I’ve heard a lot of creators talking about how they’re trying to write “strong heroines” for the ladies in the audience. Usually it’s framed as wanting to give the young women out there someone to look up to – someone they can see themselves in, the same way all the young lads can see themselves in the hero.
The problem with this isn’t so much the fact that the creators are trying to represent a group of people (women) in their media, it’s… that their “strong heroines” all seem to be cut from the same cloth.
To highlight this, I’m going to use some examples from media that I think show this point well – Fullmetal Alchemist has a great cast of characters, so I’ll start there.
(Note: I tried to keep this relatively spoiler-free.)
We see the typical “strong heroine” type in Riza Hawkeye. She’s a soldier. She stands on even footing with most of the male cast and keeps them in line. The colonel she serves under, Roy Mustang, trusts her to watch his back and keep him on the right path.
Something that really helps Riza stand out from other “strong heroines” is the fact that we get to see her at her weakest moments, we get to see her struggle with her inner demons… and overcome them. Most importantly, perhaps, is the fact that none of the men see her as weak – even those who have seen her at her weakest.
They don’t treat her like something to be protected, they trust her to protect herself.
The same could be said of Izumi Curtis, the woman who taught the main characters Alchemy. She’s also strong in the typical ways – she’s rugged and tough. But she’s also defined by one of her greatest desires: to be a mother.
Her husband also openly mourns the children they couldn’t have, which does a lot to make it clear that Izumi’s desires and pains aren’t something tied uniquely to her gender. I see that happen far too often as well – by making a woman want children, it’s somehow supposed to make her feminine.
Which is weird, because wanting children isn’t just for women.
There are a lot of “strong heroine” types in Fullmetal Alchemist. I love Olivier Armstrong, Lan Fan, and Mei Chang. The author of this series is great at capturing characters and motivations and making them feel human.
Winry Rockbell is a different kind of strong. She’s a mechanic, and I think that alone speaks volumes for the kind of strong she is. She keeps things running. You might not appreciate her until something breaks and needs repaired, but you can count on her to fix things. She’s a supporting character, but she’s very important to the main characters, Ed and Alphonse.
“Your hands aren’t meant for killing people,” Ed tells her at one crucial point.
She’s not a soldier. She’s a mechanic – but she’s the best at what she does, and the heroes know they can count on her to be there for them. Sometimes, that’s the kind of strong people need in their lives… and supporting cast, especially supporting heroines, shouldn’t be seen as less important.
Of course, it helps to have a full, diverse cast. When there are women like Riza, Izumi, and Mei in the front lines, it’s okay to let some women like Winry to hang back and be there for support.
So, keep writing all kinds of women – mothers, soldiers, mechanics… they’re all important roles.
The bottom line? Women are strong. People are strong. Treat your heroines like people, real people, and they’ll be strong characters.