How Strong is “Strong?”

This is an old article, but one I immediately thought of when I read the course description- in fact I regret not posting it sooner. It has to do with one of the dilemmas of “Girl Power,” as I perceive it. Namely, is it a step forward to simply make female characters “tough?”

The author brings up a number of famous male characters in fiction and discusses how they don’t need conventional traits of strength to be considered strong characters, whereas, to her, women seemingly just need to be archetypally strong to be interesting. One of the most fascinating and unexpected examples comes from Shakespeare.

“Richard II, on the other hand, is not only not “strong”, he’s decidedly weak, both as a human being and a king. Yet some of the most beautiful poetry in the language, the most intricate meditations on monarchy, are placed in this weakling’s mouth. He has no strength, but he does have plenty of agency. The plot of the play is shaped around his (often extremely bad) decisions. In narrative terms, agency is far more important than “strength” – it’s what determines whether a character is truly part of the story, or a detachable accessory.”

The English major and writer in me would strongly agree- but would the student in Reading Popular Culture feel the same? Because as much as she is right in a purely formalistic sense, I feel like there is a very clear reason why things are the way they are- patriarchy. Her argument wouldn’t even need making if men and women were the same, but the society we live in says in no uncertain terms that they are not. We don’t live in a world where a female equivalent of, to use her top example, Sherlock Holmes (as in, the neurotic opium-smoking sociopath who is still oddly magnetic and likable) could exist without the vast majority of the audience getting incredibly confused. Our cultural circumstances have dictated that the Strong Female Character be a resonant one because it’s anomalous when contrasted with centuries of that archetype not existing.

Lastly, earlier on there was this fascinating post.

I wonder whether Vianne is the sort of character that Sophia McDougall had in mind as a good alternative. After all, she certainly fits the criteria of agency and influence over the story. The flip side is that Chocolat is widely regarded as a “chick flick,” which gets us into the messy territory of genre and the role it plays in stereotyping characters and stories- or the stereotypes that are projected onto them.

4 thoughts on “How Strong is “Strong?”

  1. I love that article, as someone interested in pop culture and also as a creative writer. I want to respond to this but the comment I was writing started getting out of hand so I’m going to make it a separate post – it should pingback here once I’m done!

  2. Pingback: Buffy and the “Strong” Female Character | Girlpower

  3. Pingback: Writing (and Valuing) People as People | Girlpower

  4. Pingback: TV’s Strong Black Woman | Girlpower

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