The Biggest Lie We Believe about Strong Female Protagonists

April 6, 2020

Strong women, as they’re portrayed in a lot of fiction and films, have a problem. They act like men (albeit hot men with curvy bodies and perfect hair, teeth, and nails).

 

This bothers me, and it should bother you too, because we’re being fed a lie. Male and female perspectives each possess great worth, and both genders are vital aspects of the human experience. Neglecting one or the other in a story guts the truth’s potency.

 

But misrepresenting a woman’s strength is even worse.

 

In the book 7 Women, Christian biographer Eric Metaxas says, “to pit women against men is a form of denigration of women, as though their measure must be determined by masculine standards.” The value of women is in their differences from men (and vise versa). The two cannot be compared. But lies are a distortion of the truth and thus designed to resemble it.

 

In our efforts as Christian writers to accurately depict reality, we must be aware of the fallacy weighing down female protagonists.

 

The Lie: A Woman Can Do Anything a Man Can Do (and Do It Better)

This falsehood bases a hero’s competence on mere physical prowess. The female protagonist can overpower anyone—man, woman, or monster—because she’s ultra tough. The trope is so widely accepted that it almost goes unnoticed.

 

In the 2017 spy flick Atomic Blonde, undercover agent Lorraine Broughton is sent to recover sensitive information. As with most Hollywood thrillers, the protagonist defies reality, taking on multiple opponents in fights that ignore the limitations of the female body.

 

Women have less muscle mass than men, higher-pitched voices, and don’t grow beards because their bodies produce less testosterone. Brawn, baritones, and beards aren’t required to write a resilient protagonist who can save the world. Yet we’ve been convinced that a female protagonist must be as virile—or more so—than her male counterparts. We squeeze her into a masculine hero archetype and expect her to perform accordingly (with perfect hair, teeth, and nails).

 

The Truth: A Strong Woman Is Inspiring Because She Is a Woman

We can’t copy and paste a woman onto a man. A strong female protagonist is interesting and compelling primarily because she isn’t male. True strength goes beyond a person’s physique—into the mind, character, will, and spirit.

 

The book of Judges showcases a woman’s cunning capture of an opponent. Jael encounters the enemy commander Sicera as he flees a military defeat. She welcomes him into her tent, lulls him to sleep with excellent hospitality (warm milk and a blanket), and then drives a tent peg through his skull into the ground. It’s startling and brutal. Jael exhibits great strength, not in muscle, but in mind and spirit.

 

Brandon Sanderson does a superb job of portraying a strong woman in his Mistborn series. Vin, the female protagonist, is petite, thin, and an abuse survivor. The story absorbs these disadvantages and plays with them, allowing Vin to change and conquer in a believable way. First, Sanderson gives her access to magic that compensates her height and weight. Second, her psychological struggles and growth are a catalyst within the plot.

 

We can preserve a heroine’s femininity without turning her into a damsel in distress whenever she faces a threat. In fiction and in real life, women have been using their unique abilities to outsmart enemies, survive catastrophe, and solve problems for centuries. If we acknowledge instead of deny how God designed each gender, our stories will help readers view men and women with both empathy and admiration.

 

Shape Protagonists According to the Truth

Now that we’ve pinpointed the issue, we’re left with a question. How do we make sure we aren’t reducing female characters to male clones with pretty faces? If we pay attention to three areas where male similitudes tend to invade, we can correct them.

 

1. Identify the Strengths and Weaknesses of the Protagonist’s Gender

This might be a bitter pill to swallow, but we can’t pretend that physical limitations don’t exist, regardless of the genre we’re writing. Understanding how women participated in combat throughout history will further enhance authenticity. Weakness is often more compelling than strength, so if we don’t shy away from a character’s frailties, readers will find her even more endearing.

 

Meagan Spooner’s Beauty and the Beast retelling, Hunted, provides an example of a strong female character who fails to be relatable. Yeva plays the part of Beauty, an attractive, expert huntress who’s desired by a cute man but wants oh-so-much more than a normal life. She journeys into the wild forest to rescue her father from a fantastic rendition of the Beast, but nothing about her personality or interaction with the world is profound, which prevents readers from connecting with her.

 

A protagonist who can’t easily win a battle resonates far deeper with readers than one who knocks the enemy flat with one punch. Perhaps she’s in denial of her limitations—or she’s obsessing over what she can’t do rather than what she can. However we decide to have a female protagonist overcome obstacles, we need to stay within the boundaries of her womanhood.

 

2. Consider How Archetypes Change When the Protagonist Is Female

Arming a female protagonist with a sword or superpowers may make her imposing, but that doesn’t give us an excuse to let her run rampant without clear motivations. Look at Eowyn from Lord of the Rings. While she inhabits the archetype of the hero who wants to prove himself, her role is distinct because she’s a woman. Most of all, she fears being caged, and she desires the glory of battle and the honor of a swift death.

