Trope Time: Strong Female Protagonists

09/08/2020 Discussions, Literature, Reading 10

Welcome to Trope Time, the blog series where I talk all about tropes: the good, the bad and the ugly!

This is a bi-weekly series in which I take an in-depth look at various types of tropes, from character tropes, to world-building tropes and plot tropes.

Today’s trope is an interesting one: the strong female protagonist. This trope seems to have become huge in YA fiction particularly, largely as a pushback against some of the more passive and ineffective heroines of the past (Bella Swan, I’m looking at you!).

You know the kind of character I’m talking about: she likes typically masculine things like fighting, is a total badass who can kick most men to the curb, and is sassy and snarky as hell while doing it (even if she does have a heart of gold!). On the surface she sounds great, but I think these kind of characters often do women and girls as much of a disservice as passive heroines, because they seemed to be rooted in the idea that femininity is bad, and means being weak.

I personally think there’s a way to do the whole ‘strong female protagonist’ well, but the phrase has become so associated with a certain kind of character (the one mentioned above), I think it would need completely redefining going forward.

But first let’s talk about the attributes of a classic ‘strong female protagonist’ and a few examples, before we look at how the character type could be redefined.

The Attributes of a ‘Strong Female Protagonist’

  • She’s often a tomboy: As I’ve previously said, the strong female protagonist was a reaction to move away from the classic female characters of the past, who were usually stereotypically feminine and passive. So it makes sense to start having strong tomboy characters, right? Well, not exactly. I think if it fits for the character to be a tomboy, then sure, but if it’s just done for the sake of it, then it’s no better than the passive characters of the past. It still conveys the message that being feminine is bad, if you have to become more masculine to be considered strong.
  • She has an attitude: I don’t know why being strong as a female apparently means being brash and snarky! Again, if this is just part of the character, then fine (and I do love snarky characters!), but often I think authors do this to make them seem tough, when it can actually come off as irritating, and even make them seem stupid. In a dangerous situation where your life is hanging in the balance, saying something snarky to the guy about to kill you is probably more stupid than badass!
  • She has crazy fighting skills: It’s pretty common for strong female protagonists to have strong fighting skills, and be capable of putting much bigger and stronger opponents down in minutes. Now I love a good warrior character, but I think there has to be some realism involved…I like to see them struggle just a bit, and I also like to see that they’ve earned these skills through training, and don’t just have some annoying natural aptitude. I also find it annoying when everyone just says that the character is a total badass, and ‘don’t cross her!’ but then we never actually see any evidence of said skills.
  • Everyone loves her or hates her: She’s so good at everything and so ‘different from other girls’ that it’s easy to admire her, but her attitude also gets her in trouble and a lot of people hate her…but they’re just jealous, obviously! It can be so easy for a ‘strong female protagonist’ to come off as a tougher version of the Mary-Sue, whose just naturally adept at everything she does, and everyone thinks she’s awesome until they cross her…and it’s every bit as boring as the classic Mary-Sue!

Examples

  • Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games: As one of the original ‘strong female characters’, I can’t actually hate on Katniss, because she always seemed like the real deal to me! She did struggle in the Hunger Games, but as well as being kick-ass, she also got by a lot on her wits, and would take help when it was offered. I feel like the ‘strong female protagonist’ trope originates in a big way from the popularity of The Hunger Games, and people trying to copy the character to an extent that it has became a watered-down, cardboard cut-out version of Katniss.
  • Tris Prior from Divergent: Whilst Tris only learns to fight throughout the story, she definitely has the ‘strong female’ attitude, and I definitely found it got annoying further in the series! She also gets a lot of largely unearned admiration from the people around her, and I just didn’t feel like she was all that likeable (or even that strong when you looked past the surface).
  • Celaena Sardothien from Throne of Glass: Now, as much as I enjoyed the Throne of Glass series, there’s a lot about Celaena that ticks the boxes on the list above….but I did like the twist of her being quite feminine and liking dresses and make-up whilst being able to kick-ass! I think the constant admiration of those around her could get quite irritating though, especially combined with her arrogance.
  • Cat from A Promise of Fire: To be honest, I can’t remember a whole lot about this book, other than really disliking Cat as a character…she seemed like a very generic ‘strong female’, and I got some serious ‘not like other girls’ vibes from her. This wasn’t helped by there being a ‘mean girl’ character in the series vying for the same love interest’s affections, and she is shown to be incredibly petty and bitter in comparison to the oh-so wonderful Cat.

