Women in television

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What Constitutes a Strong Female Character?

Often in TV, we see female characters being portrayed as "strong" if they are irritable, contradictory, or just plain mean. Characters like Abby in Sleepy Hollow, Alicia in the Good Wife, and Amy from Superstore all seem like people I’d want to avoid. Their prickly personalities are supposed to signify that they are confident women who are trying to make it on their own in the world. But is that really what a strong woman is about? Having a personality that makes you unkind to others and very irritable does not seem to constitute the ideal woman in my book. It seems rare that we see a kind, agreeable woman being portrayed as someone who is also strong. What is the perfect combination of spunk and kindness that would make up the ideal "strong" female character?

  • This is an excellent topic! I find that I usually can't stand female characters in books, movies, and TV lately because they are so one-dimensional. It seems like authors and producers really want to push the "badass female" trope, which always makes her come across as rude, irritable, and like you said, just plain mean. I get that they're trying to make a woman seem tough and able to stand on her own two feet, but in reality, women are not that one-dimensional. A woman can be strong without being unlikable, obnoxious, or "tough." An example I would use is Yuna from Final Fantasy X. She is a very soft-spoken, gentle character, but she is out to save the world, and when she needs to stand up for herself or her friends, boy, does she do it! So I think the answer(s) to your question is/are complex. – Christina Legler 8 years ago
  • Female characters are written by female screenwriters are often the best way to get good strong roles out for female actors. One example is Elaine Pope who wrote for Seinfeld. Elaine the character was one of the first really funny women on TV who did not portray the stereotypically straight "man" for the funny main character. Getting a multi-dimensional female character on TV would require a screenwriter who would have insight into women enough to make them entertaining. Usually conflict is what drives a character and plot. So the conflict would have to be something that would resonate with women. How the main character deals with the conflict with as you put it spunkiness and kindness would be nice to see. I think that Marg Helgenberger and Jorja Fox on CSI were a move in the right direction. Also Amy on Big Bang Theory is both very sweet, smart and strong and not your typical lead actress in Hollywood. – Munjeera 8 years ago
  • This is a fascinating topic and one that I still find myself mulling over in my head. I think when we think of "strength" it's a word that is already so imbued with (sometimes narrow) masculine ideals. As Jack Graham wrote in "Stephen Moffat - A Case For The Prosecution," "Fetishizing ‘power’ in women characters – having them kicking ass and always being ready with a putdown - isn’t the same as writing them as human beings." Perhaps this would be a separate article, but aside from personality, appearance is also a big factor in what makes a female character "strong" (or "feminist"). For example, in video games, I often come across scantily clad women and then have to ask myself if I'm right to criticize the creators for their male gaze-based designs or if I'm accidentally slut-shaming. – txl 8 years ago
  • I did my graduate thesis on this very topic. The trouble anyone who wants to write about this intelligently is going to run into is the answer to this simple question: what is femininity? Any answer that's remotely palatable is going to be complicated and nuanced. Ultimately, it is a social construct. And social constructs change--femininity in 1950 looked much different in 1970, and so on. Coming up with a streamlined definition is tricky, if not impossible in our very fragmented 21st century society. That said, I find the trope to be problematic because it perpetuates a false binary: traits coded as feminine (nurturing, empathy, crying) are weak, and traits coded as masculine (terse, detached, "tough") are strong. Basically, women are only strong if they "act like a man" (the quotes are to indicate skepticism--see above discussion of femininity versus masculinity). Some possible good examples in different genres of womanly women are: Snow on OUAT (I know, the show is terrible, I will not even argue that). Rizzoli and Isles are both great, and a great example of a healthy female friendship. Felicity Smoak on Arrow is another example of femininity to me. I don't really watch any sit-coms anymore because I haven't found one to rival How I Met Your Mother (the greatest sit-com ever), but Lily from HIMYM is a good example, I think. You may want to read Carina Chocano's NYT article entitled: "Tough, Cold, Terse, Taciturn and Prone to Not Saying Goodbye When They Hang Up the Phone"--it was the spark for my thesis. – ladyabercrombie 8 years ago