At the same time female characters are becoming more ambitious, driven, and successful, they’re also becoming weaker and one-dimensional. Movies and TV shows are full of women who are strong physically, and often intellectually as well. But, more often than not, emotionally, morally, and spiritually, they’re wrecks.
Whedon has made a name for himself writing strong women like Buffy, a slender blonde teenager saddled with the responsibility of saving the world from various evil creatures. Buffy was physically strong, and as quick with a quip as she was with a stake. At the same time, she got into some of the most ill-advised sexual relationships of all time, with some of the very creatures she was meant to be destroying — creatures who (surprise!) treated her very badly indeed.
The young woman who simultaneously fought evil and slept with it is emblematic of our era: Buffy was out to change the world, with no clear idea of what she was fighting against, or what she was fighting for, or why she was fighting at all. In discarding a clear understanding of morality, Buffy, the favorite “strong woman” of many young girls, was ironically and sadly weakened.
Rather than following movie characters around with tests and checklists, it seems to me, we’d do better to try to change our culture’s mentality about what a strong woman really looks like. And we could start by acknowledging that she doesn’t have to look like a Marvel action heroine. She can be kind and giving and self-respecting and caring and mature. Those qualities may be scorned as too passive or too stereotypically feminine by our cultural establishment, but that only means that they’re overlooking the very tools they need to start bringing their emotionally brittle heroines to life.
Now, we like Buffy here at Right Fans, but Dalfonzo has a point: If you want to write a truly strong female character, it is not enough to put a weapon in her hand and make her "kick-ass" and clever. It's not enough, in other words, to make her pseudo-masculine. There's nothing wrong with making a female character physically strong, of course - such women do exist - but it is more important to create a female character who is intellectually, morally, and spiritually centered.
This is going to get personal for a moment, but -- when I try to define what makes a "strong" female character in science fiction or elsewhere, my thoughts always turn to my own mother. Mom was one of the first women admitted to the Naval Academy, but she elected not to pursue a military career; instead, she chose to stay home to raise my co-blogger and me. She certainly isn't "kick ass"; as a matter of fact, her physical health is touch-and-go at best and has been ever since my childhood. Her life's pursuits - sewing and care-taking - are as stereotypically "feminine" as you can get. But - and this is critical - she is also a survivor. As a child and young woman, she was the victim of sexual abuse -- and ultimately, that has not destroyed her emotionally. There were rough patches - and an eating disorder - early on, granted, but she has been happily married to my father for 35 years and counting, has raised two Odd but reasonably well-adjusted children, and has forgiven her attacker. Based on my admittedly unscientific observations, this is astounding; others in her same situation have not done nearly as well.
Because the media - with only a few exceptions - have focused solely on physical strength and worldly ambition, they have left an enormous well of female experience completely untapped -- and that's a shame, because real women are more amazing than you can possibly imagine. You need only crack a history book - or a book on the saints - to discover that breathtaking reality. Consider the female Doctors of the Church. Consider Joan of Arc (who was way more awesome historically than she is typically portrayed). Consider Mother Teresa. None of these individuals really fit our popular culture's dessicated vision of what it means to be a "strong" woman, but the impact they had on the world is incontrovertible.
If I might make a suggestion to any pop-media writers out there: Look beyond the "strong woman" tropes that swirl around Hollywood and seek out some flesh-and-blood females to serve as your models. What's more, push past your coastal-urban prejudices and try to find women who don't necessarily live or think the same way you do. If you do these two simple things, what you produce can only improve.