Many people seem to think that in order to have a strong female character that character must be tough. Super tough! And how can you be tough and a woman? Well, you’ve got to be a man!
The song’s stuck in your head now, isn’t it?
Yes, it seems many writers think that a strong woman equates to being a man. If you want your female character to be respected then she must be a beer-guzzling, cigar-smoking, sports-loving, gun-toting hell-raiser. Because now that she acts more like a man, we know she’s in fact a strong woman.
First, I should point out that this view of manhood is completely and utterly wrong to begin with. Men don’t have to be these macho-men stereotypes. There are many ways to be a man. You can be like Wolverine or you can be like the Doctor and any variation in between and still be a strong man. So this stereotype of manhood is completely wrong. Secondly, by asserting that women can only be strong by acting more like men is so sexist that it makes me want to throw up a little. This view says women must conform to this perceived understanding of male strength in order to be recognized as someone powerful or worthy of note. To be even a little bit feminine makes people think you are inherently weak. Now again, society’s understanding of what is femininity is also stereotyped. Wearing frilly dresses and liking makeup and the color pink shouldn’t be considered inherently feminine. There is nothing in female biology that predisposes me to like these things, and if a woman is not interested in these things that doesn’t make her any less of a woman. These understandings of gender are entirely a social construct.
However, the traits society views as stereotypically feminine are also the traits that are viewed as silly or frivolous, because they are considered feminine. If a woman enjoys romance novels and is savvy fashionista, that shouldn’t automatically make anyone think that she isn’t strong or can’t handle herself.
Thankfully, despite the fact that so many portrayals of “strong women” are really just making women into a stereotype of strong men, geek culture has provided us with several excellent characters that prove a woman can be hyper-feminine and still be tough.
Joss Whedon has stated that his inspiration for Buffy the Vampire Slayer came from watching numerous horror movies where a pretty blonde girl walks down an alley only to be killed by the big bad monster. Just once he wanted to see the blonde kick the monster’s ass. And so we got Buffy. Everything about Buffy is supposed to emphasize her femininity, from her valley girl name, her love of shopping and fashion, and her worries about things like prom and making the cheerleading squad. Buffy was an extremely feminine character. She would fix her hair, do her nails, and then go out and kill something in order to save the world. Buffy proves that you don’t have to be masculine to be a bad ass.
Sailor Moon was one of my favorite TV shows growing up as a kid. The show stressed the importance of female friendships and showed realistic depicts of young women growing up and maturing into adulthood. It was also one of the most hyper-feminine shows on TV. Sailor Moon is filled with pink bows, frilly skirts, and even sparkles and unicorns thrown in for good measure. Sailor Moon and the Sailor Scouts were all very diverse in their personalities, but they were all still feminine and unashamedly expressed that femininity. Furthermore, despite having many stereotypically feminine aspects, there was no doubt that Sailor Moon promoted a more diverse understanding of what should be considered feminine. Serena is often shown pigging out on food or playing video games and reading comic books. And the personalities of the other Sailor Scouts show even more diversity when it comes to femininity. Their femininity is in no way a hindrance to the Sailor Scouts’ mission of fighting evildoers; if anything, their femininity is often a reflection of their own loving and compassionate personalities that make them so different and so much better than the villains they face.
Rarity from MLP is another perfect example of a very feminine character that is still strong and capable. Rarity breaks the mold for a lot of fashionista characters. While all the above characters I mentioned like fashion, none were obsessed with fashion, and usually any girls portrayed as being really into fashion are shown to be vain or brain-dead—often both. But Rarity’s passion for fashion shows her resourcefulness, creativity, and intelligence. She doesn’t love fashion—it is her life and her creative pursuit. She built her own business from the ground up; she painstakingly designs and creates her clothes by herself, and even spends hours collecting the materials she needs. And in a fight Rarity, isn’t to be matched. She uses the same intelligence to start her own business and to outsmart the villains. Rarity’s strength in the show is her generosity. She is not the spoiled fashion-lover; she is a creative genius that wants to share her passion with everyone she meets. And that’s why she’s so fabulous.
I already mentioned that traits that are seen as feminine are demeaned and put down because being seen as a woman is weak, but the very idea that shopping and liking pink is girly and liking sports and rock music is manly is also utterly ridiculous. Just as much as we need these feminine characters to show everyone that being “girly” isn’t a bad thing, we also need female characters to help reveal that the very notion of what is girly needs to be questioned.
Kaylee is one of my favorite characters from Firefly, and yes, she tends to like girly frilly pink dresses, but she also loves being a mechanic. Kaylee wants to be a fancy girly girl, but at the same time, she loves machines and working on machines. She’s often covered in oil and sweat, and guess what, she is not any less girly for it. Kaylee makes doing what she loves a part of who she is as a woman. There is never a moment on the show were anyone accuses Kaylee of being less of a woman because she of the career and interests she has. Kaylee is not portrayed as hyper-masculine. She doesn’t hide her emotions or try to act like one of the guys to fit in more. She is completely and utterly herself, whether that means gushy about how hot Simon is or fixing up Serenity. Either way she is still a badass woman.
All the ladies in Adventure Time are varied and unique. Princess Bubblegum is literally pink and sparkly, but she’s also a leader and a kick-ass scientist. Again these traits are not portrayed as something masculine with an otherwise feminine girl, but rather as traits that define who Bubblegum is. Marceline is decidedly less stereotypically feminine, she runs with wolves and likes rock music and wrestling, but she is never once viewed as a guy. She is always understood as being just as much of a woman as Bubblegum, and all of these women are still badasses who can take care of themselves.
It’s important to remember that what has been defined as masculine and feminine has been determined by society over the course of time and often to the detriment of women and men. If we ever want to see more characters like these, characters that reflect real people, then we need to support more redefining of what is feminine and masculine in our pop culture.