 

Planning how a female protagonist will save the world requires careful, deliberate thought. The overall pattern of the hero stays the same, yet many details will and must shift. She’ll have different goals and display different emotions than a man. As with any character, her choices and behavior need to reflect who she is, not the shadow of someone else.

 

3. Evaluate the Protagonist’s Personal Strengths and Weaknesses

If a protagonist is prideful, this will spawn many other faults and influence her actions. Cocky people are often intolerable to talk to and work with. But this flaw isn’t restricted to either gender—it plagues all of humanity. The same could be said of qualities like kindness and courage—both men and women share them.

 

Instilling our characters with unique virtues and vices will guard against clichés and scenes that make readers scoff. If you need ideas, two quick resources are The Negative Trait Thesaurus and The Positive Trait Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman. These books dive into how negative and positive attributes manifest inwardly as well as outwardly.

 

We Need Strong Women Who Act Like Women

We must remember that a woman differs from a man in her preferences, tendencies, psychology, strengths, and weaknesses. God, in His goodness, gifted humanity with both men and women. Readers deserve the same gift from us as sub-creators. Generating authentic characters is a difficult but worthwhile investment. Before creating a strong female protagonist, take time to seek the truth and be brave enough to write it.

34 Comments

  1. Emma Huckabee (Emma Starr)

    Great article!! I’ve wrestled with this problem a lot when reading fiction.

    Eowyn is such a compelling strong female character. I loved how Tolkien worked with that archetype without making her a brawny female who tackles the enemy and thirsts for blood and glory. Her climactic battle is won, in fact, because she IS a woman.

    Thanks for addressing this tough topic!

    Reply
    • Rose Sheffler

      You are welcome! I’ll be honest, I was hesitant. But I feel pretty strongly on the topic. Cheers!

  2. Bella D.

    Resounding THANK YOU.

    Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I have to say, this is has been almost a agonizing topic for me. While all my girlfriends raved over the strong, brawny female protagonists portrayed on Netflix shows and in Marvel movies, I would sit quietly on the sidelines listening because I just neither ever cared for nor identified with those women.

    I hope to see a surge of feminine charm return to modern fiction very soon!

    Reply
    • Rose Sheffler

      Bella, I’m with you. I have also witnessed the craze over masculine women. I want writers to write real women again and redeem us for the valuable individuals we are!

  3. joshuapior

    The perfect article on female characters doesn’t exi—

    Reply
  4. joshuapior

    Thank you so much for writing this. This hit all the right notes and pulled the issue into sharp focus. As I usually gravitate towards writing female leads, this article pinned down so many of the things I knew to be true but couldn’t articulate.

    You’ve also made me start wondering if saying “strong female character” is nothing more than a bald insult to all physically “weak” girls and women? Is it just another way of shaming women for not being like men … another way of holding them to an impossible standard?

    Reply
    • Rose Sheffler

      Joshua, I’m pleased to hear this article helped you with your writing. It’s been a thorn in my side for a while now.

      As to your question, I think it depends on the definition of “strong.” If strong only means physical ability then it could be an insult and an unfair metric for measuring women, as I said in my article. But if you expand the meaning of strong to allow for fortitude, endurance, and determination, then I think it can and DOES apply! Thanks for reading!

    • Rose Sheffler

      Joshua, I’m pleased to hear this article helped you with your writing. This topic has been a thorn in my side for a while now.

      As to your question, I think it depends on the definition of “strong.” If strong only means physical ability then it could be an insult and an unfair metric for measuring women, as I said in my article. But if you expand the meaning of strong to allow for fortitude, endurance, and determination, then I think it can and DOES apply! Thanks for reading!

  5. Kenzie Joy

    Thank you SO MUCH for writing this article! I often find myself writing about female warriors in my stories and this really helped me to see how I can make them more realistic.❤️

    Reply
    • Rose Sheffler

      You should check out “Fight Write” by Carla Hoch. She has excellent info on writing female fighters realistically. Cheers!

  6. Taylor Clogston

    I appreciate the thought and work you put into this article, and I see the value in focusing on an individual’s traits that arise from their unique situation (a huge one of which is of course their biological sex) but it’s absurd to look at fantastic action genres, where men perform ridiculous and unrealistic feats as a matter of course, and say women can’t also do so.

    Yeah, I’m tired of “haha the petite girl beat up all the swole dudes, no one would expect that, isn’t that hilarious?” 

    That doesn’t tell me why I should be cool with male characters ignoring physical reality in action scenes while insisting on realism with female characters. 

