As film critic Hanna Flint publishes her first book Strong Female Character, she ruminates on this cinematic trope, and how it has evolved over time.
‘Strong Female Character’ was not the original title for my debut book. When I initially put together the proposal in 2020, for a collection of essays that would explore the complicated relationship I had with my intersectional identity through a cinematic lens, ‘Mixed Feelings’ and ‘Pic ‘N’ Mix’ were the punny names I came up with. ‘Strong Female Character’ was simply going to lend its name to the end section that focused on some of the most vulnerable subjects that I – and many women – have dealt with, from eating disorders to sexual assault, with a final chapter on the film trope itself. Yet by the time I signed my deal in 2022 with Footnote Press, the label turned out to be the most fitting for the narrative journey I wanted to take readers on.
The purpose of my ‘movie-memoir-manifesto’, as my editor likes to call it, was to look back at my life, from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood, and examine how cinema played a part in how I saw myself. I wanted to explore how I navigated the world as a girl, then as a woman, of mixed heritage, as well as the effect screen perceptions of women had on the wider female population – the good, the bad and the damn right ugly.
It was a somewhat cathartic experience to articulate the anxiety that comes with trying to carve a space for yourself in the world when you’ve struggled with who that person is allowed to be. It certainly provided my therapist with more fodder to analyse! But as I re-engaged with my tween, teen and young-adult memories – alongside the multitudes of films and TV shows that raised me – I realised that the ‘Strong Female Character’ (SFC) trope has gone through as much of an identity crisis as I have.
The SFC was originally the antithesis of the ‘damsel in distress’ but, in the last 50 years especially, the SFC has become interchangeable with the female action hero because of its ‘strong’ prefix and the increasing appetite for superwomen at the cinema. There are certainly a fair few female characters who exhibit physical strength in the action films I love, from The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Birds of Prey (2020) to Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). But that strength is not the only thing that makes Charley, Jen Yu, Harley Quinn or Furiosa great. They have emotional and intellectual depth, vulnerability and humour; their feelings are unique to their stories, which helps them stand out in the pantheon of female characters. Unfortunately, there are many more, rather generic, action babes who dominate our screens. Concocted by male writers, these women’s sole trait is their literal strength, at the expense of actual character development (Angelina Jolie’s Fox in Wanted , for example). It's no wonder there’s been pushback against these poorly written SFCs when the pool continues to be so much smaller than that of male characters.
Writing this book, however, has made me determined to reclaim the SFC from that mediocre monolith. Surely true strength of character is the ability to acknowledge our weaknesses. That’s what I’ve strived to do in sharing my story and regaling the trial and error of my life so far. The failures and the successes, the self-loathing and self-loving, the hilarity and humiliations, and all the lessons I’ve learned from female characters over 30 years… I hope readers will find comfort in my flaws and the mistakes I’ve made along the way. Maybe they will see themselves in some of my coming-of-age anecdotes, or simply remain amused or educated by an experience different to their own. The beauty of women is just how multifaceted we are, and cinema is still playing catch up when it comes to expanding onscreen depictions of us. So whether she is tough, feeble, stoic, intelligent, dumb, sexy, frumpy, or any combination of physical and personality traits, a Strong Female Character need not be restrained by clichés. Instead, as I write in my book, ‘she should be pushed to explore intersectional realms of being beyond what she currently is. Or she will never persist’.
So am I a ‘Strong Female Character’? Well, read my book and you can tell me! But if we’re going by my definition of the label, then I have no qualms wearing it.
Hanna Flint is the author of ‘Strong Female Character’, which you can order here.