On strong females in fiction

So the other day I read an incredible book that featured a strong, layered female protagonist (and I’m not going to say more about it than that because reasons.) After I finished reading, I headed over to Goodreads, as I often do, to check out what others thought about the book. While for the most part the reviews were positive, a good chunk of them, even some of the four and five star reviews, complained about the female protagonist. The general consensus amongst these reviewers was that the female character wasn’t strong, like they’d been deceived into thinking by the book jacket. If she was supposed to be strong, then why did she cry? If she was supposed to be tough, then why did she think about boys so much? If she was supposed to be badass, then why did she like dresses and makeup and shopping? One reviewer even called her a walking contradiction.


Well. This really disappointed me. Basically, what they were saying is that to be truly strong and badass, this character should have been less stereotypically feminine—especially troubling because most of the reviewers were women themselves.


Listen—female characters can be strong without being stripped of liking dresses and makeup and boys. They’re not signs of a weak character. They’re not flaws. Which leads me to the thesis statement of this blog post:


Being feminine and being strong aren’t mutually exclusive.


There was a quote going around a few weeks ago from Natalie Portman that perfectly summed up my feelings:


“I want [female characters] to be allowed to be weak and strong and happy and sad – human, basically. The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a ‘feminist’ story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.”Natalie Portman


Yes. YES. YES. YES. To hand a woman a pair of pants and a weapon and have her unflinchingly mow down everyone in her path doesn’t alone make a strong character. It’s like Portman says—that’s just macho. (And archetypical. And boring.) We owe ourselves more than that. We owe ourselves nuanced, layered female characters. And if that character happens to like makeup and dresses? That’s great.


There’s nothing wrong with being a girl.


(Side note: if you figure out the book, go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back, but please don’t name it here. I don’t want to single out any reviewers. Thanks :) )

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19 Responses to On strong females in fiction

  1. I agree with you and Natalie. A strong female protagonist would be comfortable with herself. She’ll cry is she’s sad and wear a dress if she wants to.

    I ended up parting ways with a critique partner over this issue. My female MC is supposed to be strong and my critique partner insisted that she shouldn’t cry or show emotions. Well I consider myself rather strong, and if my world is falling down around me, forgive me if I shed a few tears.

    I love a strong female MC but not an emotionless one. Hopefully after being exposed to more multi-faceted female MCs these readers will realize that a truly strong female is the one that’s comfortable in her own skin, tears, dress and all.

  2. Ruth says:

    I think it’s a little sad that anyone could describe a character who likes dresses and who is also skilled in combat as a ‘walking contradiction’. Who decided those two things can’t co-exist? What kind of models of womanhood don’t have room for women who like and can do all sorts of combinations of things?

  3. Brandy Allard says:

    Great points! I love this post.

  4. Tara says:

    Completely agree! I feel like people get confused on what feminism is, it has become something different in todays world.

  5. YES!!! So much this! A woman can be strong and not be a robot. In fact, I think it’s the contrasting emotions and actions that often help show how strong a person is. Characters like people act differently in different situations. Different experiences will elicit different emotions because we are but the sum of our experiences, fears, hopes, and dreams. It’s the sum of the characters actions that makes them strong. Sometimes that means characters will act differently than expected but that doesn’t make them a walking contradiction. It’s a human response.

  6. Sam B says:

    Damn straight!

    This is the reason I liked Ripley more in Aliens than I did in the first. Watching her cope with what happened and what she lost was what made me sympathize with her. And yes, she did get her biggest badass moment here (“Get away from her, you bitch!”), but that wouldn’t have been as good if she didn’t spend most of the movie bonding with Newt.

  7. I TOTALLY agree that being feminine and being strong aren’t mutually exclusive. Anyone who hasn’t figured that out yet is living in the stone age. I’ve seen strong women like dresses and makeup, both in life and in fiction. I love it. (And I hope I live it, as much as I can.)

    I also think, however, that failure to create a believable character could occur with a heroine of this sort as easily as with any other. Proper motivation of thought, speech, and action are standards every character should live up to.

  8. Mary says:

    Love this post! I can’t stand the attitude that anyone has to do A, B, and C and avoid X, Y, and Z in order to fit a label. And I thought feminism was supposed to be about praising/respecting women, not writing off their hobbies and interests as too…well, feminine.

  9. Rachael Allen says:

    Fantastic post! I completely agree! I tried to Tumbl this but I’m not that smart, LOL.

  10. Well said, and very true. Any character should be able to show a full range of emotions, interests, and ways of dealing with all that happens to them, and shouldn’t be expected to fit any stereotype. There’s something really sad about saying any character shouldn’t show strong emotions, but even moreso when it’s something like this. Yeesh.

  11. Warrior (@WarwarWarrior) says:

    Just gotta say that I totally agree.

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