I hate strong female characters. This might seem an odd thing to say, because I love many female characters in popular culture who exhibit resilience and courage. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I love Jen (Zhang Ziyi) sneering, “He is my defeated foe,” when asked if she’s related to Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat). I love Jane Eyre declaring, “I care for myself,” despite the world’s protracted assault on her self-esteem.
But the phrase “strong female character” has always set my teeth on edge and so have many of the characters – the princess in Shrekwho knows kung fu; Angelina Jolie in the 2010 thriller Salt –who plainly have been written to fit the bill. No one ever asks if a male character is “strong”. Nor if he’s “feisty” or “kick-ass”, come to that.
The patronising premise of the strong female character is that she’s anomalous. “Of course, normal women are weak and boring and can’t do anything worthwhile,” goes the logic. “But this one is different. She is strong! See, she kicks people in the face.”
Are our best-loved male heroes “strong male characters”? Is, say, Sherlock Holmes strong? In one sense, yes: he faces danger and death in order to pursue justice. Yet he is often unreliable – and as an addict and a depressive he even claims his crime-fighting is a form of self-medication. So is Sherlock Holmes strong? The answer is not just “yes”, but “he’s far more than that”.
The strong female character, by contrast, has something to prove. She’s on the defensive even before she starts. She’s George from the Famous Five, all grown up and still bleating with the same desperate lack of conviction that she’s “every bit as good as a boy”.
Nowadays the princesses all know kung fu and yet they are still the same princesses. They’re still love interests, still the one girl in a team of five boys, and they’re all kind of the same. They march on screen, punch someone to show how tough they are, throw around a couple of one-liners or forcibly kiss someone because getting consent is for wimps – and then, with ladylike discretion, they back out of the narrative’s way. Their strength lets them, briefly, dominate bystanders but never dominate the plot. It’s anodyne, a sop, a Trojan horse – it’s there to distract and confuse you, so you forget to ask for more.
What do I want instead? I want a male-to-female character ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:1 on our screens. I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness. Gunslingers and martial artists, sure, but also interesting women who are shy and quiet and do sometimes put up with things, because often in real life there’s no alternative.
And besides heroines, I want to see women in as many and as varied secondary roles as men: female sidekicks, mentors, comic relief, rivals, villains. In other words, equality.