In this modern era, it seems more and more that writers are beginning to realise that female characters can be more than just a damsel in distress love interest. In some cases, writers have given it their all to ensure that female characters are not mere eye candy who’ll never accomplish anything of note in the story. Unfortunately, as with most tropes, there are many other writers who’ve opted to take a more lazy route.
Quite often, the definition of “strong female character” to a lazy writer is “girl who fights a lot”. That’s all that is supposedly needed; the ability to beat guys up. Folks, a girl simply being capable of beating up some guy doesn’t make her developed or fleshed out. When we say “strong”, we don’t necessarily mean it in a literal sense. If you want to write a hero, they need to be interesting. We need a reason to root for her aside from “she’s generically tough”.
As well as this, far too many writers seem to be focusing too much on what the heroine “isn’t”. Look, she’s not girly. Look, she’s not distressed. Look she’s not weak. Then when it comes to what she actually is, the writing seems a bit lacking. It feels as though writers are so determined not to give female characters traits considered “weak” that they fail to give them any traits at all. They are, once again, going for the lazy option.
There are positive traits out there beyond just “brave” or “tough”. There are plenty of well written female characters out there who aren’t fighters, and who embrace their femininity, yet still prove themselves smart, developed and capable.
While it is important to show female characters who aren’t necessarily fighters can be capable, I’m still going to compare to more action oriented women, given how many examples of this I’ve seen (and how many have failed to provide a strong female heroine)
It probably comes as no surprise to anyone that I’m using Furiosa. Just like Twilight is a go to for terribly handled tropes, Mad Max: Fury Road is a brilliant source of well handled tropes, many of which come from the film’s treatment of female characters.
In spite of the title, Furiosa is effectively the main hero of the movie. She has one goal: two save a group of women used as sex slaves, and find her home again, so they can live together in peace.
When it comes to giving your character strength, their ambition is important. They need to have a noble goal, and we need to see how determined they are to reach that goal. And Furiosa is determined. She is willing to hijack Immortan Joe’s war rig, and flee the citadel followed by his entire army of war boys, all to save these women.
Furiosa is a cold and hard character, there’s no doubt about that. But her reasons for being this way are shown through the subtext. She is the only female member of Joe’s army, and she has risen to the rank of Imperator. Given her features we see, like her missing arm and the brand on her neck, this must have been brutal and bloody. In spite of this, she is a very protective woman, who is willing to risk her own life to save the wives and return to the Vuvalini. She clearly cares about these women, and this isn’t something she tries to hide in order to protect her appearance as a stoic warrior woman. Furiosa may be a masculine figure, but she does not disapprove of the feminine wives. The respect her, and she respects them.
Mutual respect is where the real strengths of Furiosa’s presentation in the film lie. None of the war boys ever disrespect her simply because she’s a woman. All of the war boys on the war rig at the beginning of the movie accept her orders to “take a shortcut” even though they seem to make no sense. Not even Immortan Joe, a man who enslaves women to effectively be brood mares, makes any comments on her gender. Furiosa isn’t trying to prove herself as a woman. She is a woman who has already proven herself, and Immortan Joe knows this. He wouldn’t have brought his entire fleet of war boys (and help from the Bullet Farm and Gas Town) if he didn’t consider her a worthy adversary.
Then we have Furiosa’s relationship with Max. In any other badly written movie, there likely would have either been rivalry or romance or both. There is none here. Neither trusts the other at first (for good reason; Max has no reason to trust anyone involved at the Citadel, Furiosa has no reason to trust the man who shot Angharad), but both accept the fact that they need to work together. When Max is attempting to shoot at the Bullet Farmer’s vehicle, and is approached by Furiosa, he hands her his gun without a word, knowing she’s a better shot than him. She doesn’t need to convince him, and he doesn’t make any snide or condescending remarks. All we see here is a strong man and a strong woman working together without argument for a necessary cause.
After my recent review, it should also come as no surprise that Alice, of Disney’s live action Alice in Wonderland series, is my selection for what not to do with a female hero. While Furiosa is widely remembered as the “real” protagonist of a movie called “Mad Max”, Alice is often ignored in favour of characters like the Mad Hatter or the Red Queen despite both of her movies having her name in the title.
