Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the “Strong Female Character” trope in fiction and what strength means. Here I’m referring to the character who often has her life turned on its head and transforms from a vulnerable person into a fierce force of ass-kicking nature. Sarah Connor in the Terminator movies being a prime example.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this kind of character in the context of her story. She does what she needs to do to survive and save the world. I would hazard to argue that the only problem is the lens through which she’s portrayed, which is one of violence and the stereotypical view of what strength means in our world.
However, I struggle with identifying with this kind of character as I know the strength she shows is not where my own strength lies. I am not currently a physically fit and ass-kicking person. How can I see myself and my own strengths represented while watching this kind of media? The answer is I kind of don’t beyond a generalized “yay she’s winning and defeating the villain”, and I’m not sure what to do about that.
The crux of my struggle is that physical strength is not the only way someone can be strong. Emotional strength is just as valid and quite under appreciated and under represented in our world and in our fiction. This is where my strength is found, or at least something like it. The healers, the nurturers, the characters with strong minds and hearts, if not strong bodies.
I work in the tech industry and I see a similar dynamic played out there as well. Those of us with “soft skills” who are good at non-technical aspects of the work are further down in the respect hierarchy (and pay scale) than those with stronger technical expertise. In other words, this is not just a problem in fiction, but in our larger world.
The question is what authors can do to represent different kinds of strength while not undermining the way the world is changing for the better. It’s a problem I honestly don’t know how to approach. It feels that in the current climate, characters must all be self-rescuing, badass princesses because portraying them as anything else would leave a door open to back-sliding and slowing our progress.
I struggle as a writer and as an editor in telling and finding stories that don’t compromise the work being done to challenge patriarchal ideas about how the world works. LSQ is built on uplift and so we work hard to keep growing and changing in ways that are supportive to the causes of feminism and equality.
But how do we do that without sacrificing a diverse view of what strength means? Are we stuck in the unfortunate position of only presenting characters that are forced into (or choose) violence as their way of remaking the world into a better place? Does that simply reinforce the idea that physical strength (or mental intelligence) is the only kind that’s worth acknowledging? Where do the healers, the supporters, fit into all of this? How are they not left behind or trampled underfoot in the battle being fought on all fronts?
I am honest, dear reader, that I do not have an answer to these questions. Even in writing this editorial it was a challenge to piece out the various layers of my own conflicting feelings. I know many of you have clear thoughts on this and have found a more black and white take on the situation. I am glad for you, but for myself, the situation is more nuanced and I don’t know if it will settle into clarity in my lifetime.
What I can do for now is take each story, each thought, as it comes and weigh it carefully. I can support a diversity of voices and examine my own language and thoughts. I can work hard each day to be an ally and not an enemy. Sometimes I will do better at this than others, but I will promise to always do my work with the intent of kindness and inclusivity and an open heart.
I hope you find it in yourself to do the same. Someday it will be different. It’s already so much different than when I was a girl. Let’s stay together and keep doing our work. The healer and the warrior need each other and there are room for both at the table.
I’ll save you a seat right next to me.