Thoughts #36: Do We Really Need ‘Strong Women’?


As you probably know, I am a big reader of science fiction and fantasy. Typically, in the past, these genres were dominated by men, and even in the 21st century women are often under-represented, both as authors and characters. Therefore, as any self-respecting woman would do, I have always supported and been proud of works where female characters are shown to be ‘strong’. I cheered for Arya Stark as she made her own way in life through the A Song of Ice and Fire series, despite her young age. I love the fact that Harry and Ron would never have gotten far without Hermione. Vin’s development from a timid young girl to confident young woman in the Mistborn series was fantastic.

But then I thought to myself – why do we need to be told this, or in many cases tell ourselves, that these women are strong?

Arya Stark gif

That is not to say that I look down on any of the works mentioned for their portrayals of women – in fact I’ve named some of my favourites here. But why can we not just assume from the beginning that these female characters are strong, or that their strength is something every woman has, that just presents itself in different ways? Some are physically strong, like Brienne of Tarth, others are emotionally strong, like Katniss Everdeen. Just because we don’t see it all the time doesn’t mean it’s not there. Do we really need to label female characters as ‘strong’ for showing great physical, mental or emotional prowess, when if a male character were to do the same we would never say that? It almost feels like saying it’s a surprise for a female character to present herself that way.

But at the same time, people should be recognised for their attributes and actions. Some characters go through absolutely horrific events, so of course we want to refer to them as ‘strong’ to show that they are survivors, they are more than capable – it’s like an umbrella term to cover all the different ways in which they have dealt with things. After considering all this, I’m now really torn between the two viewpoints. On one hand, calling one woman over others ‘strong’ demeans the remainder and indicates that we don’t expect them to show strength, but on the other hand they should be recognised for what they have done.

What do you think – should we still refer to female characters as ‘strong’ or do you think the word is patronising?

Hermione Granger gif


25 thoughts on “Thoughts #36: Do We Really Need ‘Strong Women’?”

  1. I’m also tired of the phrase “strong female character,” because it does imply that not all female characters are strong in some way – and that’s not true. And you made an excellent point that each female character has different strengths. Dany from A Song Of Ice And Fire isn’t a warrior, but she has a strong sense of justice and the commanding presence of a leader. Fire from Kristin Cashore’s Fire may know how to use a bow and arrow, but she’s also compassionate and conducts herself with integrity. These are all admirable traits, and perhaps good reasons why it’s more appropriate to call such characters “dynamic” or “complex” instead of “strong.”

    1. Yes, that’s what it makes me think. I like the words ‘dynamic’ and ‘complex’, maybe I should start using those instead 🙂

  2. Really good point! That phrase has been overused, and I think you’re right. By using it, we’re assuming not all women are strong or have the capability to be so. In fiction, you never hear about male characters being strong, at least the way women are described.

    1. Thanks Tammy 🙂 And nope, I can’t think of a book where a male character is described as ‘strong’ for overcoming obstacles – only in the sense of where he is physically strong.

  3. I have no problem with the word, “strong” in defining a woman. I’m a man though. But, I write woman characters sometimes. I base them on my wife, who is the most incredible person I know. She doesn’t measure things by a female standard, she uses a human standard. Her past accomplishments include: Sheriff Deputy, Firefighter, EMT, managed a crew of 20 excavators, modeling, talent agent. Her image was used on Hanes underwear packaging, and Victoria secret used her as a form model for bras. I once purchased a chain saw for her birthday. The word “strong” does not apply to my wife because she is a woman, but because she is a strong person, very capable and self reliant. But, as I always tell her, if not for the fact that she is part Italian, she would be perfect.

  4. Excellent topic for conversation! It’s a catch 22, and I think this is the tip of the iceberg for “stating the obvious about females” in general. For example, it’s news when a female makes CEO, or when a female wins a vote in politics. It shouldn’t be news for that reason alone, but it still is. However, if it isn’t acknowledged and “promoted” for lack of a better word, then I don’t think it lends itself to the “cause” of making it not-news. Does that make sense? The more common these occurrences are, the less likely we will be to draw attention to it, because it will eventually become the norm, and the only way to make that so is to point it out and become used to it. If women were seen as strong characters all the time, it wouldn’t be pointed out anymore, so until that lessens. It still needs to be pointed out. I think. It’s a big topic! Lol R x

    1. Definitely a catch 22! You make some really good points here, it’s sad that we have to point it out but also it should be recognised.

