The Strong Female Character, or the Unhinged Female Character

I used to love the phrase “strong female character.” I knew what it meant. I knew what I was looking for. Someone who wasn’t just the damsel in distress, could take charge in a battle just as much as the boys, and had a personality that was complex and not just focused on love. To be honest, I wanted another Meg from Disney’s Hercules. Queen Sass Monster.

GIF of Megara lifting one eyebrow at a doofus named Hercules.

Then Hollywood started creating strong female characters. As in literal strong female characters. Like, she knows how to handle machine guns but also runs in high heels.

So I shifted my phrasing to “complicated female characters.” This time I clarified it a little bit more to really focus on the complexities of psychology and moral centers. And now in the Year of Our Lorde 2020, we are seeing unhinged female characters. Which is… close? Ish? A for effort?

Fictional Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Full disclosure, I will not be looking at shows labeled as comedies, even though Fleabag and Insecure are great examples of complex and well-rounded women.  If the culture and marketing department are going to tout a project as “prestige TV,” it will be analyzed with a critical eye.

If you look at the roster of films, TV dramas, and genre media at our disposal, you will come across a lot of unhinged women. Olivia Colman won an Oscar for The Favourite, beating out Glenn Close for what many assumed would be a long overdue win. The line of actresses nominated for Emmy Awards this year ranged from portrayals of young drug addicts (Euphoria) to news broadcasters experiencing sexual misconduct (The Morning Show). Even Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender is a sound frequently used by TikTok users. “My own mother called me a monster… she was right, of course, but it still hurt!”

Azula sneering

All of these women have amazing performers and writers behind them, but they all have one thing in common: they are all on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Or they just have a nervous breakdown and need to be locked up. (Again, props to my girl Azula.) This appears to be the natural progression of the evolution of the “strong female character” concept that was introduced more than 25 years ago with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Then again, it’s not like these characters haven’t existed before. Go back more than 400 years, and Shakespeare has a slew of interesting and flawed women in his plays from Viola to Tamora. Lady Macbeth herself laid the groundwork for the unhinged woman.

Lady Macbeth:

So how does it happen?

Mental and Emotional [Im]Balance

There’s a narrative balancing act when developing a TV series. It’s easier to focus on the protagonist going through on their worst day: Tony Soprano having a panic attack, Walter White’s cancer diagnosis, Piper Chapman being sentenced to 15 months in prison. All pretty shitty days. And this makes an easier transition into typically unhinged behavior. (My personal favorite is “F*ck you and your eyebrows” from Breaking Bad. Please put it on a coffee mug for me.)

Gif of Walter White quitting the car wash.

So what about the supporting characters around them? The women especially have a harder time if it’s a primarily male heavy cast. Again, there’s an ease in predictability: they get pregnant, they breakup with their boyfriends or spouses, they marry an abuser, they’re revealed to be a psychopathic murderer, they’re raped or fridged. Game of Thrones checks off many items of this list. It’s unfortunate that the main cause for developing complicated women characters and their growth often involves violence of some kind or a Shyamalan type twist where they were evil all along.

Daenarys Targaryan burns King's Landing.

What it seems to come down to is that “strong” and “complicated” has become synonymous with one extreme of the other. Eventually morals and emotions erode away into a calm and confident demeanor. Or their emotions get the best of them. Characters reflect a patriarchal ideal of strength, or the nightmare of insanity.

Exceptions to the Rule

But again, we’re getting much better about writing compelling characters that aren’t cisgender men. 

The perfect example of this? Kim Wexler.

Kim Wexler:

It’s not that she’s the perfect woman who has been wronged and becomes reckless. She represses her emotions without being devoid of them. She develops a Robin Hood complex over the course of the series because of her intense desire to see the law work for her pro bono clients. As her character developed from supporting character to a full-fledged protagonist of Better Call Saul, Kim Wexler has been lauded as one of the best characters in TV history.

Media produced between 2015 and 2020 will most likely pave the way for better character development. More than ever, women are not just handling military-grade weapons or having an award-worthy meltdown that makes audiences cry. They finally being depicted as flawed human beings that are capable of anything.