Why We Should Jettison the ‘Strong Female Character’

I’ve just guest posted over on Mere Orthodoxy on the subject of the Strong Female Character trope:

Fictional worlds are places in which we can explore possibilities for identity and agency. The fact that women’s stature as full agents is so consistently treated as contingent upon such things as their physical strength and combat skills, or upon the exaggerated weakness or their one-upping of the men that surround them, is a sign that, even though men may be increasingly stifled within it, women are operating in a realm that plays by men’s rules. The possibility of a world in which women are the weaker sex, yet can still attain to the stature and dignity of full agents and persons—the true counterparts and equals of men—seems to be, for the most part, beyond people’s imaginative grasp. This is a limitation of imagination with painful consequences for the real world, and is one of the causes of the high degree of ressentiment within the feminist movement.

Read the full piece here.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Controversies, Culture, Guest Post, In the News, Politics, Proverbs, Sex and Sexuality, Society, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Why We Should Jettison the ‘Strong Female Character’

  1. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    These sorts of ideological concerns tend to rise to the front as a particular property or series is on the way down. The recent Star Wars movie, notwithstanding its reception, was a really tired retread of the original films. I am one of those who preferred the prequels to this new movie.

    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      Marvel, for example, doesn’t really seem to be bothering much politically correct casting, though I simply don’t believe Scarlett Johansson is a kick-ass anything.

  2. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    Due to radical, nearly absolute, differences in upper body strength, representing women as competent, much less superior warriors means constantly running up against the boundaries of plausibility. It is less insulting to the intelligence when this is female power comes through some sort of magic.

    Blogger Bonald has much good commentary. on these issues. I occasionally comment.

  3. hygelac says:

    I do not go to the movies very often, but since the cinema industry isn’t about to jeopardize its profit margins, we should expect that the bad-ass heroine will continue to appear in the movies for some time to come- as long as the character remains a lucrative one for the studios. A failure of imagination be damned; this is where the money is. On a tangential note, do you suspect that there is a connection between the “strong female character”- a paragon of subversive individualism in perpetual antagonism with authority-and our culture’s worship of youth and its struggle against the strictures of parental authority?

    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      It is difficult to tell how much this is being driven by mass audience demand, or how much is driven by the internal status games of the entertainment industry. Appealing to certain niches may also be a possibility.

  4. p duggie says:

    Nice job. I’m wondering how long it might be before Gawker notices it.

    I don’t know if you’ve seen this piece, but I would assume it would be the a possible thing gestured at by someone who doesn’t take the time to read each of your 80 paragraphs and wants to reply.


  5. WenatcheeTheHatchet says:

    the problems of the strong-female-character have been fodder for discussion for a few years. One of my favorite requests that we see fewer of them is this:

    All in all, the Damsel in Distress was kind of a terrible character, but at least she did end up with the hot hero at the end. Sure, he might have anger issues or just be a tool; then again, he was also probably a prince or a cowboy or a hot PI or a superhero – or if the hero was a regular “everyman” he’d still be a Clark Gable or Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart – so it wasn’t all bad.”

    The older films had more retrograde roles for women but the “trophy” the damsel in distress won at the end of the film was someone like Harrison Ford rather than Shia Lebouef.

  6. quinnjones2 says:

    Hi Alastair. I have read your article (twice!). Unlike several people I know I have not seen any Star Wars films and I have never been remotely interested in any science fiction at all, but I wanted to read what you had to say about it. As always your work is thorough and well–researched and also seasoned with humour (‘ -yay!…. boo!..’). From reading your article I also learnt a bit about ‘second screen’ and ‘shipping’, neither of which I had even heard of before.
    On my mind just now are the words ‘strong’ (in the title of your article) and the phrase ‘weaker vessels’ and am I I wondering about the use of the words ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ when different5iating between men and women. By and large I think that most men are physically stronger than most women, though there are exceptions, as you have pointed out. Personally I accept that, with regard to physical strength, most men have supremacy over me. I have no interest in competing with men in this respect and I am often thankful for their help, for instance with lifting and moving heavy objects!
    Yet in some ways I find it difficult to think of women as ‘the weaker sex'(One of your commenters used this phrase). For instance one of my own strengths is endurance. I think that endurance is a quality that carries many women through pregnancies and childbirth and through sleepless nights with fretful infants and toddlers. I realise that women don’t have a monopoly over the quality of endurance but I think that by and large women and men do have different strengths so I especially like the closing words of your article :
    ‘Here new possibilities emerge – representation without ressentiment, celebration without competition, differentiation without diminishment.’

