Carina Chocano’s New York Times article “A Plague of Strong Female Characters” gets at most of my issues with this trope:
“Strong female character” is one of those shorthand memes that has leached into the cultural groundwater and spawned all kinds of cinematic clichés: alpha professionals whose laserlike focus on career advancement has turned them into grim, celibate automatons; robotic, lone-wolf, ascetic action heroines whose monomaniacal devotion to their crime-fighting makes them lean and cranky and very impatient; murderous 20-something comic-book salesgirls who dream of one day sidekicking for a superhero; avenging brides; poker-faced assassins; and gloomy ninjas with commitment issues.
Or the YA versions, typically found in fantasy or historical fiction: the girl who dresses up as a boy to fight or do some other “male” activity; the girl who hates the feminine tasks assigned her and runs off to do boy stuff instead; the girl who saves the world with her ass-kicking skills.
Chocano acknowledges that the original goal of “strong female characters” was “strong” as in “interesting or complex or well written,” and that is certainly the goal of these YA characters as well. Too often, though, the thing that makes them interesting or complex is the fact that they don’t want to do what their society expects of them as women. They buck their culture’s expectations while fitting neatly into the reader’s. What girl would want to be stuck with no options but cooking and sewing and getting married? By modern standards, a girl who submits to those restrictions couldn’t possibly be strong.
But that ends up implying that cooking and sewing and raising a family can’t be strong things to do — or more to the point, that they can’t be strong things to want, since to be strong a YA character must go after what she wants. (Though that’s a pretty American attitude — it could also be strong to submit to what one doesn’t want for the good of the many. But that’s a discussion for another time.) I would love to see more YA historical fiction and fantasy with more strong (as in complex, interesting, and possessed of inner strength) female characters who aren’t strong (as in wielding a sword).
Arianna of Wandering Librarians writes more about that inner strength idea.