Now, before we get any further with this article, it is important to first establish that this is not about actual men with breasts, so if that’s something you’re into I humbly apologise for getting both your hopes up and… well I think we all know where that low effort joke is going.

No, this article will instead be a man talking about issues relating to women in the media, because you know, equality. More specifically this TV student will be ‘mansplaining’ why writers often struggle to write strong female characters and how they will often resort to the good ol’ fashioned men with tits tactic.

Aside from being the name of one of my uncle’s favourite movies, the men with tits tactic describes the technique of: trying to write a strong female character, struggling to comprehend how someone can both be strong and wear make-up, giving up, writing the character as a man, slapping an extra X chromosome on and calling it a day.

This issue often stems from male screenwriters who have not interacted with a woman outside of their mother until their early twenties, and as such struggles to draw upon real life examples of women interacting within the real world. They can’t fathom how a character could possibly be considered strong and threatening while also having a feminine side (Well at least that’s what my therapist thinks).

So, you may be thinking to yourself ‘What’s the big deal? I don’t see the issue with this, surely it’s more sexist to claim that masculine women aren’t real and that all female characters should be feminine stereotypes?’ You may also be thinking ‘How did he know exactly what I was thinking?’

Whether we want to admit it or not, almost everyone is judged based on their gender and almost everyone, albeit sometimes unconsciously, judges’ others based on gender. As such, women act differently than men, and men act differently than women; women act differently around men than they do women and men act differently around women than they do men.

So, when I say that strong female characters should still act feminine, I don’t mean that they should all be dumb blondes, who only care about fashion, and whose only purpose is to provide eye candy for men and make Laura Mulvey weep, but that the writer should consider how a character’s life and characteristics have affected them and made them who they are.

A female character is more likely to be interested in make-up because our society has encouraged this. However, an interest in beauty does not make a weak character and neither does a passion for traditionally ‘feminine’ hobbies either. Yet having too many of these factors can often lead to a two dimensional and stereotypical character – so where is the balance?  

There is a fine line between a realistic character and a stereotypical one. Crazy right?  Who’d have guessed that writing is a difficult job and requires thought and effort to make it good?

Even as I write this, I can already hear a horde of angry film students scream ‘BUT WAIT!!! WHAT ABOUT RIPLEY??!?!?!?’ Ah yes, Ellen Louise Ripley, everyone’s favourite ‘well written’ female character of Alien fame. But what if I told you that this character was not the perfect female character you thought it was? What if I told you that Ripley may even be the catalyst for the ‘men with tits’ epidemic?

Allow me to explain.

Back when Dan O’Bannon was writing the screenplay for Alien he made the decision to write all the characters to be gender neutral, to be played by anyone of any race, sex or age, so that they would be cast through their acting prowess, rather than simply due to how the actor looked.

This decision led to the lead role of Ripley going to Sigourney Weaver. Back in the late 70s when Alien came out, this was revolutionary! The idea that the lead of an action film could be a woman was almost unheard of. Even today, many consider Weaver to be the pioneer of strong action female leads.

But therein lies the problem.

While during the 70s, a woman being cast in this role was a big deal – a leading, action hero, who wasn’t tied down by stereotypes, scared, or so weak that they couldn’t lead a group of hardened men, was indeed rarely seen. However, the character of Ripley is so gender neutral that no real feminine traits can be seen.

This begs the question: ‘is Ripley a strong female character or just a strong character, plain and simple?

She doesn’t deal with discrimination because of her sex, she doesn’t get cat called, she isn’t expected to always look perfect, she doesn’t face problems that make her a strong woman.

This representation of strong women would lead to future screenwriters and filmmakers to take inspiration from a supposedly strong female character, who was devoid of any feminine traits aside from bodily appearance, and as a result would base their own strong female characters around this. They would write a gender-neutral part and then slap a pair of tits on there… And bada-boom you have a poor man’s strong women.

All hope is not lost though, cinema is not doomed to be cursed with discount Ripley’s, for your old friend Matthew has a whole host of well written strong women for you to learn from.

A subtle, yet excellent example, of a strong female character is Karen (Emma Thompson) in Love Actually. It’s a scene I imagine we’ve all seen, Thompson has just found out that a Christmas gift she previously thought was hers, was actually a present from her husband to his mistress. After realising this, she goes up to her bedroom and cries, before composing herself and going back down to enjoy the rest of Christmas with her family.

Here we are shown a struggle, that a real woman might go through and how they have to deal with it. We see a woman with her husband and children, all of whom she loves and cares for, only for her heart to be broken on Christmas, but instead of berating her husband about it there and then, or breaking down immediately, she instead hides it from her family so that the day isn’t ruined for her children. This is a type of strength which is often left undiscussed.

When examining strong female characters, people tend to think of physical strength (i.e., Wonder Women, Captain Marvel, and Sarah Connor), rather than the propensity for emotional courage, which is something often lacking in film. Giving a woman, or any character really, muscles to show that they’re strong is just a lazy writing convention.

When it comes to writing, the writer is the God of their world, they have the power to create whatever they want, which is why I am constantly disappointed when writers fail to make the most out of their medium. They have the potential to create complex and interesting characters, those with real emotions, who are forged by their past experiences, these experiences create trauma and conflicting relationships that they can then fight to overcome, telling a story of mental fortitude and of pushing oneself to be the best you can be in order to live a happy life.

Or give big arm and small brain, punch thing… No think.

You know… Whichever is easier for the writer.

If, of course, you, much like Ernest Cline, think that people stopped making movies in the 90s, a more classic example of a (physically and emotionally) strong woman would be Clarise Starling (Jodie Foster) from The Silence of the Lambs. As a female FBI agent, Starling is looked down upon, mocked, and is often not taken seriously because of her gender and her upbringing (being a Southern girl), yet it is this very thing that put her above the competition. After all, it was Starling’s empathy for the victims of Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), who strictly targets women, that drew her to the case, that allowed her to pick up on the clues necessary to catch Bill. Despite knowing that her perp targeted women, placing her at more risk than anybody else, it was this act of courage which made her strong; she knew it was the right thing to do and did it.


Ultimately, female characters shouldn’t always be reduced to a muscled, machine gun wielding, stoic shell, but instead can have their strength of character demonstrated in more nuanced and potent ways, as we have discussed above. When a writer strips a woman of all her ‘feminine’ traits, they aren’t creating a strong female character, in fact… they are barely creating a character at all. Rather, they are playing on stereotypes of what ‘strength’ should be and transposing them onto an amorphous blob that vaguely, and worryingly, resembles their mother.

And there we have it, the only article to use the word ‘female’ 15 times (well I suppose 16 times now) that hasn’t been written by an incel. I hope you all enjoyed my deep dive into the issues with the representation of strong female characters in film, and I especially hope that no one calls me a liberal cuck for writing it. The only thing to do now is sit on my high horse and patiently wait for the women to come knocking down my door, in the hopes of getting a glance at their white knight saviour.


Written by Matthew Cowan

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