Archetype crumbles under societal pressure, modification

Samantha Lamb

In support of the feminist movement, there is a new character trope that is now commonly used: the strong female character (SFC). 

This is a female protagonist who does not need help in her life and is independent and strong in every way. Examples of the SFC trope are Rey (Star Wars), Mulan (2020), and Captain Marvel. 

Dumping this type of strong female characters into a story for the sake of inclusion and to further a certain political agenda typically is not well received by audiences. These SFCs perform feats of physical strength and do well in battle, but they lack inner strength. Making a female character act like a man to exhibit strength is not the right approach. 

The biggest problem I have with this new trope is that it seems to show a lack of understanding what “strong” means. 

According to Merriam-Webster, strong means “having or marked by strong physical power.” This is the definition artists today seem to use in their stories. However, it also means “having moral or intellectual power,” “not mild or weak,” and “ardent; zealous.” 

A real strong character perseveres through great trials and prevails against all odds, while experiencing crippling internal and external conflict. A real strong character is inspiring and relatable. A real strong character is interesting and has freedom to choose their way.

There are two characters I can think of that perfectly describe what a strong character is or isn’t and the benefits of using one – or the dangers of not using one. Mulan, from the live action remake, represents a failure to write a strong female character who can be a role model for young girls. In contrast, Marty Davis from the book Love Comes Softly is a great example of a woman who – despite never beating up a man or blowing anything up – is actually a good, strong role model. Love Comes Softly describes the struggles of the young widow, Marty, who is stranded in the unfamiliar west with the winter approaching. Clark Davis, a widower farmer with a young daughter, offers a marriage of convenience between the two of them: Marty gets a home for the winter, and Missy, his daughter, gets a mother. Marty agrees, and the reader watches her learn to manage a prairie home, love Clark and Missy, and rely on the Lord for strength and guidance. 

On the other hand, Mulan is an example of a static character, or a character that experiences little or no growth throughout their story. 

The audience is introduced to her as a little girl who is already powerful. She can run across rooftops with ease and land gracefully after an unexpected fall. 

The next time she’s on screen, she has grown into a mature adult. The only changes the audience sees in Mulan is in her age. Throughout the rest of the story she stays exactly as strong as she was at the beginning. She is physically, but not emotionally, strong. She can defeat many opponents in battle, but she does not connect well with other people. The audience never sees her face internal struggles, which weakens her character.

On the other hand, Marty changes remarkably throughout her story. At first, she is a new bride-turned-widow who is practically helpless and weak in every way. As time passes, she learns new things and grows as a character, increasing her faith, capacity to love, and ability to help others. 

An internal struggle Marty faces is being stubborn. For a long time she lets pride prevent her from seeking help and love from others, especially Clark. However, as she overcomes her grief over her first husband’s death, she is able to accept her weaknesses and receive the love and support she needs. As a result, she becomes a stronger person.

By the end of the book, she has grown into an emotionally strong character with the power to withstand every trial life throws at her and remain true to her beliefs and morals.

A perfect, static character is not relatable. Everyone experiences problems, so it’s difficult to relate to a character whose only problems are external. The audience wants to cheer for the protagonist as they try, fail, and try again until they ultimately succeed. 

Mulan is a character who is only physically strong. Because she has no internal conflict, readers have difficulty relating to her. There is no point in the movie where she fails. Her biggest struggle is whether or not to show her abilities even though she is a woman. She already has the strength from her abilities; the only difficulty is whether or not to show them. 

Marty is the opposite of this. She has struggles often, and she is relatable in how she deals with them. Sometimes she sees the humor in her situation, sometimes she gets upset, but she always learns from her mistakes and grows from the experience. Readers can relate to this as they react to their own problems in the real world. 

One example of this is in Marty’s many failed attempts at baking. At one point, she makes rock-hard biscuits. Literally. She buries them outside to hide her shame, but a dog digs them up and tries to eat it. After gnawing at it, the dog decides the biscuit is not fit for animal consumption, either. I have also had many baking fiascos in my time in the kitchen. However, I can also relate to her in that I kept going, sought help, and eventually improved. Seeing her struggle, her reaction, and her ultimate success encourages me to act the same way.

The stereotypical strong female character seems to have more choices, but is, in fact, trapped by her supposed freedom. A SFC must fit a male role in some way to challenge the “patriarchy.” There is nothing wrong with this; however, it should not be the only option for a strong woman. A true strong character can choose any job and career, including not only those traditionally held by men but also those traditionally held by women. Mulan, a weak character, thinks she must fit into the male role of being a soldier to be strong. Marty, a strong character, fits into her role as wife and mother and grows and helps others around her as a result.

A weak character passed off as a strong one does not make for a compelling story. However, having a strong character leads to interesting stories. Because the audience can relate to Marty, they can follow and support her through her struggles as she learns and grows. 

Everyone has experienced a loss at some point, whether it’s a failed test, a loved one’s passing, or another struggle. Thus, everyone can relate to Marty as she experiences the great loss of her husband’s death and recovers from it, emerging from her struggles stronger than before.

The idea that female traditional qualities can’t embody strength does not lead to more inclusion of women but instead belittles who most women see themselves as on a basic level. Strength does not have to be masculine. True strong female characters are not traditional male characteristics in women’s bodies only included to make a political statement. Instead, they are relatable, interesting, have moral strength, and add depth and meaning to the stories they are in.