Alice is a perfect example of a female character who is simply written to “not be weak” as opposed to actually being strong. I do not care what Alice “isn’t”. I don’t care if she’s “not weak”, “not a damsel”, “not going to just accept sexism in her old timey society”. I care about what she is, and this movie gives us nothing.
Sure, you could make the argument that Alice is the normal girl in a land of whimsy and wonder, but we rarely get to see any interesting reactions from her. We rarely see her in awe of her surroundings, nor do we see her especially confused by them.
Since our first example only focused on one movie, I will focus mostly on Through the Looking Glass, as I feel that one was trying and failing even further in pushing a girl power message.
Throughout the movie, despite the opportunities, Alice shows very few admirable traits. The only sign of a positive trait we see is that she cares for her friends (specifically the Hatter), and yet we hardly see any scenes of them bonding at all. She just realises the Hatter is sick, and makes the decision to try and save him and further the plot. Alice exists less as a character, and more as a tool to push things forward.
It’s not as though the writers didn’t have any options. The beginning of the movie features Alice saying she hates people calling things impossible. Now here’s a potential character trait: being so ambitious and determined to prove that nothing is impossible (understandable, given what she’s seen), that she’s capable of doing wild and wondrous things. Do we expand on that? No. Just a few scenes later, when the Hatter suggests his family might be alive, her response is simply that it’s impossible. Saving a ship through a wild storm while being pursued: fine. Searching for clues that maybe the Hatter’s family is alive: nope, that ain’t happening. Sure, it’s okay for a character to give up on their dreams and go against their usual beliefs-but only when that character is at their absolute low point (which I should point out is usually around the middle or towards the end of the movie).
And then there’s Alice’s interactions with the villains of the movie. Not the Red Queen, whose sheer despising of her actually gives her some credibility, but the Ascott family. The entire conflict between Alice and Hamish Ascott revolves around the fact that Alice is a woman. Hamish is a cartoonish straw misogynist, determined to ruin Alice’s career as a sea captain, because she’s a woman. A woman who rejected him romantically.
“But isn’t that empowering?” you ask. No. No it isn’t. Hamish is so cartoonish and pathetic that he’s not even remotely threatening to Alice. He’s just a sexist pig looking to be sexist for the sake of the plot’s empowerment message. Immortan Joe on the other hand is a sexist because he views all his Citadel citizens as property, and is desperate to create more healthy human heirs in a world where humanity is suffering and dying out. More importantly, Joe is a genuinely threatening man with an army of war boys backing him. Hamish is a caricature, only backed by other caricatures, and repeatedly laughed at by that one guy who keeps appearing in scenes just to laugh at him and disapprove.
When female audience members step into Furiosa’s shoes, we gain the power fantasy of crushing an evil tyrant who enslaves women and brainwashes men; but also sees us as an equal, who he must stop at all costs. When we step into Alice’s shoes, we get to experience being laughed at by an upper class misogynist who is only against us because he wants to laugh at us. There is no fun or excitement there. Being laughed at by sexists is something a lot of women probably have experienced, and don’t need to experience again.
And it’s her mother who saves the day anyway
Comparisons and Conclusions
I cannot stress this point enough to any writer out there wanting to know how to write a female protagonist: work out what your character is before deciding what dated tropes don’t apply. What she is should be the driving force of her actions. Furiosa quickly and violently attacks Max despite only having one available arm, because she is a protective woman who wants to ensure the safety of the wives. Alice wants to fight the Jabberwocky because everyone’s telling her she should, and because the plot wants some girl power.
Furiosa has become an iconic action hero. Alice is one of the most forgettable female protagonists that Disney has ever created. The irony here is that Furiosa isn’t desperately trying to be relevant, and isn’t even the title character; while Alice’s character just oozes “Look! Look! She’s strong, AND a girl! Isn’t she a good protagonist! Aren’t we progressive!”
Do not be afraid to write your female characters as human, flaws and all. She can be feminine and physically weak but level headed and intellectual. She can be masculine, tough and protective, but also overtly reckless. If you are simply describing her personality as “not weak, not a damsel, and generically strong”, then you have not made her a character. The term “character” is always more important than “strong”.
As well as this, repeatedly having her prove herself is a tired and outdated plot device. The fact that your character is a woman should not be her sole defining trait, and please, stop making it her sole obstacle.