Why the Phrase “Strong Female Heroine” Needs to Die

(Also published on the blog of Luna Station Quarterly.)

Short answer: Because “female heroine”, guys. Think about it. Wince with me.

Long answer: Expressed pretty well in this oldie*-but-good article.

*Several months is probably a lot longer in Internet years, right?

Swan Princess, What Else Is There
Derek/Readers: “What? You’re all I ever wanted. You’re beauti– *cough* /strong/!” ~ Odette/Female Character: “Thank you. But what else?” ~ Derek/Readers: “What else?” ~ Odette/Female Character: “Is strength all that matters to you?” ~ Derek/Readers: “What else /is/ there?” ~ Rogers/Me: *FAIL*

Not My Type.

Maybe the kickass, badass, hardass, [insert any other ***appropriate*** “ass” term here] heroine really resonates with/appeals to some people. Well enough. Just don’t give me the stink eye if “strong female heroine lead” isn’t that high on my list of things that excite me about a book. Tell me she’s a British thief? I’m all ears. Tell me she’s strong? Meh.

The kind of heroines I tend to most enjoy and relate to (I realized during my Love-a-Thon interview with Mara of the Book Marauder blog) don’t kick butt for a living. They’re goofy (not like “lol, look at me, I think I’m so awkward…”, but like actually kind of insane), dramatic, maybe a bit stuck on themselves. They sulk, they stew, they hurt and maybe don’t bother to hide it. They love their friends, and hate their friends, and lament to their friends that they have no friends. Sometimes they do things I wish I could do, sometimes they do things I would totally do, sometimes they do things I cringe at them and/or me for having done. Maybe “heroine”s not even always the word for these girls. But they make me laugh. They make me nod and sigh and ache. They make me want to shout at or shake them. I feel like we’d understand one another. I don’t know about females in general, but feeling understood means much to me.

Could You Be More Specific?

What does everyone even mean by “strong”? Because the more I see it slapped with seeming carelessness onto the front of the words “female lead/character/please, Lord, not ‘heroine’, not again”, the less weight it carries with me. It’s like people use it to avoid having to actually think about how to describe the character. Laaaame! Here, let me show you how it’s done. I’ll use some of the leading ladies in my own writing as examples.

Sula (“The Swan Prince”, “The Seventh Spell”) = surly, resistant, mistrustful, thoughtless

Rosalba (“The Stone Kingdom”, “The Seventh Spell”) = gracious, straightforward, quick-tempered, practical

Annabelle (“Inspired”) = imaginative, sensitive, excitable, immature

Uri (“Inspired”) = cynical, antisocial, pious, mouthy

You see what I did there? A well-rounded girl is more than “strong”; more, even, than “feisty” and “snarky”, two other go-to adjectives for female characters. If you call my characters strong, I’ll assume you meant it as a compliment and will take it as such. But if you label my characters something a little more unique to who they are as individuals, I will be all the happier.

Just, whatever you do, please: Never, EVER call them “strong female heroines”. My soul functions better when little pieces of it aren’t dying.

A question for you, now, readers: Who are some of your favorite fictional females, and what non-“strong” words would you use to describe them? 

Related article: “Challenging the Expectation of YA Characters as ‘Role Models’ for Girls” by Sarah Ockler

9 thoughts on “Why the Phrase “Strong Female Heroine” Needs to Die

  1. One of my absolute favorite characters is Rin, from Shannon Hale’s book Forest Born. The fascinating thing about her is that she feels worthless because she’s surrounded by these women she’s labelled “strong”, but her own ability to read people turned out to be just as important.

  2. I hate this phrase, and honestly, a lot of the characters I see labelled this way aren’t what I would call “strong”, anyways. To me, the best kinds of characters (male or female) are emotional and unique, and that’s a really broad description. I don’t need someone to kick ass and shut everyone else out because she’s too “strong” to trust anyone. I want to see girls who laugh, cry, love, hate, and deal with what they’re given in their own way, regardless of whether that way is considered to be feisty and “strong”!

    • I’m with you! Too often, it seems, people think you have to remove a character’s crazy-and-all-too-human emotions and replace them with stoic and/or abrasive strength. But that’s not how it works. Strength — real strength, inner strength — comes from a character’s heart, and you’ve got to let that show.

  3. my favorite is Yelena from Poison Study… she’s mistrustful, smart, willing to kill, deceitful, 100% survivalist… but she also knows how to choose her friends… which tend to turn out to be people who have tried to kill her before… I find it amusing… I like her because she has trouble knowing how to connect to people but she knows when to trust someone and does completely… she’s also had a horribly terrible life but continues to go on and make the best of the life she has now… I find it incredible…

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