Deconstructing the "strong female character" trope

Pasteleptic

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The simple answer to this question is: confidence. Works for any individual of any gender. Do note that there's a huge difference between confidence and ego, however. Save the ego for the antagonists.

A good example of a strong female lead is Lightning from the FF13 trilogy.
 

gstv87

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confidence
*lack* of confidence can also work positively.
create the weakness, to then overcome it.... that's growth.

lately, there's no growth because *what the writers envision* and *what the viewers get* tends to be the same exact thing, from minute 1.
*what the viewers get* must become *what the writers envisioned*.... through *the length of the work we're dealing with*
that's *storytelling*.
writers who write "the perfect character" don't want to deal with that, they want to collect the applause.
 

Pasteleptic

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*lack* of confidence can also work positively.
create the weakness, to then overcome it.... that's growth.

lately, there's no growth because *what the writers envision* and *what the viewers get* tends to be the same exact thing, from minute 1.
*what the viewers get* must become *what the writers envisioned*.... through *the length of the work we're dealing with*
that's *storytelling*.
writers who write "the perfect character" don't want to deal with that, they want to collect the applause.
You're more or less describing a submissive trope, and I think those should be avoided. You can have plenty of confidence in a character, yet, still have good character growth. You want personality, not meekness (non-playable/temporary characters [or even quest givers] work with this trope, but not as a leading character).

Again, Lightning from FF13 was written pretty well. Plenty of confidence with growth.
 

gstv87

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@Pasteleptic what I mean is, that confidence is not signature of character strength.
you can have a confident character that goes nowhere, or a weak character that grows.
 

Tai_MT

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I'm perhaps a bit late to the party here, but...

I've never really understood the "strong female character".

See, the only reason a woman needs to be a "strong female character" in a narrative is for pandering purposes. That is... pandering to the male audience that enjoys their women like that (it's my particular cup of tea, if anyone cares) or to pander to the female audience and score "social points".

What makes a "strong female character"? It's easy. It's simple.

You write a character, make them fully fleshed out... then you give them some feminine traits and values. It is the same process as writing a "strong male character". You write a character, make them fully fleshed out... then you give them some masculine traits and values.

It's the difference between Morrigan in Dragon Age Origins and Wynne. One is an actual "strong female character", and the other is an obnoxious, meddling, a-hole pretending to have the mindset of a woman. Or, more specifically, pretending to be "motherly".

So, really, the only extent a "strong female character" actually exists is in basically attempting to appeal to guys and what they find attractive.

Otherwise, you're just creating a strong character... that happens to be female.

As pointed out before, Ellen Ripley is basically the poster child for this. Ellen is a very strong character all on her own. Her gender doesn't play into ANYTHING she does. Except when she encounters a little orphan child. Then, her maternal instincts kick in to protect the child as if it were her own. Or, her feminine charms come into play when she finds the one level headed and very reliable guy among the group willing to back her because he might not be that smart, but he recognizes that SHE is smart enough to do the job. Otherwise, beyond those few instances that allow her to be feminine, she is just a very strong character regardless. Sole Survivor of a terrifying alien encounter. She went from Space Trucker to Military Consultant. Went from confident pilot to PTSD stricken Loader Operator. She decides that the only way for her to sleep at night and get closure is to be sure that the threat she experienced in the first movie is completely wiped out.

She's quick witted, decisive, hyper aware, and always planning. She ends up being "no nonsense" out of necessity. But, she cares about the lives of everyone she's working with. She ends up being a leader when the command chain breaks down and nobody is competent enough to lead against a threat they've never faced before.

Everything she does is uniquely feminine, but is also just a good character. If they turned her into a man, the character would've still been very good. But, her femininity adds something to the character and to the part. It can't quite be removed or replicated by the other gender.

So, she's a "strong female character". Strong character with feminine over/undertones.
 

Philosophus Vagus

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What I've always found odd about the way this cliche came to be is that it came to be at the same time that men acting identically to how the cliche of strong women is portrayed was being decried as toxic. So you have a situation where people are lecturing one gender to not behave or have any of the stoic values that have been a key part of our species development for thousands of years but at the same time encouraging the other gender to take up the so-called toxic mannerisms of the first and just blur everything, and worst of all there is no nuance to any of it, its all black and white you should either be an emotional wreak who can't function or an emotionless automaton that gets everything done while everyone else cries in a fetal position around you because they are an emotional wreak who cannot function. It's probably one of the most tiring tropes I've ever seen, unfortunately seems its more or less here to stay. No one likes duality or gray area anymore, at least no one with a say in what gets greenlit in entertainment currently.

If you want to kind of subvert these ideas I'd go deeper than merely parading a stereotype around and having someone more grounded to juxtapose against them. That's a fine start but I'd also try to ground your stereotype in reality as well, actually show realistic shortcomings of the stereotypical "strong woman" or whatever, show her as emotionally broken, and portray situations where her 'badassness' causes problems because she doesn't have the skillset to do anything else, humanize the inhuman mary sue caricature that has come to represent 'strength' in female representation for gods sake, and show why it is so uncanny and terrible to begin with.

A series that does this really well in my opinion is an anime from the 90s called black lagoon. Pretty much all of the toughest, most dangerous people in the series who drive the action-packed plot forward are women who fit the cliche to a tee, and every single one of them suffers immensely in their personal lives because of it, because the way they got to that point in their lives was invariably through various horrible traumas that stunted their psychological development one way or another so that superficially they are "strong, independent badass women" but once you delve deeper down you realize they are broken and much more fragile than they appear, not phased at all on a battlefield but with psyches easily shattered off of one simply trying to navigate life. The show also subverts gender norms while subverting the cliche flipping them by having the second protagonist be an emotionally mature (relatively) but pacifistic man who relies on his female counterpart to do the murder and mayhem for him while she slowly comes to rely on him for emotional stability (even as he unfortunately slowly loses it and dashes her hopes of 'rescue' from the city of the dead into a place with the living showing that emotional stability has to come from within first and foremost) so that they end up relying on (and often exploiting) each other for their various mutual shortcomings.

