Friday’s Feature: Strong Female Character?

I’ve mentioned before that I am a huge fan of Joss Whedon’s work. As a teenager in the 90’s it was more or less impossible not to get on-board the Buffy bandwagon, and it was such a great bandwagon to be on. A female character who was reasonably attractive, had street smarts (though struggled at school), was articulate, and for the most part didn’t end up in ridiculously revealing outfits (after they got over the season 1 mini-skirt thing). Buffy kicked butt, literally, and was such a great character. Add in Willow, who also took the geek girl role and made it something empowering, and Cordelia, who proved that just because you are vapid doesn’t mean you can’t help save the world, and the story was full of these amazing characters that gave a range of ways to be feminine but not helpless.

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One of the things that occasionally bothers me about anime is the lack of female characters that I can really get behind. Part of that is probably the genres I prefer to watch as I know there are more female characters in other genres, but at the same time, it seems odd that whole seasons can pass without a single female character that I actually like or admire. Female characters are there and sometimes they are doing the over-sexualised thing, the damsel in distress thing, or just come off as pretty useless and dead weight to the script. Worse, they exist just to be a love interest or to rotate around a central protagonist who is usually male.

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That said, I find the statement that we need more ‘strong female characters’ to be a little bit mis-leading. Not every female character needs to be strong. Imagine how boring a show would be if every character was ‘strong’. And it isn’t as though every male character out there is strong. There are some pretty despicable depictions of masculinity to be found even in shows where there are some fantastic male characters. And that is more my point. What we need are more diverse female characters to be shown.

Shirayuki

Shiaryuki from Snow White With The Red Hair is an excellent example of this. She isn’t a ‘strong’ character in that she doesn’t wield a sword and she isn’t a martial artist. Yet when you read descriptions of her, her strength always comes up. She has a strong moral character, strong willpower, strong belief in herself and in her actions, and so she gets the label of strong female character. And while she is an excellent example of a different kind of female character, neither the hero nor the damsel in distress (though at times moving through both roles), I think labelling her strong kind of minimises how interesting she is as a person.

Erza

See the strong label puts Shirayuki on the same stage as Erza and Buffy and at the end of the day, if we made this a test of strength, Shirayuki isn’t exactly going to hold her own in a fight against these two. She has a different kind of strength of character and is exceptional, but she isn’t a fighter and we wouldn’t want her to be. Though, while we’re on that note, Erza might be exceptional in her magical and physical strength but with where I’m up to in Fairy Tail it seems her personality is fairly fragile. And that’s fantastic that she is more than just stoic and tough because if that was all there was to her, strong as she might be, she’d be pretty boring.

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However, I’m going to move away from red-heads for a moment (otherwise people might think I’m biased towards female characters with absolutely beautiful and stunning scarlet hair) and look at the cast from Princess Principal. This cast is kind of what I am talking about when I said earlier I think we need diverse female characters. None of the members of the squad in Princess Principal are useless and none of them are one-dimensional. Each comes into the squad with back-story, with some skills, some weaknesses, some baggage and motives, and they all contribute to the team. None of them fall into a single descriptor such as damsel-in-distress or childhood-friend (though those descriptors can be applied it isn’t the sum total of their character at any point) and as such the cast are really interesting to watch and the girls are characters I really enjoyed seeing on the screen. They all get moments where they can be strong, and other moments where we see them in a less desirable light as they crumble under emotional pressure, hesitate, or make poor decisions.

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And that is where a show like Orange kind of annoyed me. Of the three females who had significant screen time, two of them had almost no development as characters. We don’t know their backstory or their motive, and mostly their interactions could have been cut down to a single character (there was no real reason for two of them as they didn’t add anything all that different from the other – lovers of these characters will now hate me). And Naho as a main character could be summed up as ‘nice, shy girl’. There really wasn’t much else to her. Sure she wanted to help the guy but that was kind of coming from the nice attribute and she wasn’t overly effective at actually helping him. One could argue that the male friend ended up doing all the actual work that succeeded at anything and Naho was merely the catalyst for him to act because he didn’t want to see her unhappy. Basically, I didn’t dislike these characters (well, I did dislike Naho) but I didn’t find anything appealing or memorable about them either and I only remember Naho’s name because I kind of prodded at her in my review of Orange and I can’t remember the other names at all.

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Strength comes in many forms and even then, strength isn’t necessarily the only character trait female characters are sometimes missing in stories. Rather than fighting for stronger characters, I think what is really needed is diversity. If there were as many female characters out there and as many types of female characters as male ones, than most of us would be able to find a reasonable selection of characters that we can connect with or find interesting. Not every female character has to save the world or even shoulder the entire emotional burden, but it would be nice if we could see female characters carrying more roles than the traditionally assigned ones in stories. Or even if they have to carry the traditional role of mother and house-wife, at least let them do it with their own touch on the role so that it feels like they are a person and not a stand in for an understood convention.

