Power comes in many different forms, and there’s no one right way to be a strong female character. That said, however, there’s a clear dearth of female characters whose strength is, well, strength. We’re moving forward in media in terms of representing women in STEM professions and many other male-dominated fields, but one spot that remains lacking is the sort of woman who can bench-press a truck.
The superhuman guy + regular-human girl = love trope is a tale as old as time, and it’s one that’s getting kind of boring to me, to be honest. How many pairings of this nature can you name off the top of your head? Thor and Jane Foster; Bruce Banner and Betty Ross, Superman and Lois Lane—hell, might as well mention Belle and the Beast since I made that tale as old as time reference. And it’s not even limited to Western media—add Abel and Esther of Trinity Blood, and Tsuna and Kyoko from Reborn, among others.
Even in cases where the guy is not powered, per se, like Carol Danvers and James Rhodes, the guy is still a superhero of similar caliber. He isn’t, like, a brilliant scientist, or a librarian—he’s a fighter just like her. When both are equal, whether powered or not, our best bet is that they’ll have equivalent combat skills as well (think Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask, or Hawkeye and Mockingbird/Spider-Woman/Black Widow/whoever he’s dating these days).
Meanwhile, there are very few pairings in which the woman is the super-strong punchy one, and the man is just a regular dude with non-combat skills that’s occasionally in awe of his lady’s powers. This is a representational problem on two levels: one, it perpetuates the idea that it’s weird for women to be physically stronger than men, and two, that men who aren’t their girlfriend’s equal in strength are somehow lesser than men who are.
The first example I thought of when brainstorming this post was Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor. Steve is Diana’s classic love interest, and unlike the deific, magically powerful Princess of Themiscyra, he’s just a regular, unpowered human being. However, this example falls apart pretty quickly: first, while Steve isn’t a superhero, his primary occupation is as an Army guy. He’s certainly not Diana’s match in strength or power, but his profession is still basically ‘combat’, which leaves him a watered-down version of Rhodey in my Carol/Rhodey example.
I threw up my hands in the general direction of Western media and turned to anime, where I did stumble on a few examples. The first I could think of that really fits this reversal is Lizzie and Ciel from Black Butler. Ciel is physically weak and holds power over people through manipulation and subterfuge, whereas Lizzie is revealed in later chapters to be a master swordfighter. This is an interesting example because it displays the way that women are affected by the mentality that women shouldn’t be physically strong. Lizzie, despite being so talented that she’s able to defend her friends from a zombie horde with her skills, was terrified of revealing her fighting prowess to Ciel, because she worried he’d think her unfeminine and unattractive.
Durarara!! actually provides us with an ideal example of one of these relationships in Celty Sturluson and Kishitani Shinra. Celty is a super-powerful Irish fairy who works as a transporter and can kick pretty much anyone’s ass, whereas Shinra is a doctor who sells his services on the black market and has absolutely no combat skills. Shinra and Celty’s relationship is a good example of a strong lady/weak man pairing that works. Shinra doesn’t covet Celty’s power, or feel unmanned by it; rather, they’re part of the reason he loves her, and he’s comfortable with his own skill set. And while Celty worries sometimes about Shinra’s affections, it’s more because she’s worried he sees her as inhuman rather than unfeminine, and he’s one of the few people she is comfortable opening up to about her fears and weaknesses.
As I said earlier, the lack of more of these sorts of relationships in media is a twofold problem. Firstly, it doesn’t explicitly shame physically strong women, but it does perpetuate the idea that they don’t (and shouldn’t) exist. This is tied to a dated idea of what ‘feminine’ means—that women should be both dainty and pacifistic, and to be otherwise is undesirable. And while we have gotten some representation of women who are neither dainty nor peaceful, these women are often explicitly labeled as undesirable. (Look no further than Brienne of Tarth.) While women shouldn’t base their entire self worth around their appeal to men, it’s also worth sending the message that being a powerful woman isn’t a life sentence of singledom and celibacy.
Furthermore, we as a society are still focused on idolizing traditional, often toxic, masculinity. This mindset says a man who is less physically strong than a woman is unmasculine—less deserving of the label of man. This teaches consumers that men must focus on physical strength and should feel ashamed if a woman beats them in any display thereof. Showing relationships where men are not threatened by a woman who’s stronger than they are—and where they are, in fact, attracted to these women, can help send another message: that it’s not emasculating to be a guy with a skill set outside of “I can lift heavy things”.
Have I missed any couples you can think of? Let me know in the comments.