what is a strong woman?

This is a post about “strong female characters”. And by that I don’t mean female characters who have masculine characteristics (the bad-ass of the typical Urban Fantasy novel), and I don’t mean just ‘strong’ as in ‘well-defined’ or memorable characters – I mean female characters who have feminine strength.

I searched around and in my online-travels I found lots and lots and LOTS of posts and articles on masculine strength. What makes a man ‘manly’, what makes an ‘alpha male’.

I also found lots of posts about ‘strong female characters’. The fabulous Lori Summers wrote this oft-quoted passage:

“… Screw writing “strong” women.  Write interesting women.  Write well-rounded women.  Write complicated women.  Write a woman who kicks ass, write a woman who cowers in a corner.  Write a woman who’s desperate for a husband.  Write a woman who doesn’t need a man.  Write women who cry, women who rant, women who are shy, women who don’t take no shit, women who need validation and women who don’t care what anybody thinks.  THEY ARE ALL OKAY, and all those things could exist in THE SAME WOMAN.  Women shouldn’t be valued because we are strong, or kick-ass, but because we are people.  So don’t focus on writing characters who are strong.  Write characters who are people.

The only bad female character, if you ask me (and you did), is one who’s flat.  One who isn’t realistic.  One who has no agency of her own, who only exists to define other characters (usually men).  Write each woman you write as if she has her own life story, her own motivations, her own fears and strengths, and even if she’s only in the story for one page, she will be a real person, and THAT is what we need.  Not a phalanx of women who can karate-chop your head off, but REAL women, who are people, with all the complexity and strong and not-strong that goes with it. …”

find the entire passage here

I get all that, and as a reader of Fantasy, and as a writer of Romance, and as a living human female, I totally agree with it all.

It is a difficult subject, because these words have double meanings. Weak can mean ‘not well written’, and it can also mean physically or emotionally fragile. Strong can mean ‘fully defined’ and it can also mean physically powerful and mentally capable. It is kind of funny, almost, that our desire to see “strong female characters” was so literally translated. We really didn’t need characters who were physically strong, that’s not what we wanted. We wanted strong, well developed, realistic people- not female versions of alpha-men.

But what we got was a lot of ‘bad-ass female’ main characters. Some of them are super fun and entertaining, and great to read and watch. Still, I find it annoying and insulting when a “strong woman” is just a female character who has been given masculine qualities. It insults me because it’s like the author (or filmmaker) is saying ‘this is the only way to be strong’. As if the only strength is physical, is masculine.

I also get annoyed when I hear a character described as weak, when really they are not weak. The lines between not-well-written, physically weak or unskilled, and just plain unlikable, are fuzzy, and often these things overlap.

But going the literal route… isn’t there such a thing as “feminine strength”? Aren’t we all (men and women) strong in other, nonphysical, ways? What are the things that make a woman strong, as a woman? Aren’t there non-masculine ways that women are strong? I think so. And I started to think about what those are.

This is by by no means a complete list, and of course it is just my opinion so maybe you won’t agree with it all. But here it is, anyway. My shortlist of specifically feminine strengths:

  • Endurance. Just like it takes a different kind of skill to run a marathon than it does to sprint, women are often long-term fighters. Raising children, caring for aging parents, tending to homes and animals… I know these are stereotypical roles, but they are (like it or not) generally the domain of women: and we kick ass at them. There is nothing really difficult about getting up in the night to breastfeed a child. It’s not, in and of itself, a job that requires massive strength. But try doing it every two hours, day and night, for months on end. And then tell me what you learned about strength.
  • Bravery. There is a confidence that comes from being large and strong and skilled.  But what if you are not strong in that way? What if you know you are the (physically) weakest person in a crowded room, and you still walk in to that bar, or onto that factory floor or work-site. You still do what needs to be done, you still speak your mind. Maybe you even have to give orders, or ask for help. Women do this, every day. We trust in the good behavior of the much stronger men around us.  I think, especially considering how many assaults men commit against women every day, this is pretty brave.
  • Empathy. Generally speaking, men like to solve problems. If you try to tell a man about the tough time you’re having at work, he’ll probably want to help. Fix it somehow, make it better. This is awesome and really nice, but it’s not always possible. Sometimes, there is nothing to be done. Women, for a multitude of reasons, are adept and well practiced at listening, and empathizing, and just being supportive. When your best friend tells you her rape story, you have to just listen. When you have to comfort someone who has lost a child, you can do nothing but cry with them. There is a strength in inaction, sometimes. A deep strength. When there is literally not one thing you can do to improve a situation, when your powerlessness is complete and you can only offer your empathy, that is feminine strength.
  • Selflessness. You know those sappy commercials that air during the Olympics? The “thanks mom” ones that show all the moments the parents woke up at the crack of dawn to drive junior to hockey practice, or all the hours spent throwing a ball in the backyard? Even parents whose kids don’t go to the Olympics do that stuff.  And mostly, moms do it. We have stuff we’d rather do, but we put that aside to do things for our children. We eat the burned piece of toast, we give our sweater so they’re not cold, we haul ourselves out of bed way too early to make them breakfast. And it’s not just moms doing this for kids. We do this for each other, all the time. We clean each other’s houses when our friends are sick, we carpool and share resources, we help each other constantly, with no expectation of reward.

I’m sure there are more, but I can’t think of any right now. If I do, I’ll add them to this post. For now, that is my list of character traits that are specifically feminine, and also kick-ass strong.

I know that women, and therefore female characters, can be strong in “masculine” ways (I’m kind of physically strong myself). Likewise men are totally capable of being strong in these “feminine” ways. So I realize that this is a generalization, and that all of us are a combination of masculine and feminine traits. I guess for me, this is a just a way to remember that there are many ways to be strong, and that there are a lot of qualities my characters can have that are strong, but not physical.

Tell me what you think!

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