Things I’d Like To See In A ‘Strong Female Protagonist’

As I said earlier, I don’t think this trope is bad in and of itself, it just needs a little updating! Although I also think it’s time we called it something different as well…having to define that a female character is strong implies that being female means a general lack of strength, which isn’t great. But since I have no great ideas for the new name for this trope, I’ll have to keep referring to it as ‘strong female protagonist’ for now!

So here’s some different things I’d like to see more of:

  • Intelligence over brawn: Now don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy female characters that are great fighters, as long as it’s done realistically. But I’d also like to see more characters who are physically weak, but still tough…they just get by on their wits more than anything. It’s been a long time since I’ve read the book, but I seem to remember Kestrel from The Winner’s Curse being more this type of heroine, and it was one thing I really liked about the book!
  • Darker characters: I know we’re seeing a lot more female anti-heroes these days, but I think the classic ‘strong female protagonist’ is generally good at heart, and so I’d like to see more morally grey heroines! One I liked from a series I read recently was Lada from And I Darken. She has a lot of classic ‘strong female character’ attributes, but it’s paired with quite a dark and violent temperament that made her a very interesting character! There’s also Monza from Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold, who I’d say is downright unlikable, but she’s so fascinating as a character that it didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the book at all.
  • Sweeter characters: So this is the exact opposite of the last one, but since typical strong female protagonists tend to have attitude (even if they’re good at heart), I think it would be interesting to see someone who is very sweet and kind, but still gets the job done! The first character that comes to mind as an example of this is Yumeko from the Shadow of the Fox series, who is incredibly kind-hearted but brave and dedicated enough to do what she needs to do.

So what do you think of the ‘strong female protagonist’ trope? Is it one that needs retiring, or can it be updated? What are some of your favourite/least favourite examples of the trope?

10 Responses to “Trope Time: Strong Female Protagonists”

  1. Catherine@basedonthebook

    Great post, I really like all your ideas for things you’d like to see more of! I think Katniss works despite the fact she hits all the tropes because her tougher side is balanced so well by her gentleness towards Prim and Rue and Peeta – she’s not judgemental of people who have a different type of strength? Her backstory is set up well too, so you can understand why she’s become the way she is.

    • Laura

      I totally agree! Katniss works because you see how she became so tough, and also that she does have a softer side.

  2. Becky @ A Fool’s Ingenuity

    Great post, as soon as I started reading your definition of a ‘strong female protaganist’ I knew that Celaena from Throne of Glass would be mentioned. I will say, if you want someone with brains over brawn as your MC The Winner’s Curse is the first book sprang to mind too (although I couldn’t remember her name). I do think we need less of our strong female protaganist being strong and more skilled than everyone else, I want to see them work hard to gain their skills and not feel like they just had them. And they always seem to have very few friends, why do they have to be socially isolated?

    • Laura

      That’s so true! They always seem to have to be isolated, lone wolf types, and I don’t know if it’s just to make them seem cooler and more independent, or if it’s just part of their ‘not like other people’ thing, but I wish it would stop! I’d like to see a Strong Female Protagonist with lots of friends! 🙂

  3. Molly @ Molly's Book Nook

    I definitely think there is a standard or cliche when someone thinks of a strong female character. While I don’t have an issue with the type of character associated with it, I wish it wasn’t the only one. I’d like to see more variety. I like what Becky above me said – why are they always socially isolated? It’d be nice to see friendships!

    • Laura

      I’d love to see more variety as well, and I agree with Becky too. Where are all the Strong Female Protagonists with lots of friends, or really close friendships? I’d love to see more of that.

  4. Gayathri

    As much as I love strong female leads, I rather would see a fully developed character rather than a caricature, just as a performative effort. I love your list!

    • Laura

      I’m the same. I don’t like it when they just make a token effort and the character ends up being really flat.

  5. Chana @ Paper Procrastinators

    Aah, I love the IDEA of a strong female character but the trope sometimes rubs me the wrong way. I think that I don’t really like the trope of it because it sort of sends the message that there’s only one way to be a “strong female”. I wish that the trope was more varied and I hope that books start to show strong female characters that have more realistic range!

    • Laura

      I totally agree! I wish there was more variety of strong female characters, and that they were more realistic, because theoretically it should be an amazing trope.

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