Literature provides us with some of the strongest women in the history of fiction. The connections that form between the reader and the characters can be felt on a deep and personal level. But what does it mean for a female character to be “strong”? What and how can we learn from these characters about being or becoming strong? We must first examine the definition of strength. In the ancient world, the standard for strength often favoured a certain kind of man. Many writers today still fall back on the idolization of traditional masculinity, and consequently create female characters that embody masculine traits, characteristics, personalities, and interests. However, because the idea of masculinity is distorted, the idea of “strong women” branching off and being projected on the page and the screen is also warped and unrealistic. In her book on gender stereotypes in media, Julia Wood says, “Typically men are portrayed as active, adventurous, powerful, sexually aggressive and largely uninvolved in human relationships. Just as consistent with cultural views of gender are depictions of women as sex objects who are usually young, thin, beautiful, passive, dependent, and often incompetent and dumb” (“Communication, Gender, and Culture”). These stereotypes are not only harmful to the consumer and their sense of identity, but they are also detrimental to younger audiences, who are being exposed to such depictions in media during a vulnerable developmental stage. Therefore it is important to show a range of characters in media: characters who portray femininity and masculinity in a healthy and realistic way. This post will discuss the influence of toxic masculinity on the concept of a strong woman, as well as the ways in which fictional female characters can embody true strength.
In modern media, toxic ideas associated with masculinity, such as dominance, aggression, violence, and elevation above others are applied to fictional women in order to create a sense of “equality”. However, equality cannot be achieved in this way. The implication behind this movement, as seen in Sophocles’s Antigone, is that in order for a woman to be respected and competent, she must become like a man. In order to defy the law and stand up for what she believes in, Antigone must reject all that makes her a woman in her culture and time, including her attitude and approach to authority. Her uncle’s reaction to learning about her act of defiance – “I’m no man-/she is a man, she’s the king-/if she gets away with this” (Sophocles, 589-591) – shows that even he must recognize the conviction behind her actions. If “a king may do and say as he wishes” (Sophocles, 618), allowing his niece to leave the battlefield unscathed would be an acknowledgement of her power – not only as a mere rebel, but more importantly, as his equal. Antigone sheds all concepts of submission, obedience, and silence, and puts on a mantle of boldness, defiance, and bravery. Essentially, to contend with her uncle, or to even come close enough to challenge him, she must “become” male – or, at least, the Ancient Greek concept of a man. For Antigone, this shedding of Ancient Greek “femininity” is a necessity to gain the privileges only men were allowed, due to the social norms and structures of her time. But in this era, doing so is no longer an act of survival and bravery, because of the ways society is changing to give both men and women equal ground to stand upon. Instead, the shedding of femininity becomes a rejection of femininity, and often shows a misunderstanding of what it means to be feminine.
The desire to adapt masculine traits in order to be treated as an equal translates into the modern world differently than it did in the ancient world, but the core meaning of that desire remains: strength is often taken at face value. It is often associated with the wielding of social or economic power, having the upper hand in power dynamics, and winning verbal and physical battles, much like the Greek and Roman heroes of old. But that is not the only meaning strength can take. When we attribute strength merely to the external, we limit ourselves and cheapen the meaning of true strength. If the idealization of toxic masculinity is to be taken seriously, traditionally feminine traits and behaviours such as compassion, kindness, gentleness, and sensitivity are then reduced to weakness, softness of will, fragility, and emotion-based decision-making. This causes both men and women who may exhibit these traits and behaviours to be viewed as lesser, or weaker than those exhibiting traditionally masculine traits and behaviours. However, what makes women strong does not have to depend on physical prowess or an aggressive approach. Literature offers a plethora of characters that teach us about what makes women – and as an extension, what makes all people – strong. A strong woman may draw her strength from outside, but she can also draw from within. And it is what lies within the heart and the mind that makes a character engaging and memorable to the audience.
But what is character and why is it no longer as prominent in our culture? In Susan Cain’s Quiet, a book on the nuances of introversion, the author mentions how the shift of emphasis from character to personality in the late 1900s affects us today. “In the Culture of Character,” she says, “the ideal self was serious, disciplined and honourable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private… But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them” (Cain, 21). The shift at the beginning of the twentieth century from introspection and self-examination introduced a wave of social display and self-presentation that is still in play today. Personality is not completely irrelevant, however, and is still an important aspect of creating vivid and interesting characters. Elizabeth Bennet, the protagonist of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, establishes her personality immediately. From the start, her quick quips and clever but lighthearted comments give the reader a strong mental image of the witty and confident young woman she is. Her personality plays a large role in her identity, but it is not personality that drives her story forward. It soon becomes apparent that she “has something more of quickness than her sisters” (Austen, 1), and as the story progresses, the reader realizes that it is her awareness of her sharp mind that causes her to depend too much on her own judgment. She is not a perfect human being, and her weaknesses, rather than taking away from her character, give it room to grow. And grow she does, in her way of thinking and her way of viewing people. But it takes character – humility and strength of will – for Lizzy Bennet to grow beyond the person she is in the first chapter.
