“Strong” Female Characters in Sci Fi

scifi chat strong female characters

On Feb 8th, I stumbled across the hashtag on Twitter #scifichat – it technically goes from 3PM to 4PM on Fridays (in my time zone), which is the last hour of my work-week and not a time I can easily join in.   I didn’t realize that it had already been drawn to a close when I saw the hashtag and popped over to check on the discussion.  The conversation on the 8th was about “Strong Female Characters”.

Cue the swelling music, because this is one of my very few soapbox issues.

I had read a fabulous article on strong female characters a few months ago on “Overthinking it” (which could be the title of my life), and I’d appreciated what they had said. I’d internalized it so much it took me a long time to find the old article.  I couldn’t Google its text verbatim, only my own takeaways.

Thus I spent the rest of the night on Twitter. The screen shot above, and the question from Jeff King launched conversations on Twitter, Facebook, all over the place!

In search of my three favorites, I looked at DVDs on Brett’s stand, at the books on all of our shelves, and I started listing the things that drew me to a true character who would be described as a “strong female”.  Here’s the list I came up with:

  • smart
  • self-effacing
  • can admit weakness / not knowing
  • depth of character
  • that they are able to surprise themselves (and the reader)
  • complexity
  • humanity

What I found was that I had clusters of these kinds of women, and that I needed to select examples to act as delegates for all of them.

Contemporary Kick-Ass Chicks

I then tried to find the characters who fit those categories for me. The urban fantasy chicks were sort of clumped together. Mercy Thompson‘s character is more about the coyote metaphor than about her gender. I like Rachel, Ivy and Ceri in Kim Harrison’s books.  I love Charlie in Kelly Gay’s books. Any woman written by the duo named Ilona Andrews could be included on this list.  I love the three main characters in Yasmine Galenorn’s Otherworld series.  They all stand out, I could have used any one of them. But I needed one to act as a representative. This was Twitter. I needed to edit.

I went with Sirantha Jax from that stack of novels.  I went with Jax because of her internal monologue. Ann Aguirre‘s character is strong and vulnerable, she’s capable of love, loyalty, integrity and honesty, and she’s horribly self-destructive.  She’s a “strong” character that you can completely see curled up in a fetal position sobbing. I love Jax. I hurt for Jax. That’s why I named her.

Strong Young Women

I wanted to name a YA character. My mind went to the obvious – the Hermione and Katniss – and I realized I didn’t want to use either of them. Katniss Everdeen’s complexity was only bumpy-paper levels past 2-dimensional, she wanted to take care of her family, she wanted to survive, and she was completely perplexed by romance.   Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan. She just isn’t who I’d send into this particular senate. Hermione Granger. I adore Hermione. So much that I think I’d like to re-read the series with her as the protagonist instead of the smart girl who gets the boys out of fixes.

My YA character ended up being Lauren Olamina from Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. I went with Lauren because she was startled with her own strength and depth. Because she faced the unknown and the unknowable so calmly. And because she was a survivor, a leader, a planner and a dreamer long before the reader noticed that she was also female.

The Wildcard

I really wandered the shelves for this last one. I’m a bookworm. My favorite characters live in books. But I knew I needed to touch on film, television, even comics for my third and final choice.

While I was wandering the shelves, my eye snagged on V for Vendetta, (it was a movie, so it counts, right?) and I remembered Rosemary Almond.  No. I didn’t remember Rosemary, in fact, I had to reread quite a lot to glean her name. I remembered her final scene in the novel.  I remembered wondering how in the hell they had left that part out of the film.

In the book, Rosemary Almond is a political wife who is widowed when V kills her husband. She is bereft. She crumbles. Her face is a blank stare for the rest of the book. She goes through the motions of dancing in a burlesque club that deals with both sides of the law. When she buys a gun, the reader wonders if she’s going to suicide.  She doesn’t. She spectacularly, shockingly does not. She’s a very minor but pivotal character in the book.

I could have gone with the obvious one – Evie is also a “strong female character” in V, but she’s without agency. She’s acted upon by the people in her life more often than she acts for herself. Rosemary gets it done.

Film and Television

Aliens – everyone wants to talk about Ripley. I like Ripley, I think she’s a suitably tough chick who over the course of the films gains amazing depth. But I think people get confused when they talk about her, because she’s so tough. They don’t see the complexity underneath.  I like Sarah Connor – but she’s made complex only if you start with the original Terminator and follow her progression over time.

I feel that by their nature film and television have to simplify complex characters. It’s hard to get depth in a tight medium like that. Many strong characters that came up in our conversation were those that grew more complex over time: Scully, Janeway (especially after the introduction of Seven of Nine), River Song on Dr. Who.

My husband said “any female lead in anything by Joss Whedon”. I disagree with him, to an extent. I’m sorry, but the Black Widow in the latest Avengers had only an iota of depth. The rest was just pretty to watch.

I love Firefly, but I think the difference there is that the 4 relatively flat archetypal characters are able to create a 3-D effect by the fact that there are so many of them in the cast. Each one has her secrets and her complexities, but together they form a stronger essence of “strong female” than any one of them would create individually.

Joss “gets it” more than most, though, and I am a fan of his. I’m just saying that it’s easy to oversimplify.  I do feel that by their inclusion and combination, he does do the work better than many in his field.  I haven’t had a chance to watch either of Jeff King’s shows because I don’t watch TV. My husband assures me that Continuum includes a strong lead who seems to be growing in complexity. That’s good enough for me.

(I will not have time to note all of the great ideas my friends threw at me when I asked for help on this one in terms of Film and TV. Maybe I’ll screenshot them someday!)

What do you think? Who would you pick as your favorite, best, most exemplary strong female characters? 

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6 thoughts on ““Strong” Female Characters in Sci Fi

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