Women who kick ass, or are bad ass, have been coming more to the forefront of science fiction and fantasy in recent years. In books, movies, television, and comics we are seeing more of them. That is fantastic. However, I feel like they might be casting a shadow on great female characters whose strength is not something physical.
Often times we see these strong female characters with more traditional masculine traits at the sacrifice of feminine ones. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it is nice to see some diversity showing that strength can come in many forms. It’s refreshing to see females who have ways other than violence of showing their strength. The women who are strong in their own right, even if they cannot throw a punch.
Spoilers for various Sci-Fi/Fantasy properties, so just skip ones you don’t want to be spoiled by.
Hermione Granger taught me strength can be sacrifice
Hermione, to me, will always be the epitome of strength. Even though I wanted to point out how women whose strengths are subtler are often in the shadows, Hermione was not necessarily. However, I think people often see her strength as her intelligence, and that is not the strength I’m referring to here. Hermione’s greatest strength was her willingness to sacrifice herself and her wants, needs, and even her happiness for the greater good. We see this the most in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
She knows she can not run away and hide with the war with Voldemort fast approaching, but she knows her family is at risk because of her determination to fight against him and his Death Eaters. So she obvliates her parents and sends them away. She could have run with them. She did not need to erase their memories, but she does anyways.
I know that the Ron/Hermione ending is still pretty sore topic for some, but it is canon and brings me to point number two. When Ron leaves Harry and Hermione after the Horcrux plays off his emotions, Hermione chooses to stay with Harry, knowing the mission is more important that her emotional attachment to Ron. She chooses the fight instead.
When the trio is captured and taken the Malfoy Manor, it’s Hermione-the mudblood-the Death Eaters choose to interrogate and torture. Not only did Hermione not give them the information they sought, she was able to think of a clever lie to keep them from finding what they sought. She knows that they are going to kill her when they no longer have a need to torture her, but she fights on anyways. She is willing to sacrifice herself to help Harry have the best chance at defeating Voldemort.
Rose Tyler taught me strength can be compassion
I know Rose is not the popular favorite of the New Who companions, but she is still one of mine. Where others were a major plot point, or had great significance to the show, Rose was only the center of attention twice, at the finales of the first and second series. Both of those times help highlight why Rose Tyler is a great example of someone whose strength can be compassion.
When the Doctor first found Rose it was shortly after the ending of the Time War. He was still traumatized by what happened. Then when confronted with another Dalek, who he believed to all be extinct, the normally peaceful Doctor has enough anger to drive him to want to kill. It is Rose who not only shows compassion to this Dalek, but who helps the Doctor find his compassion as well.
At the finale of the first series, we learn that Rose was the one who scattered messages though out time and space to bring her back to the Dalek ship after the Doctor had sent her to safety in the TARDIS. Rose cares too much for him to leave him there, so she stares into the heart of the TARDIS itself in order to gain the power to save him and Jack. She cares little for her own safety and wellbeing if it means saving her friends.
Then at the finale of the second series, we see Rose faced with an impossible choice. Her family, including her once deceased father, are safe in an alternate dimension but the Doctor is in danger in the other. She chose to give up the promise of safety with her family to help the Doctor to stop the Cybermen.
Kari Kamiya (Yagami Hikari) taught me that strength can be seeing the light in others
Kari Kamiya was the youngest of the Digidestined, and as such was often considered innocent and naïve, but that is a poor description of her. She is sensible and perceptive, but also chooses to believe of the best in people. Her crest is the power of light, but she is also the most susceptible to darkness. Despite this, she never loses her faith in others.
Kari’s journey to becoming a Digidestined is different from the others. She was ill when the rest went to the camp that eventually led them to the Digital World and their Digimon partners. So when she finally meets her Digimon partner, Gatomon, she has been abused and enslaved by the dark enemy of the Digidestand. Kari does not despair though, she brings out the best in Gatomon, who had little faith in herself, and shows her that she can be a hero too.
In the second Digimon Adventure series when she is reunited with a former friend, Andromon, who now is under the control of their enemy, Kari refuses to fight him. Not only that, but even when Andromon grabs her and takes her hostage she prevents her friends from fighting him as well. She is able to help him remember who he is and he overcomes the control of the darkness on his own with her help.
Claudia Donovan taught me strength can be determination
Claudia lost both of her parents at a young age, then was faced with the loss of her brother Joshua as well. When she started having visions of her dead brother, she thought she was going insane and spent several months at a treatment center. However, when she realized he wasn’t she dove into his research to try and discover what had really happened to him.
