The “strong” heroine

I would like to revisit the meaning of “strong” heroine. Lately, I’ve noticed the term coming to mean some varying degree of a weapon-wielding succubus whose alleged lack of fear and ability to dominate men are interpreted as being powerful. But I don’t think those traits make an individual “strong” at all.

Fighting skills are one of the main things that dub a heroine “strong.” I think this is absolutely unnecessary. Miri from Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy and Intisar Khanani’s Thorn from Thorn are excellent examples. A character who faces more powerful enemies with nothing but a touch of bravery and a desire to do what’s right has just as much right to be called “strong” as the one who faces down armies. (Though I admit I do like warrior girls every now and again.)

Another trait that is sadly often associated with “strong” female characters (male characters, too), is a certain alluring something. I think this too, is rubbish. The number of partners or eager potential partners an individual has is in no way reflective of anything but their appeal and/or seductiveness and is moot in determining strength.

I have said before that a lack of fear does not require strength. Suppression of fear and control of fear, on the other hand, require a great deal. The person who goes into danger even though they’re afraid needs true courage as well as the presence of mind to do what needs to be done, whereas the person who isn’t afraid going into the same situation doesn’t face half the challenge. (But I do concede “fearless” characters can be very compelling when done right.)

There seems to be some preconception that one must be a leader, an alpha, to be “strong.” Again, I think this is completely wrong and things like loyalty, service, and devotion to someone else are drastically underrated alternatives. One thing that drives me crazy is the double standard with heroines, mainly those portrayed as warriors. In Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, Katsa is physically abusive toward Po, her love interest, and people seemed to think it was fine. If Po on the other hand, had socked Katsa in the mouth, drawing blood and knocking her to the ground because he didn’t like what she was saying (which is what she did to him), people would have called him an overbearing jerk and written him off. Dominating people for no reason merely makes a character—male or female—a bully. (No concessions here.)

What do I think comprises a “strong” heroine? A girl who stands up for what she believes in and does what she needs to do, even if there’s no one backing her and even if everyone else is against her—it’s just that simple.

  1. Absolutely brilliant post and I agree with you completely. I see so many ‘strong’ female leads that seem to only be strong because they can wield a sword better then their male love interest. Being a capable woman who is independent and sure are much better traits at times.

    Great post, I’m glad there are others out there who believe this too. Not that I don’t like warrior-women, they are great! Just sometimes it’s nice to read about a woman who doesn’t need that all the time.

    1. Exactly! And if someone’s a “strong” woman they’re automatically expected to be the dominant one in their relationships. Not fair!

      I’m thrilled and more than a little surprised to see how many people feel this way, too. That’s awesome! Means we can start an archetype revolution. 🙂

  2. Reblogged this on Kaitlyn's Brain and commented:
    I agree with Elisabeth one hundred percent. The last paragraph is exactly what I base my books on: “What do I think comprises a “strong” heroine? A girl who stands up for what she believes in and does what she needs to do, even if there’s no one backing her and even if everyone else is against her—it’s just that simple.”

    Read the whole post!

  3. An interesting post, and I agree with these reflections. Perhaps some people create characters who define the literal meaning; able to perform physically demanding tasks. There are certainly characters who are physically strong and emotionally weak. There are so many sides to all of us, so it’s wonderful when characters reflect human nature in such a way. I do think there is a clear difference between someone’s strength of spirit; their integrity, and the way they use that inner strength. It doesn’t translate to throwing their weight around, or treating people with contempt, because that level of arrogance isn’t strength – as you said.

    Thanks for sharing, and the opportunity to reflect on my favourite heroines. It’s surprising how many female leads in popular literature are hiding behind a façade.

    1. I don’t think it was done intentionally, I think some people just got a little carried away with the whole Amazonian archetype. But balance is needed in everything and it certainly applies here!

  4. I do like the warrior aspect of a strong female, but I think the main thing is standing up for what you believe in no matter the consequences. I just finished reading Breaking The Devil’s Heart by H A Goodman and find it funny that you did this post at this time. There is a saying in the book by Edmund Burke – All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. Treating people like crap is a sign of weakness, not strength. Thanks, Elisabeth. ^_^

  5. I’ve also noticed quite a few blog posts discussing what it means to have a strong female character, and most have also been critical about the way such characters are portrayed as “strong”. Not only is it ridiculous that the only way a female character can be strong is by being the master of a weapon and being like a bully, but it is also a very narrow definition of what it means to be strong. It is possible to be strong while also being meek, introverted, etc. think portraying such traits as weak sends a poor message to readers.

    1. Precisely. Since the Ancient World, martial prowess and physical capability have been considered indicators of an inner steel, but too often the other forms of courage get overlooked. Time to change that!

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