The Strong Female Character Term Should Change

Mad Max: Fury Road was a great film, and it also made me realize how the term “strong female character” is inadequate in describing well-developed and complex female characters.

The adjective “strong” is ultimately weak when used to describe multi-dimensional female characters like Furiosa.

I used to support the strong female character term because the genres I love, like neo-noir and crime, usually feature a male main protagonist and is told through the male perspective. So I supported the term because I thought it represented a subversion of the token female stereotype(s) in these books/films/TV shows.

Furiosa, Strong Female Character

But then I read the reviews of Mad Max: Fury Road and began to think that the term in itself is also a stereotype.

In the video, I break down the definition of the strong female character according to the film, and also explain how another term, “a great character” is more fitting.

Obviously, by stripping the gender from the term, I remove all the connotations as well. I don’t aim to ignore these gender-specific experiences, but instead to elevate well-developed female characters like Furiosa out of the narrow category of simply being “strong”.

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Millie’s Note: What’s your take on the strong female character term? Should it change at all?

19 thoughts on “The Strong Female Character Term Should Change

  1. rung2diotimasladder says:

    I haven’t watched Mad Max, but when I hear the phrase “strong female character” I automatically assume a feminist approach was taken. More specifically, a feminist approach in which a female plays a role that we typically (or stereotypically) assume men would play. I agree that that can be limiting. Saying that about a robust character in a story that has a broader scope diminishes that story to some extent.

    • Millie Ho says:

      While the approach is there, I do wonder if the limiting implications of the term “strong female character” hinders content creators from developing the character to her full potential. It’s great that there’s a feminist angle to these characters, but the mainstream understanding of what the term implies—that a female is “just strong”, whether physically or mentally—can definitely be improved. I started with terms/words because that’s how we create a point of differentiation, but perhaps there’s a better way of going about it.

      • rung2diotimasladder says:

        “While the approach is there, I do wonder if the limiting implications of the term “strong female character” hinders content creators from developing the character to her full potential.”

        Could be. In general I’d say it’s possible it does do that, especially if the audience makes it clear they like that sort of role. Sometimes what was once a dynamic character can run flat in succeeding episodes due to writers fueling the stereotype. (I found that in Doc Martin, although there it was the doctor’s Aspie personality that became a bit too extreme and made him less likable.)

        In any case, I find myself a lot less interested when someone describes a show as having a “strong female character.” That, to me, is a red flag for something a bit flat and cliché. Of course, like I said, I haven’t seen the show you’re talking about, but I’m imagining shows I have seen in which the female protagonist goes around kicking butt and acting macho and generally upstaging the guys in a stereotypical masculine way. Sometimes in ways that are physically impossible (or at least highly unlikely). This annoys me, but I’m probably in the minority on this. I’m after the human experience, and I think this stereotype of “strong female characters”—as I understand it—inadvertently downplays real women and female virtues. In a way, the message is: We should admire women who act like men. (And not just men, but macho-stereotypically masculine men.)

  2. elenacaravela says:

    I so agree. The terminology is awkward. Much like descriptions of “minority” characters. I find it so annoying when an author describes several characters with no reference to race when only one will be described as “black”. It’s generally an irrelevant assertion assuming that all the others are “typical”, but this one character is atypical. The fact that females can be strong should be a given. We need not draw a distinction regarding gender. Such a character can be described as tough, as strong or the like without the “novel” description of “strong female”, as If it’s a rarity. Another really good post, Millie!

    • Millie Ho says:

      You’re absolutely right! We shouldn’t single out a person because of these qualities, especially if they are irrelevant to the context. Interestingly enough, while I used to think the media was pretty bad at this, they seem to be improving as of late. I noticed many reader comments calling them out for creating click bait headlines that feature some distinct but irrelevant trait of the subject in question, and these news blogs are accommodating these requests. Thanks for your insight, Elena!

  3. Rose Red says:

    The way you describe her sounds much more well-rounded than just a ‘strong female character’ which in the past always (almost) meant a female with male characteristics who often had given up her feminitiy. It’s cool to let go of some of the worn out labels.

  4. jimibodansko says:

    two of my favorite female characters are :

    Rooney Mara in ” The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”

    and

    Michelle Monaghan in “Trucker”

    have you seen these films
    and if you have, what is your take on the roles that they played ?

