Why We Should Jettison the “Strong Female Character,” Part II

The Rise of the Action Heroine

Click HERE for part 1 of this series.

Partly as a result of this everywoman heroine trend, partly in order to be more inclusive in traditionally male dominated genres, partly in order to push back against stereotypes, partly in order to legitimate eye candy for male audiences, partly in response to powerful lobby groups behind the scenes, and perhaps mostly in order to increase sales, the last couple of decades have seen a meteoric rise in the number of action heroines—Xena, Buffy Summers, Trinity, Sydney Bristow, River Tam, Lara Croft, Kara Thrace, Katniss Everdeen, Michonne, Black Widow, Daisy Johnson, Peggy Carter, Imperator Furiosa, Jessica Jones, Rey, etc., etc. Women, we are assured, can fight just like men. These characters are highly confident characters who routinely outclass men in combat, despite their typically short, thin, and conventionally attractive frames (Brienne of Tarth is a marked exception here, who approaches somewhat closer to realism). Even the modern princess can be a martial artist who can prove her strength and equality to men through violence, whether physical or magical.

There is no shortage of well-rounded characters within this category, although others are lazy ‘Mary Sue’ tropes. What is perhaps most noteworthy about most of them is how much their supposed ‘strength’ and independence and their narrative importance often depends upon their capacity to match up to men in combat, requires the foil of male incompetence, villainy, and weakness, or involves the exhibition of traits and behaviors that are far more pronounced in men. Cathartic though it may be for many women to see such female characters demonstrating their equality of agency and personhood on their screens, the ways in which they typically have to do this reveal deep problems with prevailing egalitarian visions of female identity and of relations between the sexes.

In their various ways, these characters almost all represent resistance to the fact that women are, not only in the teaching of Scripture, but according to the ample evidence of reality, the ‘weaker vessel’. This relative weakness—primarily physical, but also societal—is especially pronounced in the area of physical strength and in fittingness for and orientation towards combat. The sexual difference can be exceedingly large here and, although some more exceptional women could outmatch the average man in particular feats, when we are dealing with the extremes of strength and performance, women simply cannot compete:

Men have about 90% greater upper-body strength, a difference of approximately three standard deviations (Abe et al., 2003; Lassek & Gaulin, 2009). The average man is stronger than 99.9% of women (Lassek & Gaulin, 2009). Men also have about 65% greater lower body strength (Lassek & Gaulin, 2009; Mayhew & Salm, 1990), over 45% higher vertical leap, and over 22% faster sprint times (Mayhew & Salm, 1990)…

The suspension of disbelief required of audiences watching many female action heroines is considerable. The breaking of stereotypes may open new imaginative possibilities for women’s identities, but it tends to do so at the expense of reckoning with both the physical limitations and natural inclinations of most women relative to men and the framing realities of their lives.

Of course, to some extent this is true of almost any hero in pop culture. The teenage boy who identifies with Luke Skywalker is rather hamstrung by a poor midi-chlorian count—I know, I know—relative to his hero and may well never escape his personal Tatooine. However, Luke’s journey is a recognizably male one, emphasizing common masculine traits, interests, and concerns throughout: It involves an orientation towards combat, an exceptional interest in and aptitude with technology, a concern to protect women and deliver them from harm, and the existential importance of the male mentor and of the young man’s identification with his father.

The Male Path of Strong Female Characters

The female action heroines may have many relatable personal traits, interests, and concerns for the typical girl or woman—as I have already noted, few of these heroines are merely clumsy gender-switches of male characters. However, all too often, their prominence and the recognition of their importance in the narrative rests almost entirely upon the fact that they have in some crucial respects followed a typically male path, or that they exhibit relatively male tendencies, interests, and aptitudes in key areas. Their claim to strength and the stature of their personhood lies, less in the confident development and pursuit of determined and unapologetically womanly character—with the considerable scope that provides for resisting flat stereotypes—than in their capacity to prove themselves on men’s terms, as fighters who can excel at typical male interests and activities.

Were such characters rare or occasional exceptions, it could fairly be claimed that they serve to resist the closure of certain possibilities to women—a worthwhile end indeed. However, when they increasingly represent a norm among the most prominent female characters in popular culture, they cease to be a message of empowerment and become something closer to an indictment upon the natural strengths and tendencies of women relative to men as a sex.

The concerns of inclusion, equality, and empowering representation, driven by social justice concerns for progressives, and by sales maximization for pop culture producers, have been particularly strongly addressed to genres and pop culture franchises that have traditionally catered primarily for males. Effective representation of women in such contexts can be especially complicated. When narratives are structured around combat, action, and physical struggle—as many of the most popular genres and franchises are—male agency will naturally tend to assume prominence and women will often find themselves on the narrative fringes. Though such stories only explore a few dimensions of human action, they are dimensions of human action within which exceptional males overwhelmingly predominate, and they are the stories that often dominate upon our screens.

For instance, when adapting The Hobbit for the big screen—a book whose main cast is entirely male—Peter Jackson created the character of Tauriel, a badass non-conformist she-elf, who is the head of the Mirkwood Elven guard. The inclusion of Tauriel was just one of many ways Jackson altered Tolkien’s novel by retailoring it to appeal to as broad an audience as possible and to play to their supposed desire for extreme spectacle and conflict on the scale of his previous Lord of the Rings trilogy. The inclusion of Tauriel doesn’t really represent an improvement upon Tolkien’s original tale. However, it was a gesture towards inclusivity and equality. It was probably an attempt to connect more with women in audiences by adding a character they could identify with and including a romantic dimension to the plot.

The characterization of Tauriel, like many other such characters, suffers as she is burdened with a task of representation that is too large for any single character’s shoulders. As the token woman, the interests that Tauriel exists to serve are less those internal to the world and narrative of Tolkien’s work and are primarily those of film executives and social progressives. For the latter, it is almost a matter of course that she must be a kickass fighter, as this is how women demonstrate that they are strong within such narrative worlds.

Because she must single-handedly represent ideological commitment to women’s inclusion and equality to men, there are considerable constraints upon the development of her character. Cultural insecurities about the precariousness of women’s position in a male world prevent her from being a truly interesting character. She may be ‘strong’, but she is a weak character because she has to be ‘strong’ lest the wrong message be sent (male characters don’t generally suffer such an encumbrance and can be more interesting as a result). The films would have been much better had Jackson resisted the lure of representation and inclusion—forces that often pull characters out from a healthy narrative orbit—and just focused on telling a good story.

Originally published at Mere Orthodoxy. Part 3 will be published on 3/15/18.

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham) is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scriptureseries on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged. This post was originally posted on his blog