The Problem With “Strong” Female Characters

By Lauren Ferguson

Like most college students with summer upon us and nothing to do, I have recently been binge-watching Netflix, and the most recent program I’ve become enamored with is the prison dramedy, Orange is the New Black. The plot focuses on Piper, a woman arrested for crimes from her youth, as well as a large ensemble of other female prisoners, each trying to navigate life in a woman’s prison. However, what makes this show unique is its portrayal of the women themselves. Rather than rely on one certain archetypal female character, the women are portrayed honestly—strengths and weaknesses included.

Recently in television and film, there has been much focus on the “strong woman”, with characters like The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen or The Bride in Kill Bill carrying the story along with great valor and prowess. These women display a sense of independence and strength that is important to show in media.  It’s necessary to know that these types of women do exist, however, with all the push to show these strong women, a new problem is starting to develop as a result. The drive to write strong female characters turns into an almost quota-filling agenda. In “Why I Write ‘Strong Female Characters'” an article by Greg Rucka, a comic book writer notable for writing for Action Comics and Adventure Comics, Rucka states that he writes female characters that “tend to be quite smart… physically active, most capable of taking a punch as well as throwing one. They are rarely, if ever, portrayed as victims.” And while these female characters are valid in their own rite, what is the problem with portraying a woman as a victim? By idealizing women in such a way, they in a sense become objectified as simply a writer’s merit badge of “equality.” But for equality to exist, there must be a yin to the yang.

I’m exhausted seeing only this one type of women, and even worse I’m exhausted of seeing only “strong” women being perceived as remarkable characters. Greg Rucka seems proud of his characters, boasting that he doesn’t write “positively portrayed women,” he simple “writes characters.” But women can still be portrayed positively if they are not physically strong or fierce. In Orange is the New Black, inmate Lorna Morello is a demure character, desperate to marry, that never engages in physical confrontation. However, Morello is still incredibly kind, intelligent, creative, and loyal—all characteristics of a well-rounded person. Other characters frequently note her charm and gain strength from the kindness she provides. Going against the model of a rough and tough fighter, she is often seen taking extensive care of her personal appearance, appearing with curled hair and lipstick. This fact does not in the slightest detract from her value as a person. Rather, by eschewing the standard checklist for a strong woman, she is simply and unabashedly herself. Morello is not the typical “warrior-princess” type, but she is certainly not without worth. For all her kindness, she still is not flawless. Her weaknesses are not what make her strong, but rather it is both her strengths and weaknesses that make her human. Instead of a one-tone perfect female trope, Morello becomes simply a person.

Further proving that strength has no defined appearance, another unique representation of women in Orange is the New Black lies with Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren. She functions as a comic-relief character at the beginning of the plot, flirting with the uncomfortable Piper, but as the story progresses, she becomes a fully-fledged human being. Her mental illness and crippling self-hatred are further explored, and over the course of two seasons, she develops self-confidence, proclaiming “I am loving someone who deserves me: me!” Even as a doubting and sad woman, Suzanne is a valid character. What makes her interesting is her expansion into something more. Suzanne didn’t need to be a “strong” female to make her compellingher intensely personal and introspective actualization of her self-worth is enough to make her a full, empathetic character.

The only bad character is a flat one. Characters hailed as “strong” women suggest that only emotionally devoid, super strong women should have significance, rather than all women. Female characters can have value, be interesting or thought provoking, without being exclusively strong in a physical sense. Women are varied, complex human beings exactly like any other person. Tropes are not people. Let’s stop pretending that the warrior trope is what we want all of our female characters to look like, and instead focus on portraying women as who they are: human beings.

Lauren Ferguson

The author

Lauren Ferguson is queer female writer and art team member for the Feminine Inquiry. She is currently a student at The University of Texas majoring in Art History and English honors. Her free time is spent fighting as a wanted vigilante and talking about Tom Waits.

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