Ditching the 'Strong Female Character': Exploring the Rise of the Artemis Figure in Popular Media
Who do you think of when you picture a “strong female character”? Does Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft come to mind, or Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games? Maybe Princess Merida from Disney’s Brave? What is ‘strong’ supposed to mean anyway? Why are we even still having this conversation?
This past summer, I got a PS4, and with it, a game called Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s a sprawling RPG (gamerspeak for “Role-Playing Game”) filled with lush landscapes, a story better than most of what Hollywood pumps out, and it all centers around your character - a woman named Aloy.
As I played through the game, I noticed a connection between Aloy and several other female characters in recent media. Ellie from The Last of Us, the aforementioned Merida and Katniss - they all pretty much share the same characteristics. They’re head-strong, well-written, and emotionally comprehensive girls and women that can fight the bad people and nurture those they care for… (plus, they all use bows and arrows in combat). If you know your Greek or Roman mythology, the traits I’m describing might sound familiar. Yeah, they’re all built from the Artemis archetype.
If you're not like me and didn’t take a whole class in high school about world mythology, here’s a quick and dirty summary.
Almost every character ever created in any media fits into at least one archetype. It’s just the way it is. And Artemis, Greek goddess of the hunt, moon, wilderness and strong will, is the perfect model for creating a “Strong Female Character”. As Jean Shinoda Bolen writes of Artemis-characters, “These are young women who call upon their intuition, depth of feeling and courage to go beyond previous limits; who feel fear and outrage and have to adapt and endure and not give in or give up”. Just give her a cool name, write up an interesting backstory, provide some sort of challenge and boom - you’ve got a potentially compelling female character. It’s not a bad archetype to call upon.
Other types female characters have historically often fallen into (and haven’t been able to break free from) are the Aphrodite figure, the damsel in distress, the opposing figures of the Madonna/whore, or as I’ve heard described in my classes, the maiden/mother/hag figures. These models are often quite rigid and limiting in terms of empowering or what one might call “strong” characteristics.
So why is it all important? It’s no secret that the media we consume influences how we view the world and the people in it, for better or for worse. A prime example is The Birth of a Nation. One of the first motion-length films ever created, this 1915 film portrayed black characters (played by white actors in black face) as intellectually inferior and sexually deviant, playing upon the societal fears of a post-emancipation country. This film actually revived the KKK, whose membership until then had largely dwindled down due to suppression by the US government. This revival set the stage for even more decades of violence and prejudice against African-Americans. Such is the power that media can potentially wield.
It’s not a stretch of logic, then, to understand why it’s imperative that female characters are created with care and provide intriguing models for both women and men to be inspired by. People resonate with stories. People resonate with characters. And great ones can show us how to become better versions of ourselves.
Until the past few years, there just haven’t been many good examples of how to do a compelling female character or CFC as I’ll refer to them now. Take Lara Croft, who I mentioned back at the beginning of this article.
She’s hyper-sexualized, a female character made to be looked at. Yeah, she’s physically strong and can fight/kill, but at the expense of any real feminine traits bleeding through. She’s not a complete human being. To use a term coined by Alex Layne and Samantha Blackmon, She’s basically a female “skinned” version of a male action hero. No thanks.
That’s the problem with a lot of so-called “Strong Female Characters” in the past few decades. Like Lara, they may be physically/intellectually strong, but when it comes down to it, they’re either not present for the majority of the action à la Dr. Ellie Sattler from Jurassic Park, or reduced back down into the ‘damsel in distress’ trope at the last second only to be saved by a male character * cough cough * like Buffy. It’s annoying to see yourself represented in a character and then have that character be pooped on by (most likely) a male director, writer, or developer.
Fortunately, representation in media is slowly getting better in many capacities, and people aren’t as hard-pressed to find CFCs. In the past, oh I don’t know, maybe 8 years or so, there have been some great stand-out examples in film, books, and video games.
There’s one of my all time favorites - Ellie from the critically acclaimed PS3 game The Last of Us.
She’s a fourteen-year-old firecracker who fights tooth and nail to survive in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Ellie’s both rambunctious and intelligent, brave and scared, cynical at times, but also shamelessly hopeful. And - she’s got an amazing potty-mouth. YGG.
Another example is one you might know already - Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. If you don’t, here’s a quick rundown of what makes her cool:
Nicola Balkind writes beautifully of Katniss’s character in an essay for The Huffington Post, claiming “Katniss is certainly a character who reaches beyond this faux feminist, “strong female character” Hollywood fad. Her masculine traits are not simply active and violent, they are coping mechanisms, instincts to protect and survive. When she breaks emotionally, it is not with irrationality or loss of control, but with empathy, believability and grace”. Yes to all of that.
Lastly, one that you might not believe at first sight. Claire Dearing from Jurassic World.
She’s an ice queen, she’s emotionally unavailable for half of the film, and she puts business before family until her nephews literally go missing on an island full of dinosaurs. And to top it, she runs around the jungle in a skirt and heels! But, if you think about it, negative or traditionally devalued characteristics in women like a ‘work-first’ attitude don’t actually negate the complexity of character. At the end of the film, she develops into an even more competent and well-rounded person, businesswoman, and family member. And she isn’t masculinized for no good reason like Lara Croft is. Sorry you couldn’t get the same treatment, Dr. Sattler.
These are only a few great characters of the past decade - there are so many others too! I only know a few, so I encourage you to be a smart consumer of media and find your own examples of CFCs that resonate with you.
Even though each of these characters are created (whether consciously or unconsciously) from the Artemis archetype, that model, unlike the other ones I’ve mentioned, has consistently shown itself to be a pretty decent base for creating a CFC. When done well, these characters exhibit what Justine Musk calls a “femininity with fire in its soul”. They can be über feminine, prissy, or tomboyish, warriors or nurturers, or both - this model allows for the most flexibility in demonstrating womanhood that I’ve personally ever seen.
It’s bittersweet in a way, because media is just now getting to a point where CFCs are becoming the norm instead of the exception. But if patience rewards me with characters like Ellie, Katniss, and Claire, I guess I can’t complain too much.
As you can tell, I could go on and on about this many-branched tree of a topic. Maybe soon I’ll do a more in-depth dissection of my favorite female characters and why their portrayals resonate so well with people.
As always, I pass the discussion off to you. Let me know your opinions in the comments below.