Should the Phrase ‘Strong Female Character’ in Movies Be Retired?

Strong Female Character Example Shailene Woodley

She is called a “strong female character.” Shailene Woodley stars in Insurgent. Photo via E! Online.

This morning I was watching a movie review for Insurgent. I was interested in it as I saw the Divergent, the first movie in the science fiction series, and I wondered what the next film would hold in terms of plot and character advancement. The reviewer said that actress Shailene Woodley’s character Beatrice Prior was a great strong female character. I was troubled by the phrase “strong female character,” and my uneasy feelings led me to ponder whether the phrase “strong female character” in movies should be retired?

What exactly made me uneasy took some time for me to figure out. Then I realized that it is because a movie with a man in the lead role isn’t likely to be described as having a strong male character. So why point it out for a woman like Beatrice, played by Shailene Woodley?

Perhaps it is mentioned for females because it is seen as being uncharacteristic of our nature. That would be to say that women are not normally powerful but instead more subdued in personality. Well, I can kick that stereotype where the sun doesn’t shine. I know many strong women; two that come to my mind right away are my mom and my friend Melissa.

As an additional point, I would not say that a strong female character, if we must keep that phrase in the dictionary (though I argue it can be retired without the world ending), isn’t one that is synonymous with being cold or mean. Hear my feminist words roar! A woman can be both strong and empathetic; those qualities are not mutually exclusive. The layers of a woman are many; the layers of a woman are beautiful.

If the phrase “strong female character” were removed from movie reviews and in general from the film industry, my hope would be that it would help reduce stereotypes of women. Perhaps men and women could be looked at on more of a level playing field. I know it is movie characters we are discussing here, but many people really do escape into films as they watch them and internalize the messages they see over the course of the two-hour film.

What are your thoughts on the phrase “strong female character” in movies such as Insurgent? Would retiring the phrase be a positive move?
 
 
©2015 Christy Birmingham

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43 thoughts on “Should the Phrase ‘Strong Female Character’ in Movies Be Retired?

  1. It’s something that isn’t needed these days. If anything, it tends to get lampooned more than anything because it’s a way to say, “Look! Our movie is good because we have a Strong Female Character!” (When The Avengers movie was out someone did a Tumblr post about how Hawkeye was really that Strong Female Character in the movie because of all the things that happened to him. It was pretty humorous.)

    How about one simply say, “We have great characters,” and leave it at that. In my last novel I’d never say any of character were “Strong Female Characters,” because it becomes pretty obvious they are. And even though she never had the label at the time, Ellen Ripley was THE Strong Female Character–and it wasn’t until the Special Edition came out that you realize why. Really, the final showdown in “Aliens” is really all about two moms protecting their kids.

    • All kinds of awesomeness here, Cassidy. Let’s say that we celebrate great character development without noting gender in any regard. As we have both no doubt read our fair share of cardboard characters, it is exciting to me to read about a multi-level, realistic person or to see one in a movie. Thank you for the thoughtful contribution here.

      • Since “Alien” is one of my favorite movies, let’s point out that the character of Ripley was written as a male character, and when Signorny was cast in the part Riddly Scott and she made the decision not to change anything in the way the character was written, other than she’d put her own spin on how she would interpret the character. Which means that at some point, the MALE character would have needed to be saved from the android who was trying to kill him, and the same character would have been loosing it slightly as they were trying to get off a ship about to blow up. (No word if he would have saved the cat, however. I saw “Alien” first-run in the theaters, and I can tell you what just about everyone said when she went for the cat. 😉 )

        I wonder if they actually left the part for a man if they would have toughened up the part a bit, or left it as written?

      • Oh how interesting to learn that backstory of Alien! Sigourney has actually done that a few times now, where she takes on roles originally intended for males. It is funny if you watch the movie called The TV Set because the character has this obsession with female breasts. Sigourney said don’t change anything in the script when she took the role, including that! Hehe 🙂 As for whether the Alien role would have changed if left to a man, who knows, but it’s sure awesome with Sigourney in it!

      • I’ve seen copies of the *original* script, and everyone aboard the ship was male. It was very . . . I guess you could say somewhat homoerotic in a few places. Also, the alien looked a bit like a headless turkey. But the idea to change two of the crew to women came about because someone (I don’t remember who now) thought it MADE SENSE that women would be aboard a working spaceship in the future–and we get Lambert as the navigator, and Ripley as the warrant office and third in command.

        The thing I find most interesting about the movie is the interaction between Ripley and Parker. If the movie were done today there might be some game-playing going on about this hard-dude working in engineering having to take orders from a woman. Parker never gives Ripley crap, save for the times he’s talking about getting the bonus shares. Then he’s acting pretty much the way you’d expect a subordinate to act around a superior. Once the alien is loose and the killing starts, the only time he questions Ripley is about killing the thing: once it’s established they will, he’s like, “Cool, let’s do this,” and doesn’t question her. It’s something you probably wouldn’t see much in movies these days, except with certain writers and directors.