    Jael’s story could have easily been that of an arthritic old male slave. Vin’s an odd choice because she *does* physically overpower burly men over and over, which seems to go against your point, regardless of the method of acquiring that power, considering how often this trope is enabled by some magic or tech excuse. The audience reception to *Hunted* on Goodreads does not reflect a character readers had trouble connecting with. On the contrary, it tells me girls like seeing competent girls. 

    Thank you for those trait thesauruses, they look really useful. 

    But aside from them, I see nothing here but political call to apply realism to the physical power fantasies of women, because they shouldn’t be allowed to tread on the territory of men because they have their *own* place, separate but equal, and that it’s our duty as Christians to acknowledge that.

    Reply
    • Rose Sheffler

      I’m sorry you didn’t find what you were looking for. Best of luck!

  7. EricaWordsmith

    I absolutely LOVED this article! This is a topic that I especially find important.
    One of my favorite feminine heroes is Fantine from Les Miserables. Her story was so heartbreaking… It took me a while to come to terms with it.
    To me she’s so inspiring because she confronted situations that I find horrifying and gave of herself until it killed her out of selfless love for her child. She never faced death and glory… She faced a quiet degraded and slow death that resulted from the choices she made to try to save her daughter. I think she’s a really excellent feminine hero because of her sacrifice and the terrifying choices that she had to make… She was definitely flawed, but she was courageous and had a heart of deep, selfless love. This makes her a big hero of mine.

    Reply
    • Rose Sheffler

      Fantine is an excellent example of feminine strength and courage. Her life was so broken and yet she was lovely. I’m glad this article encouraged you.

  8. Kristianne Hassman

    Wow, so many great thoughts and tips here! I have honestly never considered how important it is to portray a female protagonist differently from a male protagonist. But since I have a strong female protagonist in my current WIP, this article is very timely and helpful. I will keep this in mind as I continue to develop my character.
    Thank you so much for this article! Since I discovered Story Embers a few months ago, it has really helped me in developing and improving my writing.

    Reply
    • Rose Sheffler

      I’m so glad you were helped! Keep writing and learning!

    • M. Qureshi

      This is a great article. I am actually looking for this kind of protagonists. I have read this book the winners curse. Strong female protagonist. I would love more books and movies that have realistic strong females. Please recommend if you have a list of the movies/books or something

    • Rose Sheffler

      M. Qureshi, would you be interested in starting a discussion in the Forum? I think it would be a great place where the whole community can weigh in.

  9. Buddy J.

    Oooooh, yeah. Thank you! I appreciate this construction.

    Reply
    • Rose Sheffler

      You’re welcome. Thank you for reading.

  10. Christianna Hellwig

    Thank you. I can’t count the number of times I’ve argued back to a book or a movie screen because they’ve made the woman capable of beating up any man…so unrealistic. It makes me mad too because they’re ignoring all the wonderful things that make women special: their hesitancy to engage in physical combat, their emotional outlook, their ability to empathize, and their skill at helping in all categories of life! (Not that men can’t do them too, but these things seem to come to women better and more naturally). Anyway, it’s a topic I feel passionately about and wish to thank you for addressing it so well.

    Reply
    • Rose Sheffler

      I obviously feel very passionate about this topic as well. Thanks for reading.

  11. GraceAnna Damm

    Thank you so much for writing this. I really appreciate and agree with all of your points. I wish real women would realize some of the truths you pointed out here. That they can’t compete with men in manly things. True feminism rising to the challenge with woman-like attributes, not proving to men that we can do exactly what they can do, because we can’t. I’d really enjoy seeing more content like this.

    Reply
    • Rose Sheffler

      I’m glad you liked this article. I hope we do write more content on this subject.

  12. Grace (Loki)

    OH MY GOSH THANK YOU, ROSE

    As a female myself, I’ve been fed up with all the horridly over the top females in movies and media. This article both proves the points I’ve tried to make on many occasions, and helps me with my own character development.
    As a Fantasy-writing pantser with no actual published books and still trying to find my place in the writing world, I struggle with making female characters so much that in most of my books, there are only a small handful of cardboard women alongside a horde of fantastically real male characters. This article has helped in ways nothing else could. Thanks again!

    Reply
    • Rose Sheffler

      Grace, I’m honored to have helped you in any way. Godspeed on your writing journey!

  13. Andrea

    So, you’re close, but not quite right. The average trained female fighter will make mincemeat out of an untrained male, regardless of the strength differential. This we have seen with some of the ladies in MMA getting into tavern brawls with guys who wouldn’t keep their hands to themselves. Never ends well for the guys.

