With the rise of the feminist movement, Hollywood has created a new mission statement; more female characters. Every producer and studio executive wants a “strong female character” to grace their screens. Society claims that having strong female role models is beneficial for both young boys and girls, and that media should be the most accessible form to create role models. However, this push to create a “strong independent woman” in film is actually hindering the creator’s ability to conceptualize a good character for their story. While having likable characters isn’t wrong, having well written characters should not take a back seat and be forgotten. What media really needs is to let go of the “strong female character” trope, and work on the well written character objective.
Living in the world, as a woman, I know many others that can’t help but roll their eyes when a new movie promises a “strong female lead”, as if it was a new concept. As a matter of fact, female leads have been in media for hundreds of years, although not in the spotlight. Books like, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Anne of Green Gables were conceived in the 19th century, long before movies were a staple of entertainment. The difference between these female characters is that no one would call them “strong” by today’s standards. None of them know karate or have a stiff demeanor. As a matter of fact, all of these character choose to fall in love by the ends of their stories. Today, that would be a sign of a weak female character.
It isn’t a bad idea to create a female character that is role model for young girls. However, most people choose role models that share similar character traits to themselves.
A survey done by Samantha Melnick in 2002 of adolescent girls from grades 6-12, revealed that 66% of the girls felt that there were characters that they considered role models. Melnick said of the results, “the majority of those surveyed replied that they could relate most to characters that had similar personality traits and experienced similar situations.” This proves that people, most importantly young girls, do look towards characters for role models. But these characters usually share characteristics with the audience, which doesn’t mean that your female character has to be a Kung Fu master to inspire girls.
In fact, studies have shown that overly aggressive characters can be detrimental to one’s health. In 2007 a study done by Dara N. Greenwood where 85 college-aged women were surveyed about their personal reactions of having overtly violent female characters as role models. The results show that behavioral idealization of an action hero was linked to increased self-reported aggressive behaviors and feelings. This does not mean that having aggressive characters is necessarily a bad thing. The results from the Greenwood survey solely focused on characters that the women idealized, and not identified with. Aggressive behavior wasn’t linked with characters that the girls related to, but ones they wanted to be.
That is why it is important to have a variety of female characters that don’t fit the “strong female character” trope. Although these women are marketed as role models, they seem to be doing more bad than good. It is key to note, that these female characters showcase more masculine qualities, which leads to a negative view on feminine traits, thus creating an expectation that can be impossible for some. When we use the term “ strong and female in succession to modify the term character, we are perpetuating the sexist belief that women are naturally weak”(Trombetta 2016). This is bad for a society that runs on women. Without them, the human race would not continue. By teaching young girls that feminine traits are weak, and masculine traits are desirable, it can lead to them discounting the women in their own lives. This shows no appreciation for the mothers, grandmothers, and teachers in their lives as these roles are usually considered more feminine than masculine. Not only does this harm young women, it can be harmful to young boys. Why can’t women in media be as complex as feminine or masculine as women in real life. When focusing solely on one character type, it created an unreachable expectation in society and in our minds.