When I was little and watching the Star Wars prequels (yes, I grew up with the prequels) I didn’t question Senator Amidala and her power. I didn’t question the waffling between her being a queen or a senator or even really when she just became arm candy to Anakin. What I saw was a woman with a blaster who, when the movie let her, was a badass. And when I later saw her daughter, Leia, in the movies; I found an equally powerful and strong woman on screen. But her transition from Princess Leia to General Organa was one that was met with cynicism by me.
Today, we’re going to discuss why I still sometimes bristle at the “strong female character”.
I’ll pause here for the immediate cries of misogyny.
I’ve been humble enough to mention that many female narratives haven’t captured me. Often times, it’s because the writing just isn’t strong, a lot of it is personal bias. But I also grew up in an era of some of the weakest written female characters. That’s one of the biggest reasons I turned to anime, even though many of the female characters were still insufferable, they were insufferable in a different way. But Western media stayed rather stagnant with how it portrayed female characters. That was, of course, until the 90s. The 1990s were a strange time for media: female characters suddenly had to be very self-actualized. I suppose hundreds of years of patriarchal writing has a systemic effect on women and how they see themselves based on the media they consume. In fact, you can watch an entire panel of me working through the angst of not having strong female role models in media in a panel and you get a bonus dramatic retelling of the story of Lilith.
The examples I had as a kid were Batgirl, Wonder Woman, and the token sassy female in every Disney cartoon. And for a while, that was great. It was just enough to still feel genuine. It was great having comic book characters that could hold their own while also having other females on television that didn’t have to sacrifice being girly to be strong: a lot of the late 90s and early 2000s Cartoon Network shows come to mind like Ed, Edd and Eddy and Codename: Kids Next Door.
But by that time, I had happily sold my soul to anime and I dipped out of Western media for easily 10 years and in those 10 years, a lot has seemed to change. Every show has an intensely self-actualized female character but there’s something missing in many of the newer examples of this seem a little hollow. I saw the pilot to the new Duck Tales and I was so annoyed by Webby being the smarmy know-it-all that writers assume that a hyper-competent girl must be. She wasn’t much better in the old version of the cartoon, but irksome is irksome and helplessness to me as just as damaging as dumbing down the rest of the cast to make the girl shine.
Speaking of Disney, I take particular umbridge with their sudden influx of “strong” and “independent” princesses that realistically began with Belle and culminates with a princess that I cannot stand, Tiana. Tiana is arguably the worst part of her own movie and she is so strict and self-actualized that Naveen’s immaturity seems very valid and okay. By the end of the movie, sure, she does loosen up a little but it wasn’t enough to make her easy to empathize with for the bulk of her own damn film. It’s their fault we have this damn trope to begin with, you can’t decide in the mid-2000s to suddenly have female characters that aren’t just sexy lamps. And the influx of Disney princesses who are “independent” and “strong” is not new. We started getting it in the 90s with Pocahontas who was a tan sexy lamp and Esmeralda who was an outcast tan sexy lamp and we didn’t get a genuinely independent strong female lead in a Disney movie until Lilo and Stitch and even more, Disney has yet to have a “strong” female character be in a relationship. Because remember, self-actualized means sexless.
Very few examples come to mind of this trope working positively: one of them is Adventure Time. Princess Bubblegum is a complex character, more so than a little animated show about a boy and his dog can give credit for. Bonnibel Bubblegum is a scientist, monarch, warrior and more but she is far from flawless. Even though she is smarter than most of those in the Land of Ooo, her intelligence is often a hindrance, she lacks empathy at times and her overanalyzing leads to more complicated situations. Steven Universe is full of women (or female-appearing space rocks) that are almost too flawed for plot to even happen and while it’s easy to empathize and feel with them, it’s also somewhat damaging. Pearl’s lesbianism is damn near predatory, a trope that many lesbian women struggle with to this day.
And this brings us back to General Leia. I’m not here to rant about how I feel about the state of Star Wars, that could be its own blog post but I was one of the few folks who was not elated to have Princess Leia become a General. Is it because I hate women? No. It’s because I love strong storytelling and for me, Leia Organa was the canary in the coal mine. How many more characters would be leveled up like this just to keep up with the times? Now, Leia has earned it and we see this whole thing backfire with Admiral Holdo (who for the record, I do not hate). We don’t see Holdo do much of anything, at least with Leia, we grew up with her; her promotion makes sense. And because of that lack of feeling that Holdo “earned” her rank (a problem real women have) she is considered to be the worst part of an arguably bad movie.
And while yes, women “earning it” is a sick and twisted aspect of the patriarchy (see the remake of Ghostbusters as an example), it’s an important part of making a character relatable. And that’s why so many struggle with “strong” female characters. To me a “strong” female character almost always is a Mary Sue. Let’s use Rey as an example because Star Wars. She is good at everything. She doesn’t have any questions about using lightsabers or the force or anything. She doesn’t get a training montage (until The Last Jedi and it would appear that she barely needed it) and she’s just supernaturally talented. Again, thanks to the patriarchy, when I female character has a linear arc, it’s bad while when Luke did the same thing in his trilogy, he was just “gifted” but I have to agree with some of the criticism of Rey being a Mary Sue. I think I would have connected with her much more if I saw her struggle even a little.
Now, dear reader, what have we learned? I’ll sum it up for you here. If we continue to dose out titles like this to female characters, it only stands to weaken the case as to why we need these characters to begin with. I got to look up to Storm as the leader of the X-Men and that was not a title she took laying down. I got to see Padme grab a blaster and do her best to hold her own against a sea of droids, clones and more. I got to see Leia take up arms and defend herself. It’s so much more powerful to see a female character be active in her narrative than passive. Simply blowing power into a female character does not make her strong: she has to do something with it.