What is a Strong Woman?

Well, I’d say not the female protagonist(s) in the series that inspired last week’s “Wolf of the World,” or in several other pop culture books, movies, and TV shows. But that’s just me. Strong doesn’t mean shrill, or shrewish (with apologies to four-footed shrews), or “I’m going to be stupid and irritating to show you how independent I really am.” I don’t think it means “able to drink most guys under the table and beat up 250 lb Judo masters even though I weigh 95 pounds when I wear heavy boots,” either. But I might be behind the times, as usual.

When you look at what pop culture calls “strong women,” they tend to fall into a few broad* categories. You have the professional woman who behaves just like her male colleagues, including sleeping around, acting like a jerk, intimidating people, and who just happens to wear skirt-suits or high heels. You have the female super hero, sort of Superman™ but with curves, who is smarter, stronger, braver, and more competent than the males. You have the female head of the household who might or might not be married and who is sarcastic, demanding, runs everything, and cuts down the men around her (more of a sit-com trope than others). In all of these examples, the woman has a high paying job** and no need of other financial support.

Some romance subgenres have “strong female” as a woman in a professional field, often a “traditionally male” field like law enforcement, construction/general contracting, criminal law, certain medical specialties, the military, the sciences, and so on. She is doing her professional thing, or on vacation from her professional thing, when she meets the hero. Sparks fly, and she whines about how it’s unfair that he acts stronger/more knowledgeable/what have you. She’s going to show him . . . by acting like, er, well, not a hard-core professional in some field.

Um, you know, if a civil engineer actually acted like the character in a sample I skimmed, water spirit boyfriend dude or not, she’d get fired so fast she’d break the sound barrier. Not for moral terpitude, but for gross incompetence and unprofessional behavior around a client.

I really start to wonder if any of these writers/screen-writers et cetera have actually met a real live professional woman. You know, geologists, engineers, real attorneys, federal judges, or women who run businesses. Given how Hollyweird seems to select out the normal and well-adjusted professionals, at least outside the tech-theater side of the business, you start to suspect that the writer doesn’t understand that strong is not shrill or faux-masculine.

In the spite story, I have to sort out “how would a petrogeologist deal with [uncanny thing here]?” Based on the petrogeology folks I’ve met and worked with, her first response will be “rule out someone being silly or trying to chase us off.” Then “is there a natural phenomena that explains X?” Then “um, you know, it’s a really sucky thing that the government here does not allow us to have firearms.” Only after that does she think, “right. What we have here is the Uncanny. What do I remember about dealing with this, assuming what I read or heard is based on truth?”

Whining, shrieking, complaining because the male protagonist is making her feel weak, or whatever’s not on the list. Male, female, or other, you do NOT last in the oil business if you whine. 95% of other fields either, for that matter.

She probably won’t be wearing a skirt suit or heels. She might think fondly about getting home to something frillier, or more feminine. She might snarl to herself about having to depend on a guy to move that one piece of equipment that she’s just got the wrong physical leverage for, if she can’t find a cart or lever. She might oogle the guys in the privacy of her mind when they finish the job and get back home. Or she might not. They are coworkers, not date material.

In other words, she’ll be strong, womanly, and level-headed as much as possible given the situation she finds herself in. If she falls apart, it will be after the fact, when she has the luxury of time and safety. She’ll be *gasp* an adult.

It’ll never sell. 😉

*Yes, I went there.

**Superheroes might be an exception, although in the recent movies none of the female characters seem to be on unemployment or depending on their spouse for support.


26 thoughts on “What is a Strong Woman?

  1. Been watching the Expanse and made the comment to wife how all the female characters are strong characters. Not physically, but mentally, well with the exception of Bobbi who’s a former Martian Marine… That being said the females aren’t proxy males. Naomi is a mother that’s also a pretty good engineer. Cara Gee is a belter leader that is dealing with a few of her issues and trying to lead. Not successfully all the time, but doing her best. Some of the best TV sci-fi I have watched in a long time.

  2. Perhaps a bit behind the times. Now, with any real or imagined grief, a confidential meeting with Cyndiee the H.R. Faerie Earthgenitor will separate the annoying male forthwith. About two months later, Avoidable Disaster happens, but It’s Not Her Fault.

    (I’ve worked with or around a couple examples, the converse of your thoughts above, in one or more instance. I liked the money but loathed the immersion in soap opera. I’d rather have the male techs complain about X, dust, heat, etc. They’ll get the job done, grumbling about outside effects.)

