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With the theatrical release of DC’s Wonder Woman, I’ve heard a lot of renewed talk about strong female role models. I see posts about them all the time on Facebook and Instagram, and even Twitter, but when I look at the characters featured in the accompanying photos, I tend to sneer. They consider THAT character to be a strong female role model? It’s made me stop to think, “What makes a female character strong?”

When I think of a strong female role model, my mind tends to turn to Joss Whedon characters such as Buffy Summers from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Zoe from Firefly. I also tend to think of Eowyn from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Luna Lovegood from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter. On the flip side, when I think of weak or pathetic female characters, I think of Bella Swan from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series and Tauriel from Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy. What’s the difference between them? Why is Eowyn strong and Tauriel weak?

Buffy was blessed with exceptional instincts and strength; she uses those abilities to slay the hellbeasts of Sunnydale, California, protecting its oblivious citizens. She has friends, she has several boyfriends throughout the series, but she frequently puts aside her frivolous desires for the better of others, even for those she doesn’t like. She’s respectful of her mother, she’s respectful of her watcher, Giles. She knows when to obey, and when to disobey. Zoe is a war veteran turned mercenary on the ship Firefly, and she is married to its pilot, Wash. Despite being a better fighter than her husband, she still loves and respects him, even putting him above her captain, a fellow veteran and long-time friend. She helps care for and protect the mentally unstable River, and she’s a calm and steady anchor amidst the crew. Eowyn was trained to fight alongside her brother, Eomer, but stayed to defend Edoras while her family went to fight Saruman’s orcs at Helm’s Deep. She later disguised herself as a man to follow the Rohirrim to the Pelennor Fields, bringing with her the hobbit, Merry, who had been told he would be a burden by the other soldiers. On the battlefield, Eowyn stayed beside her uncle, King Theoden, and fought the unkillable Witch King of Angmar to protect his broken body, killing both winged beast and Nazgul at the cost of her own life. Luna was picked on because of her oddities, earning the nickname “Looney Lovegood” from the other students, yet she never treated any of them with any malice or resentment. Instead, she firmly believed what she believed, supporting and encouraging her father, as well as Harry Potter. She was sweet and kind to everyone despite the fact that they didn’t understand her, and she didn’t hesitate to come when she was called upon to help fight for their world.

Bella barely did anything but put herself in situations where she’d need to be saved. She manipulated Jacob Black’s feelings for her own purposes, selfishly holding onto him while she threw herself at Edward Cullen. She was selfish and did what she wanted, putting herself and others in danger. Tauriel, while a fearsome warrior, was also driven by “love.” When told she couldn’t have Legolas, the elf immediately went down to flirt with the one dwarf who’d made an innuendo, deciding, quite suddenly, that she now loved him. She didn’t move to help the dwarf’s quest until after she’d learned that Kili had been poisoned and was slowly dying, and then used Legolas’s feelings for her to convince him to follow along. Then she let Legolas chase the orcs she’d convinced him to hunt, leaving the elf prince alone against multiple enemies, to heal a dwarf she barely knew that was destined to die anyway. Tauriel was constantly ditching the cause she “believed in” for the sake of “love,” only following through with her claimed motives when pressed by others.

It’s more than the ability to fight. A woman who possesses fighting prowess in a story is just an easy way for a writer to say, “We have a strong female character, look at how she fights in the battlefield!” That kind of writing is a cheap shortcut. Show me how that strong female character behaves OFF the battlefield. Is she kind? Does she lift up those who others put down? Does she treat others with respect? Does she stand up for what’s right? But most the most important question for me is: does she have an identity outside of romance and battle? 

The modern girl will not experience a battle of epic proportions between the forces of good and evil. If she decides to join the army and fight for her nation, the battlefield won’t look like the Pelennor Fields. Encouraging a girl to learn how to fight and protect herself is good, but she needs to be more. She needs to know how to treat others respectfully, how to not beat down someone just because she disagrees with them. She needs to stand up for what she believes is right, even if everyone around her is telling her she’s wrong. A strong woman doesn’t break under peer pressure. A strong woman has an identity of her own, outside of her circle of friends and loved ones. A strong woman can still be sensitive and loving, she can still obey the leading of others when it is right. A strong woman can be more than a warrior on the battlefield.

A strong woman can be a business woman.

A strong woman can be an artist.

A strong woman can be a doctor.

A strong woman can be a boxer.

A strong woman can be a stay at home mom.

A strong woman can be a pastor’s wife.

A strong woman can be anything she wants to be. Her job or role in life isn’t what makes her strong. A woman is strong when she can stand for herself. A woman is strong when she can protect and help those in need. A woman is strong when she knows what she wants and goes after it with a passion. A woman is strong when she does every task she sets her hand to, no matter how menial or demeaning, to the best of her ability. A woman is strong when she knows who she is.

And any woman can be strong.

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