There are certain stereotypical images and thoughts of how we perceive a strong female character in a story.
A strong woman is perceived as someone who stands up for what she believes in, is independent, self-reliant, strong-willed, and a motherly or matronly take-charge person. And yet more than often the characteristics of a strong woman are attributed more to a loss or psychological distress that happened somewhere in her past. Sounds familiar?
A Woman’s Strength starts with Tragedy
A strong woman happens to be someone who has faced some tragedy was further reinforced by authors and filmmakers. Whenever the “strong woman card” was played in the movie or book plot, the movie or book was a hit.
Well, there are still a number of books and movies which follow the same idea. Take Claudia Gray’s “FireBird” series as an example. Marguerite the protagonist in the “Firebird” series finds her strength only after her father dies in a car accident, and then she gets frenzy to take revenge.
So befalling of misfortune on a woman is considered as a reason to address the strength of a woman. Could it be that a woman can only find strength through tragedy in order to become stronger? Not to forget the popular culture perception of strong women as tomboy, less feminine, lifting furniture kind of a woman.
Men and women are different in emotional and physical characteristics, that’s true. Women might have inherited something in their DNA blueprint which makes them more emotionally vulnerable, but that never means a tragedy has to shape their emotional vulnerabilities. Women are able to perform whatever task is required simply because they are able to do it.
Being a woman
Women have been easy victims in the bullying framework. Particularly when the girl is a nerd or geek, she had been made fun of a school. But times have changed and Sci-Fi fantasies proved that nerd women aren’t losers after all. Comic books, fantasy films, and Sci-Fi TV series have hit the zeitgeist, introducing a class-strong woman to the world. And soon beauty with brains became something most sought after.
It was no more just a pretty lady in bright and peppy colors obsessing over her nails, hair, skin, and wearing 6-inch pink heels, Sci-Fi added more dimensions to the character of a strong woman. They are nerds and still look cool doing their nerd things.
Take the movie “Aliens” as an example, Ellen Ripley the leading lady of the movie showed the all-rounder image of a woman. “Sarah Connor” of “The Terminator”, Katniss Everdeen of “The Hunger Games” are some other examples who have redefined the meaning of the word cool for women.
Unfortunately, it was not enough. The transition from a timid and poor girl who turns into a fierce and courageous awesome badass after something bad happens to her sells better. And this stereotype has been repeated in books as well, Millie of “The Quantum Thief”, where she sacrifices her humanity to a goddess in exchange for post-human technological upgrades that turned her into a one-woman arsenal on a mission of revenge, and Tan-Tan of “Midnight Robber”, where Tan-Tan flees into the forests, contending with hardship, integrating herself into an alien society, and planning her revenge against those responsible for her situation.
Yet not everything is lost. This stereotype has been challenged by great stories on a screen that was luckily well received by audiences as well. They showed the strong women as femme Fatales and brainy broads right from their childhood just like men. Characters like Diana Prince in “Wonder Woman”, Okoye, Nakia and Shuri in “Black Panther”, Michael Burnham in “Star Trek Discovery”, and Nyota Uhura in “Star Trek Original Series”, were raised as strong, independent, and confident young women who never feel inferior.
A Strong Female Character
Another point to be noted here is a strong female character doesn’t necessarily have to be related to action and violence. A book or film doesn’t need to have a strong female character that kicks ass because there are so many other ways of showing strength. It’s not just about murdering people. In the real world, there are whole regiments of women fighting for their rights through protest, strong political leaders, mothers who put their children’s needs before them, and so many more examples.
Motherhood is one of the best proofs of how strong women can be, take the movie “Mother India” for example-in a Bollywood movie it might seem frustrating to see female characters reduced to their reproductive capabilities, but this movie changed the idea altogether. This film is historic. It portrays all kinds of emotions between a woman and everybody else in society. The love bond between a mother and her children is the most beautiful part of this film. The film came out in 1957 and it is, without a doubt, the most iconic film of Indian cinema! Unfortunately, that was one of those “one in a million” stories that addressed motherhood the right way. In today’s world where parenting is shown as something inferior, there is a scope to develop the plot where the strength of women as mothers can be shown as one of the best proofs of how strong a woman can be.
There is big scope for a movie or a book portrayed on the female scientist (real or not), to have a look at the way they were raised. Science and technology are often considered to be the forte of men and the idea is further subliminally transferred to the audience via books and movies- What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word scientist?
It’s most likely an intelligent type wearing a white lab coat with round-rimmed glasses. And more than likely, you see the scientist as a man making a breakthrough discovery, how he struggles with his paranoid mind inspiring sympathy, love, and respect. There is a similar scope for the character of women to be shown as such. Though there are some movies that already show this it needs to be fostered further.
For example, the 1998 film “Gorillas in the Mist” tells the true story of scientist Dian Fossey’s (Sigourney Weaver) African journey studying the disappearing rare species of mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Fossey became a champion for the gorillas, putting her life at risk to protect them from poachers and possible extinction. Another example is Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) a xenobotanist who is the head of the Avatar Program in James Cameron’s 2009 hit, “Avatar”. But such roles need to be more prominent with women having the main lead.
So adding a tragedy to the story to make a woman look inspirational or strong to make us believe that misery is an essential ingredient to create a strong female character is not necessary. Women can be portrayed as strong women without having tragedy or failure as motivational bait. Today there are many types of strong women like businesswomen, stay-at-home moms, single working moms, women working in the entertainment industry (including writers and directors), women in the military, scientists, and so on. All of them are just as inspirational with the way they conduct themselves through life.
Unfortunately, most of them are not being represented as they are on film, not in U.S, Latin America, Europe, or Asia. The excuse that those representations are not bankable or will not be widely accepted is just a myth. See the success of Black Panther for example; audiences widely accepted all the strong female characters in the movie. I hope this support will continue to completely change the image of strong women not only in Sci-Fi but in all other genres too.
To finalize I want to share with you a satirical sketch/music video I found about how female leads are treated, in this case, they are referring to Bollywood but I’m sure the rest of the world can relate to it since some issues like equal pay and women objectification are everywhere. Make sure to watch it on Youtube and have the subtitles on 😉
Thanks to all the contributors of this article, from those who give me the idea to those who actually helped me with the writing. I really appreciate all the help 🙂
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