All the princesses know kung-fu now

The hell with Strong Female Characters.

What what what? What should we want, weak female characters?

No; characters with more than one adjective.

Sophia McDougall explains in the New Statesman.

…the phrase “Strong Female Character” has always set my teeth on edge, and so have many of the characters who have so plainly been written to fit the bill.

I remember watching Shrek with my mother.

“The Princess knew kung-fu! That was nice,” I said. And yet I had a vague sense of unease, a sense that I was saying it because it was what I was supposed to say.

She rolled her eyes. “All the princesses know kung-fu now.”

No one ever asks if a male character is “strong”. Nor if he’s “feisty,” or “kick-ass” come to that.

The obvious thing to say here is that this is because he’s assumed to be “strong” by default. Part of the patronising promise [premise?] of the Strong Female Character is that she’s anomalous. “Don’t worry!” that puff piece or interview is saying when it boasts the hero’s love interest is an SFC. “Of course, normal women are weak and boring and can’t do anything worthwhile. But this one is different. She is strong! See, she roundhouses people in the face.”

In real life, normal women aren’t weak and boring and unable to do anything worthwhile. It’s in movies and tv that normal women are like that (and anomalous women are always having cat-fights over shoes).

Is Sherlock Holmes strong? It’s not just that the answer is “of course”, it’s that it’s the wrong question.

What happens when one tries to fit other iconic male heroes into an imaginary “Strong Male Character” box?  A few fit reasonably well, but many look cramped and bewildered in there. They’re not used to this kind of confinement, poor things. They’re used to being interesting across more than one axis and in more than two dimensions.

A lot more than one axis and a lot more than two dimensions.

Martin Amis is a good example of this, as I’ve mentioned before. Ever read The Information? It’s brilliant, in some ways, and deeply stupid in others. The protagonist is complicated and detailed as fuck, and the female characters have all the depth of paper dolls.

That kind of thing unnerves me, because Amis apparently doesn’t even really believe women are quite there – and if even guys as clever as he is can be that wrong, what hope is there?

It’s much the same with the blankness and scarcity of most female characters in popular culture. The Smurfette principle – nearly everybody is male (and complicated, interesting, detailed), but there might be one female, who is Fluffy. Or Beautiful. Or Intrepid.

Ok now I’m discouraged.

H/t Stacy.


  1. says

    By comparison, this goes a long way to explain the enduring appeal of Jane Austen’s heroines: they are complex, far from perfect characters, with thoughts and desires of their own, even when the society they live in give them so little room for action.

    Not a shattering insight, I know, but it strikes me how “Austenalia” (or “AustenPunk”, as some would say) has evolved into its own domain of popular fiction.

  2. says

    She’s obviously right. I got to the bit about “Strong Male Characters”, and thought “Rambo! Schwarzeneggar!” But then having had the thought I didn’t know what to do with it, so I merely record it here and someone else can do the heavy lifting.

    #5: I dunno, “Female Version of Columbo” would become a thing like “Strong Female Character”. It occurs to me that Columbo is a good example of part of what the author of the article is saying. We never see Columbo’s wife. Her sole function, since she never appears, is to provide domestic background to Columbo’s own character. Everything she does, she does in order to say something about Columbo, but nothing he does is done to tell us anything about her. Am I right? What does this mean?


  3. Tim Harris says

    I seem to recall Martin A’s misogynist Daddy (lke father, like son) penning an assault on Jane Austen… I have never found anything of little Martin’s worth reading.

  4. Jeremy Shaffer says

    Ace of Sevens at 3- Okay, The Guy with Glasses and Nostalgia Chick are like TV Tropes. I can’t stop watching these things.

  5. says

    Hmm (@ 9), I hadn’t thought of Vera as another Columbo type before. Interesting.

    We’ve just started getting Bailey and Scott here, and I must say I’m liking it a lot…precisely because they do come across as complicated and detailed. (Plus of course it’s Manchester.)

