Dynamic Female Characters are better than Strong Female Characters

The phrase Strong Female Character is particularly uninspiring. Usage tends to under-value high quality story telling due the prominence of a female lead, like Sarah Michelle Gellar in  Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or over-value the presence of a sexy female in low quality storytelling, like Megan Fox in Transformers. Both Mikaela Banes in Transformers and Buffy Summers in BTVS are characters, who are female and strong (physically). But beyond that, it’s difficult to get any meaningful idea of what these women are all about. To be a Strong Female Character is to be anonymous beyond the name.

sfc

Mikaela Banes, in Transformers, making love to a motorcycle for some reason; Buffy Summers without her voice but far from anonymous.

Smart viewers know that what is to be valued is not the Strong Female Character but the Dynamic Female Character. The Dynamic Female Character represents the attempt to create a fully-actualized human (or not, sometimes) female in our stories. This to me is what Buffy offers. She’s obviously a BAMF capable of major slayage; and a female. But Buffy’s also a teenage girl, nervous around boys and excited about sex and fearful of alcohol, who becomes a young woman looking for self-determination and struggles with the consequences of its arrival, who becomes a powerful woman based on a difficult life as the Slayer. Buffy is a Dynamic Female Character surrounded by Dynamic Male and Female and Dead Characters. She’s much more than Strong Female Character allows.

The Strong Female Character designation removes the unique quality from a character, be it vulnerability or humor or intelligence or passion or even strength. It leaves audiences with the sensation that this actress was hired to play a role meant to assure us that the writers and directors understand the need for females to occasionally appear on-screen. They are generally beautiful and will appear mostly (on tv) to completely (in film) nude every so often. Also, they’re gifted at fighting/crime-solving/doctoring/specially-created-script-requirement but not particularly gifted beyond this initial purpose. They lack reality and are boring additions to generally underwhelming stories centered on the struggle between a Stock Male Hero and a Villain From the Playbook.

This backfires from time to time. Star Trek Into Darkness was widely  criticized for a scene in which the smart and sexy Dr. Carol Marcus stripped down to her totally impractical but shiny bra and panties because this is what Strong Female Characters do now and then. Damon Lindelof, who wrote the script for Star Trek, actually apologized for the gratuity. Which is a positive if small step. We’ll see if he corrects course next time by passing over the Strong Female Character in favor of a Dynamic Female Character.

This shouldn’t be that hard, after all. There are all kinds of Dynamic Female Characters. She can be beautiful and provocative and strong and powerful and like sex. Or she can be  weak, or weird, or evil, or funny, or mean, or Tina Fey. That’s the point of dynamic characterization; we are not generalized into categorical definition easily, nor should our characters be.

Examples are everywhere. Some are obvious.  Hermione Granger is strong in the traditional heroine way, but she’s also a book-smart bossy-pants who knows everything and lets you know she does. Some are strange. I like Elliot from Scrubs because she’s both a good doctor and also completely nutters. She’s a lovely person who cares about the world and her friends and her job, who embraces her absurdity publicly and proudly.

The genre world is full of Dynamic Female Characters that are far more interesting and inspiring than the Strong Female Characters for which we seem to be constantly searching.  The list is strong and fierce (Michonne,  Starbuck, Zoe) and goofy (Elaine) and warm (Mrs. Huxtable) and bizarre (Lindsay Fünke). And could go on and on. Each of these characters is dynamic in her way, but also, chiefly, whole.

katniss

This all comes up  as a result of the new trailer for Hunger Games: Catching Fire. There’s a moment in which Katniss is face to face with President Snow, being told that she fought hard in the games, but those were just games. Does she actually want to engage in a real war? The camera lingers a moment on Katniss and we see a woman who only could be belittled by the Strong Female Character moniker. The moment was brief but remained through the day in my mind.

In a three-second shot from a trailer for a blockbuster teen fantasy series, I was drawn into the moment by Jennifer Lawrence much more than in most two-hour feature films. That’s because of Jennifer Lawrence, who is the best, but it’s also the effort of the storytellers to know who Katniss is: strong, yes, but  afraid, and willful; terrifying to her opponents and scared for her sister and fellow District Twelvers. It is a moment of fully actualized reality. She is a Dynamic Female Character. And its so fun to watch.

 

9 responses to “Dynamic Female Characters are better than Strong Female Characters

  1. Completely agree. I feel like when most people think “strong female character” they think of Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. I feel like “strong” was an applicable description of “dynamic” back when the term was first being used for TV and Movies. It meant a strongly written character, like Buffy, who was strong in that her role in the show was not built to serve a male character, but was strongly written in terms of the depth of her character. But the term has been repurposed into “ass-kicking eye candy”. It’s what was so frustrating about Into Darkness, because historically Star Trek has always been full of female characters who meet the old definition of strong, and the movie just featured ones with the new, misused definition of strong. Great post!

  2. Good observation. I was thinking: Isn’t the Strong Female Character a product of the storyline? In Transformers, there isn’t much room to explore the female character because the story doesn’t allow it. It ‘s all about the action. Megan Fox is just a showpiece in that movie. Whereas, the movie Hunger Games “allows” a Dynamic Character to be created because of the storyline. Just my thoughts…

    • I think you’re right Butterflies, that the story defines the characters. But the question then is: why do these stories require such a product?
      The writers only create SFCs because the audiences consume and desire their function within the larger narrative, right? I mean, if we all said: We are not going to any more movies that bandy about a half-naked Megan Fox for no reason other than fulfill stock roles, then perhaps our story-makers would realize they don’t need these characters to begin with?

      • Good question. I think for every individual who wants a dynamic character, there are several others who want the mindless stuff. Might be an age thing, or a gender thing. Who knows? And, also the dynamic character development probably requires acting skills that some actors and actresses just might not have very much of. What do you think?

  3. Its an interesting point you make here. I’ve never bothered to make the separation between a strong female character and a dynamic one. The moment I started reading your post, immediately I thought “aren’t they the same thing?” But after reading further I do see the distinguishing factors. Something that comes to mind is most of the James Bond movies. A lot of these women are supposedly strong in their own aspect but all end up in bed with Bond for no apparent reason; I always wondered why the female character always ended up doing that. In the end, it’s the idea that sex appeal sells views and to a certain degree it does. But I feel that the longer this goes on, the misconception of what a strong female character is will become a standard and that leads us no where. Dynamic female characters are definitely more interesting to watch. They drawn me into the movie rather than catch my attention for a brief moment. Even J.Lawrence’s performance in Silver Linings Playbook was just absolutely phenomenal. She wouldn’t be a strong female character but definitely a dynamic one; just full of character and depth. Hopefully I understood what you were saying correctly otherwise my comment here would be completely wrong haha.

    • Far as I’m concerned J. Lawrence can do no wrong. She was brilliant in Silver Lining’s Playbook, a movie that I loved.
      I think your distinction is correct, and LovePirate above seems to signal an agreement. The idea has shifted over time, and the Bond Girl seems an excellent way to follow that change.

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  5. Such a great post. Admittedly, I have been reffering to female characters I admire as “strong” but my definition of strong is pretty much what you describe as “dynamic” but I don’ t think even I have fully explained that distinction. I think the dynamic description fits perfectly for characters like Katniss and Buffy, and the female actor that portray them

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