Paper Swords

| April 25, 2017 | 0 Comments

She comes in many forms. You may know her by her chainmail bikini. Or perhaps the combat boots she wears with her booty shorts. She may be toting a gun in the waistband of her sinfully tight pants. Her hair will probably be perfectly coiffed despite the fact that she’s been fighting for her life for half of the season. Her lips are almost always red, even though the lipstick industry was presumably shut down by the apocalypse at the beginning of the movie. Razors, too, are inconsequential to her—she’s a hairless creature who wanders the war-torn streets, killing bad guys and being cool and relevant and sexy.

She’s the Strong Female Character™.

photo credit: Laia con pistola via photopin (license)

photo credit: Laia con pistola via photopin (license)

We’ve all met her at some point in our media travels. She’s tough. She’s smart. She’s not like other girls. She probably has older brothers who taught her how to fight for some reason. And, sure, she’s hot but she’s obviously not trying to be. I mean, she’s too busy to be trying to be hot. She’s on the frontlines with the male leads! She’s empowered! She’s strong!

She’s boring.

The Strong Female Character™ sits on the opposite side of the female character spectrum as the Damsel in Distress™. Where the Strong Female Character™ is sexily competent, the Damsel in Distress™ is a victim of circumstance who needs someone to come save her. And that someone is almost always some random guy.

It’s really easy at first glance to declare these two character types completely different. After all, the Strong Female Character™ is strong! She fights her way out of trouble! She might even save someone important during a side-plot! She’s nothing like the Damsel in Distress™, who just sits in her ivory tower all day and waits for a prince to rescue her. The Damsel is everything she disdains.

But here’s the thing about the Strong Female Character™: her not sitting around half the movie and waiting for help does not automatically make her a somehow better character than the Damsel in Distress™. Because she’s still flat. A breeze could blow her over, that’s how one-dimensional she is. She and the Damsel are two sides of the same, floppy coin.

I think that the birth of the Strong Female Character™ was the result of the backlash against the Damsel in Distress™. Writers scrambled for a way to put women in their stories while keeping the women hearing their stories happy. Their thought process was likely: “Okay, so they obviously don’t like weak women, so we’re going to put in a strong woman! The strongest woman there is!”

What they didn’t seem to get is that many people don’t hate the Damsel just because she’s a Damsel. They hate her because she has no substance. She’s a trophy. A goal for the main lead to aspire to. She has no personality. Her main character trait is that she’s… in distress. Oh, sure, maybe she’s kind. Hell, maybe she sings to birds to pass the time or whatever. But that’s all we ever get out of her.

The Strong Female Character™ appears on the surface to be an improvement from this design, but if you poke her, she crumbles to pieces. Just like the Damsel is distressed, the Strong Female Character™’s only defining trait is that she’s strong. Some variations make her more or less angry than others, some may give her grayer morality, all have her be weirdly conventionally attractive despite her circumstances—but for the most part, she’s perfect. She’s always there when you need her. She kicks butt and saves the day.


We don’t complain about these archetypes because it’s bad to need saving or it’s bad to be strong. We complain because it’s bad writing. Your lead characters should not be defined by single personality traits. They should be complex. Have motivations. Have backstories. The Damsel and the SFC™ are stock characters that writers put into their stories because they refuse to take the time to develop their female characters, and it’s just plain lazy.

Women do need help sometimes. Women can also stand up and do shit themselves. In fact, there are moments where women do both. That’s what it means to be human– being strong at some points and weak at others. When writers faced criticism for their Damsels, they got the idea that we despised her because she was flawed. But that’s not true. We hated her because she wasn’t allowed to be anything but flawed. And, in the same way, the Strong Female Character™ is not allowed to be anything but perfect. It’s the same problem in the opposite direction. In both, a woman is being limited.

We want women with weaknesses. And strengths. Both, in fact, because that’s what real people are like. And that’s not a bad thing. Women don’t have to be perfect to be good, or empowered, or strong.

They just have to be more dimensional than the sheet of printer paper they’re being designed on.

featured photo credit: Laia con pistola via photopin (license)

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Category: featured, The (Sex)es, TV and Movies

Isabella Amorim

About the Author ()

Isabella "Izzy" Amorim's hobbies include writing for Culture Shock, spending inordinate amounts of time in BU dining halls, and purchasing children's tickets at movie theaters with her baby face. Play the system, kids.

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