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.
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.
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.