The Paradox of the Strong Female Character

Among all the social justices, the fight for gender equality is the one that speaks the loudest. With the rise of Feminists, who are not afraid to make a bold statement, they promote the narrative of strong women in books, films, TV shows, video games and comics, hoping young girls will have strong females as role models to show them that there is an alternate life outside of the traditional construct of womanhood.

Despite their good intentions, the trope of the “Strong Female Character” (SFC) has become more harmful than inspiring to female audiences. Even creating a rising tinge of annoyance and frustration to both men and women alike. As the film industry keeps pumping out movies that are “Woke,” audiences continue to cringe at Feminist Films. To answer the question of why people dislike SFC, this review will explore the history of the female character storytelling, and examine films, and books to understand what it means to be a SFC.

The Weak Woman of the Past

1946 Notorious

Ever since the creation of film, female characters have promoted the traditional and patriarchal view of gender. A small, frail, sexual object who were to be rescued, reflecting men’s dominance and strength. In his article “Wonder Woman: superheroine, not superhero” from the peer-reviewed Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Peter Coogan talks about Angel Island, a story written by Or Inez Hayes Gillmore.

In the story, the sailors fell in love with winged women from an isolated island that they shipwrecked on. Not willing to lose their dominance over them, the sailors cut off their wings. This importance of masculine dominance began a disturbing trait that would enforce the gender norm and will appear in various films. This form of the female Character is famously known in the era of Silent and Black and White films. Back then, men were behind the camera and had female actresses acting seductivly or screaming in horror. Their role was the “lover.” As a side character, they could only react to whatever action their male counterpart did. Even if they did have another role other than the “lover” it it was often used as a joke. Female characters were never taken seriously, neither were the women who played them.

The Rise of the Feminist Film

1920: American actress Pauline Frederick (1883 – 1938) takes a look through the camera, on the set of the film ‘The Woman In Room Thirteen’. (Photo by Edward Gooch)

Starting with La Souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet), directed by Germaine Dulac, the Feminist Film genre was born. Here were female characters who were no longer sidelined as the object of desire, but the hero of their own story. For Annette Kuhn, author of “The State of Film and Media Feminism,” a Feminist film is not just a film that promotes Feminist values (such as gender equality, female rights, and patriarchal defiance), but also one that creates a narrative set in a context that organically highlights Feminist issues, and explores how both genders view the film. Together with the narrative and a strong female lead, the Feminist Film’s goal is to appeal to the female audience, offering them a new option outside of traditional views.

The Creation & Paradox of the Strong Female Character

The creation of the SFC is a direct product copy of the Hero. This character stems from old legends and mythology. Famous heroes like Thor and Hercules are known for their physical prowess, becoming inspirational role models for young boys to prove their bravery and toughness. This fact Doctor L. Pike acknowledges in his peer-reviewed article, “Heracles: The Superman and Personal Relationships.” As it is already established in the media that to be weak, is to be feminine, to be emotional, and to be saved countless times by the male hero. It is only natural for the strong female lead to mirror masculine characteristics. Collaborated by six authors, Talking about Books: Strong Female Characters in Recent Children’s Literature outlines the criteria for a SFC. One of them included how much or little the female character departed from the patriarchal stereotypes of women.

Looking at the examples of Carol Danvers from Captain Marvel and Rey from the recent Star Wars trilogy, the SFC is stronger than her male counterpart in every way possible, and experiences no weakness whatsoever (Neal Curtis, Superheroes and Third Wave Feminism). Yet both are hated by the audience, and they are not the only ones. Other films containing SFCs received backlash from men and women alike for being “too political” and “feminist.” Yet Wonder Woman and Alita Battle Angel who feature a SFC are exceptions to the rule. However, it is argued that these characters are perceived as weak as they go against feminist ideals. (Kyle D. Killian, How Wonder Woman is, and is Not, a Feminist Superheroine Movie) However as Carina Chocano and the other writers argue, their weakness is what makes them human and relatable to the audience. This promoted film enthusiasts like Kimberly R, Moffitt to explain this paradox. In her peer-reviewed article, “Scripting the Way for the 21st-Century Disney Princess in The Princess and the Frog”, she gives prominence to how Disney blatantly “celebrated” their first black princess, when in reality she was a green frog for eighty percent of the movie.

The “Woke” Problem

What Moffit describes is “Wokeness,” it is a sloppy thing that all major film companies do when they incorporate social issues such as race and gender into their movies, without making the conscious effort. Because of that, it has received hate from the audience. The feminist thread in these “Woke films” come off forced as if the writers slapped them onto the narrative at the last minute. Some of these examples include Captain Marvel, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ghost Busters (2016) Birds of Prey, Little Women, Charlie’s Angels. Aladin, Isn’t It Romantic? And the list goes on and on. These films are listed simply because either the audience hated the film because it was too forward with their feminist themes or they sunk the box office for the same reason, or both.