    • Millie Ho says:

      I haven’t seen Trucker, but I have seen The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I thought Lisbeth was a little disappointing, not because she isn’t an interesting character, but because of what happens to her and her method of getting justice (violence vs. violence). I read somewhere a few years ago that Stieg Larsson was an extremist instead of a feminist, and based on what I recall, Rooney’s portrayal was reflective of this. I’ll have to revisit the literature before getting back to you.

      • jimibodansko says:

        yes, you have a point there on her method of getting justice but her performance seemed to stand apart from the average female role on many different levels in as you say an extreme kind of way ….. as for “Trucker”, Monaghan’s role is a whole different kind of portrayal …. one that deals with many different issues all at the same time and how she handles them in a realistic way, no fantasy play here at all …. worthy to check out if you have the time as the supporting characters are crucial to the film as well …. not a big blockbuster by any means rather a somewhat smaller independent kind of creation

  5. MishaBurnett says:

    A person’s sex is an important thing, it influences how the person sees the world and how the world sees that person. But from a narrative standpoint, it’s not the most important thing about a character. I try to think of a character’s role in the story–protagonist, antagonist, mentor, sidekick, comic relief, love interest–first, and gender later on. Max and Furiousa were both action protagonists, and they were more like each other than Furiousa was like Imorta Joe’s captive wives.

    The phrase “strong female character” annoys me, because it implies that other female characters are weak, and I don’t have any use for weak characters in fiction. A character may not be combat oriented or physically formidable, but she or he ought to have some kind of strength. Otherwise, why am I wasting page space on them?

    • Millie Ho says:

      The strong female character term is weak when used to define a character with a wide gamut of attributes. Strength in a character, regardless of it being physical or mental, is desirable for both the writer and reader, but shouldn’t be the main adjective used to describe said character. It’s great that you think of characters by their roles outside of gender, and that’s perhaps where we, as writers and people who analyze stories, are more informed than the mainstream, who think the strong female character simply means an Action Girl.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Re Furiosa ,personally I think the makers of mad max should of thought “we have such a great actress here,let’s make her Max . Her presence on film was so strong it all but made Mel’s replacement redundant. Let’s face it a back story-a female cop, a mother fails to save her child ,a world that had once again become wildly androcentric etc etc. It was all there including the unisexable name .

    • Millie Ho says:

      Interesting you say that, because there was a comic that came out recently that focused on her backstory. Unfortunately, based on the reviews I read, the Furiosa comic seems to have fallen short compared to its film counterpart. Perhaps George Miller will decide to create a Furiosa spin-off. We never know!

  7. aetherhouse says:

    I dislike this term because it implies that a woman has to be masculine in order to be a good character. Because anything feminine is “weak.” And the continued association of strength with masculinity, even if it’s a woman portraying those traits is…problematic.

    And seriously, let’s extend this to male characters as well – a male character is not weak because he demonstrates “feminine” traits like nurturing, empathy, and emotion. The entire movie/writing business seems revolved around wish-fulfillment for one audience: the white, straight, man who wants to see himself in the character. Who wants to see himself big and strong and getting laid and defeating the gay/flamboyant/too feminine villain. We are constantly hit in the face with stories whose themes do not extend past “the masculine justly defeats the feminine.”

    Which is why, you know, Mad Max Fury Road was awesome. Because the “feminine” in all its forms – the mothers, the daughters, the wives, the victims – actually overcomes the brutality and violence and sexual greed so often attributed to the masculine (and honestly, I think it’s unfair that those things are considered “masculine” too, as those are terrible expectations to put on a male hero). And the best part is that it’s done with a masculine ally. Either way, I think we need to throw out these associations of manliness and femininity, because they damage the portrayals of both genders. Just write well-rounded people, you know?

  8. D.R.Sylvester says:

    “Strong female character” often gets interpreted as “female with masculine characteristics and ability to fight,” when really it should be “Woman with AGENCY.” You nailed this point in your vid.

    The chicks in Sucker Punch are the former, Ripley from Alien is the latter, and Furiosa is both. Guess that explains why I think Suckerpunch is a load of (visually gorgeous) garbage…

    Great post, Millie

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