N.b. For the purposes of this article, I will be mainly referring to female characters in the action/adventure genre, rather than in romance
We often see figures of female empowerment in the media. Characters who are meant to be badass independent women, who are well beyond functioning and thriving without the help of a man, sometimes even being the ones to save their male counterparts. Gone are the days of the static damsel in distress, waiting in the castle for Prince Charming. Now, we have Fiona, Captain Marvel, Vi, and more, but despite all this, we still have a big problem with the way strong female/feminine characters are portrayed in the media. This is, unfortunately, the way they are portrayed in relationships.
For some reason, love is usually shown as a burden to female characters. Falling in love or caring about another person in a romantic sense slows them down. They can only focus on fighting, defeating the bad guy or whatever the main plot calls for. Finding a romantic partner is seen as automatically removing their agency, and reducing them to weak female stereotypes. This obvious double standard, that has surprisingly been left unchecked for so long, claims that once a woman is paired with a man, she is automatically giving herself away. It is impossible for a woman to retain the same strength, resilience and power she once possessed if she is paired with a man. Writing it all down is quite frankly ridiculous.
Think about a famous, strong male character you know. Now, think of his love interest. Have you ever thought less of him for being in love? For fighting to save/live alongside his love interest, and getting the happy end with them? I’m sure no one has ever sat down and thought ‘Poor Mario, he has this love interest so he doesn’t have any time to think of himself! How can he be a strong character if he’s dedicated his entire existence to saving Princess Peach?” However, when a female character has a love interest, it is seen as taking away from her power and resolve. It is making her weak.
Love is a weakness for women, and a strength for men.
When a masculine character is given a love interest, it is seen as something that fleshes them out. It shows a softer side to them, allows the audience to connect with them more and gives them more agency and power, and sometimes motive (whether it’s to protect their families, or avenge them in the overdone trope of killing the love interest to start a story). Women, on the other hand, are often denied love interests to prove to everyone just how strong and independent they are. This in of itself isn’t an inherently bad thing, but it can easily lead to problems once closely examined.
The idea that pairing a female/feminine character with a man somehow takes away from their agency has never sat right with me. Pairing badass women characters together, while still in need of more rep, is mostly seen as acceptable and doable without taking away from either character. It is almost as if society sees placing a woman in a relationship with a man automatically makes her subservient, while WLW relationships are fair game. So in trying to empower female characters, they are inadvertently saying that they are not as powerful as men.
Before I go on, I want to clarify that I’m not saying that all characters should be paired off with love interests, or that strong women characters have to fall in love. Having a love interest does not make a character better or worse. I won’t sit here and lie and say I wasn’t impressed when Disney put out its first Princess movie without a love interest, or when Elsa proudly announced that Anna couldn’t marry a guy she met in a day, but the fact is that Moana is not stronger than other Disney princesses because she doesn’t have a love interest. She is strong because of her character, her personality and her will in the face of adversity. Being in love doesn’t change that, and it’s time that the world realized this.
Writing makes characters, regardless of gender, strong -- not their relationships. If we were to view characters without love interests as stronger than others, it would take away from the others that came before them. Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, is undoubtedly a strong woman. She works hard to save up for her dream restaurant. She is resilient and hopeful in the face of despair, and shows bravery in the face of evil. Her resourcefulness, determination and love for Prince Naveen is what ultimately gets her out of her froggy situation.
Now, is Tiana somehow weaker than Moana and Elsa, because she fell in love? Does that take away from all the struggle and strife she went through? Is it that because a man has become a prominent part of her life she is somehow unworthy now? Are men a vacuum that sucks the power and independence out of our female characters just by being present? Would characters like Mulan (who is the strongest Disney Princess in my humble opinion), suddenly be less than compared to those who never thought of love on their journeys? I’d like to think not. While we do have some examples of strong women in healthy relationships now, we need more.
I’m singling out Disney here, but really this is a very common problem throughout the entire entertainment industry as a whole. Love does little to affect male characters, other than making them appear more desirable or fleshed out, and this needs to change. I want to see the next big budget Disney animation to contain a main character who is strong, beautiful, smart and inventive, and I want her to have a (romantic) companion that works as her equal -- not as an overbearing presence or a dumbed down foil. I want to see more female characters who don’t have to be physically strong or immensely skilled to be seen as powerful, and I want them to be able to stand with their male counterparts.
Simply eliminating love interests from our female characters isn’t the great step in representation that the world thinks it is. Not until all strong, badass women characters can be paired with men, and lesbian relationships in the media hold the same footing as heterosexual relationships do, will we be able to truly take a step forward. For now, as the future generation of writers grows and publishes novels more and more, we can begin taking that first step to initiate change. Always remember, love is never a weakness for your characters.
is a Canadian-Jamaican student, slowly making her way through the writing world. She aims to not only write, but be impactful and play her part in making the world a less judgmental and more accepting place for people everywhere.
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