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Stereotypes vs. Resilience: Unraveling the Paradox of Strong Female Protagonists

female superheroes and strong female protagonists who are human
Strength vs. Resilience

Ever wonder if our female role models need another overhaul? I mean, my generation started with Madeline, Hermione Granger, and Nancy Drew to eventually Bella Swan (her existence cannot be denied), Lisbeth Salander, and Captain Marvel. As I sift through my old books and go through all the strong female protagonists that shaped me and my writing, I find myself a little confused. With age and wisdom, I see stereotypes and tropes everywhere.

But there’s no denying that the portrayal of female characters has witnessed some pretty extraordinary transformations. I do see some commonalities, however. The emphasis is on empowering women and showcasing their strengths. But what kind of strengths? If you’re slapping on some widely touted male characteristics of immeasurable power (Captain Marvel), badass bravado (Lisbeth Salander), or the ability to navigate court intrigue (Jude Duarte), you’re basically just changing the shroud.

There is so much more in the intricate complexities of strong female characters. So, let’s explore the classic stereotypes, the flipside of female superheroes, and the distinction between strength and resilience. I will examine the psychological benefits for girls and women who read these stories. In the end, I will give some examples of strong female protagonists who, I believe, shatter stereotypes.

Classic Female Character Stereotypes

Historically, female characters in fiction were often relegated to narrow and predictable roles. They were primarily depicted as damsels in distress, existing solely to complement male protagonists. The ‘angel in the house’ or the ‘Femme Fatale’ archetypes dominated, leaving little room for nuanced portrayals of women. These stereotypes perpetuated harmful norms, reinforcing the notion that women were defined by their relationship with men and were limited in their ambitions.

Of course, there were the Elizabeth Bennets and the Scarlet O`Haras. But they were all either tamed by the men or tamed by their love. “Do not consider me now as an elegant female, intending to play you, but as a rational creature, speaking the truth from her heart,” Elizabeth Bennet explained. I mean, this quote alone has so many nuances. The need to separate herself from ‘other women.’ So many times, I’ve seen women in fiction (and in real life) defend how they are ‘not like’ other women. They have to change and take on more traits associated with men to save the world or land the perfect guy.

So are the stereotypes really gone?

The Flipside of Female Superheroes

I am a not-so-secret nerd. I pour over comic books and video games, and when I was a twenty-something woman, I would laugh and wink at people as I said my daughter would not watch Disney; she’ll be a Marvel girl. Now as the mother of a gorgeous, free-spirited little girl, I find myself hoping she will embrace her femininity as well as her empowerment. For her, I want both! Now I can’t help but feel sad about the flawed female superhero trope. Most of these characters are designed with hyper-sexualized appearances and one-dimensional traits, reducing their complexity and perpetuating objectification. Because, duh! They are mostly made for men by men. I don’t know many female artists working on comic books for DC or Marvel. I might be able to count them on one hand, if any!

But now I see how such portrayals can undermine the genuine empowerment women seek. In the superhero world, a woman's strength is closely linked to her physical attributes, mutant powers, or crazy-smart brain. “You call me 'young lady' again, I'll shove my foot up somewhere it's not supposed to be,” Carol Danvers says. How polite. (she didn’t say ass, Fury had to.) It almost sounds like the word ‘lady’ is a slur! Is it? Nothing against Captain Marvel. She’s still my favorite superhero after Storm. But now I’m wondering what it will look like to a young reader.

Gorgeous, scantily-clad superheroes with infinite power are hard to look up to as role models for me. Gods? Maybe? Women I want to be? Probably not.

Strong Women vs. Resilient Women

So, now let’s talk about what could be a better role model. These are women who demonstrate how strength comes in different forms. It's essential to distinguish between a woman's physical prowess and emotional resilience. A strong female character is not solely defined by her ability to wield weapons or deliver knockout punches, even though that’s cool. No denying that. But I think true strength lies in resilience. It is our ability to endure, overcome adversity, and grow stronger that makes strong female protagonists. I want these women to speak to my daughter. They display emotional depth, aren’t afraid of their femininity, and navigate complex situations because that’s what everyone does in real life.

Here’s to a well-rounded and empowered woman in fiction.

Balanced Female Protagonists (I recommend as role models)

Thank god the literary and cinematic landscape is evolving! Writers are creating female protagonists who break free from old stereotypes. If not for Hermione Granger, I’d have felt adrift growing up. She is the perfect demonstration of intelligence, courage, and unwavering loyalty. With her crazy hair, ‘muggle’ looks, she has proven that strength can be multifaceted. Think Katniss Everdeen and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or even Beatrice from Shakespeare’s ‘Much ado about nothing.’ She wasn’t a little miss-perfect ‘Hero’ but the bitingly-witty, outspoken, aging spinster who does not settle for a man until he recognizes her true potential. “For which of my good parts did you first suffer love for me?” She asked Benedict, and he acquiesced to her ability to battle wits with a “Peace! I will stop your mouth.” And then, he kissed her. Sigh.

But I digress. So give me more of Vanellope von Schweetz from ‘Wreck it Ralph,’ who accepts her glitches to win the race. I want to see more of Cinder from ‘The Lunar Chronicles’ with her metal leg and un-putdown-able will. I want Fancy Nancy to grow up and retain her ability to be a fairy princess and a doctor all in one book!

So as writers, I encourage you to make your women strong but real. Let’s celebrate diverse representations and create a world where women can be strong, powerful, empathetic, imperfect, and girlie!

Don’t forget that we are the architects of a more vibrant and empowered literary world.

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