As always, I’ll turn this over to the readers and ask you what you think.


Thanks for reading.

Karandi James

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39 thoughts on “Friday’s Feature: Strong Female Character?

  1. I think what often frustrates me is how many strong female characters feel like characters that were originally male, and then were very superficially made female.
    And I tend to agree that “strong” is a bit of an oversimplification in general.
    One of my favorite female characters comes from the Mistborn trilogy, particularly the second book, Well of Ascension.
    The character is an amazing fighter (out of necessity), but while she can easily kill, she still finds herself terribly intimidated by social events, and I found that to be a wonderful combination.
    It felt very fitting that someone who spent most of their time in informal social events (and fights), would struggle with the ultra ritualized social events of the nobility, and it was nice to see a character who could be very “strong” in some situations, while still feeling as weak as I might in others.
    A lot of stories show a weak character growing into a strong one (most notably when the shy character finds the strength to express themselves), but what I really like to see is a character who clearly has specific types of “strength”, and other areas where they truly flounder.
    I think one thing I’ve also enjoyed are the times where a character demonstrates strength of presence. Someone else may have the power of violence, but this person can calmly and coldly cut them down with a few simple words.
    As you say, strength comes in many forms, and the best characters are ones who demonstrate specific, and often narrow strengths, and vulnerabilities.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree, a more well rounded character with strengths and weaknesses is probably preferred as they feel far more genuine and real than someone who is just an unstoppable force of nature regardless of the challenge presented.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Great write up! As a writer myself, I’ve actually discussed the same issue with my editor before(not a profession editor of course, just a friend). Female representation in media has always been an off thing–It’s not as if they are underrepresented, it’s more of how they are represented that feels as if they always come off as a staple of the “useless women” trope or the “dominating queen” queen. There is no in-between.
    It feels as if males had this huge catalogue of available personalities and for some reason females only has half. This issue pretty much boggles me sometimes when I see a strong female character suddenly turn into a weakened one just because there was a male around.
    Either way, I myself would try my best to avoid falling into this trap.
    Would love to see more…human female characters though. Such as the main characters in Sora yori mo.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. +1 on more “strong” female characters in anime. While I am a sucker for cute girls doing cute things, I also do enjoy watching female characters take independent action and not exist solely for the sake of some male lead.

    Which reminds me of the Nanoha series. Have you seen it before?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent article. I think this sums up why some of the popular anime characters don’t click with me; there seems to be a focus on boiling them down to one quality only, which kinda puts the brakes on development and making them seem ‘real’.

    I grew up in the Buffy and Angel era too. Cordelia is a good shout in that regard as when you watch Angel too, and really grew as a character and hit the strong criteria in more ways than one. With your much I’ve seen it recommended, I should probably get around to Snow White some time.

    So, some that I would class as strong for different reasons:
    Revy (Black Lagoon) – physically strong, of course, but this is at least born from her more tragic backstory. On top of that, the are times that she softens too, such as when she’s playing with kids in Japan or her general feelings towards Rock. It’s easy to get caught up in the fan service and miss that there’s style depth there, I think.
    Hana (Wolf Children) – Not a physical fighter, but determined to raise her family well. She loves her kids and is resolute in keeping them safe and doing what’s best for them, even if this means letting them find their own paths through life. She struggled, but she never gave in.
    Holo (Spice and Wolf) – Putting the physicality of he turned turn aside, what I liked with her was that she balanced several things well. She had wisdom in abundance, but she was also capable of feeling lonliness and worry, and in some ways seemed like she feared how she felt for Lawrence. That she tried to hide a lot of this through cheekiness made me feel that she was a little better rounded too, as it showed that she was more than just a wise wolf deit, she was deceptively fragile.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cordelia’s development in Angel was fantastic. I’d love to see more characters that dynamic that really do grow in response to their circumstances.
      Thanks for sharing your picks for strong characters. I loved your explanations, though will admit I never finished Spice and Wolf and the other two I haven’t watched either.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Spice and Wolf … There are a lot of novels now, and the pace does seem to slow as they advance. Still, it’s a decent if slow love story.
        Wolf Children I think I’d an easy recommend if you like slice of life stuff, and Black Lagoon too if your big into action and don’t object to fan service entirely. So both decent but very different.
        Aye, Cordelia was a real highlight highlight through the spin-off because of the way she grew. She was easily one of my favourite parts in that regard.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes! Excellent points and discussion!
    I think that when one speaks of strong female lead though, or at least me, I just want someone strong in personality. Doesn’t mind what that personality is, but if their sole role is to scream a males name or be saved they have 0 personality. If they don’t have convictions, ideas, dreams and things they want to achieve and do then they don’t have personality that is needed.
    The biggest issue is the tropes, making characters 1 dimensional just sucks, be they female or male, but it tends to be more pervasive for females.

