It's hard to talk about feminism without someone bringing up literary criticism. After all, one of the most commonly known pieces of modern feminism is a piece of lit-crit called the Bechdel Test. And now, I think I'll join in with a bit of discussion of why so many attempts at writing Strong Female Characters fail as such and fail the work.
The problem comes from a misunderstanding of what the term "strong character" means. Is Batman a strong character? Yes, for the most part. Is Batman physically strong, assertive, and generally someone who strikes fear into the hearts of superstitious and cowardly criminals? Yes. Is he strong because of the above? No.
See, because "physical strength" and "mental strength" get used so often as the definitions of "strength", a writer looking at writing a Strong Female Character will rely on those. The character punches everyone around her in the face, pushes people around, and terrifies the villains. But while she is strong, she is not a strong character.
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I will now define my terms:
- A strong character has clearly defined motivations and is suggested to have an existence beyond the needs of the plot.
- An awesome character takes actions and makes decisions that significantly influence the plot.
But it is also a problem for the main character to be the Brooding Loner With No Personality Or Relationships Whose Only Role In The Plot Is To Kick A Lot Of Butt, at least outside of tabletop RPGs. (It's a problem there, too, but not quite as much of one since the rest of the party probably has at least one person with a personality, and because there's Gamist elements to an RPG.)
Let's start by contrasting two characters from The Avengers (movie version).
|Strong Character Trait||Iron Man||Black Widow|
|Relationships||Virginia Potts (secondary cast member) (romantic interest), other Avengers (coworking)||Hawkeye (ambiguous), other Avengers (coworking)|
|Interests||Technology, clean energy, himself||Hawkeye|
|Motivation||Money, survival, make the world a better place|
|Background||Not shown in Avengers. Shown in previous movies.||See Motivation. Some background elements are vaguely suggested.|
|Plot-Irrelevant Personality||Sarcastic, egotistical, drinks a lot.||None.|
So, as we can see, Joss Whedon failed to make Black Widow a strong character. She is certainly an awesome character: surviving a rampaging Hulk, tricking information out of Loki, saving Hawkeye, and so forth (all with no metahuman abilities or enhancements), but she is not a strong character.
Another set of contrasts (without the table this time) from FiM, that should emphasize the difference more: Princess Celestia vs. Rarity.
Celestia is very much an awesome character (with the exception of A Canterlot Wedding). When she takes an active hoof in the story, it either fixes the problem the heroines have gotten themselves into or allows them to succeed. When she acts, she has enough raw personal power and enough subtlety to make the plot act however she wants it to act. But she is not a strong character. She has no interests, motivations, relationships, or personality beyond that which is necessary for the plot to happen the way it does. She is, in effect, more of a living plot device than a character.
(This is a fairly common problem when writing godlike characters, related to the famous Problem of Evil. If the god is detached from the world, the god doesn't have much of an opportunity to show off a personality. If the god is accessible and part of the world, any trait the god has that is not necessary for the plot to happen would cause the plot to happen differently. Whedon hasn't got that excuse, since Black Widow is in no way godlike.)
Contrast this with Rarity. She is usually not an awesome character; when she is not the focus of the episode, she has very little effect on the plot (although she is certainly an awesome character when she is the focus character; see her self-rescuing damsel moment). But she is a strong character, with clear motivations, internal conflicts, and personality.
And now for an image that was bouncing around my head while I was writing this, since I don't think anyone's ever made this comparison before: