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?