    That’s why I really enjoy characters where they grow, even if they’re stupid and ditzy and shallow but if they grow and stand up to themselves and gain that backbone it’s always great. It’s why I can’t dismiss even some shows that had other issues, like Fushigi Yuugi which I’m rewatching after 10 years or so of seeing it as a teenager. Miaka is childish, stupid, a crybaby and useless, but as the series progresses she matures. She’s still useless in a fight but she still stands up for herself and tries to do better, even if that leads to bad decisions and other issues.

    A better take of that is Yona, probably because it was done a decade after FY, it’s more progressive and Yona does gain abilities to fight for herself, not always but at key points which are great.

    I think what female roles need is more of that ambiguity, they can be weak and cry but also strong morally or physically and change. What a lot of shows and series and books get wrong is that they stick to 1 dimension of either strong or weak, and don’t let that middle ground and pendulum go back and forth.
    This happened with Escaflowne and Shinsekai Yori, and I do hope more shows can thread that middle line, it’s riveting to watch someone fumble and succeed while just trying their best. Heck this is why we love underdogs stories!
    This is why I’m bitter about sport shows having 0 main girls where they play the sport and taken seriously with the same depth as shounen sports. I want that underdog and hard-working story with girls too! 😤

    Side note: I never really watched Buffy but I’m thankful of its impact in shows, though I’m not sure if it measures to today’s views anymore, it did its purpose in the 90s.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. A range of interesting female characters who get development would be really great and giving them motives other than get the guy or get rescued might occasionally be nice. All about variety.
      It is interesting tracking from Aliens through to the Buffy/Charmed/Alias era through to today as we definitely have had more tough women in lead roles, but it is still hard to argue that there is a decent range of character types when compared to males.
      Anime is its own thing altogether in terms of progression but there are definitely some great female characters out there. More would be nice.
      Thanks for the comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh yes charmed and alias were super important and one of a kind shows. I think that young adult books also helped expand girl roles, plus showing there’s a market for teenage-centric fiction centered mostly on girls.
        Twilight was such a big movement even Japan got in on it, such as Vampire Knight (though uh not my style) and others. So it’s clear in a way or another Japan does get exposed and impacted too. Which is good.
        Plus there’s always Miyazaki doing movies centered mostly on females since the 80’s and showing they can sell and do well, telling deep stories and where the girls save and are saved.
        My hope is that anime also advances in making girls of all sizes, shapes and unique looking without being a gag or to laugh at. Male characters already get that kind of range a lot, females still are in that mostly pretty or sexy range.
        So I’m sure we’ll see more from here on out! 😄

        Thanks for your reply to me 💗

        Liked by 2 people

  6. 1. Taiga from ToraDora
    2. Redhead girl from Snow White With The Red Hair
    3. Normal Girl from Saekano
    4. Haruno from SNAFU
    5. Eyepatch girl from Strike Witches
    6. Tanya from Tanya the Evil (technically a girl)
    7. Girl Next Door from Heavens Lost Property
    8. Girl Next Door from Girls Bravo
    9. Girl Next Door AND Assassin Girl from Asobi ni Ikuyo
    10. Girl Downstairs from DearS

    These are all strong female characters in unconventional shows. Several are moe or ecchi but they’re still resolute and tough characters who persevere despite terrible odds and risk their lives to stay the course of their determination. That’s a strong female character. It isn’t all about the butt kicking, though many of the above do that too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, and for pure physical strength, both Miki of Ramen Fighter Miki and Naru of Love Hina and Red Haired Girl of Wagnaria! are ogre strong. Miki was stronger than strong men and would win bets arm wrestling. Naru could literally punch Keitaro more than 80 feet, and sometimes more than 500 feet when truly angry, which he lived through with minor injuries because he’s like Superman. The fact her marries her is depressing. So many better choices. Six better choices, one of whom made him the hero in her popular romance novel series.

      The red haired girl from Wagnaria actually CRACKS a concrete power pole with her bare hands while hugging it. Crush compression strength of concrete reaching sheer strength (the cracks) is ridiculously high, somewhere around 60,000 pascals, or about 10,000 times stronger than either of us. It is easier to bend one inch rebar, meaning she’s stronger than a Slayer. For pure strength, she’s amazing. Good fun!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, she had her moments but also had some less fantastic moments as well. Kokkoku had some good ideas but didn’t develop any of them enough to really stick and the characters were much the same.