    • quinnjones2 says:

      I cringe when I see my typos – but I’m sure you know what I meant!

    • Andrew says:

      Well, the expression comes from 1 Pet 3:1-7. Wives are commanded to have a gentle and quiet spirit and to submit to their husbands. Husbands are commanded to be considerate to their wives as the weaker partner.

      And yet you accurately identify men as (in general) the more physically powerful sex, which seems to me to be the thrust of Peter’s argument. In a physical confrontation between a man and woman, the woman loses. Women, do not compete with your husbands. Husbands, do not use your power against your wives, but rather for them.

      Strong (or powerful) is an appellation that is generally applied to men. Do not be jealous of it. The great lie of feminism is that “women should get to be manly too, dammit!”. All are harmed by this lie, but the greatest victim is womanhood, as the lie internalises the assumption that to be a man is greater than to be a woman. Women make poor men; they are not built for it. However, they make far better women than men do. This is something to be celebrated, not a flaw.

      • quinnjones2 says:

        Thank you for your comment Andrew! I especially agree with your comment about ‘the great lie of feminism’ – trying to imitate men just doesn’t work for women. For that matter, I think that trying to imitate anybody doesn’t really work if, in doing so, we are swimming against the current of our own attributes, gifts and callings.
        Alastair focussed on fictional characters and the ways in which these influence and feed into our minds and culture. I realise therefore that I am going off at a bit of a tangent when I make this next comment – if I had been male, I would probagly have become a barrister. Becoming a barrister was my dream when I was 16, back in the 1960s. I was given a great deal deal of encouragement with this and several people helped me to investigate the possibilities of following this career, but the general consensus was that I didn’t stand much of a chance – the legal profession was very much a male domain, and very few women were called to the bar. I was very disappointed at the time, but I did enjoy the profession I eventually chose – teaching. However I think it is probably true to say that what barred me from the bar was not any feminine qualities I might have had, but the fact that this male-dominated profession wanted to remain male-dominated! So yes, I did admire Rose Heilbron and I do admire Cherie Blair…but I won’t be watching ‘Rogue One’ 🙂

  7. hygelac says:

    Here is an exceedingly inchoate response to Andrew’s comments. Might we say that the weakness St. Peter speaks of, relative to the implied contrast of masculine strength in 3: 7 (Likewise, ye husbands dwell with them according to knowledge…”), is, in fact, a form of modeled strength; one that exemplifies the vocation of the Church as strangers and pilgrims in this world? Peter’s charge to Christian wives follows his command that the Church should submit “to every ordinance of man…for so is the will of God that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.”, and the requirement of willing subjection on the part of Christian servants to their masters. Thus, at the beginning of Ch. 3, Peter segues quite naturally into the ordered relation of the husband and wife: “Likewise, ye wives be in subjection to your own husbands…”

    I find it telling that the call to subjection here is in reference to those husbands that “obey not the word.” (a non Christian husband? One who is baptized, but lives in open defiance of the word?). The godly wife is to model the quiet strength of subjection to such a husband unto the end of winning him over to the obedience of the word of God, as he beholds her “chaste conversation coupled with fear.” This seems to display in microcosm the call to the Church to keep its conversation “honest among the Gentiles: that whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation. Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake…”

    Far from being a charge to pursue a course of milk and water passivity, this call to integrity in submission is of a highly militant character; it is established upon the nature of the Church in this world as a company of strangers and pilgrims in perpetual struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil: “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation.”

  8. hygelac says:

    Having thought through my comments, I realize that I have conflated Peter’s words about the wife as the weaker vessel with the matter of her willing subjection to the husband. The two may in fact have nothing to do with each other (although my gut feeling tells me that that couldn’t be the case). But, in any case, my argument proceeds entirely from the latter.

  9. mnpetersen37 says:

    Any thoughts on why Ashitaka [from Princess Mononoke] is male, whereas the warring parties he reconciles are female? In that movie, the “hero[]…achieves [his] ‘victory’ through reconciliation, understanding, [and] feeling” uniting female “characters [who] aren’t simply morally black and white,” but who both think they are morally white, fighting black.

    (For anyone.)

    • WenatcheeTheHatchet says:

      it’s got some precedent in Miyazaki’s larger body of work. For instance, Lord Yupa intervenes between Nausicaa and Princess Kushana to prevent what he believed would have been a bloodbath if the two started fighting (film and manga alike). What Ashitaka gets to be in the conflict between San and Eboshi is a third party able to listen to both sides and suggest an alternative to the binary approaches the two have regarding each other. Ashitaka’s foil is in some sense neither of the women but the conniving monk.

