The Strong Female Character: I Do Not Think That Means What Some People Think It Means

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I recently started watching the new TV series Outlander, based on the popular books by Diana Gabaldon. I have never read the books. The series sounded like something I might enjoy, about a woman who time-travels to 18th Century Scotland.

After watching two episodes, I’m already done with it.

I see people raving about the show on Twitter and other social media. Like Charlie Brown, I don’t know how to argue with success. Something is resonating with many viewers, and I don’t mind that they are enjoying it.

But to me it’s a major disappointment. It made me think of how the term “strong female character” is so often misconstrued.

From the first moment, Claire, the heroine of Outlander, is presented as a strong woman. The first scenes are of her operating on a soldier in a make-shift army hospital at the end of World War II. She’s fearless. She’s covered almost head to toe in blood and doesn’t care. When told the war is over, she takes a healthy belt of champagne straight from the bottle.

She’s a badass.

She’s also incredibly confident sexually. A palm reader even comments that any man would be happy in bed with her.

She’s so competent (and has so many skills that serve her well in her journey into the past) that it strains credibility. She is also remarkably self-aware of her own (few) missteps.

Of course, there’s NOTHING wrong with a competent, sexually confident female character. In fact, that’s terrific. But she’s so relentlessly perfect I got bored with her right away. I couldn’t become invested in the character or what happens to her. There’s no mystery whether she will survive her journey. She needs no character arc because from the beginning she comes across as some kind of modern female ideal.

To be frank, I had the same problem with the story’s hero, who is also perfect. He represents, if not a modern, at least a certain universal male ideal.

(I’m going to assume that this is a problem with the series and the books present far more nuanced characters.)

So, one may ask, isn’t this uber-strong woman character better than a weak female character?

Well, it depends on what you mean by “strong” and “weak.”

To me, a strong female character is:

Complex

Flawed

Intriguing

Full of contradictions

Grows as a person through the story

If I were to give you a list of what makes a strong male character for me, it would be pretty much the same. I’m not saying I want female characters to act like men (though some great ones do, i.e. Arya and Brienne in Game of Thrones) but the qualities that make a great character are the same regardless of gender.

You want to know why I love most of Jane Austen’s heroines?

They are intelligent, lively and, at least deep down, good-hearted.

And nearly every one of them is WRONG about something important.

(The exception is Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price. She’s right about everything. Not surprisingly, Mansfield Park is my least favorite of Austen’s books.)

Elizabeth Bennett allows prejudice to cloud her judgment about Mr. Darcy’s true character. Emma Woodhouse thinks she can manipulate the lives of the people around her. Marianne Dashwood falls in love with the wrong man. Her sister Elinor is in love with a good man, but one who is unattainable. Anne Elliot allows friends and family to talk her out of her engagement with her one true love. Catherine Moreland is so obsessed with gothic novels she thinks she’s a heroine in one.

(Austen even calls Catherine, her own heroine, an imbecile.)

All these characters grow throughout the story. They make mistakes and learn from them. It’s their weaknesses and flaws that make them memorable–and human. It’s their strengths that make their character arcs believable.

Sometimes in a bid to make female characters “strong” we hold them to a much higher standard than male characters. I recently read a negative review of the movie Frozen that complained about Anna needing a man to help her on her journey to find her sister.

Anna is a princess who up to that moment spent most of her life closed up in a castle. It would be unbelievable if she had made it through the rough terrain on the journey to find her sister on her own. Of course, she needs someone to guide her. Kristoff functions as a mentor character, helping her survive a world that is familiar to him and foreign to her.

Think in contrast of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: A New Hope. If it hadn’t been for Obi Wan Kenobi and his use of The Force, Luke would have been grabbed by Imperial storm troopers early in the story. No one calls him a weak character because of this. In fact, it isn’t until Return of the Jedi that he has mastered his Jedi skills, and even then, he still needs to learn how to use them properly.

I love a kick-ass heroine. But that’s much too narrow a definition of “strong.” There are many women’s stories to be told, with characters who have different kinds of strengths and weaknesses. I’d like to see them all.

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145 thoughts on “The Strong Female Character: I Do Not Think That Means What Some People Think It Means

  1. I had to reblog this because I’m absolutely loving this series! And I also believe in the strong female character. . .

  2. Reblogged this on Bev Elle and commented:
    I had to reblog this because I’m absolutely loving this series! And I also believe in the strong female character. . .

