Feb 8, 2012

Strong Women Characters

On Monday I talked about women as a minority within certain genres of fiction. I wanted to continue on the theme and today talk about genres which traditionally present strong female characters.

These days the idea of the lone badass woman is incredibly popular. The Anita Blake series, movies such as Underworld, Resident Evil and Salt, or tv shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Alias sell themselves on having a strong woman kicking ass at the core of their concept. That said, I'm not really here to talk about these kinds of examples. These stories still contain strong elements of male fantasy - the sexy heroine who can match or outclass all the men in her world - and while the women in the stories can be examples of strong female characters, depending on your own tastes, I'd rather talk about stories where the protagonist's gender isn't used as a sexual selling-point.

I've come to the realisation that the genre which often best depicts strong women in a way that isn't overtly sexual is the crime drama, or police procedural. I love police procedurals. To this day, Bones is one of my favourite television shows. The thing which strikes me most about them is that the characters are defined first by their role within either the story or the organisation to which they belong.

You don't see Temperance Brennan bent over, showing off her cleavage while she's examining a set of remains or facing down a killer. Her first and foremost function on the show is to solve crimes that other experts would consider unsolvable. Her character is defined by her devotion to her work, her logical mind built as a defence against fear of abandonment, her loyalty to her friends.

Yet we still see that she is a sexual person. She has very open opinions about sexual relationships, even stating that she feels monogamy is illogical in an evolutionary sense. But despite this, her sex life is never the focus of the show and she is far from the promiscuous woman so often portrayed with these opinions, such as the recent incarnation of DC's Starfire, who has become nothing but pure sexual wish-fulfilment, forgetting even the names of men she has slept with, many of whom are her friends and fellow superheroes.

Likewise, Lily Rush in Cold Case is an attractive woman who has romantic relationships, yet is not defined by them. Her role in the story is always cop first, woman second.

Do I think that, in order for women in fiction to be strong, they must deny their feminine side or sacrifice it for their jobs? Not at all. I feel that every aspect of a character should be prioritised in accordance with the needs of the story and the scene in question. Just like male heroes are all business when it comes to chasing down a killer, but can be a devoted father, romantic lover, or show their insecure side in other scenes, female heroes can show their sexual side or their own fears when the right scene calls for it, while in other scenes putting those aspects aside and getting down to the business of saving the day in a non-sexualised manner.

What about you? Who are some of your favourite strong female heroes, and what is it that makes them appeal to you?


  1. I really like police procedurals too. And especially a very strong female heroine I recently discovered through all that's available on Roku. It's a series starring Jemma Redgrave as Eleanor Bramwell (the series is called Bramwell) a doctor who tries to set up her own clinic for the poor people who can't pay in Victorian England. Her father, also a doctor, encourages her, although at times with reservations. After all, it was not a time when women did anything much outside the home. Every episode in the series is incredible, at least I think so.
    Ann Best, Author of In the Mirror & Other Memoirs

  2. Sounds like something my wife and I would love!