I am so sick of the ‘strong female protagonist’. There, I said it, and I’m a woman. But before you start shaking your fist at me and calling me a traitor to my gender, hear me out.
When I was growing up, my reading world was limited to the local library and small bookstores that only stocked two shelves of my favorite genre: Fantasy and Scifi. (What I wouldn’t have given for an Amazon-sized library at my fingertips.) The female characters in this limited slice of books never did anything of note. They were always in support roles, or worse, were supposed to be independent women, who all ended up married to the main male protagonist. They bickered non-stop and plotted with each other about how to control their husband. (Hello, Robert Jordan).
Books were full of male protagonists who were essentially Rambo. They grunted away pain, they were never rescued by anyone else, always rescued sobbing women who apparently forgot how to walk, and the man never, ever cried. The strong male protagonist always let someone know, at some point, that they were tough. This was usually shown by punching someone in the face.
There’s nothing wrong with those characters. They have their two-dimensional place, but it gets tiring. And it’s not realistic.
Tiring of these cardboard cut-outs and the dark fantasy craze, I stopped reading for a good decade.
Really, what I should have done is start reading the mystery genre. And I did, eventually. Mystery novels rekindled my love of reading, and I discovered that things had changed. The scifi, fantasy, YA, and mystery/thriller book market was, and still is, saturated with ‘strong female protagonists’.
Great, I think. Yay! Finally. But wait. These characters act exactly like their male counterparts.
The ‘strong’ female is always smarter than men in the book. They are harder, genius-level capable, and more emotionally stable. No crying. It’s for wimps! Oh yes. And they will not be rescued by a man, or anyone else for that matter. But they don’t do it quietly…
At some point in the book, the ‘strong’ female character feels the need to tell someone why she’s strong and that she can take care of herself. Without a man. *Stalks off in high heels*
Sometimes there is punching involved (in high-heels or Goth combat boots, or a mixture of both). But mostly butt-kicking of the largest male in the room. Booyah!
So basically, it’s the same Rambo character, but the plumbing and clothing has been swapped out. I get it. It’s fun. There’s nothing wrong with it. And I’m usually entertained by those stories as much as the next person. (I love Xena by the way.)
But these views on what constitutes ‘strong’ doesn’t stay in the book. Many readers have started defining strength on the above criteria. One of my favorite book series has a male and female detective duo. They have a partnership, one helping the other as needed. In one book, the female gets taken captive. The male tracks her down and rescues her. One reviewer commented, despite the fact that the female protagonist has rescued her male partner plenty of times, that it ‘diminished the strong female character by having to be rescued by a man’. HUH?
If I’m taken captive and held in a locked cellar by six men, I don’t care if a rat rescues me. If I were a man, I’m pretty sure I’d be perfectly secure in my masculinity to be rescued by a little girl in pig-tails.
It boggles my mind that crying is seen as weakness in today’s society. That asking for help is seen as humiliating. That mistakes are considered a sign of incompetence.
My Legends of Fyrsta series features a nymph who is utterly innocent by nature (like in mythology). Isiilde is not strong, she’s not particularly brave or capable, and she’s so very inexperienced. It’s who she is, a nymph. And yet, I’m constantly disturbed at some of the comments directed at this young character. After this 16 year-old was brutally assaulted, one reader left the comment: “I’m sick and tired of her whining Bullsh*t!”
You know… because fiction would have us believe that men and women don’t have any issues after they are raped. In fiction, they shrug it off and go beat someone up, or most of the time, they beat their attacker to a pulp. 1 in 6 women, and 1 in 33 men around the world will tell you how well that works.
But this is what fiction is feeding people. This two-dimensional version of ‘strong’ women and men. And that is what I don’t like. The cardboard cut-out version of the ‘strong’ female protagonist. Tears are not a sign of weakness, mistakes are not a stamp of incompetence, and sometimes—most of the time—courage is found in the smallest of acts. Like climbing to your feet when all you want to do is lay down and die.
This reminds me of the generations of fathers who told their sons that ‘real men don’t cry’. And I sometimes wonder what ‘the strong female protagonist’ is telling our young girls.
I certainly don’t want my daughters growing up thinking that asking for help is a sign of weakness. That accepting help makes them weak, or that strength of character comes from doing everything better than everyone else and beating someone up.
And while I don’t want female characters to go back a step and take the same roles they had while I was growing up, I would like to see them portrayed as people rather than cardboard cut-outs.
There’s a very popular Neil Gaiman quote that I see everywhere:
I always change his quote in my mind to this when I read it: “I like stories where people help each other.”
I’d be interested in hearing from my readers. What do you think about the common interpretations of the ‘strong female protagonist’?