    If you’re looking for realism in your fantasy story, may I suggest a different genre? Most of the things you are complaining about here are equally unrealistic for guys to do. A man facing multiple trained fighters in real life is going to go down very quickly. He’s not going to win that fight. Sorry. But of course fantasy is about escapism, not reality. So we all get to enjoy our protagonist (whether male or female) doing ridiculous things simply because it looks cool and makes for a fun story.

    As far as character motivations, strengths, flaws, and so forth goes. The vast majority of those as they are portrayed in fiction aren’t specific to gender in of themselves. Wanting to stop an evil necromancer from enslaving the world does not require you to be male or female. The real secret is, no matter what character you write, no matter how unusual it is for them to act a certain way, somewhere, someone acted just like they do. Just because it’s not *common* doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, or that you can’t write someone that way if it will serve your story well.

    In the end, if you make complex characters who are consistent, you’ll have good vehicles to help drive your story, regardless of the gender that you make them.

    Reply
  14. Deana

    You make several errors in your article. You assume that a woman cannot do “manly things.” The problem is that across cultures and times, everything that an American assumes is a manly task or a feminine task has been performed in another culture by the opposite gender, often excluding the other gender completely from that task. This includes combat, religious, and political functions.

    Only one function has ever been restricted exclusively to women: that of giving birth. However, in some cultures, once the child is weaned or even simply born, the biological mother need have no further involvement in the parenting of the child.

    Reply
  15. Hannah

    Great article! One other thing that has always bothered me about the female protagonist is that the men in the book almost always seem to be dumbed down and made weaker to make the female come across as stronger. I’ve always hated that since there are so many ways to have both the male and female characters be strong. It’s so sad to see so many otherwise good book fall into the lie that the female protagonist can’t have any weakness, and must act like a man to be strong.

    Reply
  16. JazzFeathers

    Fantastic article.
    I feel exactly like you. It bothers me very much that in today’s entertainment industry it looks like a woman is only considered strong when she acts like a man.
    And it bothers me even more that a lot of readers/viewrs seems to think the same.

    Reply
  17. Seyhan

    Oh, come on. I was not going to say anything, but this “article” keeps coming up on my Pinterest and I have had enough. I actually read another article on how Atomic Blonde is surprisingly accurate since Charlize depends on her surroundings and fights smart instead of relying on physical strength. I think emotionally manipulative and seductive women are the worst, that is precisely how a man thinks a woman really is. Writing slightly too badass women is not a bad thing, even if they are inaccurate, they are the kind of motivation and role models I would want for my little girl rather than someone who lulls a man to sleep and sneakily cuts his throat. I did martial arts for years, me and Gina Carano and all the other female MMA fighters hold our own just fine, with perfect nail, teeth, and hair. Even US Marines acknowledge that women would probably be better soldiers since they are more resilient, have higher pain tolerance, and are better inclined to work in groups since they don’t focus on their own egos. And what kind of a sentence is this: ”we need to stay within the boundaries of her womanhood”? All your examples of how a female protagonist should be like come from male writers, and their limited way of seeing a female character. I love Eowyn, but let’s face it, she’s like one of three women in the entire universe of Lord of the Rings, I doubt Tolkien was the best person who understood women. And lastly, being strong or masculine is not something forced upon us lovely sweet pink-wearing little girls. And it certainly is not something that needs to be condemned or prevented.

    Reply
    • Rose Sheffler

      I’d be super interested in reading the article you mention on Atomic Blonde. I appreciate your response.

  18. Jen

    I enjoyed this article and it made great points, but as a woman who pretty much acts like a man and what’s shown as the emotionless woman, I do also enjoy seeing women like that in movies. However, for the Atomic Blonde comment I think the characteristic perfect. The character doesn’t use pure strength in the fight. She knows she’s not strong enough to fight all those men so she uses her adrenaline, advanced training, and the enemies weak points to take her opponents out. If you rewatch the fights you will she her deliberately aiming for weak spots instead of fighting like a man would with brute strength.

    Reply
    • Wiktoria

      I agree with a lot of the points here, but I feel this article is not that great.

      First off, there’s nothing wrong with women doing “manly” things. Of course, men & women are anatomically and mentally different and I greatly patronise of maternity, but come on, is there anything wrong with being a tomboy? Not that I disapprove of wearing skirts or make-up.

      Secondly, sorry to offend you dear creationists, but both genders were NOT “designed” by anybody, they EVOLVED within millions of years. That’s just basic science.

      Overall, I give this article a 6\10 stars. It’s generally decent, but there’s also A LOT to be fixed.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Article Categories

Does Christian Fiction Need to Be Clean?

Our Tricky Subjects for Christian Storytellers e-book examines how to depict sensitive topics like violence, language, and sex with realism and wisdom. Sign up to download it for free!

Congratulations! Redirecting you to the eBook in one moment...

Pin It on Pinterest