Literature presents a spectrum of vibrant characters that display strength in different ways. Another character whose strengths are strongly connected to their weaknesses is Anne Shirley from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Anne is imaginative, optimistic, and sees the beauty in everything around her. But this imaginative mind can become too occupied by fanciful thinking. She dreams up frightening things like the Haunted Wood, gets caught up in fantasy, and finds herself over-romanticizing tragedy. Despite this, she learns throughout the series to use her imagination wisely, though not discarding it entirely. The way Anne embraces her imagination and her love for beauty brings light to her own life, hope to her friends and family, and inspiration for her writing. As a contrast, Jo March from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is also an aspiring writer, though one of a feistier nature. Impetuous and passionate, Jo is fiercely loyal to her family and as equally fierce in her ambitions for the future. She is unafraid to rise to the challenge when it comes to protecting her family and pursuing a career as a writer. However, when provoked, she loses her temper, and often regrets it afterwards when faced with the consequences. She feels very deeply, and as a result, does not respond well to slights or betrayals from those she loves. Like Anne, the scrapes and difficulties she goes through teach her important lessons about thinking carefully through her decisions, but they also hone the positive parts of her. Little Womenends with a Jo who knows more about herself and the world, and has acquired a patient heart and a discerning mind for the path she continues to walk down on.
These characters are able to touch readers because of their stories. North and South’s Margaret Hale and Far from the Madding Crowd’s Bathsheba Everdene display ambition, intelligence, and leadership skills, and are forced to learn perseverance and perspective in the new roles they find themselves in. Sense and Sensibility’s Marianne and Elinor Dashwood can be used as foils for each other, and through the various tensions and misunderstandings they untangle together, they eventually achieve a balance of both “sense”, or reasoning, and “sensibility”, the acknowledgement and expression of their emotions. Modern literature, too, provides readers with resilient, competent heroines. Sophie Hatter, for example, from Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle, is practical and strong-minded. She grows up learning how to manage and take care of her siblings, and as a result, is responsible and assesses situations before leaping to action. However, because of her view on her role in society, as well as her own abilities, she stops herself from reaching her full potential. Lucy Pevensie from C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is full of hope and joy, and, similarly to Anne Shirley, sees the wonder in all things. She is curious and caring, but due to her age, can be naïve and overly trusting of strangers. Meg Murry is loyal and stubborn, and holds strongly to her beliefs. Her love for her family plays a major role in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and it is from her persistence in love that her beliefs and sense of loyalty get her into trouble with authority figures. All these characters demonstrate admirable strengths that make their personalities colourful and unique, but it should be noted that all of them also have weaknesses that come in the form of mistaken beliefs about themselves or about the world. And it is precisely because of these weaknesses that these women become so compelling to the reader.
Without weaknesses, there would be no internal struggle, and without internal struggle, there would be no character growth. Weakness gives character plenty of room to plant seeds. It is no longer a matter of creating morally perfect characters to take life lessons from. It is a matter of creating characters who are human rather than heroes. The way their strengths and weaknesses interact and interweave in the struggles, conflicts, and challenges they go through are what makes characters real to the reader. Strong characters are people like us – people who display both positive and negative traits, who make mistakes and learn from them, who draw strength from within – and it is from their stories that we can bring wisdom and hope to our own lives. These characters show us that we are all human; that our weaknesses are just as important a part of us as our strengths, and that we are capable of overcoming our obstacles despite our limitations. Literature offers the world a growing array of female characters who exhibit inner strength in ways that can inspire and teach us about ourselves and the world around us. Though media has often offered unrealistic and unhealthy examples, there are sources we can draw from that show us real women, one of which is literature. We can find through these characters stories that celebrate not only their strengths and victories, but also reveal their weaknesses and failures. As readers, we become part of their journey. Along the way, we learn from the ways in which they fall and fail, as well as the ways in which they stand up, dust off their hands, and move their mountains again and again.
Cain, Susan. Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Cant Stop Talking. Viking, 2013.
Gendered Media: The Influence of Media on Views of Gender (An Excerpt from
“Communication, Gender, and Culture”. https://www1.udel.edu/comm245/readings/GenderedMedia.pdf.
“Little Women (Online Text).” Project Gutenberg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/514/514-h/514-h.htm.
Montgomery, L. M. Anne of Green Gables. Puffin Books, 2019.
“Pride and Prejudice (Online Text).” Project Gutenberg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1342/1342-h/1342-h.htm.
Sophocles, and Richard Emil Braun. Antigone. Oxford University Press, USA, 2014.