The Problem With the Strong Female Protagonist™

strong female protagonist2

You’re sassy, physically strong and person most likely to kick butt. You are Not Like Other Girls. You probably don’t like ‘girly’ things. But you’re in a love triangle with two guys either way. They’re in love with your unique bravery unlike any other bravery. Introducing: the Strong Female Protagonist™. *movie trailer voice*

I see the topic of ‘strong female protagonist’ come up a lot in discussions about books and feminism. I’d be a hypocrite if I said I didn’t enjoy any characters like this. I love Katniss Everdeen! I love Alina Starkov! I was always looking for girls having adventures when I was younger. I think this trope sprang from the typical weak damsel in distress figure (particularly in fantasy) and I have no inherent problem with it.

But. But. I often feel like now the only way to have a strong female character is to have a Strong Female Protagonist™. I see double standards from female readers: if male characters show weakness, it’s cute and makes the reader feel protective. If a female character shows weakness, she’s whiny. (I’m not ridding myself of blame. I’ve done this too, though I’m trying to be more aware of it.) Case in point: the Raven Cycle. I adore Blue Sargent with all of my heart, yet so many people say “She’s not a feminist; she lets Gansey call her Jane!1!!” but will ignore the assholery of the Raven Boys themselves. NONE OF US ARE PERFECT PEOPLE. I’m not a perfect feminist. Not all fictional characters are mouthpieces for the views of the authors.

Girls who want to be traditionally feminine are not weak female characters. A feminist character is just a well-rounded, realistic character rather than a cookie cutter stereotype. We’re all people.  In my eyes, a strongly written female character equates a strong female character! I think it’s very important to realise bravery manifests itself in different place, but I also want people to remember that not everyone is brave. I want cowardly and villainous characters as well as brave ones. Girls don’t have to act masculine to be strong.

I think the response to some female characters has made me like them more. (Always rooting for the underdog, me.) And I especially like to be angrily in love with characters. I will protect Agatha Wellbelove with every part of my soul; the backlash she’s received from the fandom has only made me like her more. AGATHA IS WEAK? Please. She literally tells Simon she doesn’t want to be an object to be possessed. That’s not weak. That’s bloody brave. I cannot fathom it. Of course I adore Penny too, and I like that she has to reconcile herself with the idea that feminism = giving people a choice. I liked the exploration of that — “What if I want the gingerbread men to be pink?” — but I think Agatha has been interpreted in different ways.

There are countless quieter female characters that I wish weren’t left aside or even demonised so: Eliza Hamilton, Genya Safin, Cosette Fauchelevent. (I’ve seen Sansa/Arya comparisons for this argument, but I’ve only read half the first book. So I don’t feel very qualified to make a judgement.) Cath Avery might on the surface seem like she fits into this, but I feel like SO many readers of Fangirl really saw ourselves in her. And it’s contemporary, which I feel is a little more ‘allowed’.

Fantasy and dystopia in particular seem to see the Strong Female Protagonist™ as a necessity. High fantasy draws a lot on history for its worldbuilding, and history does tend to be patriarchal. In this setting women are typically inferior, meaning the way to be strong is to act like a man. I’m just…a bit tired of that brand of medieval European high fantasy. Authors: it’s ok, you’re allowed to be creative! Obviously sexism still exists in modern-day world so, you know, you don’t have to turn it into a totally equal utopian society. Most books are based around conflict. But hopefully we’ll be seeing more books playing around with and further exploring the various balances of power in the future.

I don’t want Strong Female Protagonists™.  We never say that we’re looking for strong male characters; they’re just accepted as such. I want to see complex and rounded female characters within interesting novels. After all, women are people too.

further reading:

  • Women in fantasy Guardian books podcast — featuring Lucy Saxon, Samantha Shannon, Alwyn Hamilton and Sally Green. I highly encourage you to listen to the whole thing if you have a spare moment, but the particular discussion of this topic is at about 7:30 mins in.
  • Women Are People Too by Jupe @ The Awkward Dragon (plus the Savannah Brown video that inspired the post) — a discussion of femininity and “I’m not like other girls.”

what do you think about kick-ass female heroines? love them, like them, hate them? any other tropes that rile you up?

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19 thoughts on “The Problem With the Strong Female Protagonist™

  1. First of all OMG you put me in your post. I am dyingggggg. Thank you so much, love.
    And I love this post. Like 100%.
    Agatha is one of my favorites and just like you said, I will protect her with my life. She is actually complex! She is independent and has trouble fitting in, is totally aro/ace because reasons, and has her own personality!
    Katniss seems like a very cookie cutter strong female character. I like her, but I do think she is too cold sometimes.
    Anyway, enough of my ramblings. Wonderful post.

