In my third year of college, I somehow struck up a conversation with a young man in my degree program. He wanted to be a filmmaker. At some point, he was talking about what he thought made a good, solid character, and he said, “I love strong female characters.” Needless to say, he was not my favorite person to talk to.
At this point, a lot of us understand why the phrase “strong female character” is actually a weak one. It’s so generic. It’s so limiting. Strong is a simplistic word with a lot of simplistic connotations. Does it mean that a female character has to be able to lift a car above her head and/or never cry? That’s not strong. That’s inhuman. If there’s one thing that a woman should be allowed to be, it’s human.
I think a lot of other writers would agree with me. In the past twenty years, we have seen some impressive female characters. Obviously, there’s my consistent example of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who was the strongest fighter and the peppiest cheerleader/fashionista in all of California, at least at first. A year and a half after the end of “Buffy,” UPN was introduced to “Veronica Mars” and its titular protagonist portrayed by Kristen Bell. Veronica was a teenage private detective, renowned for her keen eye for detail, willingness to play dirty when she had to, and her remarkable intelligence. While she succeeded in school and was granted several full scholarships, Veronica’s entire life wasn’t about making the grade. She had murders to avenge and people to help. Characters like Buffy and Veronica had a lot of passions, duties, and unique personality traits. Lately, however, it seems that the “strong” female character is given a single trait that becomes supersized.
That trait, across the board, is intelligence. Let me take you back to 1989 and Cameron Crowe’s film, “Say Anything.” The film features a character called Diane Court (Ione Skye) who was the valedictorian of her high-school class and received a prestigious fellowship to Oxford University. It’s awesome to see a female character whose cardinal trait is her intelligence over her physical beauty, which I assume is why young girls have responded so well to Hermione Granger of the “Harry Potter” series. Diane Court was important. Her intelligence and her ambition to study hard to earn an incredible education were and are admirable. Still, in popular culture, the original Diane Court has inspired countless (and possibly too many) imitators.For instance, let’s look at another of my staple examples of a character archetype—Rory Gilmore of “Gilmore Girls.” Critical fans still praise Rory for her intellect and all the books she read and referenced throughout seven seasons of “Gilmore Girls.” There is even a “Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge” floating around online. Every few months, I am able to check off anywhere from one to three more books. I appreciated Rory’s dedication to literature and academics in general. She’s probably the original Diane Court imitator, and that’s fine. When Rory was defined by her intelligence, she was doing something that mainstream television hadn’t really seen before. The issue is that Rory inspired her own imitators.
Alexis Castle on “Castle.” Haley James Scott on “One Tree Hill.” Annabeth Chase from the “Percy Jackson” book series by Rick Riordan. Alex Dunphy from “Modern Family.” Amy Farrah Fowler on “The Big Bang Theory.” These are all overachieving valedictory female characters. And while that’s awesome and hopefully encourages young girls to study hard and not be afraid to be smart… isn’t it possible for a female character to be strong and smart and not academically successful?
My suggestion might be controversial and a bit hypocritical, considering the fact that I have always measured my success based on how well I did in school. I would drive myself crazy trying to avoid A minuses, or worse, B pluses. But maybe it’s because of all the ridiculously academic female characters I watched on television and read in books that I felt like the only way I could be a valid woman was if I got good grades, went to college, and earned a Ph.D. I’m doing all of those things. Lots of young women do, and for a lot of young women, it’s the right choice.
But you don’t have to be academically successful to be a strong woman. There are endless arenas of life where you can be special and extraordinary. Smart doesn’t only refer to Hermione Granger’s “books and cleverness.” Women can find their smarts and their strengths away from books, and I think our female characters need to reflect this complexity. So, stop rewriting Diane Court.
Give me a female character who decided college just wasn’t for her after a semester or two, but now, she’s an incredible boxer.
Give me a female character who didn’t even finish high school, but she works as a secretary at her parish rectory before she finds out she’s the owner of the only known zombie anecdote in the world.
Give me a female character who graduated from college, wasn’t a straight-A student, but she was still able to climb the ladder of success and now owns a dress shop where she meets tons of unique and awesome clients.
I know that female characters haven’t been strictly limited to intellectual ability. Still, I’d love to see women with all sorts of strengths and smarts celebrated in popular media. The female valedictorian has been done, and not all of us can be her. We shouldn’t even want to be. We are designed to be unique, diverse, and strong. It’s about time we took a step back from our trusty female archetypes, like the “smart girl,” and considered some additional ways that a woman can rock the world.