(or, How “Strong Female Character” Has Become Toss-Around Jargon)
I’ve noticed that some people tend to use the term “strong female character” as a kind of archetype, a generalizing label. They use it the same way they would “the anti-hero” or “the charming sociopath,” character tropes we grab at to quickly and conveniently sum up a character. The problem is, a strong female character isn’t strictly speaking a trope, or at least, she shouldn’t be. Few people generalize a “strong male character,” focusing instead on what specific qualities of strength they exhibit, but many people seem content to group any females with physical, moral, or emotional strength into one category without taking the time to elaborate.
Now, I admit that when I hear a story or game or film features a “strong female character/lead,” I consider it a point in the story’s favor. I like to see members of my gender sticking up for themselves and/or kicking serious ass. However, you don’t really know what you’re getting into when your character is described so ambiguously. There are many ways any character can exhibit strength. Using a few random films as an example, you could say that Elizabeth Bennet from Pride & Prejudice, Hushpuppy from Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Beatrice Kiddo from Kill Bill Vol. I & II are all “strong,” albeit in vastly different ways.
In one sense, there’s no harm in specifying the existence of a “strong character” in a work of fiction. You’re saying that there is someone in the story with enough depth and integrity to make you want to read about, watch, or play her. Showing appreciation for these characters motivates the storytellers to create and develop these and other characters with complexity. Yet in other regards, it causes problems.
For example, as it’s used with more regularity, people begin to misunderstand or misapply the term. When someone mentions a “strong female character” anywhere outside of a romantic or comedic setting, more often than not they are referring to physical strength in the sense of a warrior woman or femme fatale. Similarly, many storytellers will try to justify that they have strong female characters by simply making them formidable fighters. Over time, this becomes almost the expectation. But as I already mentioned, there are many ways for a character to exhibit strength and complexity. She doesn’t need to be a skilled fighter to be considered strong or an equal to her male peers, but this trait is too often used as a crutch to support an otherwise flat or objectified character. As this expectation grows, some admirable pacifists get overlooked as weak and domesticated while some archetypal, often sexualized Amazons get mistaken for strong-minded, empowered women. It’s not always the case, certainly, but it does happen.
In the end, using the term “strong female character” to evaluate a story is like using Wikipedia to research for a paper: it’s a great starting point, but if you don’t go from there to look a little deeper, the end result won’t reflect positively on either party.