  10. quinnjones2 says:

    My feminist hackles have been on the rise this morning! I’ve been thinking about the division of labour in the home and the ways in which this has changed over the past century or so. My overall thought about this change has been: ‘And about time, too!’.
    Almost ninety-two years ago my tiny maternal grandmother gave birth to twins – a boy weighing about eight pounds and a girl weighing about six pounds .It was a home delivery. My Nan told me that when she was still having bedrest after this confinement, my grandfather, a tall, strapping docker, used to place a bowl of water near the bed in such a position that Nan could lean over and wash the babies’ nappies. In Grandpa’s book washing nappies was not a man’s responsibility. I don’t think that he was unusual in this respect. Of course we now have labour-saving devices – washing-machines, tumble-dryers and disposable nappies , and I know that many young fathers do their share of nappy-changing and so on.
    My Nan also told me that when she was in labour with the twins she was sitting at her sewing machine busily completing an order – she was a seamstress, and she worked from home to earn a bit of extra money for the family. (My grandfather spent a fair amount of his income on drinking and betting on the dogs.) I find it difficult to think of my Nan as a ‘weaker vessel’!
    I have read all the posts here with interest and I am still meditating on it all. On the subject of wives submitting to their husbands, I think that submitting to God comes first, and if obeying one’s husband entails disobeying God, then it is not good to obey one’s husband. For instance if an alcoholic husband tells his wife to lie to his boss about the reason for his absence from work, I think a wife is right to refuse to lie on his behalf. I have never been in this position personally, but I know it happens.
    I am about to re-read I Peter 3 and some commentaries!
    And thank you again for your article, Alastair.

    • quinnjones2 says:

      I need to add that my grandfather did serve King and country in WW1 – he fought in the Battle of the Somme and survived, despite being gassed. He signed up for the army when he was actually too young to serve in it and got in by adding a few years to his age!

    • Andrew says:

      I’m going to offer a traditionally “short” comment 😉

      “On the subject of wives submitting to their husbands, I think that submitting to God comes first, and if obeying one’s husband entails disobeying God, then it is not good to obey one’s husband.” – Broadly speaking I would agree with you, but with some care.

      Firstly, it’s important not to isolate submission of wives to husbands from the other specific teachings of submission in the NT.

      In Ephesians and Colossians (very similar letters), Paul repeats the same three couplets: wives-husbands, children-parents / fathers, slaves-masters. In each couplet, one is given an obligation to submit, while the other is given an obligation of active care.

      Paul instructs Titus to enable older women to teach younger women, including to submit to their husbands (Titus 2:5). Slaves submitting to their masters also gets a mention here.

      In Romans 13:1,5, Paul commands submission to secular authorities, for reasons of pragmatism and of holiness.

      Meanwhile, Peter starts his list with submission to the secular authorities, then slaves to masters, then women to their husbands (1 Pet 2:13-3:6), adding a word to husbands on how to carry their authority. Unlike perhaps Paul, Peter very clearly has in mind Christians behaving well before non-Christian authority, even unjust or harsh non-Christian authority. However, it’s also clearly not intended to only apply to behaviour towards non-Christians (see 1:17). It would make little sense to say that believers are to submit to non-Christian authority but not Christian authority (compare slaves with Christian masters in 1 Tim 6:2). Also, while the example for slaves is Christ on the cross, the example for wives is Abraham and Sarah – it would be odd to argue that this is an example of an unbelieving husband.

      Finally, and usually independently of the above examples, are calls to submit to Christian leaders (1 Cor 16:16, Heb 13:17).

      To summarise the above:
      (1) There are natural authority relationships, and is it both wise and good for Christians to submit to these authorities. The four examples called out by Paul and Peter are worldly authorities, slaves to masters, wives to husbands, and children to parents. The consistent clumping suggests that the principles involved are mostly analogous.

      (2) Submission is called for whether the authority is a believer or not. If the authority is unbelieving, submission is wise and provides a godly witness, in addition to being itself good.

