How “Strong Female Characters” Still End Up Weak And Powerless (Or, “Do They Pass The Action Figure Test?”)
The idea of writing a “strong female character” isn’t enough.
As shorthand, it sounds noble. It seems spot on. But a lot of writers — and writing advice about the subject — seem to get it wrong. I get asked about this a lot, I guess because write women or girl characters like Miriam Black or Atlanta Burns who, on paper, kick a lot of ass.
And that is often the focus of the question — they’re characters who can fight, scrap, throw a punch, fire a gun, and that seems to end up the focus of the question. It’s where the buck stops. But for me, that’s never where it begins. It’s not even what makes them who they are.
Instead of writing “strong female characters,” try to aim for “women or girls that possess agency.” I’ve defined agency before and so I’ll repeat that definition here:
Character agency is… a demonstration of the character’s ability to make decisions and affect the story. This character has motivations all her own. She is active more than she is reactive. She pushes on the plot more than the plot pushes on her. Even better, the plot exists as a direct result of the character’s actions.
Strong is a word with an often male connotation — it carries with it a lot of baggage. And what we end up with are female characters who are physically strong and little else. Meaning, they can fight, scrap, throw punches, fire guns.
But their ability to fight isn’t what makes them interesting.
What makes them interesting is that they choose to fight.
And it’s that word — “choose” — that matters.
We focus so much on their Powers, we forget about empowering them with the ability to choose, to have wants and needs and to make decisions based on those things. (You know, like real people do.) We think of Abilities and Skills like they’re stats on a character sheet rather than thinking about what abilities women possess inside the story to affect that story. We think of Powers like She Can Fly or She Knows Kung Fu or She Has Mastered The Ancient Art Of Laser Kegels when we should be focusing on the character’s internal power, her narrative power to push on the story, to be a well-rounded human being, no matter how vulnerable, no matter how strong.
Look at it this way: video game characters are notoriously without agency largely by design. The technology of a game doesn’t allow for a great deal of free-range character choice — in Halo, I can’t take my character outside the mission boundaries. In Tomb Raider I can’t say, “I want Lara Croft to leave this life of horrific blood-soaked spelunking to become a well-paid, respected accountant,” because she’s not my character. I only inhabit her and can only inhabit that character insofar as the technology allows, but the illusion is enough inside a video game for the most part because it feels active — video games are very good at lending you the illusion of choice, making you feel like, because you can choose a bow or a gun or because you can go down the left passage instead of the right, you have agency in the world.
But you’re not writing a video game character.
The illusion of choice is not enough.
The physical, violent strength of the character is not a meaningful metric.
Many “strong female characters” feel like something ripped out of a video game. Or worse, they feel like toys — objects that look tough, hold guns, wield swords, have karate-chop arms, but are ultimately plastic, posable action figures. Empty and maneuverable, they go where you tell them to go because they’re just devices.
Alison Bechdel coined the Bechdel Test, which asks if the story (or an overall body of storytelling) features at least two women who talk about something other than a man.
Gail Simone talks about the “Women in Refrigerators” problem, where women and girls inside comic books are used as fodder — raped, killed, or otherwise excised of power through violence (and often to make a male character feel something). The only power these women have in the story is to be damaged enough to motivate the story or the male characters in it.
Kelly Sue DeConnick talks about the “Sexy Lamp” test, which says, if you can replace the woman in the story with a sexy lamp and it doesn’t affect the story outcome, well, fuck you, that’s what.
It’s no surprise that these three amazing writers come out of comic books, where women superheroes are often hyper-sexualized and contextualized as objects — and you’ll note that’s the theme that runs through these three tests, and what I’m getting at here. Women in fiction are often presented as objects. They’re pieces to move around a chess board. They’re toys and devices and objects of lust and precious treasures to save and mirrors to reflect ManPain and things to break so that ManTears happen. They’re sexy lamps, cold corpses, and singular creatures who only exist in relation to the male characters around them. And we need to test against this.
(This is ostensibly why we see a lot of pushback against a story like Twilight or its sexualized fan-fic reiteration, 50 Shades of Grey — it’s because of the toxicity that results when your women and girl protagonists are given almost no agency within the stories themselves. They’re just pretty dolls floating down river, picked up by men who find them fetching.)
Thing is, we often expect that we’re undercutting this objectification by making the characters “strong, kick-ass female characters,” but what happens is:
Forget about kicking ass.
That’s not the metric you need to worry about.
The only ass that your female character need to kick is the ass of the story — that’s the power you want to give them. The power of agency. They can be sexy and sexual without being sexualized or objectified. They can kick ass or not kick ass or have Power or Not Have Powers as long as you elevate them above mere action figures (“Look how poseable she is when she does her sexy high-kicks!”) They can be vulnerable or flawed or unlikeable as long as you treat them like real people, not like video game characters or a list of abilities or dolls or lamps or The Reason That Dude Does The Thing He’s Meant To Do. They’re not proxies, they’re not mannequins, they’re not mirrors, they’re not Walking Talking FleshLights, they’re not princesses in towers waiting to be saved, they’re not emotionless ass-kicking chicks who still don’t kick as much ass as the hero. I’d even argue that calling them “female characters” has its problems because it sounds clinical, distant, a characteristic, a check box, a footnote.
Think of them as women or as girls.
Think of them as people.
Then give them agency within your story, within its world, and equal to the other characters.
So endeth my rant.
And now I ask you:
Who are some of your favorite women and girls in fiction (books, comics, film, TV, what-have-you) that possess agency? Drop in the comments and sound off. Offer your thoughts, too — am I getting this wrong? This feels right to me, but happy as always to discuss. Just be polite, because the SPAM OUBLIETTE awaits those who act as dire shitbirds.