    • Perhaps a bit behind the times. Now, with any real or imagined grief, a confidential meeting with Cyndiee the H.R. Faerie Earthgenitor will separate the annoying male forthwith. About two months later, Avoidable Disaster happens, but It’s Not Her Fault.

      (I’ve worked with or around a couple examples, the converse of your thoughts above, in one or more instance. I liked the money but loathed the immersion in soap opera. I’d rather have the male techs complain about X, dust, heat, etc. They’ll get the job done, grumbling about outside effects.)

      (I also worked with or for some strong, traditionally minded women as you described above. They found a way to get 125% effort from me, building teamwork and encouraging growth (plus overtime or extra vacation days). Inclusive “how do we, the team, solve this?” and not “do this!” directive. Enjoyed those times.)

  3. Yet again we see the difference between the way things are and the way that people want them to be… and we see problems stemming from people working and living on the basis of what they want life to be like instead of what it IS like…It is particularly galling when people insist that I follow their vision of how they think the world is instead of how it actually is…

  4. Honest answer? When you say “strong woman” to me, I think of someone like my mother… or several co-workers past and present … or like any of many others I’ve known in my life: not Mary Sues, nor “better than any male and ready to prove it!”, but rather strong people who happen to be biologically female.

  5. People who complain about the lack of “strong women characters” really don’t like it when you cheerfully agree.
    And then use the Mary Sue of the week as an example of the lack, contrasting them with well-written female characters from the time before woman’s lib. Mattie Ross (True Grit) and Rose Sawyer (The African Queen) are my favorite counter-examples, but it’s not like there’s a shortage of options!
    It’s a great way to filter out who’s actually thought about the issue, and who’s an NPC running a script.
    (Plus, it’s fun to watch someone get incandescently angry because you’re agreeing with them and making valid points to advance their thesis.)

    • The African Queen is a really weird novel. I mean, the author is constantly snarking about his own characters! And yes, they have a lot of flaws, but the author shows them to be really remarkable — while still snarking at them in his narrative voice!

      I think maybe he was still mad at Hornblower….

  6. It is the strong women in my own family that I take as accurate models, and which have strongly influenced me.

    If I hadn’t known them in real life, I suppose that media/official historical narratives/pop culture would have, in reaction, turned me into something that even I would consider misogynist.

    A strong character can be physically strong, or can be emotionally, mentally, or spiritually strong.

    I guess emotional strength could be force of personality, or it could be bearing up under emotional loads. Like dealing with a lot of genuine emotional hardship.

    It is harder to write a character dealing with a lot of emotional hardships if they care about nothing, and about no one else.

    At the same time, it is easier to coerce people into making a token submission when one doesn’t care about them, and is willing to hurt them in any way that will result in submission. Until they realize that one is beyond human decency, and that it does not make since to interact with, submit to, or tolerate one.

    My view of the media’s standard model of the strong female character was influenced by Buffy. I first saw Buffy the movie when it came out, and was showing on a TV display at the mall. Obviously did not watch much of it. Later, I watched the TV series, and became interested in the fanfic. Later, as part of preparing for one of my own fanfic projects, I watched the movie. After watching the movie, Whedon’s complaints about how it ruined his strong female character took on a different appearance. Movie Buffy is very isolated, and her family does not provide her with support or companionship. She has superficial female friendships, but no males supporting her. Like the TV show, her watcher is a surrogate father. Unlike the TV show’s plot, the movie’s plot seems to end with a stable romantic relationship with a male. Perhaps even a healthy one.

    I could not shake the impression that Whedon’s theory of a strong female character is part of a predatory manipulation game with the goal of encouraging women and girls to abandon or avoid developing healthy supportive relationships. Saying that a young woman is an individual with no connections, and not someone with family, for good or for ill. Saying that a young man should likewise view themselves alone in the world, and not value kinship with their mothers and other female relatives would likewise be abusive and destructive.

    There is definitely such a thing as a horrible relative, who is not worth holding in high esteem. But decent people can be found in just about every group, and it is a mistake not to look for them, and cherish the ones you find. Romance is not the only relationship possible between a male and a female. Some of the false narratives of relationships have too much utility to predators to be treated as purely coincidental.

  7. Much of the stuff I’ve read, the author seemed to conflate “strong” with “jackass.”

    On the other hand, a majority of the places I’ve worked, management seemed to have a disproportionate percentage of those, so I can’t honestly say it’s unrealistic.

    • Yep, if the character who acted like that was male, he’d be the Villain but since the character is female, she’s the Glorious Hero! [Sarcastic Grin]

  8. womanly

    There’s your problem…..

