An All-Female Panel Tries To Answer The Question, 'What Even Is A Strong Female Character?'

Women can be a lot of other things, you know.

By Robin Lempel

Lately we’ve been hearing a lot about strong female characters in film and TV. It should be a positive thing, right? But what does that term really mean? Labeling a character as just “strong” can be pretty limiting.

That’s part of what the recent Showtime panel “Sexuality and Television: A Female Perspective” was all about. The panel included actresses Emmy Rossum and Shanola Hampton from "Shameless," Maura Tierney from "The Affair," Caitlin FitzGerald from "Masters of Sex" and executive producers Michelle Ashford, Nancy Pimental and Sarah Treem from the same shows. Covering sex on TV and gender stereotypes, the panelists addressed the concerns over the “strong female character” label.

FitzGerald talked about how the word “strong” is a bit problematic and can feel like a masculine term. And a female character doesn’t have to have that implied masculine energy to be a compelling, leading character. What would be better, she thinks, would be if we saw real, complex characters.

“This word ‘strong,’ I find a little tricky," she said. "We have heard ‘strong female character’ so frequently, and I think the word ‘strong’ puts me in line with a very specific masculine energy. I appreciate what the sentiment is supposed to be with that phrase … but all of us are strong in our vulnerability, our nakedness, emotionally or otherwise. And so, I just think we need other kinds of words: ‘comprehensive,’ ‘whole,’ ‘complete,’ ‘real.’”

Rossum, meanwhile, argued that we shouldn’t make this gendered.

“How about just ‘strong character?'” she said. “I’ve never heard anybody say ‘strong male character.’ Nobody talks about that at all. I guess men have always been number one on the call sheet, but now women are and that’s great. So let's not make it a gender thing.”

At the Golden Globe Awards just last weekend (January 11), we really did get to take a close look at the kinds of roles that women are playing, from Gina Rodriguez in "Jane the Virgin" to Patricia Arquette in "Boyhood," but Best Actress in a Mini-series winner Maggie Gyllenhaal really said it best: Sure, there are some strong female characters and powerful women out there, but there's also so much more. There are actual women.

“I’ve noticed a lot of people talking about the wealth of roles for powerful women in television lately," she said during her acceptance speech. "And when I look around the room at the women who are here and I think about the performances that I’ve watched this year, what I see actually are women who are sometimes powerful and sometimes not, sometimes sexy, sometimes not, sometimes honorable, sometimes not, and what I think is new is the wealth of roles for actual women in television and in film. That’s what I think is revolutionary and evolutionary, and it’s what’s turning me on."