So the question is “Are these feminist films failing because the audience is misogynist?”

It would be naïve to say that a certain percent of the moviegoing population is a misogynist. However, that percent is tiny. The majority of men today are considerate towards women, or at least in the West. If one were to look at Birds of Prey for example, the feminists on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are blaming the men for the film’s poor performance at the box office. What they fail to realize is that it is the ones who produced the film that are at fault. They are the ones who promoted the film as a feminist film, they are the ones who wrote the story, and were the people who were so inconsiderate of the source material that they forced their protagonist into a story who was not a part of the Birds of Prey comic. Which is one of the reasons fans (men and women) hated the film and did not come out to see it, because the trailers told them that they needed to know.

In Courtney Lehmann’s journal Crouching Tiger, Hidden Agenda: How Shakespeare and the Renaissance Are Taking the Rage out of Feminism, he observes that Feminists are more interested in equal airtime than actually fighting for equal rights and comes to the conclusion that Feminism is dead. Returning to Kuhn’s definition of a feminist movie, the film should have a narrative that has a feminist context. From the design of their world, to the interwoven theme to the character’s experiences, all aspects of the story must showcase the issues that women experience in different parts of the world to spread awareness and to prove to the audience that Feminism is still an important issue to fight for.


Feminism at its roots is a movement with good intentions of spreading awareness of gender discrimination, fighting for equality and empowering women and girls. However, the films they promote do not reflect their platform, instead, they distort their message. It is the combination of greedy film companies not truly caring about these issues, and the Feminist’s unrealistic ideals that make the feminist part of any film shoehorned and forced. It is as if the writers. slapped feminism onto an existing narrative that has nothing to do with the issue. It is because of this glaring disconnect between the theme and the story that their heroines are left flat, overpowered, uninteresting, and more importantly less relatable to audiences.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Edited by Munjeera, OkaNaimo0819.

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35 Comments

  1. I definitely feel wokeness is a problem with today’s films. I’m especially concerned with the new Mulan film, how it seems to be pushing the fact that Mulan is a woman and she’s going to do things her way, yada yada.
    On that note, why remake that film? It was perfect just the way it was.

    • Amelia Arrows

      I agree with you! Why bother remake a classic that spent millions to make, instead use that money for something more worthwhile?

      I am interested in how they are going to make it work without mushu and the musical feature of the original. However there is a chance it will do well. But the question of its existence remains.

  2. I’m not sure I fully agree with this view. It’s true that some of the films discussed here have shoehorned strong female characters into standard male oriented fantasy narrative. However, it is wrong to assume that there aren’t enough strong female oriented narratives out there that are finally getting their time on the silver screen.
    The paradox here comes from the toxic Hollywood culture which represents the increasingly shakier foundation on which these narratives are built.
    I think it’s time to actively look for and encourage independent filmmaking and forget about the big studios, the franchises, DC, Marvel and the lot.

  3. Amelia Arrows

    I appreciate the critism, and you are right to point out that Hollywood’s culture is at the root of it. I also agree that big studios tend to get a bit greedy and tend to be sloppy with their writing.
    My main point is that if the strong female character is to really have the impact feminists want, the writing of the character and narrative must be solid.

  4. Loveel
    3

    Intriguing article. I’m all for leading roles for women. Indeed, I’m all for more female role-models. What I don’t understand however is why those role-models all seem to have to act like men? Why can’t we have feminine role-models? Instead we seem to be getting basically female men. Can’t we celebrate the differences between the sexes? Why is the goal to have leading women that “kick ass” like a male action hero?

    • Wing
      1

      Define “feminine”. High heels and panty hose? Long hair and perfect lipstick? Keeping quiet, no matter how idiotic the men in the room sound?

      Forget that noise. It’s not “acting like a man” to have a strong body and mind. Being involved in sports, martial arts, art, gardening, and having an opinion is NOT “acting like a man. It’s called life.

      It’s sad when men are frightened of women who are just flat out better than they are at various things.

      • Loveel
        1

        I think a woman with and strong body and a strong mind is great (and dare I say it, sexy). Ditto to having an opinion. I just don’t see the need to have female roles where they basically act just like a man. We already have men! We don’t see men crying out to have leading men behave in roles like women. There can be a degree of cross over for sure. But the genders are different. One cannot dispute that fact of life and biology. So why not celebrate it instead of acting like women should be just like men?

        • Wing
          0

          But what’s “acting like a man” to you? I can change the oil in my car (ok, not any more, cars have changed), is that too “manly” for me? How about other household stuff….I can also lay tile, change out faucets, install overhead lights, and operate a drill, a hammer, and everything else in a standard tool box.

