When we were children, my cousin and best friend had a sticker on his bedroom door. It showed the hamburger loving Popeye character Wimpy, inside a red circle with a slash through it. Text spelled out “NO WIMPS”. I was always secretly worried he’d decide that meant me and I wouldn’t be invited in to play Hi Ho Cherry Oh anymore. I identified as a wimp.
I have always enjoyed rebellious girls and ass kicking women in the fiction I love:Anne Shirley, Libby Johnson, Buffy Summers. I liked Pollyanna and her refusal to quit and The Little Princess, who survived tough times by retreating to her imagination. I admired, Ariel the mermaid who did what she wanted, and Ursula, the sea witch who did it better. I wanted to be Princess Cimorene, who dueled and defeated her would be ” rescuers” for trying to take her away from her home among the dragons. I love these characters, these Trixie Beldons and Hermione Grangers. And I could always relate to them.
But. When they are labeled “strong female characters” I feel decidedly disconnected. I am not strong. That isn’t low self esteem talking, it’s reality. I am small with low muscle tone and virtually no muscle mass. My child can carry as much or more than I can. I have to do “weight lifting” exercises with no weights. Sitting up straight feels like a workout and gives me back pain for days. I am, literally, weak.
I don’t like the cultural tendency to use these descriptors of physical ability to define character, because I’ve known I was weak longer than I’ve known I’m disabled. I can’t identify with strong, no matter which attribute it’s ascribed to. Again, this isn’t me insulting myself. Weakness shouldn’t be insulting. But I think most would recoil at the notion of a Weak Female Character, unable to see that as possibly good.
Female protagonists are important, whether they can disarm an assassin with one powerful leather pants clad kick or not. Power fantasy characters, whether that power is from physical or social dominance, can be exciting and satisfying. Men are allotted millions of such, who are simply “main characters”, not Strong Male Characters. Strength is a presumed default just as maleness is, and the two are bound together.
I think part of the reason we value strength and despise weakness is that, whether it’s accurate or not, strength is considered masculine while weakness is considered feminine. This belief contributes to men delaying diagnosis and treatment for bodily and mental health concerns, and it leads medical professionals to downplay and disbelieve the symptoms and pain of women patients. Men are afraid to be seen as weak in the same way they are afraid to be seen as women.
In a less sexist world, we wouldn’t designate the best most aspirational femme characters by how well they met a standard of masculinity. We’d demand Weak Male Characters as role models too. We wouldn’t feel a well intended urge to reassure each other we are strong. We’d be able to honor and value openness, vulnerability, and interdependence as much as we admire stoicism, strength, and self reliance.I want that world.