The Strong Female Character Trope: Progressive or Regressive?

Photo from Marie Claire

Strong. Female. Character. Those three words, without any context, conjure up images of some familiar heroines: Diana Prince from Wonder Woman. Rey from the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy. Carol Danvers from Captain Marvel. Though they have different journeys and destinations, they are cut from the same cloth. All three women were written to represent the female power fantasy; to allow women the opportunity to enjoy stories the way men have for hundreds of years. Female characters are now the heroes of their own narratives. They save the day and produce record breaking box office numbers in the process.

But unlike their male counterparts, these modern heroines do not achieve their success without sacrifice. They cannot have it all. Love, family–anything feminine–are denied to them, because those traits are deemed lesser and weak. The strong female character needs to kick ass and take names. If she does fall in love, she needs to give it up for the greater good. That’s the price to pay for a seat at the table.

For a while, there wasn’t much of an uproar on how these characters were portrayed. Heroines were finally getting the spotlight. What cause did we have to complain? But, after several years and a slew of assembly line characters with identical traits and desires, the strong female character trope warrants closer inspection.

Don’t believe in the backlash? Look no further than how public opinion on Diana Prince has shifted. When the first film came out in 2017, Diana received almost universal praise. She was different than other female characters–a heroine who embraced her femininity. Who believed in love. Who didn’t shy away from physical pleasure. Watching Diana cross No Man’s Land was an inspiring scene. It was a moment of true heroism long absent from modern superhero blockbusters. At last, we finally had a female character whose greatest strength was her capacity to love and inspire others. Even when she lost her beloved Steve Trevor, Diana believed in the human race enough to keep fighting.

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But the Diana in Wonder Woman 1984 declares, after losing Steve Trevor for a second time, that she will never love again. Her job is to save the world. To let others love. But she herself cannot partake. Because as a hero, love is unattainable. Yet, Tony Stark got married and had a daughter. Steve Rogers ended up dancing with Peggy Carter like he always wanted. Even the ever stoic Clark Kent gets Lois Lane. These men—these heroes–are rewarded for their good behavior. Women are punished for it. And the public is taking notice.

One recent example of this trend is Rey from Star Wars. Rey desires family and belonging and both she–and the audience—are led to believe that Ben Solo aka Kylo Ren–will fulfill those needs. But Ben died in her arms and Rey never met her parents. Instead, she ended the final film in the sequel trilogy–The Rise of Skywalker–alone on a desert planet, surrounded by robots and relics of the past. It is presented as a triumphant ending. Rey is a Jedi, the strongest Force user in the galaxy, but she is alone and denied the gifts bestowed upon the men.

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Even when women are acting like the men, they are criticized for it. Who could forget about the smear campaign against Brie Larson for advocating for equality in media representation? Larson was deemed a man hater and petitions were created to get her fired for the part. And then there was the vitriol reaction to Larson’s portrayal of Carol Danvers in Captain Marvel. The biggest strike against her being bland–which made sense given she was essentially reprogrammed–was her inability to smile. Some fans could not handle that Carol was not acting in a traditionally feminine manner. Heroines are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

Photo from empireonline

Ironically, feminist icons like Ellen Ripley from the Alien quadrology and Sarah Connor from the first two Terminator films, both of whom were created long before this current cast of strong female characters, are better representations of female characters than any modern heroine. Ellen and Sarah were allowed to be imperfect. They made mistakes and saved the day. But the were unapologetically human–and feminine. Both these women found love and did whatever it took to protect their children–something you don’t see in fiction much nowadays. They are well remembered not because they had big guns and kicked ass, but because they were well written characters, designed to serve a story, not an agenda.

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Photo from The Mary Sue

This topic is near and dear to my heart, for my current WIP features a female protagonist and I have been very conscious about not giving into the strong female character trope. I want my heroine to be real and I want her to save the day. But I also want her to get the reward she so deserves and to be a character, not a set of ideas created by executives in a board room.

With more people waking up to down sides of the regressive trope, I am hoping that in the years to come, both literature and film will be filled with real women–not strong ones.