A ton of things have been written about “strong female characters”- how we need them in narratives, and what it means to have them in a creative work's cast. Tons of discussions and social media wars have been waged on what it is that makes a female character strong.
While I will discuss that a little bit in this article, I want to also discuss the “strong male lead”. Why don't we talk about them at all, as if they are in abundance?
And even most importantly, about the tendency to assume that they're mutually exclusive- as if we can't have one if we have the other.
Is it impossible to have both a strong male character and a strong female character in a cast? Is it impossible to have a strong male AND a strong female lead in a story?
What is considered a strong female lead?
Generally, from what I've gathered from most current mainstream narrative works (from movies to comics) it's a lady that breaks traditional norms about what constitutes a female. She may be less curvy and/or beautiful, she may wear a mostly male-coded outfit, she will dislike or reject things traditionally liked by women, she will not be supportive in an emotional way, she will be aggressive and/or rude… and of course, she will not know how to cook. Often, they're also almost infallible… With notable exceptions, I've noticed a trend of mass-production of ‘strong female leads’ that check a series of boxes without much more substance to them.
And while definitely there are many strong and powerful women in the world that have some or even all of the above things (and more), there's just as many that do and are not strong, and never will be. Just as there are many curvy, pretty, girly looking, beautiful ladies that give emotional support and know how to cook, that are also very strong.
My point is that traits and characteristics (and appearance) aren't the vital element that makes a strong female lead. Nor are traditionally female-ascribed things taboo for strong female leads.
What makes a female character strong is her personality and her capacity to make logical executive decisions whether she's the person in charge or not which advance the plot. She has to be someone people lean on and which the audience can also lean on and hope she will come through in the challenges presented by the plot. Lip service to such a thing without it being actually earned only makes the female character stand out like a sore thumb and attract the audience's frustration and rejection, while the story loses credibility and therefore quality.
And what about the male lead? What makes a male lead strong?
In my opinion, it's not the muscles, the guns and the rank he may have. It's not whether he's macho or pumped full of testosterone- and certainly not if he's the exact opposite either. It isn't whether he has never set foot in the kitchen (but grills and barbecues) or whether he's a 5 star chef that cooks for his lady or whatever (though that's always a way to earn brownie points with a female audience!). It isn't if he's center stage or at the sidelines. And it certainly isn't hinging on his being infallible (as many token ‘strong’ characters tend to be).
Again, it's his personality. He has to be able to carry through the stakes, give support to his allies and make proper executive decisions that drive the plot forward (whether the decisions are right or wrong isn't as important as they having to be logical for the situation and/or his personality AND driving the plot).
And what about a male and a female strong character coexisting together, carrying the plot forward without taking the limelight from each other? Is that even possible?
Of course it is. If they are truly strong characters, then they'll work off each other to propel the work forward. Whether allies or antagonists, they'll be powerful people that the audience will acknowledge and admire (or love to hate). The existence of the one will not overshadow the other, on the contrary, it will complement them.
In the end it comes down to the writing. Token ‘strong’ leads, whether male or female, will not convince the audience. They will not elevate a story and they will not get it engagement. Actual strong leads will become iconic.
What about you? Have you strong male and female leads? Only male? Only female? How come?
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Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Dec. 8, 2018
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