When you see a review or hear a discussion about a book, and they are talking about the characters, you never hear the words “he is a Strong male lead/Strong male character”. So why is it, that when we hear the sentence “Strong Female Character”, we somehow associate this with “this is a good book, you must read it!”. The word “Strong” is fast becoming ambiguous.
Why do we just assume that somehow this is ticking some sort of check box for us?
How is a “Strong female character” so unusual in literature, especially in Young Adult where the main trends for book covers seem to fall into two categories:-
Girls in dresses
Girls in pants holding onto weapons and looking into the distance.
And an occasional Bonus:
Girls in dresses holding onto weapons and looking into the distance.
What does the use of “Strong” mean, do they mean she can bench press a heavy weight? Is she sarcastic? Stone-faced? Passionate? A bitch? When did girls have to follow the stereotypical male traits to somehow be more “Acceptable” girls?
When you search “Strong Female” on the listopia option on Goodreads, there are 133 related results, with titles such as “strong heroine series”, “best strong female fantasy novels”, “female characters you wouldn’t want to get into a fight with” and “girls who kick ass”. Interestingly, when you search “Strong Male”, you get only 27 results, and their titles are much more…negative. Spanning from “Controlling sexy/posessive men” (I kid you not! First result on the list!), “Hot alpha males” and even “Questionable Alphas:Dominant, Posessive, Jealous, Controlling, sometimes scary but always Hot” (what…the f—?)
There is apparently no such want or need for a “strong male” character, not in the same way there is for female characters. When a female character is “Strong” it is not so much in terms of physically strong and controlling and bossy and jealous, but more a positive thing based around the character’s mentality and self-confidence. Does she stand up for herself and her morals? Does she let her friends or relationships boss her around? Does she fight for her rights and her missions in the story?
When it is a “Male character”, there is no assumption that he isn’t Strong. If a male character is “strong” then he seems to be boxed into a weird mix between being physically strong and seen as sexual. There is no wondering whether he is standing up for himself and his morals? Does he let others boss him around or make choices for him? Of course he does! I mean, why wouldn’t he, right?!
You can see a backlash of this, for example, in Collin’s Mockingjay. After the mental exhaustion and trauma of the series, you finally see the stress of it get to Katniss at the end of Mockingjay. How did a lot of the readers react when the book originally came out? They moaned and complained that this “wasn’t” the Katniss they knew. This was “weak” and “unlike” strong Katniss. Katniss Everdeen did not show emotions, or cry or struggle to comprehend what was going on, and she certainly didn’t have any sort of mental breakdowns.
I won’t go into detail incase there are those who haven’t read Mockingjay yet, but basically, Katniss suffers from an experience of PTSD at the end of the book. While I didn’t personally “love” Mockingjay, I really admired Collins for allowing Katniss to experience this, and it showed the depth of the stress and the trauma she had been put through for the last two years. It wasn’t a fictional reaction but rather a human reaction. A real-life reaction. But the second Katniss showed a sign of weakness, the readers of YA seemed to come down on it like a ton of bricks!
I can’t help but feel that this is actually hurting not just the perception of female characters, but also male characters.
One of the biggest arguments calling for “strong female roles” in, specifically Young Adult, books, is because they can act as role models to future generations, to young girls who are growing up without these heroines in their lives.
So we are saying that female characters in literature should be “Strong” and passionate and confident and inspiring, but they aren’t allowed to feel timid, or weak, or complain because they are tired, or have insecurities? Those are human emotions that every human, regardless of gender, experiences. We want characters who represent those of us in reality- not characters we cannot relate to and inspire to be like.
But why can’t Male characters also be written as “Strong” in the same way, and instead of being seen as immediately either “controlling/demanding/possessive and sexual” be seen as “passionate, confident and inspiring”? Shouldn’t we be worrying about the “role models” lads get to look upto when they read these books, the same way we justify the need for “strong females” for young girls? If these lads are only seeing the male characters, when portrayed as “Strong”, as being immediately sexualised and behaving in possessive and jealous manners, then isn’t there then a risk of them believing this is the acceptable way to behave and treat women in real life, because hey the books are selling like mad, this must be what women want in relationships…right?
This was a very “all over the place” discussion because I have a lot of thoughts about this and my mind is like a runaway train- but basically, yes, I believe the condescension of “weak” girls and the over-sexualisation of “strong” males needs to end because it just isn’t helping anyone, at all.