I think we’ve all been here. “You’ll like this book,” they say. “It’s got a strong female protagonist!”
And then I enter an intense struggle, where I fight not to roll my eyes, and to keep the fear at bay.
She’s so good at this. And also rill strong.
Sex-based words over gender-based words aside, hearing “strong female protagonist” is enough for me to ring the “intruder alert” bell and call back all of my emotional resources against impending loss of trust in the person giving me the recommendation, and probably faith, while we’re at it. Not because I dislike the idea–I mean hello, just look at the book I wrote! But because it’s almost always followed by an explanation about how she’s “the leader of the group”, or is “sassy” or “confident” and “knows what she wants.”
Sassy. Confident. Knows what she wants. Writes songs to decimate your heart.
I L-O-V-E sassy, confident leaders who get what they put their minds to! But girl? That better not be all you have to tell me about her. That lady character better have a mountain of skeletons in her immaculate closet who keep reanimating to come back and beat at her with their pointy finger bones.
To me, strong is the ability to stand on her own, in glorious 3D. Strong is a woman living in a world that either accepts her authority as a person no questions asked, no comments made about her gender, or someone who fights internal battles, has quirks and flaws (that aren’t always fatal! Sometimes they’re just flaws. Lord knows Hollywood’s killed enough female protagonists–we don’t need to help overmuch). She is complex but relatable, in some way. She has feelings but also participates in the life around her. She’s surprised by her inevitable period, or mad that her co-workers assumed she’d take notes in the meeting, or couldn’t tell you how to work anything in her kitchen other than the microwave, for example. In short, I’m looking for someone in whom I can find a mirror of my own humanity, or who lives in the world we might have once we get past this whole “girls exist only to be caretakers, full stop” mentality.
Tamora knows what I’m sayin’.
A strong female protagonist can be a stay-at-home mom who knows when to let things slide so that there isn’t always a fight. A strong female protagonist can be the woman in the grocery store when gunmen take them hostage and who organizes a coup or keeps everyone from flying apart. A strong female protagonist can be an assassin-spy-wizard who also is horny all the time and likes being fed strawberries. Strong female protagonist is versatile, and frankly knows she’s badass even if she manages an inn and can’t function without a pot of coffee.
Try and tell me she isn’t strong.
It isn’t about their jobs, their title, or wordplay. Strength is whether or not she is real, whether, at the end of the book, we find ourselves wishing to go grab a coffee with her, or shoot her a text about this lifehack you just read, or warn your guy friends to stay away from her vampire fangs. Jobs, titles, wit are something so easy to take away or to give to characters. Indeed, I think many of us have read the books with the “strong female protagonists” and wondered when she’d show up, because sure this person is captain of a space ship, but she also doesn’t make any decisions without a dude, spends half the time worrying about feelings (but not acting on any of them), and by the by was hurt in her past by her now-boss, and no one did anything about it.
Is this real life?
Gina’s not sure either.
I’ve been female and a woman a goodly while now, and I am certain that if I had to take the choice between “influence and respect but no title” or “title, but can’t do anything for yourself” I would choose the former every single time. Unless I’m sick that day, and just want someone to take care of me while I watch movies from the 90’s. But aside from that time…give me true power, which is the love, admiration, fear or respect of my associates. Piddle on your stupid titles if it comes at the cost of my self-worth. Piddle, I say!
And this has been your rant on my click-bait title about why the term “strong female protagonist” should either step up its game or get out of my way already, except for the exceptional web-comic by that name.
P.S. Supergirl can heck off.