  3. I don’t know the series you refer to here because I don’t watch TV but your description of the stereotypical female hero is certainly all over contemporary Hollywood films! I agree with what you put so well – that all characters have to have complexity and contradiction to be interesting and realistic, and Jane Austen, as well as many other female writers (Ali Smith, Donna Tart, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood etc –) give us such strong women in bucketfuls.

  4. I haven’t seen the series and have no intention of (but you know… YouTube has this way of tricking you in….) But. I promise. The books, whilst sold to me as ‘Mills and Boon meets The History Channel’ (meaning I only started reading them when stuck in bed with the flu), are beautifully written and the characters given such depth that you learn to love, loathe, and fear them within a few pages 🙂

  5. I come here via Jennifer. Love this post and your thoughts on credible characters. I have been watching Outlander and enjoying it. I wonder if it is like all new shows where characters seem to lack depth and that Claire’s character will be flushed out as the series continues and will include weaknesses as well. I didn’t give the last episode full attention, but it seems to me that it hinted at infidelity on her part during the war…
    Diana xo

    1. Diana, I haven’t seen the show, but have read books where the heroine is simply too perfect to identify with. Give me a character with strengths I admire, but with weaknesses she must try to overcome, and I’m hooked.
      Jennifer xo

  6. I agree with you on your definition of a strong character, be it female or male.
    I think people are not annoyed by the fact that the princess in Frozen needs a mentor figure, I think they are annoyed because it HAS to be a male character, when a female character could have been a mentor all the same. So it doesn’t quite compare to Star Wars, because Luke has a male mentor too, and not a female mentor. It implies that mentors, i.e. wise, skillful and life-experienced people, are primarily male. That is what I would be annoyed of, not that a mentor is needed in general.

  7. Another thing I forgot to mention in my previous comment is that both in the book and the series, we are seeing things through Clare’s eyes. She doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about her imperfections, so likewise, we don’t really see her flaws until the plot gets going and her flaws become apparent in the friction between her character and the world at large.

  8. Okay, first off, extra cool points for the Princess Bride reference. Second, I completely and wholeheartedly agree with everything you said here. I’ve had this discussion with various people before, and we agree that strong characters (male or female) aren’t necessarily the ones who kick the most butt, but rather are able to learn from their mistakes. Also, more cool points for using Jane Austen’s characters to illustrate that point (and I agree with you about Fanny – she’s boring as all get-out).

  9. Personally, I think today’s commercial media has a lot of ‘strong’ characters, be they male or female. What I’d like to see more of though, is honest characters. You mentioned Jane Austen’s novels. I LOVE how Anne from Persuasion didn’t have to be a super-hero to elicit deep personality.

    Come to think of it, after thinking of Jane Austen I immediately recall Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (read both in my English Writers course in uni). The character Estella was another, albeit more outlandish, but honest character that portrayed powerful character through her layered personality.

    Less super-heros, please!

    Awesome post, by the way!

  10. I absolutely agree, I haven’t seen or read outlander but I have seen this phenomenon elsewhere (more often on film than in books i find). Your post actually reminded me of a quote (I can’t remember who said it and in what context) but they asked for more “strong characters comma female, not strong female characters.”

  11. There’s hope for Kitty Clinch…my novel character….she is certainly flawed…gets much wrong…and has plenty of passion….alas she remains unpublished on my hard drive…waiting for me to dust her off properly and release her to the harsher elements of scrutiny…..I enjoyed this post and comments….Thank you.

  12. Very nicely put. I haven’t seen that series yet, but the way you mentioned it is true for lot of series and movies. The misconstruction of “strong” character (not just female) is been shown a lot of times. Strong character doesn’t mean “confident, emotionless, always-right” kind of person. It actually means being brave, willing to handle any kind of challenge anyone throws at them and grow with every mistake. That should be ideal characteristics for strong character.

  13. Thanks for this piece. I quite agree. One of the best current writers of strong female characters is Terry Pratchett. His witches series is dominated by strong women. None of them bear any resemblance to Claire, the heroine you have described.

  14. You might try the books before you judge too harshly. Claire has plenty of flaws, first among them, sheer pigheaded stubbornness. Because of the small amount of time given for character development in the television series, you might not realize how deep the characters actually are. I love the series only because I adore the books. Where the show falls flat, I can fill in the character with my knowledge of the books.

    Then again, this kind of story may not be for you. But you might give the books a try.

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