culmination of her own story arc, any cultivation of other character’s arcs around her will be merely happenstance in light of the loss of an important figure in their lives.
An SFC will kick ass up until the final showdown, in which she will find herself cornered to be save by the token male love-interest towards the end. A strong character who happens to be female will save the world, the boyfriend, and kick ass in one fell swoop.
In short, the SFC is different from the strong character who happens to be female, because in most situations the SFC is a poorly-developed two-dimensional character with a poor and limited view of how to write female characters in general, and usually deployed as an easy means of projecting misogyny without getting too much heat from feminist groups and/or female readers. The strong character who happens to be female’s gender is purely cosmetic. Her gender does not factor into her strengths and weaknesses. She is fully developed and in control of her own destiny. In other words, a well-written character.
Some examples of the SFC might include:
Lara Croft (Tomb Raider)
Possibly the inventor of the SFC. The film versions are possibly even worse as they really truly do have her being saved by her love-interest towards the latter half of the film.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Let’s be honest, the author of the book and director of the original film (and possibly the American remake) were projecting rape-fantasies and violence towards women through the titular protagonist. For some reason this was overlooked by most audiences, who hailed the character as a feminist champion. My apologies, I wasn’t aware that it was acceptable to have excessive gratuitous scenes of rape and violence towards women so long as she gets revenge in the end, fights her way a little bit more, gets raped again, and then gets revenge again. Note of interest here: consensual sex in films has everyone in an uproar, but rape is clearly acceptable. What else can you expect though from a book originally titled: “Men Who Hate Women.”
Harley Quinn (DC’s New 52 Reboot)
The original Harley Quinn falls under the latter category of strong character who happens to be female. The original Harley Quinn represents the archetype of the woman in an abusive relationship who still manages to hold her head above water and survive despite having to deal with the difficulty of being in love with someone who does nothing but manipulate and abuse you. She was far from a role-model to young women, but remained entirely sympathetic, and her fans all secretly pined for the day when she would finally tell the Joker to scram.
The New Harley Quinn in DC Comics’ reboot did, and it wasn’t as exciting as we all hoped for. Her backstory has been rewritten and her costume revamped, and she’s been slowly remodeled into the SFC. A character who is supposed to look sexy but not purposefully (because you know, a woman who want to be sexy is just scandalous) and have a strong “girl-power” character arc and story, while at the same time being in a relationship where she can be conveniently saved by a male when things look too dire.
Nikki Sanders (Heroes)
I’m putting this here with some regret, as I did really enjoy this character, and found her to be one of the more interesting characters in the entire series. I hated looking at her with the knowledge that this character was also misogyny at work. Ali Larter did a wonderful job making her fully-developed and sympathetic while at the same time remaining fully strong and scary.
The problem with this character and why she fits into the role of the SFC, is that while being one of the most powerful characters in the entire series, the idea is that women cannot handle great power and it makes them go insane, buckling under the pressure of it. While the other male characters with godlike powers float through with great control and ease over their powers and emotions.
Now for some wonderful characters who truly are strong characters who happen to be female.
Barbara Gordon (Batgirl/Oracle), Storm, Spider-Woman, Poison Ivy, Catwoman, The Black Widow, Emma Frost, etc.
These are characters who though they may not always be victorious, they are very much in control of their own lives, and the appeal of their character does not depend on gender but on their personalities, character arcs, and strength. I listed primarily comic book characters because I think comics have a stronger tendency to show fully developed and realized female characters than Hollywood Cinema. The above list are probably a small handful of some of my favorite comic book women, villains and heroes alike.
I saw the recent trailer for Christopher Nolan’s upcoming conclusion to his Batman trilogy, and I remained profoundly disappointed at how passive and weak Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman seemed. Catwoman, though sometimes can be depicted as an SFC, is most well-remembered to me as being a very strong character in general. Batman almost looks weak in comparison.
Gotham City is full of mentally-ill and broken people with a mentally-ill and broken man struggling to protect them as best he can despite his own touches of insanity, and amid all the chaos and mayhem is a woman running around dressed like a cat, stealing jewels, and having a good time. She is one of the few Batman characters who hasn’t completely lost her mind. She does what she wants because she enjoys it, and doesn’t mind flirting with the guy who wants to take her to jail. She’s fascinating, seductive, and when she wants to be, a regular badass.
My favorite Catwoman actresses definitely fall down to Eartha Kitt and Julie Newmar, with Michelle Pfeiffer coming in at a close second. They owned their sexuality and the streets, and over the years there’s been a lot of wonderful actresses to play the character, including Gina Gershon and Adrienne Barbeau for the animated series. It’s a great character with a great legacy.
So, I don’t particularly understand Anne Hathaway’s near-asexual passive-girlfriend of a character in Christopher Nolan’s film. I don’t understand what is wrong with writing a woman who is sexual and threatening. I don’t want any more SFC’s. I don’t want to see another film about a woman kicking ass and getting saved by her boyfriend.
I want actual female characters who are strong, not a cardboard cut-out begrudgingly thrown us by patriarchal filmmakers.