So there’s this concept in rhetoric called ‘the strawman argument’ where a person assumes the roles of both sides of an argument, then trivializes or over-simplifies one side of the argument and then tears it a new one in the role of the other side of the argument. The name comes from the idea of attacking a version of your opponent made out of straw (that can’t fight back) and then going around and telling everyone that you beat said opponent.
This might be a little hard to visualize, but thankfully while I was trawling the internet recently I came across this helpful graphic which almost perfectly illustrates the strawman argument as it pertains to ‘strong female characters’ in video games. Let’s take a second to talk about why this argument (and this particular logical fallacy) is dumb, shall we?
‘Strong female character’ is a really silly term, and it’s where a lot of the problem with this comic comes from. There’s been a lot of feminist writing already about why the term and its vagueness (as well as what people consider to be its depictions) are somewhat problematic. If you’re at all interested in the subject, I encourage you to Google “strong female character” and look at some of the discussions. That being said, from now on I’m just going to assume that you’re aware in at least some capacity that the term is not universally considered good.
The term ‘strong female character’ emerged from a problem in media based on the depiction of women. For a really long time women were depicted either A) Helpless objects in need of saving by their male counterparts, or B) Physically and emotionally “incomplete” until within the romantic vicinity of the male protagonist. (See: The 80s)
And people know this. Content creators are aware of this problem and have tried to counteract it. However the main problem (and the one that bugs me the most as a writer) is in the implementation of these countermeasures. For a lot of people who see the ‘damsel in distress’ problem the solution is to make their characters physically strong and capable. Which is fine. There’s plenty of men in media whose character is as shallow as a rain puddle after a summer storm. But you don’t get a ‘strong female character’ just by giving her a machine gun and a heaping dose of asexuality. What you get is a weak female character who’s just as weak as her ‘damsel’ counterpart but for a completely different reason.
What the ‘strong female character’ argument is really about (at least in my eyes) is character depth. It has nothing to do with physicality. Some of the best characters ever depicted have been physically weak, or else their physicality has been completely irrelevant to the story. A character does not become strong by being a vessel for producing action sequences. A car is a vessel to go from one action sequence to another, and I’ve never cared about any car in any movie that wasn’t anthropomorphized. A character becomes strong when we care about their motivations and personhood.
Bearing that in mind, let’s take a look back at the character list from the image I linked and talk about some of the people mentioned and why they aren’t worthwhile from a writerly perspective. Given that we’re dealing with logical fallacies I suppose I should mention here that these are my opinions and I encourage people to call me out if they can provide me evidence as to why I’m wrong.
One last thing before we get started: here’s an edited version of the character list that crosses out some of the poor examples of strong female characters.
Bayonetta is too sassy: Bayonetta is a hot naked John McClane with guns on her feet. She is afraid of nothing. She spends a huge chunk of the game suggestively defeating enemies with various magical conjurations ranging from slightly kinky to straight-up torture devices. At no point in the game is she ever scared. Or angry, for that matter. Or happy. Or really any emotion that isn’t coated in a thick layer of sass. She is a vessel to get to more cartwheeling witches spanking angels.
Chun-Li, like everyone from Street Fighter, has no discernable character: And before anybody gets mad about this, yeah I know she’s a cop and she’s there to infiltrate the tournament to get to M. Bison or whatever. Chill. Look at the way she’s depicted in the games – all we ever see her do is fight. She has maybe a half-dozen lines of dialogue that aren’t ‘Ha!’ ‘Yah!’ or calling out one of her attacks. None of the Street Fighter games have ever put emphasis on the story, and as a result, none of the characters in Street Fighter are really all that strong.
Samus doesn’t talk: You’ll find this problem in a lot of the characters listed. Not only does Samus not talk, but she has nobody to interact with or to contextualize her actions like some archetypal silent protagonists do. I would also argue that Samus is an exceptionally bad example of a ‘strong female character’ because the suit she wears robs her of any identification as a woman to the player. In the original Metroid the fact that Samus was a girl was a twist ending. And nobody saw it coming. Why? Because she doesn’t really look like a girl when she’s in the suit. She doesn’t really look like a man either. It’s amorphous.
RPG Character Creation: I can understand this argument, but I don’t like the idea that the obligation of gendering a character should be on the player. It takes the focus off the writers. It’s also kind of hard to argue against (or for) because there’s no real hard target.
Alice Liddell has never been a strong character: Even in the original Through the Looking Glass Alice doesn’t really do anything. She walks a lot. Things happen around her a bunch, that’s for sure. But again, she serves as a vessel to guide the reader from one sequence to another. Now, in the interests of fairness I will give some credit to American McGee here: Even though it’s been heavily speculated basically since the book was written, at no point in Lewis Carroll’s original does it say that Through the Looking Glass takes place in Alice’s mind. In American McGee’s version it’s a little more, uh, obvious. This means that things like level design and puzzle instances can be viewed as metaphors for Alice’s own broken psyche. However, at the end of the day she still exists as just a way to get from one cool (now fucked up) thing to another.
We barely know the Left 4 Dead protagonists: I’m willing to bet that there’s a lot of people who’ve played Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 that can’t even name both of the women in those games. And that’s fine! The characters are, yet again, a way to get from one zombie killing scenario to another. The point of these games is not about the development of character, it’s about seeing some people try to survive as the world evolves rapidly around them. If you want a character-driven piece of zombie fiction you don’t look at Left 4 Dead. (On that note, may I recommend the & Teller series of videos for just that sort of thing.)
The Female PCs of Borderlands: See: “We barely know the Left 4 Dead protagonists”
Chell from Portal: See: “Samus doesn’t talk”
Amaterasu is a dog and also doesn’t talk: Okami is a great game. An amazing game, even. But I’m pretty sure the only reason Amaterasu is a girl (aside from the fact that I’m fairly sure the actual legendary Amaterasu is a girl) is that they didn’t want to animate balls. She’s a dog. She doesn’t talk. A tiny bug does all of her talking for her. It’s incredibly easy to forget Amaterasu’s gender at times. She’s basically an asexual character, and I would go so far as to say that she’s not necessarily a strong one either (Although she does emote without talking throughout the game).
There are more women on that list who are poor examples of ‘strong female characters’, but I tried not to cross off anybody that I didn’t know well enough to be able to argue coherently about. There’s also a couple (Namely Lara Croft, Claire Redfield) that in the majority of their depictions are crappy examples of this trope, but have some redeeming character qualities at least some of the time.
To the comic creator’s credit, I’d like to call out his mentioning of FemShep (Which defies the “RPG Character Creation” trope in that she is a relatively distinct character from the male version), Sofia Lamb, Jade, and Heather who I agree are very positive examples of deep and complex people with vaginas. I would say that even a broken clock is right twice a day, but that might be dipping a little bit into the strawman argument.