  2. I’ll see the second movie in the Divergent series and will read the books, but based only on the first movie of the series, I wasn’t impressed with Tris’ character at all, nor Woodley’s performance. So, to me, she is more of a lead female character than a strong female character.

    “Strong female character” is an expression which can often be reduced to a woman’s physical capability. To me, it means very much complexity and how compelling she can be. Strength can encompass so many aspects. I would be happy if we didn’t need it anymore but I think that this is much of a necessity. The most important thing we can do with it is to understand that strength is has so many ways to be expressed.

    • Hi Natacha, you make a really good point about the connotations associated with the word “strong.” It IS often reduced to being about physicality in everyday word usage but there’s more to it for sure. Perhaps rather than removing the word, it needs to have the common understanding of it revisited. Your comment really adds to the discussion and I thank you for it!

  3. (Personally, I’m not bothered or offended by words that indicate I’m female — the ones it’s popular to complain about now that have a different form for genders (like actor/actress). To me that’s like telling me i should be ashamed of being a woman — if I’m supposed to be offended by words that indicate I’m female.)
    But this particular circumstance feels different from that. It’s not the same at all… It’s not really offensive to me, and does not feel born of stereotypes. However, it is utterly redundant. “Strong female characters”… There are far more strong women that weak women — even when it comes to Hollywood’s characters. To me, the term is just foolish. 😀

    • Melissa, thank you for the beautiful comment. I looked at that post and I cannot even begin to tell you how many memories it brought back! Nancy Drew, Out of Africa, Little House on the Prairie, and The Babysitter’s Club – and that’s not all! Wow, so awesome. Thank you for being here and for your friendship xo

  4. As you know, I always go back in history to measure the progress made. This is an excellent question. I like Eleanor Roosevelt’s take on strength of character: “People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously. This is how character is built.” It is not a contrivance of a script. Humanity has a way of addressing complex issues with stereotypes. As this discussion has signaled – there are many who see beyond the surface. Another wonderful dialogue.

  5. This an interesting topic to discuss. I’ve heard the phrase “strong female character” used in different contexts and I think the level of appropriateness depends on the context of what is being described when the phrase is used. Here are a couple of examples I can think of:

    1. In action movies where the lead or a substantial supporting character is female: I think this is the the one where we see the pjhrase most often and it’s the one Christy points out in the original post referring to Insurgent. The phrase in this context refers to the fact that a female character engages in most of the action / fighting / violence in the film and assumes that most of the audience is accustomed to seeing men in such a role. Here I would agree that the use of the phrase can tend to be demeaning since it implies that men are the default “action stars” and therefore such a film where the lead “action star” is a woman would be looked upon as an anomaly. Obviously, the notion of actresses as action stars isn’t that far-fetched anymore, and the notion of an action film with a female lead isn’t all that unusual. The phrase “strong female lead” to describe these films should indeed be considered outdated.

    2. Dramatic films where an actress gives a standout performance. Here’s where I think the phrase “strong female lead” may not be as offensive as some suspect. Take the film, “Silence of the Lambs (just because it’s the 1st flm that comes to mind). Would it be unfair or sexist to say that Jodi Foster is a “strong female lead” in that film. The notion that a female FBI cadet gets to lead the main investigation isn’t what is being referred to when someone says that. Instead, what is being referred to is the fact that Jodi Foster is a standout amongst a cast that featured mostly men. She is the protagonist of the film so that makes her the lead and the film features a brilliant performance from her that doesn’t really hinge on the character’s gender but upon the character’s abilities in her chosen profession. While most people pay more attetion to Anthony Hopkins’ performance, the film would not work at all without Jodi Foster’s ability to make her scenes convincing. I would argue that this is an instance where if you describe Silence of the Lambs as a film with “a strong female lead” that it shouldn’t be deemed offensive since it’s not referring to Jodi Foster’s gender as a novelty or gimmick but instead referrs to her talented performance in the role she had for that film.

    I agree that when we hear phrases like that that we should question their usage and context, and we should continue to discuss and debate the language that popular culture uses when referring to women. Words are powerful and in order to get closer towards a society where gender equality can be achieved, these kinds of discussions should be had.

  6. In general, I’m not a fan of drawing attention to roles with such labels, especially when a male equivalent doesn’t exist. And yet, it is also good in a way because it can get some people used to seeing women regularly labeled as such which does work to chip away at stereotypes. What I’m waiting for is to see if Hillary Clinton becomes President because she’s a strong women who will get called a bitch and worse and so many sexist comments will be spewed. Okay that is all, kinda getting off track there 🙂 Have a great weekend.

  7. I think it would be enough to say “she portrays a strong character, and does it well” something to that effect.
    The film (or as I say often .. flim) industry is somewhat lagging.
    When you work on a TV or film project there are no more actors and actresses. They are all actors. We call them actors. Yet, in awards shows they say and award …. Best actor in a male or female role.
    I’d like to see Best Actor, and that’s that!
    Am I splitting hairs? Do I even make sense?
    Well, just a pet peeve! 🙂 Have the best weekend!

