The phrase “Strong Female Character” has become a buzzword Hollywood likes to throw around to con women into thinking a film isn’t misogynistic with the female characters as nothing more than the damsel in distress or scene decoration. But what, exactly, a Strong Female Character is hasn’t been defined, and it often seems like the word “strong” has been taken literally so while the characters are physically strong and “kick ass” they still don’t have a well-defined personality or storyline and end up being just as empty and cliched as the damsel in distress.
Since “Strong Female Character” means nothing and I dislike movie feminism tests such as the Bechdel Test and the Mako Mori Test, I’ve come up with my own definition of what I want out of a female character, what I call: the Capable Female Character.
The Capable Female Character has three defining parameters.
1) The Capable Female Character is capable physically, mentally, and emotionally
Physically: The Capable Female Character can physically take care of herself.
She doesn’t have to be incredibly strong or able to physically overpower a man, but she needs to be able to take care of herself enough that she is active in her own defense.
Both Ellie from The Last of Us and Arya Stark from Game of Thrones are young girls who rely on adult men to help protect them, but both characters are active in their own defense and fight to the best of their abilities.
Similarly, the Capable Female Character does not need to be physically capable from the beginning of her storyline, and can develop her physical capability over time.
Both Lara Croft from Tomb Raider (2013) and Mulan from Mulan build their physical capabilities over the course of their storylines.
Mentally: The Capable Female Character is intelligent and can problem solve.
She is knowledgeable about the world and various subjects, but most importantly she can solve problems. Having knowledge or being book-smart is great, but it’s the ability to problem solve that is the biggest strength for the Capable Female Character. She needs to be able to solve problems that she encounters, and get herself out of situations she finds herself in.
While Lara Croft is very knowledgeable about history and archaeology, she can also figure out the various puzzles she encounters. Mulan solves the problem of the arrow at the top of the poll, and defeats the villain by outsmarting him. Emma Swan from Once Upon a Time finds herself in many situations where she needs to problem solve her way out of them.
Additionally, the Capable Female Character cannot make stupid decisions for the sake of tension. Too often a character will be otherwise intelligent but for the sake of tension and moving the plot along, the character will make a stupid decision which is out-of-character.
Emotionally: The Capable Female Character can control her emotions and bases her decisions on logic more so than emotion.
She needs to be able to control her emotions and not break down in tears when in stressful situations.
Belle from Beauty and the Beast (2017) doesn’t fall to the bed crying when she is shown to her room in the castle, instead she tries to escape the room.
The Capable Female Character also needs to base her decisions on logic and reason rather than on emotion. She can care about others and want to save them, but she needs to base her decisions on logic rather than running off half-cocked due to emotion.
Both Lara Croft and Mulan care about the people they care about and want to save them, but they go about saving them intelligently rather than going about it emotionally.
2) The Capable Female Character has a goal
The Capable Female Character has a goal and actively works to achieve it.
She cannot sit on her hands doing nothing while other characters pursue their goals. She cannot be a tool for other characters to achieve their goals. She cannot have a goal, do nothing the entire storyline, and randomly achieve the goal at the end. She needs to have a goal of her own that she is actively working toward throughout her storyline.
Ilsa Faust from Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, while not the protagonist, has her own goal that she is pursuing throughout the film and doesn’t stop pursuing her own goal just because she meets the protagonist.
3) The Capable Female Character has a storyline of her own
The Capable Female Character has her own storyline.
She cannot be window dressing for another character’s storyline. She needs to have her own story, even if she is not the protagonist.
Emma Swan and Mulan are protagonists, so of course they have their own storyline, but while neither Arya Stark nor Ilsa Faust are the protagonists they still have their own storylines.
These three (or five, if counting the capabilities separately) parameters for a Capable Female Character are not all or nothing. A character can have varying degrees of these parameters, and are therefore varying degrees of a Capable Female Character. Lara Croft has high levels of all three/five and is a very Capable Female Character, but Felicity Smoak from Arrow is not as capable physically or emotionally and is not as much of a Capable Female Character. However, Felicity Smoak is much more of a Capable Female Character than Jane from The Legend of Tarzan (2016) who is not a Capable Female Character at all.
What I want out of a Strong Female Character is that she is very capable (physically, mentally, and emotionally), has her own goal, and has her own storyline. I want her to be active. Therefore, what I want out of a Strong Female Character is a Capable Female Character.