      (3) Believers with authority are to model their authority on God’s. This creates an obligation to act for the good of those in submission, as God does. Note: while this is an inversion of the worldly attitude to authority, it does not invert the authority relationship. Consider John 13:13-17. In Jesus act of humble service in washing his disciples’ feet, he reasserts his authority. He states, “You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘lord’ and rightly so, for that is what I am”, and instructs his disciples that as their master acts in humily, so also they his servants must follow. Christians lead for the good of those led. But implicitly making the one in submission into the authority is neither leading nor godly. Specifically, no-one sensible suggests that parents exercise authority over their children by letting the children primarily set the agenda, yet there is a movement that suggests a husband exercises authority over his wife by doing exactly that!

      (4) Unjust authority is answerable to God. Rebellion per-se is not a Christian virtue, even in the face of persecution. Instead, we must trust that God will deal with those who bring his name into disrepute by abusing authority (Rom 12:17-21). Of course, this is also a warning for believers with authority – God will not be mocked.

      Secondly, it is wise to note that all worldly is limited; the command to submission is not absolute. And yet look at how it is practiced by godly men and women throughout the Scriptures. To refuse evil can be an opportunity to exercise faith by simultaneously placing oneself into both the hands of fallen authority and the God who saves, or an excuse to rebel. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refuse to bow to the statue, but they still acknowledge Nebuchadnezzar’s authority, even as he throws them to their (expected) death. Peter and John refuse the council’s demand that they cease to proclaim Jesus, but the submit to arrest and whipping, and once released praise God for their sufferings rather than plot revenge. It is possible and godly to both refuse to obey an evil order and yet remain in submission. Often, this means submitting to punishment in place of obedience.

      Do we refuse to obey in order to maintain a clean conscience, or to limit our sumbission?

      That said, sometimes flight or hiding is the appropriate response to unjust authority. Peter is hidden after his escape from prison, and then goes elsewhere for a while. Paul is let over the wall in a barrel rather than risk capture at the city gates. It is commendable to suffer for Christ, but often it is wise to take an alternative when it presents itself.

      Let me close by applying this to wives and husbands at a few of points.

      (1) Just as a Christian citizen must desire to submit to lawful authority, and a Christian child to submit to their parents, a Christian wife must desire to submit to her husband (even if he is not a Christian). If disobedience is required, then it should be done in a submissive manner, trusting God to make things right.

      (2) Where submission becomes too dangerous, flight may be an appropriate response. But not as a proxy for rebellion.

      (3) I still think we’re grabbing the wrong end of the stick when it comes to “weaker partner”. Try this question: if your husband was turn his physical might against you, or to physically bully you, what would happen if you fought back? Paul commands husbands to love their wives and not be harsh with them (Col 3:18). Peter is not making a sweeping statement about women being “weaklings”, but pointing out that in a direct contest of strength they will lose, and instructing men to act accordingly (as he has just instructed women to not be quarrelsome). Both husband and wife are to be people of peace, in a manner appropriate for their sex.

      Observe also that treating his wife rightly will keep his prayers unhindered. This is similar to Paul’s charge to Timothy that he wants (Christian) men to raise holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing (1 Tim 2:8). Angry and violent men – whether toward their wives, children, or other men – are not praying men.

      That’s a rather long coment (even in comparison to Alastair), but I hope it’s been a helpful survey around the issues rather than overly focusing on a single idea.

    • quinnjones2 says:

      I can’t resist sharing this little snapshot from our 9 o’clock service today.
      One of our lay readers announced that she wants to organize a three-course meal at church to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday. She said that she will need our help: ‘We need men with muscles to set up the tables, women with lovely smiles to meet and greet, and anyone who can help in the kitchen…’
      Our rector added, ‘I hope many of you will be able to help – and I’m sure there’ll also be jobs for men with lovely smiles and women with muscles.’
      A main theme of the sermon, by the way, was entering into dialogue with people who have different views from our own 🙂

  11. quinnjones2 says:

    HI Andrew – yes, it is a helpful survey around the issues. Thank you. I keep re-reading this: ‘Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego do not bow to the statue but they still acknowledge Nebuchadnezzar’s authority even as he throws them to their (expected) death.’ They acted in a way that they believed was right with God, knowing that N. had the power to punish them for this by subjecting them to a terrible death – and they were ready to face that (but were miraculously spared). Two thoughts have occurred to me as I wrote this: 1. I like the way you used the present tense. It gives an immediacy to it, as though you have entered into the situation in your imagination. 2. I used the word ‘power’, not ‘strength’. I don’t know why I did this, but presumably at some level I believe that there’s a difference between the two – I guess you have already had some thoughts about that.
    I have also been re-reading this:
    ‘If your husband were to turn his might against you and to physically bully you, what would happen if you fought back?’ My husband was never physically violent with me, so I don’t know. However, when I thought that a tall, robust, male pupil was about to push me out of the way so that he could go into the adjacent classroom and beat up another (male) teacher, I just said, ‘If you want to push past me, I can’t stop you.’ He replied, ‘I wouldn’t hurt you, Ma’am.’ Then he went back to his seat.
    I think that these words of yours sum it up nicely:
    ‘Both husband and wife are to be people of peace, in a manner appropriate for their sex.’

