Strong Female Characters: Subversive Femininity in Literature and Popular Media

(Panel)


Cultural Studies and Media Studies / Women's and Gender Studies

Mary Ellen Iatropoulos (Independent Scholar)

Are strong female characters necessarily subversive representations of femininity--historically and/or presently? Strong female characters often buck expectations and subvert patriarchal norms: they are super-powered, defiant, and resistant towards authority. Yet, even as the number of female-centered films increases (Wonder Woman, Ghostbusters, Moana, Rogue One, Beauty and the Beast, Ghost in the Shell, and Hidden Figures), the problem of unequal representation persists, and as apparent in some examples given, so does the problem of female characters adhering to cliches or damaging stereotypes. With the rising visibility of feminist criticism online, concerns have been raised over the efficacy of “strong female characters” as a metric for measuring sociopolitical dynamics found in literature, film, and other media. The vagueness inherent to a phrase like “strong female characters” troubles contemporary audiences and authors alike with its multiplicity of (often-times detrimental, albeit inadvertently) problematic representations that tether women to the very burdensome social constructs from which such onomastic strength seeks to break free. The term is deceptively simplistic, since a female character can be “strong” while also exhibiting traits or attitudes which are disempowering for women watching.

How have stories about the figure of the strong female character affected our understandings of gender constructs and idealized, “proper” feminine behavior for women across the years in American culture? Is a “strong female character” the same thing as a subversive representation of femininity? How have notions of femininity and what it means to be subversive changed over the centuries?

This panel seeks papers which engage the above questions to draw parallels between 19th-century literature and 21st-century popular media representations of subversive femininity. Successful papers will describe what critical insights such a comparison yields, as well as what conclusions for modern audiences such analysis reveals.


Are “strong female characters” necessarily subversive representations of femininity--historically and/or presently? How have stories about such characters affected our understandings of gender constructs and idealized, “proper” feminine behavior for women throughout American cultural history? Which parallels can be drawn between 19th-century literature and 21st-century popular media representations? How have representations of subversive femininity and “strong female characters” changed or (d)evolved from century to century?