What makes a woman strong, anyway?

I bet if you’re known as your family’s pet feminist people are always recommending movies and TV shows to you on the basis of the ‘strong female characters.’
” Oh, you’d like that , lots of strong women in it.” Cue rolling of eyes.

Kind of along the same lines that Theresa May isn’t necessarily a feminist leader, nor making women friendly decisions, just because she is a woman in power; so movies with ‘strong female characters’ aren’t necessarily feminist. Game of Thrones is one of these shows. I started binge watching Game of Thrones last summer, but had to give up around season five when I felt I couldn’t wade through anymore treacle. The Wall! Jon Snow! The odd storyline with the youngest child and weird trees. It wasn’t for me. People refer to the strong female characters in Game of Thrones all the time –  Khaleesi Mother of Dragons ! –  and there have also been think pieces written about how GoT is a feminist TV show. I haven’t watched the whole series, but, from what I saw, it’s a no from me. Often the kinds of women being referred to in this way are behaving in ways which are traditionally deemed masculine; they are ‘kicking ass’, but wearing a skirt, instead of pants. They’re wise-crackers. They’re cool girls. Because in the words of Mary Beard, “we have no template for what a powerful woman looks like, except that she looks rather like a man.”

When we see men behaving in this way, we don’t call them ‘strong men’. They’re just men. So women doing all these things are also, just women.


Of course it’s important to see women doing things men normally do on TV and in film; starting wars, fighting bad guys, running away from dinosaurs, busting ghosts. Because women can do all of those things too, it goes without saying. The recent trend for remaking movies with a female cast – Ghostbusters, Ocean’s 8 – is fine, but it would be even better to see female led movies in new stories. As the saying goes, you can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. What we want in our female characters is for them to be nuanced and real; that means that they can also be vulnerable, dependent, compassionate if the situation permits.  I’m thinking less Clare Underwood, House of Cards, more Leslie Knope, Parks and Rec.

But what makes a strong woman anyway, and why do you think that, as a feminist, I am interested only in strength? Why are we valuing  it more than other attributes? What if you are weak? Are you not to be valued ? What might have made a person, a woman, weak ? What really got me thinking about all of this was seeing a tweet from Roxane Gay earlier this week. It said,

” the thing with being seen as a strong woman is that no-one ever asks if you need help.” 

Oof. I felt that.

Sometimes we are emotionally strong. Sometimes we need to be, sometimes we want to be. Sometimes we might look like we are strong, but really we are falling apart at the seams and are desperate for someone to say, ” Are you OK?” “Can I help?” But sometimes we find it really hard to accept help when it is offered to us, because we are strong women and we don’t need help. Sometimes we don’t want to look weak, and sometimes we don’t want to be a burden, and sometimes we think we should be able to do this on our own.

Does it suit us to think people are strong so we don’t have to help them? Does it excuse us from asking questions? What does a person who needs help look like? How much of your vulnerability do you need to make visible before people can see it?

No-one can be strong all the time, even if it might look like they are. Some people find it hard to accept help when it’s offered, so try just doing something for them, instead of asking them first. I’m sure even Khlaeesi could have done with a supportive shoulder raising those dragons.

5 thoughts on “What makes a woman strong, anyway?

  1. Good points! Here. I certainly agree that GOTH is not a feminist show but the women who kick ass do not always where dresses. Brienne and Arya. Both ladies hate dresses and mostly where trousers to fight. Brienne also wears a full suit of armour and is 6ft 3 and muscular.


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