  8. I am a strong, intelligent, woman, and I can accept any “feminine” description that is positive, that points out that yes, I am that woman. I don’t particularly feel degraded by terms like strong female character. I think women should be identified because it is confirmation that we don’t have to be male to make it in this world. Call me a smart woman, call me an emotional woman, call me a beautiful woman, call me a strong woman. Just don’t ever call me a bimbo, or ditz, or any of the other degrading terminology. I AM A STRONG FEMALE (character, geologist, doctor, engineer, astrophysicist, mother, sister, daughter, teacher, neighbor, soldier, lawyer, etc), AND I AM PROUD OF IT.

  9. CB dixit: “A woman can be both strong and empathetic; those qualities are not mutually exclusive. The layers of a woman are many; the layers of a woman are beautiful”~.

    The expression “strong female characters” is certainly eloquent…

    I found a main feature that might describe them:
    (Source: http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Strong_female_characters)

    1) ~>Their strength is primarily a narrative tool to measure a male protagonists’ progress in his emotional maturity plot arc,

    The main point is this one, I believe:

    2) ~>They will be strong right up until she can’t deal with something and have to be saved by a man… Thus, they still have to conform to gender-normative standards of attractiveness.

    It seems that nowadays these women can reveal “strong” character with relevance to the plot (as heroine or villainess), often taking the role of a sexually attractive femme fatale.Thus they are attractive to both female and male audiences as they appear as strong characters but also as “femmes fatales”…
    I would say that they might be expression of polytheism of values, culturally speaking… Also might reveal a sort of genre ambiguity…
    But what truly seems interesting to me if they complacent characters, somehow as they fit both women’s and men’s expectations… I’d say that show business is never baseless when it comes to captivate an undifferentiated potential audience… The strategies might work at the end…

    Excellent post, Chris… Have a great weekend ahead :star:! Hugs. Aquileana 😀

  10. Very interesting question you bring up here, and one that I’ve never thought of. I’m not much of a movie watcher, but it’s movies like Alien as Cassidy mentioned above that I like watching, because of a female character who thinks on her own two feet. “Strong female character” is a term that seems to give the impression of a woman character who is outspoken…which is what I would like to see in such a character. The fact that the phrase exists does draw attention to the fact gender equality is still prevalent – maybe that is a good thing.

    Reading your post, I was reminded of the movie The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep. I read somewhere that the lead actress had to put on a deep voice in certain parts of the movie to be more assertive, and to come across as a strong, convincing character.

    • Oh how interesting Mabel that you link the word “strong” to the characteristic of being outspoken. I’m seeing that perhaps the connotations of the word “strong” need to be “strengthened”! Thanks for adding to the discussion!

  11. Oooh how I love this topic – so many things you post here make me think. I’m torn on this because I certainly think we need to have movies that accurately show the range of possible female characters, but take the point that we shouldn’t be throwing parades every time a movie comes out showing a woman being brave and strong.

    I’m not familiar (except in the “I think I’ve heard of these” sense) with the books or movies and will add them to my lists.

    • That’s a bonus when you come here and leave with a few movies and books to read 🙂 Thanks for sharing your view and I’m glad for the feedback that the posts here are thought provoking. That means I’m on the right track!

  12. It’s particularly important to be having discussions such as this because, whether we like it or not, language, and the use of language, serves to position us – even if we aren’t aware of the fact. To see so many interesting comments here, and different viewpoints, is encouraging as it allows us to deconstruct a phrase that has really serious implications in the way it is used (frequently) in popular culture: strong female character. What does it mean to be a strong female? Is a strong female character such a rarity that it has to be mentioned by film makers and/or reviewers? What is different in the strength of a female compared with that of a male character? More questions than answers, but then again questions lead us somewhere new.

  13. Hi Christy,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts about the term “strong female character” that has been used to describe female protagonists in movies. I personally do not find this offensive as it could represent many positive attributes about a person that includes strength of convictions, the ability to overcome adversity, and courage.

    However, you have brought up a good point that I had not considered. It would be more meaningful to describe a character’s unique trait instead of using the generic term of “strength”.

    As always, I enjoy reading the various viewpoints on your thought-provoking posts. Have a great week!

    Regards,
    Linnea

  14. Unfortunately while a lot has changed a lot of society is kind of getting things thrown at us like using strong female or any other possible minorities. The opposite is people getting upset with reboots changed due to race or sex as issues and their being a classification of oh they had to have, for example, female storm troopers or ones that are black as something that upsets certain people. I do not mind any of the changes but a spotlight being shone on it is almost condescending. With several “strong” female characters such as Bryce Dallas Howard going from strong to then nurturing. It flowed naturally. I noticed it of course but it did not upset me.

  15. Christy, both my kids (who are young adults) find the term unnecessary and somewhat insulting. They like movies with strong characters and don’t want to see these films segregated into “male” and “female.” They feel we should be well beyond this, and I agree with them, and with you!! ❤

  16. Pingback: Is Wonder Woman a Feminist Film: Yay or Nay? | When Women Inspire

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