Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Six Letter Problem for Female Characters

In August, Sophia McDougall wrote an article entitled “I Hate Strong Female Characters.” While her title seems harsh, it presents on a major problem with powerful female characters on television and in the movies. Television has made vast strides with the inclusion of women’s roles, and even the variation of characters represented. However, the very wording of “strong female character” is problematic. Where are the “strong male characters”? What classifies a “strong male character” beyond just his muscles? You may be having difficulty envisioning what a “strong male character” looks like because essentially every male character is inherently considered strong. Unlike their male counterparts, “strong” female characters are written within constraints that contribute to their gendered representations. Furthermore, whether through cause or correlation, these depictions translate into our everyday lives and inform our understandings of femininity and masculinity in reality. We need to step beyond the gendered frameworks in which characters are written if we are ever to fully advance our gender understandings.
Strong women are differentiated from classic male characters as they present less variety in their depictions, with “strong” women being classified through their focus on their career, verbal opinions, and countering stereotypes. Although these traits are progressive in nature, they are often put up against their male counter parts, only being read as strong if they can “act like a man” (Swensen) and hold their own against male critiques. For example, Peggy from “Mad Men” is written as a strong female character as she turns from secretary to copywriter in the fast-faced world of New York Advertising. But at the basis, Peggy is seen as a strong character through her focus on work and the ability to hold her own in a conference room full of men. Although the show has obvious feminist tones, especially due to the time period it is set in, Peggy is seen as a strong character because of her career-over-domesticity mentality and her ability to “get dirty” with the boys. Peggy isn’t the only example of women focusing on their careers and verbal rhetoric as being seen as strong. Christina Yang of Greys Anatomy compares to Peggy as she is outspoken in a male dominated world, and opts to choose her career over motherhood. Unfortunately, although often read as enlightening, these representation suggests few “other female character traits could be painted as progressive,” (Yu) aside from wanting a career over a home-life and being outspoken. The depictions “reinforce the idea that in order for female characters to be worth identifying…she should really rein in,” (Dunn) the traits that make her female, such as her maternal instinct. It suggests a “man up” (Dunn) attitude, rather than one that empowers women to embrace their uniqueness.
On the contrary, a man who is career driven and outspoken, is not read as “strong” but inherently masculine, and plainly; a man. Cue Donald Draper, the suave partner of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the elite advertising agency in “Mad Men.” Draper is written as a character that, despite his alcoholism and endless workweek, manages to womanize and dominant in a high power job. Although Draper’s character is powerful, he is not identified as “strong” like Peggy or Christina. “The strong female character has something to prove” (McDougall) where as male characters are pre-assumed to be outspoken and the breadwinners.
Although the above presents just a few examples, the implications of reading women as “strong,”  or deferring from their perceived norm, and men as intrinsically “masculine” are problematic, especially outside the realm of television. For starters, simply placing the word “strong” in the description suggests “we’re still trying to move away from a stigma of femininity being “weak”” (Yu) but are continuing to differentiate male and female characters using gendered depictions.  Essentially, we still have to classify a “strong” woman as different than being just a woman, suggesting women, in reality or on television, are inherently weak. Meanwhile, a man is seen as strong whether he has chiseled abs, can handle his workload, or can hold his own in a verbal argument while a female character is strong if she is able to throw a punch or have a career.
So how do we go about fixing this problem? Is it enough to just drop the word “strong” from our descriptions and carry on? Daniel Swensen provides two valuable solutions in his article “On Writing Strong (Female) Characters.” For starters, we could create a character and then assign gender after the fact. Although that would create an equal playing field for female and male portrayals, it would take away the narrative function that male and female characters provide, and would eliminate the possibility of overt progression for female characters. Swensen’s second idea may provide us with the framework we need to start to understand female characters as inherently strong just like their male counterparts. For example “a female character can ask her boyfriend to open the pickle jar… [but] what makes them weak is defining them only by that sort of thing.” (Swensen) This example suggests that just because a female character possesses a character trait that can be read as jiving with feminist standards, doesn't mean she has to be classified as such. There are countless traits that should be partnered together to create varying female characters that don’t have to be overtly understood as “strong” to be powerful. We have to move beyond the binary of weak or passive and  “strong.”
            However, I don’t want to discredit the advancements made for women in television. Where we are today, with empowered characters like Leslie Knope and Miranda Bailey, who provide positive images for women, is a far cry from the depictions during the 1950’s. I simply mean to say it is not enough. We need to strive for depictions that show an array of female characters that possess countless traits, giving them strength without having to overtly express “hey look, it’s a female character with agency, she must be strong.” We need to look beyond character descriptions and change the schemata within our minds that automatically classify badass, stereotype-defying females as “strong” rather than just plain, and simple, female characters.

Works Cited

Dunn, Sarah. "Enough With the 'Strong Female Characters', Already." PolicyMic. PolicyMic, 9 Oct. 2013. Web. <>.
McDougall, Sophia. "I Hate Strong Female Characters." Cultural Capital. The New Statesman, 17 Aug. 2013. Web. <>.
Swensen, Daniel. "On Writing Strong (Female) Characters." Surly Muse, n.d. Web. <>.
Yu, Lynn. "There Are No Strong Female Characters." Arts and Entertainment. The Daily Californian, 16 Oct. 2013. Web. <>.

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