Feminism in film: what qualifies as a strong female character?

Earlier today I made a post on my feelings about Joss Whedon being chased off Twitter by upset Avengers: Age of Ultron viewers, some of which claimed to be feminists and said that Black Widow a.k.a. Natasha Romanov (acted beautifully by Scarlett Johansson) was not a positive portrayal for a female character. I, personally, disagree.
I fully understand people’s issues with the character – they are similar to things I myself find problematic with some characters – having a female character who is dressed provocatively, who needs to be saved and whose main storyline is ultimately a romantic one. However to touch upon this specific character quickly, these issues people have with her are flawed. Yes, her outfit is low-cut and tight, but it is practical – it’s not a bikini and thong like some comicbook characters wear. In this case, her outfit should be tight as it is helpful for her job. I agree, it doesn’t need to be low-cut but sadly that it how she has been dressed for a long while and, as I stated in my earlier post, the filmmaker was under contract and likely had to keep the same costume. Saying she shouldn’t be wearing a low-cut or tight outfit is in a way slut-shaming, which obviously is not okay. As far as romance goes, this romantic relationship had been hinted at since the first Avengers in 2012 and added layers to the storyline and characters. She is not reduced just to the girlfriend or the ‘eye candy’, that would be a bad portrayal, but that is not what happens. And, if you remember correctly, in the first film she in fact played a pivotal role in saving the world. This film took her in a less fight-based role, but she still kicked ass. Natasha as a character is a very strong female, she is physically capable, she is witty and intelligent. She has proved countless times she does not need saving. Ergo, her needing to be saved one time does not undo all that previous characterisation. (Sometimes, great previous characterisation can be undone by one poor film/scene, but this is not one of those cases.) The reality is sometimes people do need saving – take a soldier, someone we typically think of as being the one who does the rescuing, well, sometimes they need saving themselves. That doesn’t make them weak, it makes them human and realistic. Which brings me to my main point:

Feminism in film is reality. Feminism in film is seeing realistic role models onscreen, feminism in film is seeing ourselves represented on screen. 

The thing about feminism and its relation to film, and even its relation to this Joss Whedon/ Black Widow fiasco is that not only are these ‘feminists’ being threatening and unconstructive, but some don’t seem to understand that proper feminism which is determined and ambitious and outspoken, but also respectful and thought-out. Feminism in film embraces reality. Some people seem to think good female characters have to be physically kick-ass and beautiful and not romantically involved or ever in need of saving. But that’s not true. Good female characters are flawed, they aren’t all traditionally attractive, they aren’t all physically strong or good at fighting, they’re not all super smart, they’re not all morally superior… well-written, strong female characters are physically weak, they’re mentally ill, they’re traumatised, they’re old or really young, they need saving sometimes, they’re all races, they’re trans, they’re disabled, they are everything; they are DIVERSE.

Feminism is all about embracing women’s differences and all women’s strength, and people need to accept that those feminist views and values should translate on film as well. It can be difficult as women get less of a chance to ‘shine’ onscreen, so it’s tempting to make all the female characters who do get a chance in the spotlight super strong and powerful, but that isn’t always 100% realistic. Film needs to reflect reality, and that means not everyone can save themselves and some people do want a relationship and we need to embrace those different things and not just assume because someone needed saving or wears a tight outfit they aren’t a strong character. A woman who is addicted to cocaine, has lost custody of her children, is a prostitute and physically very weak can be a strong female character. A strong female character is not a trope or a box you can fit someone in, because we need to reflect reality onscreen and reality is we are all strong in different ways. How strong a female character is, how good that representation is, is how they are written and acted and directed. It is about balance and it is about realism.

I’m not saying I don’t love a kickass woman who don’t need no man – who doesn’t love that? – what I’m saying is we need to stop only accepting certain types of strong female characters, otherwise you are telling people all over the world that the only strong women are those who fit into that box, which (I hope you agree) is not at all true. I touched upon this in my representation of minorities in film post, but a character’s storyline and even the choice of actor does not necessarily define whether they are a strong character. It can aid that and it can detract from it, but it is normally things such as character’s inner-strength, their core values and how they face situations that defines how ‘strong’ they are. But even having said that, a character can be terrified of everything and back down on their values because they’re scared and still be a good portrayal of women, it is about the reality and how they do things and why they do it.
This is so hard to put into words simply, but basically anyone (who identifies as female) can be a strong female character, it is just about how well and realistically they are portrayed.

I really hope this makes some kind of sense, if I manage to make it any more concise or clear I’ll put in an edit. I hope you all have a wonderful day and go enjoy some strong female characters!

Riot ❤


  1. I haven’t watched it; I just don’t like movies that are “trendy” or popular, unless they’re decades old. But what really upsets me is when women trash each other. If people are attacking her online for how she represents women, that’s so out of line. Unless she is condoning or perpetrating some kind of abuse, then it’s not okay to bully her.

    As far as representation, I think you would like this post I reblogged: https://tiffany267.wordpress.com/2015/03/29/tests-for-womens-roles-in-films

    • Totally agree! It’s just not helpful or constructive to tear down other women, even if they are fictional. Just perpetuates that kind of behaviour in real life.

      That post is so interesting, I’d heard of most of the tests but there are some I’ll definitely have to look into more. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

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