There’s a tendency in media to believe that a “strong female character” is just a woman who is, well, strong. She kicks ass, takes names, maybe is an all-around femme fatale. And obviously, if she can do those things, she is a strong female character, right?
Why this is bad: The idea that a strong female character is just a butt-kicking woman is a dangerous idea. In a world that’s growing more progressive every day, it’s important that we show marginalized identities – such as women – as complete, three-dimensional characters. This is the true meaning of strong when we’re referring to characters. And having a lady who can beat up the dudes doesn’t mean she’s strong, character-wise. She’s only strong physically. Her physical strength doesn’t protect her from becoming a damsel in distress. It doesn’t mean that she won’t end up being saved by the smarter, stronger male protagonist. It doesn’t mean that she won’t give up her life’s dream so that the male protagonist can have his. It just means she’ll give someone a black eye.
How you can fix it: Female characters – and especially characters of any marginalized group – require agency. That is, they need to be masters of their own destiny. They need to have complete control over their actions. If you want your female character to be strong, she doesn’t need to be a good fighter or have the strength of a hundred men; she only needs to be able to make decisions for herself. She needs to have flaws, she needs to have strengths, and she needs to be just as well-rounded as any other character. She doesn’t exist to be a love interest. She doesn’t exist to be saved. She exists to be herself, and that is all.
Of course, a lot of internalized sexism still exists in our society. It’s what leads to the demonizing of characters like Skyler White and the understanding of Walter. It’s why people think Andrea from The Walking Dead is annoying and deserves to die, but Daryl is a perfect angel. It’s why when The Hunger Games’ Katniss expresses her PTSD, fans describe her as whiny, but every male characters’ expression is embraced as a mark of his depth and suffering.
Of course, not everyone feels this way, but it’s common enough to have become an obvious, glaring problem in media. And it needs to end.
Bottom Line: Female characters do not exist as plot devices. They exist as characters.