  6. ajb47 says

    Not sure this meshes with the post, but Kate Mulgrew played Mrs. Columbo in her own series — Mrs. Columbo. When she was made a Captain, in fact, that was the only role I had heard of her being in. Never saw the show myself, though.

    I’ve been looking for a female Rockford myself.

    So is Strong now being confused for Complex? Such that we talk about Strong Female Characters when what we really mean (and really want) is Complex Female Characters? Was *Strong* a synonym for bold, impactful, “mattering to the narrative” when it was first used and has now been diluted to just being someone who knows kung-fu?

    Or did I just have my own definition of “Strong Female Character”?

  7. says

    Yes, as far as I know Columbo’s wife is only spoken of but never seen.

    What I meant was that Columbo is an otherwise ordinary, not particularly attractive, middle aged man. He’s not very charismatic apart from asking the right questions and being a good detective.

    In a similar fashio, when you can have an otherwise ordinary woman be the lead then you know the writers are not overcompensating by trying to make her out to be something unrealistic.

    All that being said I still enjoyed watching the British show The Fall and of course the Millenium Trilogy which arguably have strong female leads-likewise with Damages. However I couldn’t watch Fringe because the main character just made me constantly think “who talks like that?” (and the peudoscience was too much)

  8. says

    And to clarify, when I say “ordinary”, I don’t mean “boring” or one-dimensional, I mean realistic and complicated, ie like people in the real world.

  9. Terrene says

    ajb47 – I agree, it’s not just you. My interpretation of any fictional character when described as ‘strong’ was always are they well-written, ie believble, consistent, well-rounded, multi-dimensional. Just referring to their physical abilities? That honestly never occurred to me. When was ‘strength’ appropriated in this way? What happened to strength of character, strength of mind, strength of conviction? Strength is used to describe aspects of power, resilience and intensity. Physical abilities makes up a tiny part of that. People can’t be strong without kicking arses now? Forget that!

  10. Claire Ramsey says

    Quite right. The “strong female character” is a ridiculous commentary. In fact, it’s a non-commentary, a little self-administered pat on the back to whoever wrote the script or came up with the story, “you’re not a sexist porcine creature at all, there there.” It’s meaningless.

    Shakespeare, man, he totally knew how to write complex women characters with lots of possibilities for goodness and evil and selfishness and warmongering and power grabbing and acting very good and acting very bad. I spent the afternoon watching King Lear (@ Oregon Shakespeare Festival). Those damn sisters Regan and Goneril really acted very bad in complicated ways, and got into physical fights with each other, with their husbands, with their stewards, killing whoever they felt like killing, you name it they punched it. And the casual poisoning of drinks was shocking. Breaking a wine glass to use it as a stabbing device. Cordelia, of course, was outspoken, sneery, loving, and disrespectful in the face of demands to respect the king for the sake of respecting the king. Right up to the moment she was hanged. It was really lively.

  11. says

    As someone notes, there was indeed a female Columbo, called ‘Mrs Columbo’. She had a dog, did Columbo’s washing and was played by Kate Mulgrew. The show lasted all of 13 episodes.

  12. freemage says

    On the “princess” front–I’m going to say I enjoyed Tangled for precisely this reason–yes, she has some kick-ass action sequences (standard for any kid’s movie these days), but Rapunzel’s also a ‘strong’ character in the other sense folks have been talking about. And I credit Mulan with my feminist awakening–partly because, immediately after watching the movie, and being genuinely pleased with how she’d been portrayed (yes, there were bits that were flawed, but it was still aeons past the era of ‘waiting for the prince’), I went to the Disney Store with my then-girlfriend.

    And was gobsmacked by dozens of shelves of Bridal Mulan. Because, you know, that was the only thing girls could be interested in.

    I think that was my first public feminist rant, even. Took about five minutes for me to calm down enough to stop calling down curses on Disney’s marketing department.

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