Fiction in current times has seen remarkable progress in terms of representation. As readers, it pleases us to see more characters of diverse backgrounds, breaking conventions set by society to emerge as real human beings that break our hearts or fill our hearts with affection, disappointment, or fear. If we are talking more specifically, strong female characters have become quite a trend in modern literature, especially in the YA or fantasy genres.
Representation of women has certainly come a long way in fiction. Growing up with stories of princesses being saved by their Prince Charming, it’s quite refreshing to see women being portrayed as tough characters who are capable of making their own decisions and standing up for themselves. Who hasn’t been inspired by Hermione Granger at some point in their lives? It’s important to have characters like her in fiction because children see the real world through books, which play a monumental role in shaping their futures.
When reading a book or watching a movie, I appreciate the presence of characters that break through the norms of society. A well-built character, in my opinion, has the power to propel the plot forward. Writing female characters that aren’t chained down by stereotypes is crucial, especially for the young audience whose minds can be easily moulded by what they read or see.
But there comes a point when breaking stereotypes becomes harmful. The human race is beautifully diverse and we cannot use fixed formulas to label characters in order to meet certain quotas to please the audience. In an effort to have more strong, independent female characters, authors tend to undermine those with traits that have come to be described as “weak”.
We have all seen this happen. Going back to the example of Hermione, we know how she undermines Lavender Brown, who is shown to cry too much and is more or less portrayed as an annoying character. In fact, throughout the series, characters such as Hermione and Ginny are held up on a pedestal whilst those with more feminine traits, such as Lavender, Parvati, Cho, and Fleur are constantly shunned by everyone else.
You can imagine why this can be detrimental for young readers. Having Hermione as a role model can be great, but if a girl with conventionally feminine traits constantly sees characters like herself being dragged through the mud, it can be a terrible blow to her self-esteem. We need female characters who are rebellious, independent, outspoken — characters who fight against injustice. But they should not be portrayed as superior to female characters who like flowers, think about boys, and cry at the sight of a dead insect.
In our fight to represent more strong female characters in fiction, we tend to associate conventionally feminine traits as “weak” and subsequently eliminate such traits in an attempt to make the character somehow better than others. Being girly is seen as a negative thing. In many stories, empathy and kindness are completely wrung out of female characters to make them strong. Black Widow comes to mind — a strong character, admittedly, but one who has no qualms about pushing a man off the roof.
Compassion is not a flaw. Wanting to be a mother should not be seen as outdated. Being strong does not need to equate to having masculine traits. Katniss Everdeen is an incredibly flawed character, but it becomes a problem when she is seen as a role model because of the way her flaws are mistaken to be the mark of being strong and independent.
Kindness can go hand in hand with ferocity. A soft-spoken person can be just as strong as a rowdy one, and positive qualities should not be erased from a character in order to make her stand out as strong. Penelope Alvarez from the Netflix sitcom One Day at a Time is a good example of a beautifully written character. A single mother of two and a retired army veteran — Penelope has her own moments of highs and lows that make her stand out as a wonderfully strong and ambiguous character.
There are ways to write a strong female character, but in doing so, empathy or sweetness should not be crushed to make way for bravery. There is embracing everyone, and there is embracing the marginalised by diminishing others. At the end of the day, we do not just want strong female characters; we want real and complex characters with flaws and strengths who represent the vast and wonderful diversity of the human race.
Nadira Tasnim is a Harry Potter obsessed math-nerd who loves watching psychology videos in her free time.