Moving Beyond “Strong Female Lead”

A surprising headline jumped out at me today: “Emily Blunt Rails Against ‘Strong Female Lead’ Label.”

Initially I was taken aback… Wait, but why?

Strong female leads are what saved me from… needing to be saved. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena Warrior Princess, Lara Croft Tomb Raider, the Paper Bag Princess. These strong female characters did the saving, and showed the world — and child Janelle — that being a girl didn’t necessarily mean being a weak, pitiful damsel in distress all the damn time. I even wrote Buffy a letter about it.

So what do you mean, Emily Blunt? Why the disdain for strong female characters?

“It’s the worst thing ever when you open a script and read the words ‘strong female lead,’” Blunt said in an interview with The Telegraph. “That makes me roll my eyes. I’m already out. I’m bored.” 

Emily Blunt as Lady Cornelia Locke in The English. | Credit: Diego Lopez Calvi­n/Drama Republic/Amazon Studios/BBC

She isn’t the only actor who feels that way: apparently there is a growing frustration among actors feeling typecast in this role. Tatiana Maslany, who plays She-Hulk, feels similarly. In an interview with The Guardian she explains why the phrase “strong female lead” irritates her:

“Because it’s reductive. It’s just as much a shaving off of all the nuances, and just as much of a trope. It’s a box that nobody fits into.”

Okay, now you’re speaking my language. This blog — although I’ve rarely written about it recently — I started to explore this very idea of breaking the moulds that society tries to put us in, breaking out of the boxes no one actually fits into. My very first post circa 2013 was all about this, as were many posts that followed.

“Strong Female Lead” is “a box nobody fits into” – Tatiana Maslany aka Jennifer Walters aka She-Hulk | Credit: Marvel Studios

Rejecting the “strong female lead” trope means moving forward, moving beyond it. In order to move beyond maiden in distress we became strong female leads. But we — girls, women, humans, superhumans — are so much more complex than either of those. To see actors now pushing back, moving beyond “strong female lead,” and demanding more dynamic female characters: this is encouraging, this is the right direction.

I don’t want to stop seeing strong female characters being portrayed in entertainment. But female characters who are complex, for whom strength is but one of many attributes, who are continuing to break moulds and moving beyond them, that I can get on board with.

Maslany adds that she is looking forward to the day when a woman playing a superhero is no big deal. “I’m really interested in when these [marginalised] voices get to speak without it being like: ‘Oh my God, it’s all women,’ or, ‘Oh my God, this is a story about a queer couple,’ and those stories become as innately expected as they are now special.”

I’m with her. After all, who better to smash up some moulds than She-Hulk herself.

Nano Poblano post #15 – we’re halfway there, livin on a prayer! (Click the pepper to visit my team)

What do you think? Is it time to move beyond the “strong female lead”? What kind of characters do you find inspiring?

4 thoughts on “Moving Beyond “Strong Female Lead”

  1. I think sometimes the problem with the “strong female lead” is that it gets overly cliché in what it is and actually ends up doing the opposite because it sometimes seems so forced.

  2. I saw the Blunt article, too. I think, in real life, there are people who are no-nonsense, always strong, and nothing phases them. Then there are other people who, while strong, aren’t quite as stoic about it. They’re vulnerable. They show emotions. They have quirks. They have weaknesses. To Blunt’s point, strong female leads can be strong without being robots. She is absolutely right.

    1. I think it takes a certain kind of strength to be open about vulnerability. I never got the sense that those earlier strong female lead characters were one dimensional, but I certainly understand the desire for a more diverse/complex range of attributes!

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