She tracked down Artie, who was working with her brother, to Warehouse 13 and kidnapped him to help her fix Joshua’s experiment to bring him back. She persisted in convincing Artie, despite him also thinking she had gone insane. She eventually proved Joshua was alive, and together they were able to save him. Claudia never let anything stop her from attaining what she wanted, and was willing to put herself though a moral gray area to achieve what she wanted.
When Claudia loses one of her closest friends, she unflinchingly decides that she can’t let him die because it wasn’t fair. Again, we see her cross into that moral gray area and use an artifact to prolong his life and eventually restore it completely independent of the artifact. Claudia lets no one stop her from doing this, even those who she is supposed to answer to at the Warehouse.
Whenever Claudia is faced with a challenge, we never see her giving up or losing hope. When the Warehouse is under attack, she doesn’t flee with the others. She stays, knowing the Warehouse will protect her and knowing she can keep herself and her friends safe. She is confident in her abilities and doesn’t allow fear to stop her from trying.
Chihiro Ogino taught me that strength can be finding the courage inside you
At the beginning of Spirited Away, Chihiro is just another spoiled girl who whines a lot and is easily frightened, but by the end of the movie we see a caring daughter who has proven herself to be brave. Her journey and character development over the course of this movie is spectacular.
After her parents offend the spirits they are transformed into pigs. Chihiro must work at a bathhouse in the spiritual world in order to stay in the spirit world to find and rescue her parents. While she works there we see her character develop organically over time, with her bravery in the face of her fear growing with each new challenge.
Chihiro does not stop being afraid, but she refuses to let her fear get in the way of doing what she needs to. She builds new relationships with the spirits she meets at the bathhouse and aids them while continuing on with her journey to save her own parents.
“Why not both?” I can hear some of you asking
That’s a great question. Often times we see strong female characters who have great physical strength or fighting abilities, but lack strength of character. We see females who are physically strong until the moment the plot requires them to be weak and saved by the male protagonist. We see strong females with what I refer to as the “Athena Complex” who separate themselves from other females thinking them weak. That’s not always true though, and we have examples of females who are physically strong who show strength of character as well.
Black Widow taught me strength can be not letting your past define you.
In the movies, we hear of the red in Natasha Romanov’s ledger, but we never really see it. We know it’s there though, and even when Loki, the god of Tricksters tries to use this to guilt Natasha enough to use his mind tricks on her, he fails. Instead, she turns the tables on him and learns his true objective is releasing the powers of the Hulk on the Helicarrier.
In the comics, we see this explored a little deeper on a few occasions. Several times her past in Russia, or the events that happened before she turned to being a hero and working with SHIELD and the Avengers caught up to her. Each time she fought against it and didn’t let her define who she is now.
Zoe Washburne taught me strength can be self-confidence.
Zoe was in the same war that forged Mal into the man he became, but the two were made of different stuff. Of the two, Zoe was more likely to use her head and not second guess herself. That isn’t to say she lacked the softer qualities, like humor and wit. She was a well rounded character without the stereotypes and tropes associated with other Strong Female Characters at the time the show was on the air.
She was confident in her abilities, making her a great second in command. She isn’t afraid to stand up to Mal, whether it’s personal, such as her choosing to court and eventually marry her fellow crew-mate Wash, or professional like when Mal was inclined to work with the con-artist Saffron. She did not nag, or argue. She spoke her opinion and was respected enough to be taken seriously because of it.
Sue Storm taught me strength can be protecting those you love.
Sue Storm is often considered the linchpin of the Fantastic Four team. On the surface the reason for this is obvious, as the team is made up of her brother, her husband, and her husband’s best friend. However, that barely scratches the surface of what she means to the team. She is the heart of the team, making sure each one has what they need, be it comfort, a reminder of who they are, or a reminder of what they’re fighting for.
Sue does whatever she thinks is best for her family. Even if it means fighting against her husband during the Civil War Comics. Even if it means stepping down from the Fantastic Four team to take care of her children. Even if it means accepting help from her enemy Doctor Doom to save the life of her daughter. And may whatever higher power you believe in help you if you get on her bad side. She has taken out Hulk and has been known to strike fear even into seemingly fearless characters like Wolverine.
Compelling characters aren’t two dimensional, instead they should feel as real to the audience as they can. There is no checklist you can follow to make a great character. Likewise, there is no one right way to make a strong female character, but you have to think about what kind of strength you want your character to have. What makes them strong? Where do they draw that strength from? Women in real life have their own unique strengths and weaknesses and they are as varied as they come, and that diversity should equally be represented in the media we enjoy.