          Is that “too manly”?

          I bought my own car recently and scored a reasonable deal on it…or should I have had a man with me to do that? Put it this way, a salesman at one dealership told me he wanted to “call my husband” (who was in India at the time and would NOT have welcomed the call) to see if I “had permission” to buy a car. I walked out on him.

          Another wanted to do a credit check. This was AFTER I told him that I would be paying cash – ok, writing a check – for the full amount. I asked why he needed to do that, and he told me he wasn’t sure how I could afford to just buy a car. I asked to speak to the manager, who told the guy I’d be dealing with another salesperson….the first guy’s punishment was to lose the commission on the sale.

          Would you do that to a woman? Because I can tell you, I was ready to go all Buffy on his ass.

          Is a woman hitting someone “too manly”? Why? I know a couple of women who are in the RCMP who could (and likely have) flatten anyone that came near them in a violent way. Is that “too manly”?

          How is it “too manly” for a woman to do anything a man can do? And why (I’m not including you, here) is it that men are so terrified at the fact that women can take care of themselves? When my husband and I got married 25 years ago, I was looking for a partner, not someone to “take care” of me. He was looking for the same. It works.

  5. Alica
    1

    It’s time we had a film about what feminism has achieved rather than making the number of women on the big screen an end in itself. The inspiration will be pointing at something unique to feminism and attributing it to feminism.

  6. Elmer
    1

    Having a female lead in a blockbuster like StarWars is good for the studios, because that way they can better reach female moviegoers, alongside the traditional male audience. The guys won’t mind that, if there’s also some cool male characters in the movie.

    I think the lack of female directors of blockbuster movies could be because the studios are afraid that women might not direct action as well and might be reluctant to include enough action and the violence that often is required to make the action impactful. Sure, there’s always good old Kathryn Bigelow who can be mentioned as a counterexample, but she seems to be one of a kind.

    I don’t think there’s any intentional discrimination going on, the studios are just trying to make movies that appeal to as many people as possible to maximise their revenues. Let’s say a female director for example wanted to make a Star Wars film with almost no action, with lots of cute creature shenanigans and basically make it a romcom, they would immediately lose most of their core male audience.

  7. Babette
    1

    Here’s to hoping it keeps up and women directors get more opportunities.

    • Mize
      1

      No one gives you the opportunity to be a director. It’s brutal. The directors I know (M&F) made all manner of sacrifices and pursued opportunities with a dogged determination.

    • Marion
      0

      Female directors will show us the other perspectives of motion picutures. I am looking forwards to some masterpieces made by women.

  8. Faulk
    2

    I hope this phase won’t last too long when women’s films have to be highlighted as a separate laudable thing while the bulk of the film industry ignores their work. The sooner everybody gets an equal chance to get their work shown the sooner we can stop this focus on whether director/cast are male or female and just get to see a wider spectrum of work.

    • randi
      0

      ” The sooner everybody gets an equal chance to get their work shown ”

      But what does that even mean?

      The film industry is a business. It’s not an equal opportunities charity.

      Work gets shown depending on whether the film industry feels they can make money from it. Not to fulfil some kind of arbitrary quota.

  9. It’s interesting too how when people are creating the staple “strong female character” it means stripping her of traditional feminine qualities as though it were impossible to elevate supposedly “weak” character traits. It’s like the only way to make her strong is to imbue her with masculine qualities.

  10. Numbers
    0

    I’m amazed people still go on about disparity between male and female lead roles when you can see there’s a strong movement a foot to change that. Something like two year back, I went to see Julieta, Rogue One, Arrival, Elle, 20th Century Women and The Eagle Huntress over a couple of weeks and then realized… hey every single one of these has a female protagonist and two of them are big budget movies ( Arrival and Rogue One) . Change-is-a-coming….

  11. Diet
    1

    Altho’ I’m a male, I gravitate towards female-protagonist movies because they generally require more original and intelligent screenplays. Female action characters are almost always interchangeable with male ones – and the truly memorable female roles aren’t going to be found in action films.

  12. Stephania
    0

    Women have always ruled, only behind the scenes. Now at front of stage. This will give alt-right dingos appoplexy with their fear of feminism. Add their disdain towards Hollywood ‘liberal cabals’ and they may just faint away.

  13. Kiesha
    1

    Whenever a film with a female superhero flopped they said it was because it was a female superhero film, not because the film was sh1t.

    • Amelia Arrows

      Even worse they blame the male audience for it.
      Writing is really important, especially when you are trying to convey a message

  14. Christen
    1

    Two words, She-Hulk. Like the Hulk but still articulate, Amazonian figure, lawyer by day, how could it not succeed?

    • Random
      0

      By getting the writer that they recently did. I was very excited when I heard of the project. Now, nope.

