Strong female characters are everywhere these days. Right?
The Damsel in Distress has certainly screamed her last plea for help, and we hear a lot about Kick-Ass Females in both book and movie culture. But it seems to me that we all have a slightly different idea of what makes a woman ‘strong’.
I love a heroine who can fight her way through a room full of henchmen with nothing but a… nail file as much as the next person. (I’m kidding about the nail file. Totally kidding.) I also love a heroine who isn’t afraid to hold her own when faced with a douchey, retro-thinking side character or antagonist who hasn’t yet caught up with the rest of us.
But you know what I love more than that?
I’m talking about a test of true character in the face of adversity. Or acknowledgement of a fatal flaw and the overcoming of it. Or belief in something no one else believes in and a willingness to stand up for the cause anyway—and triumphing. You get the picture right?
Let me preface what I’m about to say with this: there is nothing wrong with physical strength—hell, I want to be Wonder Woman when I grow up—and a female character who displays physical prowess is generally viewed as capable and fiercely independent. There are more and more women owning their physical capabilities as genderless and in their own right but for the longest time, this type of strength was measurable by comparing it to that of a man. Physical strength was (and sadly in some pockets of the world, still is) viewed as a primarily masculine trait or ability. And this type of strength is but one of many examples.
How many times have we seen (in all media) a woman portrayed/acknowledged as an equal based solely on her ability to fight or play sports or fix a car? That’s cool and all, but these are learnable skills for either sex; not a determining factor of a woman’s strength.
Female characters who demonstrate their ability to overcome the ‘Man’s World’ stigma are nothing short of empowering. But once again, it emphasises the divide between genders. I get that this is important for the sake of progress in equality but I still abhor the way we often use a previously ‘masculine’ skill or ability as a standard measure.
The strengths I appreciate and LOVE to see portrayed are those which are fundamentally HUMAN—without gender biases. For me, this type of strength, the kind which is definitive by character alone, is ten times more liberating.
Here are eight of my favourite strong female characters:
Chiyo / Sayuri from Memoirs of a Geisha
Chiyo’s strength is in her ability to thrive under the crushing hardships; to endure the limitations of her culture even when it means burying her emotions and denying herself fleeting happiness in order to survive long-term. She pursues her goals with a steely yet poignant determination to the height of success then finally an arrangement with the man she loves.
“Adversity is like a strong wind. I don’t mean just that it holds us back from places we might otherwise go. It also tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that afterward we see ourselves as we really are, and not merely as we might like to be.”
― Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha
Celie from The Colour Purple
Celie’s strength is an admirable and often unbelievable force. She is resilient yet pure. Despite having every opportunity to turn a ruthless cheek to the world, she doesn’t. Time and time again, I expect her faith to waver but she thrives beneath her misfortunes and comes out the other side stronger than ever with a wider understanding and acceptance of herself and the world she lives in.
“I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ask. And that in wondering bout the big things and asking bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder, the more I love.”
― Alice Walker, The Colour Purple
Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice
Elizabeth’s strength is in her very nature. She is self-assured and principled, and despite the inhibiting time in which she lived, she never swayed from her individuality. She was not afraid to be who she was even under the scathing eye of society. Then, when her prejudices came to light, she readily acknowledged them, admitted and owned her errors, and ultimately overcame them.
“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”
― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Hermione from Harry Potter
Hermione’s strength is embedded in her fierce loyalty and friendship with Harry and Ron, and in her innate sense of what is good and right. She is not afraid to be the odd one out or stand for causes she deems worthy. By embracing and nurturing her smarts and ambition, she saves the day over and over.
“But from that moment on, Hermione Granger became their friend. Because there are somethings you can’t go through in life and become friends, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Elinor from Sense and Sensibility
Elinor’s strength is quiet and understated but nevertheless rock-solid. Her sense of propriety and responsibility is both a blessing and a curse and the way in which she bears her family’s hardships is nothing short of admirable. She is the glue that holds the Dashwood family together and although her practical approach leaves her wanting when it comes to matters of the heart, eventually, she strikes a balance within herself and takes a risk. Though she does find happiness, her inner struggle to open up is long and achingly tender, made more poignant by the contrast of her strength and wisdom in all other matters.
“…After all that is bewitching in the idea of a single and constant attachment, and all that can be said of one’s happiness depending entirely on any particular person, it is not meant — it is not fit — it is not possible that it should be so.”
― Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
Jo from Little Women
All the women in this book have strength in their own way. For me, Beth stood out for her unwavering compassion but Jo is my favourite. A little like Elizabeth Bennett, Jo is confident and candid and feisty; she is stubborn and leads with her passion—be that of heart or mind—and despite everything thrown at her, her strength is embedded in the fact that she remains true to who she is throughout.
“I’m glad you are poor. I couldn’t bear a rich husband,” said Jo decidedly, adding in a softer tone, “Don’t fear poverty. I’ve known it long enough to lose my dread and be happy working for those I love. . . ”
— Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
Éowyn from Lord of the Rings
Her strength is in her determination. Éowyn plays her part in battle with admirable physical strength but her real strength is the fierce motivation she possesses. She wants to give her all to her cause and she’s willing to die to do so.
“What do you fear, lady?” [Aragorn] asked.
“A cage,” [Éowyn] said. “To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
Melanie from The Girl with All the Gifts
Her strength is in defying and overcoming the base instincts of who she has become in the horrific dystopian world she lives in. Instead of succumbing to her natural urges, she embraces the humanity within her despite the extreme odds, and in doing so, proves to both herself and those around her that strength of will can save us all if we have the nerve to risk everything.
“And then like Pandora, opening the great big box of the world and not being afraid, not even caring whether what’s inside is good or bad. Because it’s both. Everything is always both. But you have to open it to find that out.”
― M.R. Carey, The Girl with All the Gifts
Which strong female characters are on your favourites list? What strengths do you value?
Tell me in the comments.