  12. Alastair,

    A couple years ago we had a brief conversation on your “About” page, in which you made this comment:

    “Such discussions can be very difficult because a proper understanding of gender in Scripture is so bound up with a very big picture. Once we start to grasp this picture, so many different things start to click into place. At some point I hope that I will have the opportunity to present this picture in extensive detail, to show how everything slots so neatly within it. It would be good to move the debate beyond the zoom lens of competing isolated texts to challenge all of us to think in terms of more global and explanatory visions.”

    I think you have made some impressive steps in this direction in the above commentary. You have a rare capacity to draw together a wide range of ideas and circumstances and distill their essence–thank you for your faithfulness in that regard.

    For many years I’ve been pondering what might be termed a “cosmic vision” of sexuality, along the lines of what Lewis accomplished in his Trilogy. While that particular lens might have little or no impact on the secular mind, I believe the church needs to regain some of what has been obscured by the pervasiveness of feminist assumptions in our culture. In other words, we need to consider not only the damage done to the human family and community, but also the depletion of the Self-revelation God intended in His design of masculinity and femininity.

    I have recently written some thoughts on this subject I’d love to share with you, if you will give me a way to do that.

  13. BétonBrut says:

    Morning! You say, ‘My concern has always been to read the Bible on such subjects closely, thoroughly, and comprehensively.’ So, my question is: does the Bible have anything to say about female roles in twenty-first century cinema?

    Also, does the Bible say that we should read the Bible ‘closely, thoroughly, and comprehensively’? Is this the approach that the Bible mandates?

    Another thing, you say that ‘the huge dependence upon the trope . . . reveals an egalitarian society’s inability to handle natural differences between the sexes.’ The first problem here is that ‘dependence on the trope’ could reveal any number of things about society, there is no necessary connection between the presence of the trope in films and a specific cultural dependence. Maybe some people just want some escapism, therefore they are not looking for naturalistic action. Maybe some accept that the portrayal of women is unnatural, but that’s the effect they are after. Maybe some film goers don’t think about the representation of gender on screen at all. There are any number of reasons for the phenomenon you point to, and therefore no reason to accept your judgement. Second, your statement implies that egalitarianism is based on the idea that there are no ‘natural differences between the sexes.’ This may be true of some flavours of egalitarianism, but it’s certainly not true of all of them. There are at least two other versions of egalitarianism which accept natural differences. (i) It is perfectly reasonable to believe that men and women are fundamentally different, that these differences are natural, AND that these differences do not necessitate a difference of gender roles (on screen or off screen). That is to say, natural differences are irrelevant to the issue of rights, privileges, or forms of social organisation. (ii) The position adopted by many early twentieth century feminists in Britain was that natural differences between men and women *necessitate* an egalitarian society, as men and women both have qualities that are necessary at all levels of, and in all aspects of government and society. You may not find these arguments compelling, but they contain nothing that is inherently incoherent. As you are aware the similar/different dichotomy is not the equal/unequal dichotomy. In short, egalitarianism is wholly compatible with the view that men and women are not the same.

    Finally, I’m not convinced that there is a trope of the ‘strong female character’ in contemporary film. It would be possible, in fact easy, to problematise each of the examples you give of the trope in cinema; and to put up a similar cannon of women in contemporary cinema who play less kickass roles. As a result, your argument would largely fall apart as it would lack clear examples of the trope. What is more you haven’t demonstrated that the examples you give are typical of anything. Crucially, you haven’t provided a metric which would allow us to definitively point to examples of such a trope. As things stand, identification of the ‘trope’ relies on the subjective interpretation of the viewer.

    Why not follow the example of the Bechdel test, which provides a *metric* by which films can be judged. Developed by feminist Alison Bechdel, the test allows viewers to judge the active presence of women in films and other fiction through easily observable fully quantifiable measures. Ironically, given your thoughts on the inclinations of men and women, Bechdel’s test has an objective quality which your thoughts on the trope of the ‘strong female character’ have yet to achieve.

  14. Pingback: What is Your Position on Complementarianism and Egalitarianism? | By Faith We Understand

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