Updated: Sep 24
When you’re thinking about media, and I say the phrase “strong female character” an image pops into your mind. It is Katniss Everdeen “the girl on fire” or the iconic figure of Wonder Woman. She is physically strong, determined, sassy, confident…and masculine? Why does the “strong female character” trope paint her as a stereotypical man? You see, the concept rose to popularity in the early 20th century with the rise of mainstream feminism. Now, the character lacks depth and comes off as 2 dimensional. Male heroes get to be smart, manipulative, sad, neurotic, brave, and beautiful, while female heroes are either strong or not. It is like saying, “Look! This character is different and unlike other women who are weak and boring, she is strong and cool! She knows how to fish and punch people in the face!” It places female characters in a box. But why must a female character be abrasive to be considered good representation?
There is an exception to this, and she wears all pink and carries a lapdog with her all the way to Harvard Law School. Legally Blonde hit theaters in 2001 and became an instant classic. It gave us a hero who didn’t have to give up her traditionally feminine traits and pursuits to be seen as strong and capable. The basis of Legally Blonde is an incredibly preppy, stereotypical blonde sorority girl gets dumped by her Harvard-bound boyfriend because he doesn’t think she worth taking seriously. In an attempt to get him back, fashion major Elle Woods applies and is accepted to Harvard Law School. There her motivation changes and she worked her tail off to prove everyone who underestimated her wrong, never losing her bubbly kindness along the way. Elle was different than any other stereotypical blonde, pretty character we had seen in movies up until that point. Usually, the dumb blonde was the butt of the joke or the mean girl, not the protagonist that you love and root for.
Elle Woods was a different kind of strong character, because her strength isn’t about muscles or dominance or power, but personal endurance. Believing in herself and in helping others gives her motivation to keep pushing forward. She was not a loner, or the kind of woman who gains power from tearing other women down, but instead she had many female friends who she loved. Even though one friend was her ex’s new fiancé and the another was a nail technician much older than her, she was a good friend and loved them. In fact, she was social and welcoming to everyone she met, even if they looked down at her because of her first impression. This is different than the stereotypical “strong female character” who is usually aloof and cold.
Elle also goes through plenty of emotional turmoil. Examples include her sudden breakup, feeling overwhelmed and under-qualified at Harvard, and getting objectified by her professor when he tries to hit on her. In these moments, Elle shows vulnerability and cries when she needs to. This challenges the frequent mindset of strength being equivalent to holding in all your emotions. She is real and unafraid to ask for help when she needs it, which is a much more accurate definition of the word “strong.”
She is unapologetically herself and flaunts it, mostly through her clothing, in which her outfits are always perfect for each occasion and totally on brand for her. She is an original but does not fall into the trap that is “not like other girls.” Instead, she is a symbol for girl power by loving other girls and rooting for them, whether they are feminine or masculine. She inspired a whole generation of women to peruse careers in law and embrace their truest selves, no matter what anyone else thought about it. She proved that you can be girly and strong, oblivious and driven, pretty and bold, kind and individualistic. She is all of the above. She is what a “strong female character” should be.