      Like

  7. Love this post! I totally agree that we need more diversity in our female characters, for me part of the problem is the ‘waifu’ situation where it seems female characters are created purely to pander to fans, while it’s not bad in itself. No harm in a few shows being mostly pandering. It’s now happening so frequently and to get as much fan attention as possible these characters have to be so generic; the shy girl, the tsundere, childhood friend. The blanker the better for marketing purposes.

    Its funny because like you said about Orange, no one really remembers them after the hype. Yet we all remember the well written characters and that’s what keeps us loving series decades later.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I don’t even object to the whole pander to fans characters as long as there’s a range of other characters (I’d be lying if I didn’t say some of the male characters I liked weren’t just there to pander to me).

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Haha exactly, pandering is fine in certain situations. I find it most awkward in series where they are trying to have serious plot and characters and then an obvious fan service character walks in with the depth of a spoon that could easily be replaced with an attractive pot plant.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Lol! 😸 Your comment is funny enough (and accurate) on its own, but then I imagined a sexy plant woman, like a dryad, smoking pot. We’ll probably get an anime with that eventually.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Even if they did, I’d bet that house plant could become a small little sister type girl character who was hopelessly in love with the generic male lead who was living in the house alone while his parents were overseas.

            Liked by 1 person

  8. Like you, I always wondered why the list of female character I like are so short and I completely agree it’s the lack of diversity. Even with shoujo, a genre dedicated to the female demographic, more than 90% I’ve come across are as flat as they can get. Josei are a little better in that regard, but there aren’t many that get turned into anime.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. It doesn’t help that most of the standard tropes for females in anime annoy me so even shows with the line up of cute girls doing cute things with an almost all female cast seldom offer a character I’m interested in.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The thing is, the whole cute girl doing cute things is something that just panders to a certain fanbase. So while these characters can have proper personalities sometimes, at the end of the day, they’re reduced to be being cute, which doesn’t help. Then there’s the fact that everything is always taken to the extreme. Like I have a huge problem with “tsundere’ trope, because it always ends up on the illogically abusive spectrum.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Shirayuki is such a great character for so many reasons. I love that she’s always determined her own path but doesn’t insist on doing everything herself (at least not every time).

      Liked by 1 person

  9. The idea behind “Strong Female Lead” has always been tricky for me because the history of women and their representation in fictional media has been rife with the typical societal norms of domesticity and unquestioned support for their male counterpart for many millennia. It’d be easy to say “Oh, women just need to be realized and developed just like their male opposites,” but there’s a sort of brushing aside history with that statement where people simply want to burn the past and look at women as though they’ve never not been the equals of men, which is historically inaccurate—and still isn’t entirely universal.

    For this reason, I think there’s a misconception among the industry that “Strong Female Lead” should be taken literally, to be the exact opposite of how women used to be portrayed before some sixty years ago. They are now the one’s kicking ass and threading the men to their knees. They are now the one’s who dominate a certain society. Basic things like that. But I think this only throws the issue in reverse, that now women are seen as the superior and it irks the male kind to be spiteful (or unquestionably submissive) to it, the same way women did when it was the opposite.

    Thus in this current generation, or the way I’ve always interpreted it, “Strong Female Lead” is simply someone who goes about their role the way they intend, for them to go about life without the restrictions of society (or directly against it) through their own will. A female who has every characteristic that lovers of fiction gravitate towards, whether it be a quirky personality, a hefty goal, or room to grow and improve as a person. I think a good recent example of this is Violet from Violet Evergarden, as [Spoilers ahead] despite her early sole reliance to a male character (a common feminist criticism, I’m sure), she definitely grows from episode one to thirteen, and goes about life the way she ordains, something said male character desired of her from the start. [Spoiler end] For that, I think she’d fit within this interpretation of the “Strong Female Lead.”

    Sorry for the spiel. It’s kind of an unplanned explanation, and it may have its issues due to brevity, but I hope it comes across well. Good post!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I also have issues with people thinking a character is strong just because they force others to submit. And historically women were in submissive positions so it kind of makes sense in stories set in historical contexts to represent women in this way, unless we’re talking alternative history in which case they can do whatever they want.

      I like your interpretation of simply someone going about their role the way they intend as that kind of fits with how I define strong female characters (or at least ones I end up respecting). That said, I still think there’s plenty of room for characters that can’t do this as exploring restrictions is worthy in and of itself (providing there’s a sufficient range of representations that various media are not normalising specific roles – which has always been more the problem).

      Thanks for the comment.

      Liked by 2 people

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