Anyway, my rambling generalizations about the series don't do it justice, there is an internet series basically breaking down how black lagoon subverts or coopts these tropes in detail called "there are no badass women in black lagoon". It should provide plenty of food for thought on this topic I think.

Link to the first part:
 

48Tentacles

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Me after reading the title "Oh boy, this is gonna go well" :D

Jokes aside, I'm not a big fan of deconstruction of tropes since in my experience they have a tendency to avoid the objective of escapism, but it depends and I've enjoyed some shows with deconstruction tropes.

I don't have a tip for this specific issue. What I do have is a tip regarding general design in female characters: if you wanna make it a female character appealing, make her cute, sexy, or both, give her a personality and/or backstory relatable to the audience, and make sure you don't separate yourself from your target audience. I've seen works ended because of unfortunate outcomes from bait-and-switch techniques (example: this superheroine was the villain all along!1).

Good luck!
 

Cybergirl

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The funny thing is that the greatest strength of a female character can manifest itself precisely in its weakness. So in this area it is difficult to say for sure who is weak and who is strong. For example, I have a good friend who has been a wonderful wife all her life, she is sweet and shy and very kind. However, her husband cheated on her. And it was me who initially suspected it. I found an article on TopLoveHacks.com about adultery and dumped it on her. In the end my suspicions were not unfounded. However, she was very firm in her reaction to the news. Three months later she was completely fine. I am proud of her.
 
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RianQuenlin

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My litmus test for a strong female character is simple.

1: Does she have a goal that works in tandem with (or is) the main plot or current story/character arc?
2: Does she work towards this goal using her skillset and resources and reach a conclusion? Success is irrelevant.
3: Does she introduce or prove herself without beating up or otherwise besting a strawman misogynist?
4: Does the story fall apart if all her scenes are removed, or would writing her out be an immense task?

Ideally you want all four to be "yes". Sex appeal and promiscuity, level of power, level of success, and her morality are irrelevant factors.

I repeat:
- Being sexy or not sexy is irrelevant.
- Being promiscuous or chaste is irrelevant.
- Being severely disabled, superhuman, or a deity is irrelevant.
- Being a success story or a total failure is irrelevant.
- Being good or evil is irrelevant.

The importance of these are based entirely on the story you're telling, and can be used to flesh someone out without compromising them. St. Jeanne and Motoko Kusanagi would both be considered strong female characters despite being largely opposites on those five points.

Let's pick Yuna from FFX as an RPG example.

Goal: Defeat Sin, an undying monster that has wreaked havoc for a thousand years, and she knows and accepts that it's a suicide mission.
Skillset and resources: Her summoned beasts and white magic, her loyal allies, and generosity of the people.
Proves herself by: Not giving up in her goal even though she had to turn against her religion, and at the end her own summoned beasts to put an end to the spiral of death.
The story: Will literally collapse into dust without her, she drives the entire plot and the conclusion.

By my litmus, Yuna ticks all the boxes, and is widely considered one of the best characters in the Final Fantasy series which is no small feat. To provide what I consider a weak female character, I'd have to go with Agnes from Bravely Default. In terms of the plot, she serves no purpose other than to awaken the crystals, something that FF protagonists have been doing since the first game in the series. I'd dare to say both Tiz and Agnes could've been completely removed from Bravely Default and it would've barely changed the game's plot.

As for deconstruction, people in the work would be saying that Cliche is a thug who immediately escalates to violence when slighted, and her attempts to show off against a strawman misogynist ends in staggering failure or she does a dirty trick like a kick to the balls and gets rightly called out on it. She is treated the same way anyone acting out a power fantasy on bystanders would be treated; with absolute scorn.

Regarding my second point of "Does she work towards this goal using her skillset and resources?", one Barbie book was criticized over Barbie wanting to be a programmer but instead excessive reliance on male help and basically contributed nothing, which goes against the message that women can have and succeed in any career which the brand is built on.

Going back to Yuna and Jeanne, both of them utilized multiple male characters as a resource, but without the respective female character they were either left without a purpose in the story, or left without the will to stand up to an antagonist. Yuna's powerful summons and healing magic are undeniably a massive asset, and Jeanne's faith in God and willingness to lead granted the inspiration needed by her men to take up arms and fight the English. Leadership skills and being able to support one's allies are major factors on if male help is a crutch or a resource.

Sometimes critics actively look for any excuse to consider a female character who is not perfect in every single way as "problematic". People like this should be ignored, since you cannot claim to be a feminist while holding women to impossible standards. Same goes to any flavor of ally, all humans have faults without exception.

An important thing to remember is to not go out of your way to brag about having a "strong female character", or act like it's new or innovative. After all, Book of Esther was written over 2300 years ago. Let her speak for herself with her words and actions.

In recent years entertainment companies have been getting criticism for shouting from the rooftops that their latest product has their "first $_marginalizedgroup character" while ignoring previous instances, using increasingly-specific criteria, or worst of all: participating in erasure and denying the actual first their rightful place. It's important to avoid this because even though it wont detract from the character, it will greatly sour people's initial perceptions and make them think you made a token rather than a character, or that you're using marginalized people as a shield from criticism for a poor product.
 

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