    A lot of these folks just really don’t like women. Given some of the women they’re around, well, I can’t blame them…..

  9. I think I’d throw out as examples of strong women Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Wilks. Both strong, but different ways of showing it. All in one work, too!

    I remember reading a new SFF book some years ago touted as having a strong woman as the main character. SHe was a mother carrying her (year old or so) child around all through the trek her book was about. To me she still came off as a man pretending to be female. badly. I DNF the book, either.

    Another new book I read about the same time featured female Army sergeant, short on sleep bad tempered generally, worse due to exhaustion…. being forceful and determined… and I totally believed in her being a woman. MAybe it was the old friends who were women, I don’t know, I’ve never worked it out. But I’d like to. It would be useful to know what made her ‘womanly’ where the character with the ‘woman trappings’ was a failure

    • That’s interesting.

      I’ve heard that some people consider Honor Harrington a “man with breasts” but never understood why they consider her that.

      Of course Elaine, I follow the YMMV rule so I’m not criticizing you especially when it’s about a book that I likely haven’t read. 😀

      • I’ve bounced off Honor’s books, so can’t opine on that for you,. I’ve got another Weber – the title involving Fury? featuring a Greek Fury, apparently – lurking in my samples to try. Maybe she’ll be ‘woman’ we’ll see.

      • “man with breasts” is one phrase covering two different and mutually exclusive complaints.

        Part the One: the character written as a guy with a female name, and stuck in female clothes – even if inappropriate for the situation. While this criticism is often leveled at male authors, the truth is, it’s done just as often if not more so by female authors who just write the “strong female” character the same way they write their male ones. (Which is not to say their men are realistic men, or ones I’d care to spend time with.)

        Part the Two: the character is written realistically, and focuses on the job and the mission, and does not flirt on the clock or sexualize her coworkers. The reader, being so unaccustomed to reading (and perhaps dealing with) actual professional females, then complains that the character is a “man with breasts” because that’s not how they expect her to react.

        • Dorothy, your #1 sounds likely to fit Honor Harrington by all I’ve ever heard about her. Part #2 sounds like your protaganist of Going Ballistic. Who did NOT read to me as ‘man with breasts.’ She was clearly a woman,

          • That’s interesting, Elaine, because I would have said the exact opposite: throughout the Honorverse, not only Honor Harrington herself but numerous other female characters are written as Dorothy’s type #2: professional people who just happen to be biologically female. Their gender doesn’t matter in the slightest, except in very specific circumstances where it obviously does – and then, they are very much female in their thoughts, actions and reactions.

            As far as Honor herself goes, part of the problem may be that she is a controlled sociopath, and very, very few authors would dare give that kind of personality to a female protagonist.

            • Having read the whole series to date, I’d say Honor herself crosses the line from #1 to #2 somewhere fairly early in the series. Late series, she’s clearly putting stuff aside until she has time to deal with it, but responding in a very feminine way. First 2-3 books? Yeah, doesn’t seem very realistically female to me.

              Elainethomp, the second book you referenced, Path of the Fury, is an interesting concept that *I* enjoyed a lot. Not sure how female you’ll think the character is. There is quite a bit of, for lack of a better descriptor, “the female of the species is more deadly than the male” there. She gets to where her core family is threatened and she is going to eliminate the threat no matter what the cost to anyone, which I don’t see much of in males.

    • I was also thinking of Scarlett O’hara and Melanie Wilkes … plus a couple of other secondary female characters in Gone With the Wind, who could have had their own novel: strong, capable, but eminently and undeniably feminine.
      I also thought of Jean Paget, in Nevil Schute’s “A Town Like Alice” – very capable, a survivor, a leader and an entrepreneur.

  10. Strong women are mischaracterized all the time. It’s the quiet ones that go about their business without histrionics, simply doing the job (whatever it may be).

  11. Ah, yes. “Strong woman” in fiction and entertainment: the self-centered to the point of narcissist , emotionally abusive, manipulative, often vapid, always unwise and usually ignorant, still deus-ex-machina gifted with plot breaks and mystical, magical, and mundane help all out proportion with her personality, female with the morals of a cat in heat and the spine of a wet dishrag.

    When I first saw a reviewer saying I’d written a strong female character, I wondered who I’d pissed off, and what I’d done so very wrong. Apparently they meant it as a compliment, and not that I had accidentally conformed to the NYC-publishing strong woman stereotype.

  12. I remember an interview with James Cameron director of the first two Alien films where he said that the Riply character was originaly written as a man and then he simply cast Sigourney Weaver as Riply and changed he to her but nothing else.

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