  15. Leia
    1

    It’s so rare to see a strong female lead triumphing over the male-dominated establishment in contemporary cinema.

  16. I agree with you in that often feminist narratives are overshadowed by filmmakers not “caring” about the truth underlying feminist issues; however, recently I watched a movie called Little Women, which was an extraordinary look into the life of a young woman who wishes to become an independent writer, rather than get married. It offered a fantastic insight into how women often were not allowed to be independent and hold jobs if they were married, and I feel that this film overall really took a realist view on feminist issues still prevalent today. So, while I agree that sometimes a feminist movie (like say Wonder Woman) has good intentions, often the narrative is overshadowed by filmmakers. For example, in the recent Wonder Woman movie, she was very sexualized and the filmmakers had her sidekick be a man who she falls in love with. This, in my opinion, are aspects that overshadowed the true feminist message of the movie.

  17. Munjeera

    Exchanging one gender stereotype, weak, helpless victims for another female pigeonhole, strong, aggressive dominator is a problem you have articulated well here. I agree.

    The example of Wonder Woman was perfect because the movie portrayed her as motivated by compassion to help people in trouble. So origin stories that demonstrate the motivation of the hero need to be more nuanced. In this way, Captain Marvel fell a little short.

    Of course, movies as entertainment may always rely on their formulas but if audiences demand more sophisticated characters, then we will get them.

  18. Interesting article.

    As you pointed out well, marketing plays a crucial role in the success of the movie and I sometimes wonder if actors/writers/directors have full control over how their movies are being sold to the audience by the studios.

  19. Amelia Arrows

    Good question.
    While it may seem that the marketing team and the producing team are separate (which they are) however, they do communicate. The Director and producers (and sometimes the writers if they also share the title of director or try are very famous) can influence the marketing of the movie, especially if the movie has a strong message like feminism.

  20. Felix
    1

    What Hollywood desperately and urgently needs is some equality, quality, and originality.

  21. Ainsworth
    2

    How about Hollywood just needs to make good films? Or is that too much to ask for?

  22. Shorter
    2

    The female lead role I’d like to see is the story of Lozen, The Shield Of Her People, the greatest Apache warrior of all time.

    Dedicating her life to the defense of her people, she fought in more battles than any other Apache, all the way to the end with Geronimo.

    The sister of Victorio, she was his right-hand man, developing strategies and tactics for those who fought with her. She had the power to locate enemies…she operated as sort of an early warning radar: she could raise her hands and by the warmth on them tell the direction and proximity of the enemies. Victorio was killed when she left to escort a pregnant back to the Mescalero reservation. Lacking her early warning ability, he was surprised and trapped at Tres Castillos.

    Her life is an amazing and inspiring story. I often told my granddaughter to see her example and follow it: a woman can do anything at all that a man can, fight just as hard and cunningly, be as wise as any and wiser than most, be just as brave. She took the message to heart and has turned out well, if sort of scary to the men she meets.

    The women who were her contemporaries were just as tough and resourceful.

    Gouyen, who spectacularly avenged her husband’s murder by slipping into the Kiowa celebration of his killing and lured the killer out his camp for sex, then killed him and took his man parts (not sure of the order of events, there), his horse, weapons and clothes and returned to her people, giving these tokens to her husband’s family.

    Dahteste, a veteran of many battles and raids who wound up as interlocutor between Geronimo and Gates, and was imprisoned despite aiding the faithless Americans.

    But it likely would never happen: Apache women in general, and Lozen in particular, are too strong and competent a female image for Anglos and Christians to be comfortable with.

    But I can dream.

    • Rubi
      0

      Just regarding your second last para, I wouldn’t be so sure that ‘Anglos’ would not be interested. Remember Bandit Queen, the Indian movie (from India that is). That did pretty well and had similar themes. Westerns in general are not that popular ATM. If they get made at all there tends to be a big star attached. And sadly there is not a big Apache star available. Hollywood is just dull and conservative with its money. Fans of films set in the old West though would love to see your idea on screen, Anglo or otherwise, it’s just that there are not enough of us.

  23. August
    1

    Change is coming, but that still hasn’t arrived yet.

  24. I believe that one of the reasons that the Strong Female Characters fall short is because they are very one-dimensional. They are being compared as superior beings in a category that has been male dominant. It doesn’t embrace femininity and in a way destroys it. Feminism is the SFC, but also the nurturing character, the single mother, the happy girl.

  25. I agree with a lot of what is said in this article. I have a hard time trying to convince people (read: men) in my life that representation matters and how vital it is for young girls to have strong female characters to see and understand. Movies like Captain Marvel undermine that in the worst way. We don’t need more Supermen in the world, we need more Molly Weasley’s and Pepper Potts’. Real-life, genuine women that have flaws, goals and desires in their own right.

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