    1. Omg it’s fine, it was an absolutely excellent post! And I was very much inspired by it to actually put into words this thing which has been sitting inside of me for ages.
      AGATHA IS LIFE, SHE IS AMAZING AND I WILL ARGUE WITH ANYONE WHO SAYS OTHERWISE. Including my friends who all hate her. *glares into distance* I think she’s a wonderfully complex character! But maybe people don’t think about her because she’s a bit in the background…?
      Yeah. I don’t know about Katniss. I think everyone gets compared to her because of the popularity of THG and we sort of forget about some parts of her. *shrugs*
      Thanks so much for commenting! 🙂

  2. YES to everything in this post! One of the tropes that I hate the most is when said kickass character comes out with something like “I was raised with 6 brothers”. Can’t women be kickass, feminist heroines without some kind of male input? Women are enough on their own!

    1. YES, absolutely. That’s such a frustrating trope. I mean, obviously siblings have an effect on your life and it’s definitely cool to ignore that, but it isn’t the one defining feature that makes you strong. Women can be strong in many different ways on their own!

  3. Personally to me it doesn’t matter if a character is male or female, what matters is if they are complex or if they are two-dimensional. One of my pet-hates is two-dimensional, stereotypical characters, and we do see that a lot with the “strong, kick-ass heroine”… I wish more female characters could be considered strong but have weaknesses and flaws at the same time, and that they don’t have to be physically strong to be considered strong either. I’ve started reading some Robin Hobb because I’ve heard that she writes fantastic female characters, so I will see how that goes. 🙂

    1. Yes, I absolutely agree with you! We should be creating realistic and interesting characters of all genders. 🙂 I’d love to see less of the ‘brooding bad boy with golden heart’ trope for male characters, personally. Ooh, I’ve just ordered a Robin Hobb book! I’m looking forward to seeing her characters then.

  4. Great discussion! It’s interesting to me that a couple years ago I probably would have disagreed with this post. I was very insecure as a teenager and wanted to burst out of what people thought I should be.
    Characters above all have to be well written. I’m no longer enjoy reading only about SFP, I want just want someone who I can relate to on something. I’m actually a bit tired of reading the SFP stories. They’re all badass these days. But where are the clever feminine girls working their ways through court intrigue? I’d love to read about that. 🙂

    1. Thanks! 🙂 I used to be very judgemental of ‘feminine’ girls as well — I mean, I sort of still am, though I try to be more aware of it. Once everyone takes the same cookie-cutter mould for characters it can get very boring. It’s been a while since I read it, but I’d suggest The Winner’s Curse as a book with a very clever but not physically strong female MC. 🙂

  5. YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES. *incoherent flailings, knocks over lamp* Nobody is perfect? And I think that some writers think that making the female characters strong means making them strongly perfect…which isn’t right. Everything you said is so, so accurate with this. ❤ ❤ ❤ BASICALLY I LOVE THIS POST.

    1. YES YAY THANK YOU SO MUCH I’M VERY GLAD YOU THINK SO TOO. ❤ Perfection doesn't at all equate to strength! No one is amazing at everything. The people who make efforts to overcome their fears are probably the bravest.

  6. YAAAAAAS. Also on “not like other girls” — I feel like this should be used as an insult, not a compliment. Hmph. Definitely agree that the beginnings of this kind of heroine were great — although Katniss is always brought up here and she’s like the OPPOSITE of always strong! She’s super vulnerable and basically has PTSD in later books, and yet everyone loves her, but also can yell at later heroines for showing weakness. *sighs* Really fantastic post, Eve — especially love your closing remarks!

    1. Thanks, Alyssa! Yeah — I mean, it doesn’t really make sense as a remark if you’re saying it as a girl because…every person is different? Other girls are not bad.
      Ooh, those are some great points! We hold Katniss up as a ‘strong heroine’ up so often, even though she basically blocks her feelings and shoots things instead. (It’s been a while since I read THG, admittedly. But I remember liking her a lot. And her not being this cardboard cut-out scary shooting person.)

  7. I tend to look for strong, complex, and brave characters in literature. A character can be strong and still have their weaknesses. I want a character to be believable and face conflict in their lives. It doesn’t matter to me if you have a strong female protagonist or a lead strong female character that is not the protagonist. Strong characters are quite fascinating and those sort of characters do help make you care about their journey. It is hard to exactly describe why I love strong characters either female or male, but it still is one characteristic I tend to look for

    1. Yes, I agree! Seeing a complex, nuanced, and realistic character is the most important thing. I think that in particular I do love seeing complex female (and non-binary) characters simply because I am able to read about many complex male characters already, but of course I like to read interesting characters of all genders. 🙂

      1. I started to understand the concept of complex characters back in middle school or high school through the musical characters of Elphaba and Glinda. As much as I am naturally drawn to complex characters, I have fallen in love with simple characters

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