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The Death of the Strong Female Protagonist

Strong female protagonists, that’s what literary agents are looking for. When they say that, it usually means they will accept nothing other than a main character crossed between Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Aliens or Sarah Connor in Terminator 2.

Who Is Looking for the Strong Female Protagonist?

Strong-Female-Protagonist-MSWL- Tweets from literary agents requesting strong female protagonists

Literary Agents are looking for SFPs. When they say that, it usually means they will accept nothing other than strong female protagonists. These are the gatekeepers. Except for small presses, the only publishers will even consider new authors is if a literary agent represents them. If they will only accept strong female protagonists and diverse characters and if you don’t have them in your novel, you might as well self-publish.

Publishers are looking for SFPs. They influence literary agents and starting sometime around 2013, the call for more SFP gained momentum. Gone are the days when damsels in distress had only one weapon against monsters: the scream.

The buying public drives the publishers and studios to clamor for more SFPs. Any casual scroll through Twitter will show you how the masses can’t wait to read about a female 007.

But do they?

Does the buying public really want more strong female protagonists?

I’m sure there’s a segment of the buying public that thirsts for more SFP stories, but we are seeing a tide change in public desire, and I believe the root of this boils down to three things.

strong female protagonist Starbuck smoking
Captain Starbuck in the 2004-2019 reboot of Battlestar Galactica

What Killed the Strong Female Protagonist?

1. The novelty wore off.

We are over-saturated.

Look at what comes out of Hollywood over the last ten years. Rehashed or rebooted stories with gender-swapped and racial-swapped characters. It’ s Ghost Busters, but they’re all women. It’s Batman, except he’s a woman. It’s Dr. Who, but he’s a woman. This shows a death of creativity.

There is a place for the strong female protagonist. When Sigourney Weaver kicked the alien queen’s butt, I was cheering for her all the way. She did what needed to be done, and she showed physical and emotional strength doing it.

2. Physical prowess is not the only expression of strength.

Strength takes other forms.

  • Faith – the strength to believe in someone or something even when it seems impossible
  • Meekness – the ability to limit your strength and restrain it from vengeance, cruelty, or injustice
  • Courage – the strength to stand against the crowd or the fortitude to charge into adversity
  • Humility – the strength to admit you are wrong
  • Temperance – the strength to limit your indulgences
  • Self-Sacrifice – like a mother giving up her life for her child

Limiting strength to physical domination in books or movies restricts creativity and leaves the novel reader or movie watcher with the feeling, “Oh, this story again? Yawn.” And by forcing women into a Conan the Barbarian role, we neuter them and remove role models we need.

3. Women are not diverse enough.

The call for SFP gained strength in 2013 but has declined. Calls for diverse characters have replaced the need for women in general.

A post by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center that concluded, “Our numbers continue to show what they have shown for the past 35 years: Despite slow progress, the number of books featuring BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] protagonists lags far behind the number of books with white main characters–or even those with animal or other characters. Taken together, books about white children, talking bears, trucks, monsters, potatoes, etc. represent nearly three quarters (71%) of children’s and young adult books published in 2019.”

For pie charts showing race, gender, orientation, and disability in the publishing business.
Lee and Low Books “Diversity Baseline Survey 2019 Results”

The chart above shows diversity in the publishing business regarding race, gender, orientation, and disability. Note that even though women outnumber men 3 to 1, the call is not to rebalance that disparity, but to reduce the number of “cis” people so that others can be represented.

Move over, strong women. You are being replaced, and not by men.

Let’s allow women to show their natural strengths
and stop trying to make them men.

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