Can We Stop Whining About “Strong Female Characters” Now?

Captain Marvel - IGN

For the last few years, the phrase “Strong Female Character” has become somewhat of a mocking, belittling phrase, hasn’t it? It started out as a bragging point by writers and moviemakers who wanted to assure us all that they weren’t being sexist because they had a Strong Female Character either as a protagonist or as a love interest, and then the term got overused and fans started using it about  female characters that were TOO strong, TOO good, TOO perfect, and probably just there to make the male characters look incompetent by comparison. 

So now you get tons of literary analysists, reviewers, creative writing advisors and fans with nothing better to do, spend a lot of time warning against the Strong Female Character, using a lot of words and a lot of phrases to assure us that no, they’re not being sexist or anything like that, but there’s a RIGHT way and a WRONG way to write a female protagonist. And they’ll inevitably drag in either Rey from the Star Wars sequels or Carol “Captain Marvel” Danvers from the MCU, usually both, as examples of the WRONG way to write a female protagonist. Even when they’re presenting an example that they like, they ALWAYS have to sneak in that comparison to those two characters who were written WRONG, inadvertently giving their fave characters the “not like the other girls” treatment.

And it’s driving me nuts.

Look, I get it. When I was a youngster feeling my way through the Internet, fanfiction and creative writing, I too dreaded the terrible Mary Sue.  You know, Mary Sue. The term isn’t nearly as popular as it once was, but it originated in Star Trek fanfics and for the longest time was used as a derogatory term for a certain type of female character. “Everyone loves Mary Sue, because Mary Sue is good at everything” was the mocking refrain. There’s been lots of Mary Sues in fanfics, often (but not always) the center of self-insert wish fulfilment fantasies by teenage girls, who wrote their characters as impossibly beautiful, talented and beloved, and usually  ending up in bed with the writer’s fave character. 

Generally badly written and rather cringe-inducing, Mary Sues were the laughingstocks and punching bags of the creative writing side of the Internet. Entire sites and communities were dedicated to mocking and bashing her and countless fics were written about “Mary Sue hunters” who traveled through franchises and beloved fandoms to hunt down and mercilessly kill the canon-warping parasites that were Mary Sues. 

I’m not proud of it, but back in my old days (under old and mostly forgotten Internet handles), I was totally on board with all this. On various message boards and online communities I joined in on the mocking, I wrote silly songs and anti-fics (all of which have thankfully been lost to time) and was eager to declare my hatred of the dreaded Mary Sue. I kept reassuring myself, and everyone who wanted to listen, how I would never write such terrible characters. Nope, with my fanfic attempts, my roleplay characters, even my various attempts at original fantasy stories, I wrote REAL characters with three-dimensional personalities and everything. They all had flaws and stuff, I insisted, while running them all through countless Mary Sue litmus tests to make absolutely certain they weren’t Mary Sues.  I read articles about the various types of Mary Sue, constantly comparing my own characters against them. And I pointed fingers at canon and fanfic characters alike and joined the chorus in crying “Mary Sue!” 

Yeah, I was being kind of an idiot. 

Sure, a lot of the Mary Sues WERE terribly written and their stories were like tailored to be “what not to do when writing” examples. But really, there were also examples that weren’t that bad, or at least could have been salvaged with a bit of thought and care. But this borderline panic we had at anything that even reminded us of a Mary Sue, led us to, to use an old cliched saying, throw the baby out with the bathwater. If a female character had ANY sort of unique talent or was good at ANYTHING, the Mary Sue accusations started arriving… even for canon characters. Lots of really good characters and concepts were dismissed out of hand just because we saw Mary Sue everywhere.

I remember it got really ridiculous in the 2007 TMNT movie, where people started accusing that April O’Neil of being a Mary Sue, because… get this… in the big climax group fight she went up against Karai and kicked her. .She didn’t DEFEAT her, or even kick her down… she kicked her, causing Karai to slide back a few feet while April ran off.  I kid you not, people were angry at this, going “April shouldn’t have been able to get a kick in on a master ninja! They turned her into SUCH A MARY SUE!” Anyone who’s seen the movie will probably remember that April is a secondary character in the movie and that the story isn’t about her at all… it’s about Raphael and his conflict with Leonardo. And yet, that one kick — ONE KICK — was causing people to cry “Mary Sue.”

