One of the mistakes often made when describing what people look for in a ‘strong female character’ is a fierce, independent woman. She relies on no one of any gender to get what she needs, and she has all the skills she could possibly require at her fingertips. She’s the lone hunter, the woman warrior, the woman who could live in a vacuum and turn out just fine. This is not, however, what I think of when I think of a strong female character, or a strong woman in the real world; these aren’t traits I think we should be encouraging or celebrating, because no woman is an island, and no woman should be expected to be.
What I look for in strong female characters when I evaluate their relationship to other people is interdependence. There is no shame in relying on other people sometimes, on needing their emotional, physical, or other support, just as there is no shame in offering that support to the people around you when they need your help. Look at Veronica Mars, for example; there are scenes where Logan helps her when she’s in a jam, but conversely, she’s also the one helping him when he’s falsely accused of murder and he’s trying to exonerate himself. The two characters enjoy an intimate connection and an interdependent one as they help each other navigate the world, and it’s a more more equitable balance than one where Logan always saves the day or Veronica never shows vulnerability.
You see a similar dynamic on Buffy, where she’s a strong character because of her friends and mentors. She knows that she can’t go this alone, even though at times, she tries; and it often ends disastrously. As she attempts to protect her friends, convinced that they will be safer if they don’t get involved in the world of slayage, she leaves herself exposed. It’s only through cooperative effort that they manage to defeat the Big Bads of each season, and it’s only through creative problem solving as a group that they handle the day to day problems they encounter, from keeping Dawn out of the hands of child services to navigating Anya and Xander’s tumultuous relationship.
The model of strong female character as lone warrior seems to have rather a lot of connections to the US model of individualism at all costs and the belief that everyone should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. There’s a common attitude in the US that interdependence is a sign of weakness; it’s telling that functional relationships in which people help each other and each have something to offer are often framed specifically as ‘dependent,’ rather than ‘interdependent,’ with a sneer reserved for the person who needs assistance. In US culture, you are failing if you need help, whether from friends, family, or the government.
This country does not believe in models of cooperation and solidarity; such things are very alien to the US consciousness. Thus, it’s no surprise to see these attitudes reflected and reiterated in pop culture, which makes incidences of true interdependence all the more rare, and all the more interesting. Telling that women themselves criticise female characters for displaying interdependent traits, instead of viewing them as a different social model that could completely upend the way we relate to each other and the way we function as a society. Cooperative characters who work together in groups should be viewed as an inspiration, not the other way ’round.
When I see Veronica Mars reaching out for help, or someone stepping in to help her when she’s too proud to help herself, I see vulnerability, but I don’t see weakness. I see a character who, like all of us, is human, and cannot actually conquer the world. She’s one girl, and she cannot survive alone no matter how much she thinks she can, or thinks she should. And when I see Veronica Mars kicking ass and taking names, standing up for people who are being harassed or abused, using her brilliant mind to put together pieces of a puzzle, I see strength, tempered with an awareness that she’s not on a pedestal where no one can touch her.
She is both strong and vulnerable; she is a strong female character not just because she’s a great crimesolver and she’s witty and she’s sharp, but because she is also sometimes not able to take on the world by herself. For that, she needs her friends and family, if she can let herself trust them, and that, too, is part of her character development. Her journey as a character takes her through a lot of dark places where she feels alone, and where viewers too may feel isolated, but she will eventually come through them, if she can accept the fact that sometimes, you need to allow yourself to be interdependent to get to the heart of a problem and solve it.
Veronica isn’t weak when she’s trapped in the River Styx with no way out and Logan blasts in to save her. She’s still the same bold, strong, amazing young woman who’s out to get to the bottom of a mystery. She just needs a little bit of assistance, and thanks to the fact that she has friends who are ready to help her, that assistance is ready to hand when she needs it. Buffy isn’t a lost cause when she’s traumatised after being brought back to life and Spike helps her recover; she’s a woman who’s been through a horrific experience and needs someone to support her while she finds her footing.
As long as we insist that female characters can only be strong through total independence, we do both them and women in the real world a disservice. The real mark of strength isn’t in how much of a loner you can be, how much you can isolate yourself, but how you can strike a balance, maintaining your strength and integrity while being unafraid to build emotional connections with other people.