If you have ever read up on any blogs or websites about movies, comics, video games, or any popular media, you have likely come across a post that discusses the portrayal of women. A term that is often used in these discussions is “strong female character”. On its face, it’s a relatively straightforward term, but its actual definition has been surprisingly varied, specious, and controversial. The only common ground all definitions of what it means to be a strong female character is that she is definitely not this:
It gets much more complicated when people try to define what a strong female character is, rather than what she isn’t. Depending on who you’re talking to, the definition of a strong female character can run the gamut from a female character that is strong in the most literal way possible to a female character who’s portrayal and representation is rooted in a strong foundation of feminist theory (and that varies from person to person’s understanding of it as well). From today’s perspective, seeing the ads I’ve posted above in a current-day magazine would be jarring because of how blatantly sexist they are. Unfortunately, most media producers tend to cut corners when it comes to this sort of thing, so they think as long as they 100% literally reproduce the ads above, they’re not doing anything wrong.
You encounter this same problem in the way some people define strong female characters too. When many media producers entertain calls to create strong female characters, they respond by making characters that may be strong in the literal sense, but nonetheless portray them in ways that are still problematic. For example, let’s take a look at Black Widow from The Avengers. Her introductory scene in the first film shows her beating several men to a pulp while tied to a chair. That introduction to Black Widow serves as an up-front rejection of the stereotypical weak, subservient woman that was ubiquitous in early and mid 20th Century pop culture. Both the text and the subtext in this scene let the audience know that Black Widow is most certainly a strong female character. However, take a look at Black Widow in this poster.
Now take a look at Captain America and Nick Fury. Notice something strange? Notice how rigid and imposing the both of them look. They both exude strength in their poses. But doesn’t Black Widow look like she’s sashaying on a fashion runway? She isn’t a supermodel; why is she posed like that?
Going back to The Avengers, somebody else has already pointed out something unusual about that movie poster too.
Here is where the term “strong female character” becomes controversial. Most of those that call for more strong female characters correctly point out making a female character that is physically strong is still no excuse for needlessly sexualizing and objectifying them too. Reducing your female characters to body parts to be ogled at is still as objectionable as what those creepy current-day clothing ads above are doing, even if she spent all three-and-a-half hours of that Avengers movie beating up dudes while tied to that chair.
So when I watched Slayers, I was excited to see the kind of character Lina Inverse was. I don’t see very many female cartoon characters (be it in anime or whatever other country of origin) that are “strong” (however you define that vague term) and are rooted in a foundation of feminist theory. Like Black Widow, Lina Inverse is independent and physically strong. In her very first scene in the very first episode of Slayers, she easily obliterates an army of bandits. But unlike Black Widow, Lina Inverse’s body isn’t needlessly objectified all throughout the very long run Slayers had. Compare Lina to other “strong female characters” you typically see in anime.
Not only is Lina Inverse physically strong, independent, and not objectified, she is fully autonomous (which is something I can’t even say about other slightly better-than-average female characters like Revy from Black Lagoon or Kino from Kino’s Journey), and every other character and situation in the show exist in relation to her. Lina plays the exact same role as Goku in Dragon Ball, the only difference being she is stripped naked much less often than he is. How many other female characters can you think of fit all of those qualifications?
Earlier in this post, I talked about how the definition of a strong female character can span from a character that is literally strong to a character whose representation is based in feminist theory. Obviously Lina is physically strong, but is she a feminist character too? Until very recently, I would have said “yes”, but I’m not so sure anymore. One of Anita Sarkeesian’s older Feminist Frequency videos in which she talked about Mattie Ross from True Grit got me thinking.
Based on Sarkeesian’s objections to Mattie being a feminist character, when I reexamine Lina Inverse, what is it I’m glorifying here? Like Goku, Lina is physically strong and fully autonomous in a universe that revolves around her. Also like Goku, Lina’s universe revolves around her because she is so physically strong and uses violence to bend that universe at her will. Besides the fact that using violence to solve all your problems shouldn’t be a quality worth glorifying, aggression and domination (not to mention Lina’s boorishness and large appetite) are traits stereotypically associated with men. So basically, what I’ve been saying up until now is that Lina Inverse is a feminist character because she “acts like a dude” (particularly Goku). Talk about oxymoronic!
Perhaps a better example than even Lina Inverse is our protagonist of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Nausicaa is portrayed as strong in the literal sense (she’s quite adept with a sword and hand-to-hand combat), but she doesn’t live by a philosophy of using violence to solve her problems. Nausicaa is nurturing to all forms of life throughout the film, from the adorable pet on her shoulder to the grotesque, giant, bug-like Ohm of the Toxic Jungle. Her goal is to stop the Tolmekian Kingdom from destroying the Toxic Jungle for their own selfish means and an impending war between them, the Pejites, and her people of the Valley. The more the opposing kingdoms battle each other, the more the environment gets destroyed. The destruction of the environment threatens to upset the whole delicate ecosystem, which will bring about the wrath of the Ohm, who will respond by destroying everything and everyone in their wake. Compare this to Slayers, in which if Lina’s destruction of the world around her is even acknowledged, it’s played off for laughs. The impending conflict in the film is resolved when Nausicaa gains the trust of the angry Ohm swarm by tending to a wounded baby Ohm’s wounds.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the lead cause of all the conflict is another female character, the Tolmekian Princess Kushana. She is motivated by greed and self-centeredness and she uses aggression, power, and domination (stereotypical male traits) to accomplish her goals. Lina Inverse shares these exact same characteristics, which I celebrated in her particular context. In Nausicaa however, these characteristics of Kushana only bring about the deaths of innocent lives and potentially irreversible destruction of the environment. What ultimately brings about peace to all the kingdoms and the Toxic Forest is Nausicaa’s gentle, caring, and peaceful nature, all traits that are stereotypically viewed as female. In the end, when Kushana sees Nausicaa quell the wrath of the Ohm, she realizes the error in her ways and puts an end to her conquest. Through Nausicaa and Kushana, the movie critiques the idea of stereotypical male traits embodied in the latter (and Lina Inverse) as something to aspire to and by making Kushana a female character, it shows that it is a misguided ideal for our female characters to ascribe to. Nausicaa, on the other hand, is not stereotypical in the sense that she is a weak, passive woman, but her qualities that are stereotypically female are spun in a positive light. With all of this in mind, I don’t think Anita Sarkeesian is being too demanding in her critique of Mattie Ross as a feminist character.
This is not to completely dismiss Lina Inverse (or any of the sexualized female characters I highlighted above) outright. I love Lina Inverse and I think she is a wonderful, interesting, and entertaining character. Nonetheless, I think it’s a good thing to constantly reassess and reexamine the traits and ideas that are often glorified in our characters, media figures, and role models. Sadly, I can’t think of a lot of female characters that reach the same barometer as Nausicaa or even Lina. But if we maintain a sharp, critical eye on our media (and our other structural systems in society) and constantly speak up about it, I believe we can bring about more positive change.