Even I saw how stupid this was. And little by little, I started to re-evaluate the entire “Mary Sue” term. I started to realize that “Mary Sue” had just ended up as shorthand for “female character I don’t like.” Any sign of excellence or even competence was used as an excuse to label the girl a Mary Sue. And whereas the male equivalent “Gary Stu” DID see a bit of use, I found that it took a WHOLE LOT MORE for a male character to get anywhere near that level of hatred. Even when they were just as bad, or even worse. Batman could kick all sort of ass and defeat opponents he shouldn’t have been able to defeat, and he remained popular. Sherlock Holmes has “smarter than anyone else” as part of his character and has been beloved for over a century. (Even the godawful Stephen Moffat-written Benedict Cumberbatch incarnation, who is the biggest Gary Stu ever, was initially loved and applauded and praised… though thankfully people started cooling down on him.) 

In short…what we were seeing here was nothing more than some good old-fashioned sexism. And I’d fallen for it hook, line and sinker. I was getting into the unfortunate mindset that a MALE character can be written any way and as long as the writing is good it can work, but a FEMALE character HAS to be written a certain way. She can’t be too competent or too independent, because then she’s a Mary Sue, but she can’t be too weak or codependent either because then she’s an Anti-Sue. Basically the term “Mary Sue” just became another way to slag off any female character.

And I’m seeing the same thing with all those “Here’s why I hate Strong Female Characters” and “Here’s how you write a Strong Female Character who doesn’t suck” essays and critiques. Okay, sure, a number of the essays and critiques are probably well-intentioned and done in the hope of getting more and better female characters in media… but you’re still singing the EXACT SAME CHORUS as those sour-faced dudebro manchildren who slag off “Strong Female Characters” because they just want to see less female leads and keep to movies where women are just love interests and eye candy. 

I’m going to be totally frank: Rey and Carol are not actually bad characters. Sure, they’re not particularly INTERESTING characters; Rey in particular is kinda bland… but so is 80% of main characters in total. Luke Skywalker was no less of an unrealistically gifted prodigy than Rey, but because he’s a dude you don’t mind it, maybe didn’t even notice it. (Yeah, I still don’t like Star Wars. Get over it,)  As for Carol… you might remember that I reviewed the Captain Marvel movie when it came out and I quite liked both the movie and the titular character. 

The critique is the EXACT SAME as we threw out in out “Mary Sue hatred” days. Oh, she’s too powerful and perfect. Oh, she’s not struggling enough. Oh, she doesn’t have enough flaws. Oh, she shows up everyone else and makes the dudes look bad by comparison. Okay, we didn’t say that last one, but that’s mainly because fanfics weren’t mainstream and most of the writers were girls who didn’t care if the male characters were cool enough long as they were available for some slash scenes, but you get my point. 

Look, it’s not as if I don’t get it. Mainstream entertainment DOES tend to force its female characters into very specific roles. For centuries, dudes have been the “default” gender in fiction, and they’re not defined by their gender like that. Think of all the ensemble shows where there’s one girl in the main cast and her entire role and personality is just “girl.” You know, “the leader, the big guy, the smart guy, the goofy guy and the girl.” In later years, scriptwriters have kind of started to realize that when a character’s entire personality begins and ends with “girl,” that doesn’t make for a very interesting char. But the problem of “dudes are the default” remains, and so the girls are STILL defined by their gender… and so now, the woman has to be BOTH eye candy so the boys have something to look at, AND inspirational because girls need role models. Enter the badass female warrior who’s so sexy and smart and confident that all the dudes are just flabbergasted, and everyone wants to bang her.

But I’m going to be a little controversial here and say that,,, there’s actually nothing WRONG with characters like that. The problem comes when every single major female char is written like that.

Oversaturation isn’t good for any character type… I mean, anyone who’s done any amount of D&D type roleplaying know and mock the “mysterious badass loner warrior” character that you inevitably get by the dozen when teenage guys are playing. And anyone who’s read any amount of romance trash novel knows the rugged “bad boy” character who just needs the main female protagonist’s love to feel again. And let’s not forget the “eccentric genius detective” character from detective stories who might be a little weird and annoying and probably rather arrogant, but who always solves the case. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these character types either, bur they ARE a dime a dozen, and unless they’re written really well they can get tiresome… and your reaction to them is just “oh, look, another one of these.”

And yet we don’t really see tons of articles or essays complaining about badass loner warriors. I can of the top of my head not think of a single “here’s how to write an eccentric detective who doesn’t suck” Youtube video. I remember there’s been complaints about individual characters, like Moffat’s Sherlock… but they tend to focus on the character as a badly-done example of the trope; they don’t dismiss all characters like that as worthless. 

You can claim that this isn’t about sexism all you want, but the day I believe that is the day when I’m bombarded with as many “why strong male characters are bad” and “here’s how to write a good strong male characters” essays and critiques.

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