The strong female protagonist is an easily recognizable fiction trope. She’s often present in stories where you can expect a fight scene, whether it be an action movie or a Young Adult dystopian novel. At some point in her life, a male relative taught her how to fight, giving her the skills she needs to keep up with the party of predominantly male protagonists. She’s sassy and maybe even a little difficult to be around, but that’s okay because she’s canonically attractive. Because of this, she’s sometimes a femme fatale, but it’s not uncommon for her to be a tomboy who disdains the trappings of femininity.
The strong female protagonist, so far, is unnamed. But you already have a few characters in mind who would fit the bill. Maybe it’s Arya Stark from Game of Thrones or Natasha Romanov from the MCU, but regardless, the cluster of traits that make up the strong female protagonist is recognizable enough that you can tell if a character is going to be one.
What’s a Strong Female Protagonist?
The strong female protagonist is a stock character that’s steadily gained popularity due to the demand for more female representation in media. She evolved from the damsel in distress, another stock character who serves as the quest objective and reward for the male lead protagonist. Instead of being the one who gets saved, the strong female protagonist is likely to be part of the rescue party and will be the first to remind anyone who tries to help her that she can handle herself. A big part of her character is rejection, if not weaponization, of womanhood in ways that make her less of a “female” protagonist and more like a direct gender bend of her male counterparts.
In an analysis of the strong female character trope, researcher Alexandria Gonzales found that female heroines of popular Young Adult fiction speak and think in masculine-gendered language that points to their more masculine point of view. Many of the characters also have to change the way they relate with the world entirely in order to defeat the story’s main antagonist, leading a number of them to go from more feminine roles to a masculine, warrior woman role. Gonzales points out that male main characters don’t go through this transformation, but the strong female protagonist has to take on masculinity in order to save the day.
Additionally, while her male counterparts are often rewarded with love, the strong female protagonist is made to choose between love and her mission in many stories. Just think of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.
The strong female protagonist is also an outsider to conventional society and while that’s a trope we see a lot with male protagonists at the start of their journey, the key difference is that the strong female protagonist is set up to be a “not like other girls” girl with the implication that while she’s an outcast, she’s also better than other, more feminine women.
This isn’t to say the strong female protagonist is a bad character, but that she often tends to be a one note character. She’s a step above the passive damsel in distress and her characterization as a warrior makes it easier for her to exhibit her agency in key parts of a story. It’s just that when executed poorly, her lack of complexity makes the strong female protagonist a caricature of women at best and a mockery of women at worst.
5 Problems With the Strong Female Protagonist
1. She’s not really a female protagonist
The strong female protagonist often becomes the main representation for women in a story to the point that she’ll sometimes be the only female character. But her detachment from anything feminine or related to the female experience makes her come off as less of a female protagonist and more like a protagonist that happens to be female. This isn’t to say the strong female protagonist is less of a woman for being portrayed as a human first before a female, but that her characterization ignores the experiences that women share which in turn shape their world view.
2. She’s often written from a non-female centered point of view
Many of the female characters that Gonzales included in her study of the strong female protagonist were written by women, but despite this, they aren’t written with a female centric point of view. They evaluate themselves against masculine ideals and look at themselves with a male gaze. But wait, you’re probably thinking “How can female characters written by women be written with a male gaze?”
Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaiden’s Tale, succinctly points this out in The Robber Bride where she writes:
“Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you are unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”
In her rejection of femininity and male desire, the strong female protagonist still does not exist a women’s woman, but as a different version of an ideal woman that women do not experience themselves as.
And speaking of an ideal womanhood, that brings us to the next flaw of the strong female protagonist.
3. She promotes a new ‘ideal’ womanhood
The strong female protagonist has become a new ideal woman. She is presented as an alternative to the passive, feminine lady who needs men to defend her, but in becoming a new ideal woman, she gives women their own version of the stoic, unemotional male character who never opens up or admits to needing help. And let’s be real, neither of these characters are realistic for both women and men. In transcending the typical tropes associated with womanhood, the strong female protagonist becomes everything a woman is not and an indictment of feminine traits that are now framed as weaknesses in comparison to her.
4. She tends to be not very well-written
Not all strong female characters are strong female protagonists in the trope’s sense of the word, but the fine line between them comes down to how well written a character is. Brienne of Tarth from A Song of Ice and Fire fits the surface description of the strong female protagonist. She’s an unfeminine woman who hacks and slashes her way through life, but we see her grapple with the emotional scars that come from being a woman who doesn’t fit a feminine ideal, making her a character who is strong but also understands shared female experiences. It’s the depth of her character that makes her good representation compared to your typical strong female protagonist.
5. She’s given simplistic flaws and weaknesses that defeat the point of her being ‘subversive’
Sometimes, the strong female protagonist is given a flaw or weakness that’s intended to make her relatable, but ultimately comes off as reductionist. After being presented with a female character who could be swapped in for a man and not have the plot change, we are suddenly reminded that she’s a woman by the story forcing her into traditional gender roles. Think of a strong female protagonist whose only flaw is that she can’t be a mother or a female lead who gives it all up just to be with the man she loves.
Moving Beyond the Strong Female Protagonist
The strong female protagonist plays a key role in media for women. While she’s not a faithful representation of womanhood, she embodies many female fantasies. Her ability to fight fulfills the fantasy of being safe from sexual violence. Her flaunting of gender roles makes her the fantasy of every woman who hated being told they should act more like a girl. Her willful ignorance of beauty standards fits the fantasy of not having to be conscious of what you look like all the time, of not having insecurities about appearance. And yet, her conventional attractiveness makes her suit the female fantasy of being beautiful ‘enough’.
On a more personal note, she’s many women’s first introduction to a destiny outside of conventional femininity. She always seems to have a say in her own fate and her take charge attitude is enough to make any girl who’s been told they’re too ‘domineering’ or ‘serious’ validated in their identity.
For all her flaws, the strong female protagonist still has an important role to play. It wouldn’t actually be a good thing if she disappeared from media all together, especially not for all the little girls who draw courage from the likes of Hermione Granger. But as our media becomes more diverse and characters become more complex, there’s room for the strong female protagonist to evolve into a more nuanced portrayal of womanhood.