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The Androgyny in Strong Female Characters


We are a group of seven friends and we make it a point to have dinner once every month. The food is always an excuse and we end up talking more than eating. Last week, we had this debate on strong female characters in movies or books. They said the term implies women are weak. I said strong as in strength, strength as in character. The discussion veered to a post in NYT where the writer lampooned strong female characters as ‘men with boobs.’ She thinks it casts them in a mould be it movies or books: beautiful, capable, brilliant – just your everyday Jane, but without any genuine feminine characters.

Why we were having this debate was because the food was terrible and we would rather do something to pass the time than eat. The only saving grace was dessert by which time we decided instead of strong, why we can’t use words like unforgettable or memorable. Somebody suggested favourite, but favourite sounds like you are being partial to someone. Memorable is more egalitarian. It doesn’t put the onus of performance on the female character. She doesn’t have to battle half the world or face stigma or suffer one tragedy after the other. She is memorable because she endures in her feminity. What else, we thought. She is funny and irreverent towards society’s sensibilities and the conventions of her times, an utter romantic, but with a dark side to her character. I like the dark side bit.

So how is the modern memorable character different from those before? Are they better educated, slimmer and carry more advanced weapons? How would somebody like Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander compare to the tragic heroine of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. How would Éowyn from The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, a woman of much grace in the face of adversity compare to someone like Vladimir Nabokov’s Dolores Haze from Lolita. What about someone like Erin Brockovich, someone grounded in reality, an ordinary woman, a single mother with a bunch of children taking on an energy giant. Would she count as a memorable character? By the time coffee arrived everyone was busy naming their MFCs. Jane Eyre was a popular figure. Everyone liked their heroines to suffer a bit before redemption. Somebody else said Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series. She was booed and we missed her company for the rest of the evening. Others that made the list include Haruki Murakami’s Eri Asai from After Dark (might I add, Murakami does create the most enticing of characters), the ever popular Lady Chatterley from D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Gustave Flaubert’s irreverent Emma Bovary, Éowyn again from The Lord of the Rings trilogy and so on, a few helped by their recent movie avatars. It is safe to assume our memorable female characters change over the years, but a few endure.

It gets a bit dicey because the consensus was that male writers create more memorable female characters. Someone suggested (and adds that it is pure speculation on his part) it was because men write with a detached view of things, an inborn, inherent trait in the male of the species, which comes to the fore when writing about female characters. Someone else said it was because the male understanding of women is at a more profound level, which was basically saying women are more superficial. Granger fan gathers her courage and suggested female writers tend to have this inherent need to make their female characters stronger. They are more stereotypical of their female characters while the male writers are more exploratory in their characterization.

It was midnight when we left. By then we were getting into an argument over strong male characters, and we came to the came to the conclusion that there weren’t any.
‘There is no need,’ I said.
‘Exactly,’ said my friends. ‘Now you know why we hate strong female characters?’

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Fascinating and entertaining post. I wonder why the food was so awful – was it made by a “man” hmmm – (yes, that was naughty, and silly) You seem to have lively and interesting dinner, long may you enjoy them.

    March 21, 2012
    • As I said, the food was always an excuse for it is the company that matters. And yes, you guessed right, the chef was a ‘man.’

      March 21, 2012
  2. While I am thrilled to see “strong” female characters emerge, I am not sure molding them in the fashion of Lisbeth Salandar or other violent femmes is the way to go. It seems to send the message that for a woman to be strong, she must be able to fight competitively with a man, which in a literal sense, is unlikely to happen. I liked your mention of Erin Brockovich. Although a real person, she was also a memorable character. True, she probably angered many people in her quest for the truth, but this is just one example of what makes a character strong and memorable. When I was a little girl, I devoured the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Talk about strong female characters.

    So I guess my point is, we have always had strong female characters; rather, it’s the definition of strong that has changed. Hopefully, as you suggest, we can omit the word strong and just stick with memorable.

    Wonderful post!

    March 21, 2012
  3. An interesting post I enjoyed reading. I’m always interested in other people’s opinions on what makes a character memorable. I liked that your retelling seemed to lay out the various perspectives without judgment. The Granger fan’s final thoughts were quite thought provoking. Who was your MFC candidate?

    March 29, 2012
    • Two characters that stayed with me – Jean Paget from Nevil Shute’s A Town like Alice and Claudia Hampton from Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger. Perhaps it was because I read the books when I was quite young, but I think it is more because they are firmly grounded in reality, and their femininity really shone through the story. Claudia Hampton was the more irreverent character, and was it because the author was female? Thank you for the comment!

      April 4, 2012
  4. I think the difference between a strong female character and a female character is that a strong female character has an actual role in said story while a female character has a stand in part. For example, I recently saw Lockout. In the movie Maggie Grace plays the president’s daughter. For most action type movies this would have been a female character, someone to rescue, be a motivation to the different male characters and that’s pretty much it. In Lockout she is actually a strong female character because her story line and character arc was as developed as the protagonist, Snow. She effected and changed him and he effected and changed her.

    There are no strong male characters because men have always been pretty self centered and written about themselves, the women tended to be rather cardboard hence the addition of strong to distinguish between the two. Cheers :)

    April 16, 2012
  5. I just nominated you for two awards: Versatile Blogger and Beautiful Blogger! You don’t have to post them, I just wanted to share. is the link to the post.

    May 10, 2012
  6. introvertedblogger #

    I do like the strong female character but rather because she is a woman, rather than trying to be a man.

    May 27, 2012

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