The term “strong female character” gets bandied around a lot when we’re talking about films and TV series. Is there one? Is there perhaps (gasp) more than one? In a world where it’s still disappointingly rare to see fully-formed, relatable women on screen, the phrase an easy shorthand for saying: “Here is a fictional woman who has more to do than simply seduce or be saved by a fictional man”.
But according to Gemma Arterton, it’s a term we should be careful not to overuse. The actor has played several roles that would appear to fit the definition of a “strong female character”, from Elizabeth Bennet to Tess of the d’Urbervilles. She’ll next be seen playing a WW2 propaganda scriptwriter in Their Finest (the latest film from An Education director Lone Scherfig), followed by a turn as Virginia Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West in Vita and Virginia.
However, Arterton says that she avoids using the phrase wherever possible – preferring to use another description.
“I actually prefer the term ‘female-centric’ instead of ‘strong female’,” she tells Variety.
Her reason, she explains, is that she doesn’t want to perpetuate the idea that only “strong” women’s stories are worth telling.
“I don’t think you always have to be strong in films to be interesting,” Arterton says.
Arterton’s character in Their Finest, Catrin Cole, is based on the real-life screenwriter Diana Morgan. A former stage actor and chorus girl, Morgan worked as an uncredited co-writer on pro-British films produced by Ealing Studios during WW2, and went on to become a respected playwright.
The actor explains that while Cole does amazing things, she doesn’t necessarily fit the stereotypical idea of what a “strong woman” looks like.
“What surprised me is that [the film] centres around a woman who’s really quite timid,” she says. “I guess she’s allowed to be, because all of the other characters around her are so full.
“I found that to be really refreshing, a film about a woman finding her voice.”
Watch: Why we should stop calling women “girls”
Arterton continues: “It’s nice to show a woman who’s capable and who makes her own choices, but has her own pitfalls and difficulties and stumbles along to find their way. It’s more inspiring and tangible to me.
“I think it’s important to tell stories about women, both the ordinary and extraordinary.”
Arterton’s analysis is an astute one. We should aspire to see more powerful women onscreen, of course – but we should also interrogate what it is we mean when we say a female character is “strong”. Do we, to paraphrase the late author Rebecca West’s brilliant quote about feminism, only call a character strong when she “expresses sentiments that differentiate her from a doormat or a prostitute”? If that’s the case, then it really seems like we could aim a bit higher.
So let’s call for more strong female characters, but let’s also call for shy ones, and flawed ones, and sad ones; for lonely women and angry women and women who are all different shades of messed-up. Let’s look for female characters who aren’t always strong (because who among is us?), but are always real.
Their Finest is out in UK cinemas on 21 April.
Images: Rex Features, Lionsgate