At the Geek Feminism Wiki, there is some discussion of the strong female character trope and conversation.
I’ve recently read two books, often praised for their feminist content, which have left me feeling uncomfortable. These are Dragonflight (1968) by Anne McCaffrey and Bridge to Terabithia (1977) by Katherine Paterson. Dragonflight is a science fiction novel concerned with Lessa, who is discovered by F’lar as the woman best equipped to bond with the new queen of the dragons, dragons being Pern’s best defence against non-sentient interplanetary invaders called Threads. She’s, in that description I have come to dislike, feisty, and resists F’lar’s authority, which of course means they become lovers and save the world. F’lar idly speculates about whether he raped Lessa and routinely shakes her violently, but this is apparently because he is worried about her and loves her or something. Bridge to Terabithia is told from the perspective of Jess (short for Jesse) who resents when Leslie, the new tomboyish girl at school, moves next door and beats him to become the fastest runner in their year group at school – after having argued for her right to run in the lunch time races at all, because girls are supposed to play other games. Jess and Leslie slowly become friends, and together build the magical imaginary world of Terabithia.
Leslie is a pretty amazing character, thoughtful and kind and imaginative as well as physically strong. I think Jesse learns to perceive her that way, however, because she doesn’t present as feminine. He is frustrated with and contemptuous of what he understands as a frivolity that governs the doings of feminine girls, and he routinely leaves his analysis of such girls’ thoughts, actions, and worth there. Jesse doesn’t consider how, having befriended one girl, he might want to re-examine his behaviours towards more conventionally feminine girls in his life. Leslie is acceptable, partially because her breaking of the bounds of convention speaks to Jesse’s own questing spirit, but also because she is aligned more closely with masculinity, even if this renders her isolated from most of her male and female peers.
So we do have a strong female character here, whose gender presentation works according to her own wishes, and who fights and cares even for people who are themselves unkind to others. And yet Jesse’s perspective sets her up in contrast to other women rather than as part of a spectrum of women who all have value. And the same is true of McCaffrey’s Lessa: she is framed in terms of men’s approval, mostly F’lar’s, and at the expense of other women, who are mostly presented as vain or weak or scheming – all highly gendered negative traits. The main exception is one Lady Gemma, whose death in childbirth propels the plot. There’s a little collaboration with other women, one of whom lives in a different time and the other of whom runs the part of the dragon base’s community where the women and children (although not Lessa) live. It’s mostly about Lessa’s desirability for the male dragonriders, capacity to do her job better than the men think she can – she is framed, like Leslie, in terms of male approval.
And framing these characters in terms of being as good as the boys, or in terms of male approval, ends up being at the expense of other women, with whom they can act in no real solidarity. Strong female characters can work, but they work where they are presented as part of a spectrum of characters and traits, working with other women to produce a better world with fuller pictures of women’s characters.