  5. I love discussions like this that make me think about how I write my reviews!
    When I use the word “strong” to describe characters I usually mean it in the physical sense. But characters can have many strengths and they don’t always have to be physical.
    I often use the word “independent” when describing female characters that are confident in their abilities and don’t define their self-worth based on a man or their relationship with him. To me that is a huge strength and one I vastly admire in my female characters–especially in romance novels!
    As to why we still need to define strength? I think it’s due to stereotypes. There are still authors out there who write females as nothing more than an object to be won or saved (of course this depends on the genre). In society we still struggle with women’s rights and freedoms (equal pay anyone?) so I think by creating and emphasizing strong female characters, we are showing that it is OK to show your strengths (and your weaknesses) and that you can accomplish anything that someone of the opposite gender can do. I think about the target audiences in the books I read (the younger generations) and this message of strong (however that may be) female characters is one they need to receive because we aren’t quite at the point where it is accepted as a basic fact (in my opinion).

    1. Independent is a good one, I’ve often used it in that same context 🙂 And yes, it’s sad that there are still those stereotypes out there. I definitely agree with you there, we need those sorts of characters to show others that they CAN be that way.

  6. Huh, good point… I don’t know why we do this, really. I think that perhaps it’s useful to use “strong” when describing female CHARACTERS, because they are made-up. What I mean is: writers often write women who aren’t strong, who are stereotypes of everything that’s wrong with patriarchy, so it’s perhaps important to recognize those authors who DO write women who break from the mold.
    But I agree it might be demeaning to use the word in “real life”, for real women.

    1. I guess I never thought about it in the two different contexts, just as fiction. But yes, it’s definitely good to highlight the authors who write those sorts of characters. 🙂

  7. I love this post — thanks for making me think about what it means to be a strong female character. Aren’t most PEOPLE strong in some ways and not others? Just saw Mad Max and surprisingly, it has sparked a lot of discussion on this topic. I totally agree with the idea that “strong’ women suggests that most women aren’t, which is ridiculous. On the other hand maybe it suggests that most female characters aren’t depicted as strong, which is a problem.

    1. Thank you 🙂 I still need to see Mad Max, but I’ve heard so much about it in terms of the female characters, and that makes me want to watch it even more.

  8. I definitely agree that I am tired of the talk of strong female characters. I think it would be better if we just championed wonderfully developed characters, dynamic characters, etc., guys and girls. I read an interesting blog post for writers recently that talked about how the only attribute that your character needed (male or female) to be “strong” was to be a catalyst in the story, and I thought that was a really good way to look at it.

  9. Personally, I kind of despise the phrase. Why do we feel like the only way we can be validated is by labeling a female character as strong? And why must every YA book these days be centered around a female character? That’s the bigger question to me. It’s becoming more difficult to find male narrators in new YA fantasy and that bothers me.

    1. Yes, I’d definitely like to read some more male driven YA! But also some more adult fantasy and sci-fi with female leads…

  10. I was just having this conversation with my brother this weekend. I think that it is unfortunate we feel the need to say out loud that a woman is strong or capable or whatever. Like, why isn’t that implicit?

    But as much as we would want it otherwise – some women aren’t active catalysts in their life – just like some men aren’t. Some women don’t endure, don’t rise up, aren’t emotionally powerful. Some men are fops and weak willed and cowards.

    I think JK Rowling actually did a really good job of this. She calls Hermione talented and smart – but not strong. She doesn’t say anything like about about Luna or Ginny (that I can remember). Yet those characters and more are so often the examples people use of great female characters. I think if you make the character strong and dimensional, you don’t have to say it 🙂

  11. I absolutely agree with you, particularly your last statement. If you want a character to be that way, then you should make them that way without having to explicitly say it 🙂

  12. I would certainly like to see us get to the point where we don’t feel compelled to describe a female character as “strong”. We may want to point out a characters “strengths” and “weaknesses”, etc. but I would rather do that in the way I feel they are written/acted out/etc. in the book, film, or television show rather than feel like it is important to point out that someone actually created a real, genuine human who just so happens to be a female. I find myself doing it all the time, so I understand, but at the same time I am becoming more and more conscious of the fact that it feels somewhat odd to have to keep pointing that out whenever it happens.

    I also think that people define “strong” in so many different ways. I think a female character can be worthwhile and well-developed and still function within long-held gender roles…and can still be “strong”. I often feel as if I’m judging a female character’s “strength” based on whether she is taking charge or kicking butt rather than true strength.

    And I also don’t have to have every character, male or female, in a book I read or show/film I watch be some complex character. I’m okay with stock characters if they are in an entertaining story and I can relate to them on even a basic level. They can be “weak” in the sense that they don’t have a lot of dimension and still cause me to have a meaningful, emotional connection to them because of what I bring to the story.

    1. Yeah I definitely think it should be something that you should know without having it pointed out to you.

      And that’s true, I think I often judge it that way too.

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