When "Strong Female" Becomes "Emotionally Unavailable"

When the ‘Strong Female’ Trope Becomes the ‘Emotionally Unavailable’ Trope

Entertainment GeekMom
When "Strong Female" Becomes "Emotionally Unavailable"
Police woman. Image credit: Flickr user robertobosi, CC BY 2.0

We keep asking for more strong, independent female characters and occasionally receive them. But most of the time, it feels like there’s a room out there, full of male writers who never had a mother, sister, wife, or daughter worth respecting. And they must be responsible for writing freaking everything.

But, humor me for a second, are men really the only ones to blame?

I was recently shopping online for a new book to read. I was browsing around through random recommendations and lists, and finally settled on a book. It was a science-fiction book written by a woman, with a strong female lead that reviewers raved about. Sold!

The book opened with a scene taking place in a bedroom. A man and a woman, apparently having had sex, are getting dressed. The man begs the woman to stay, but she can’t be bothered with relationships. She was here to use him as she always does, and having her needs met, she’s anxious to leave this annoying guy behind faster than she can say “see ya next time my libido rages.” He even proposes to her somewhere in there, and she rolls her eyeballs as far up as they could go. Men are such sissies! She has big dreams and cannot be weighed down by commitments. Emotions? Gross!

I was reading on, trying to love this character. Yay, finally, a strong, independent woman! Except, wait… How is it that I am a strong, independent woman yet cannot relate to this character in any way?

I am independent, yet I am in a committed relationship.

I am strong, yet I have basic human emotions.

I am a feminist, yet I do not sleep around.

I am a fighter, yet I do not know how to shoot a gun.

When did this “emotionally unavailable” trope become the national symbol for womanly strength and independence? Because, let me tell you, being independent and being distant are two completely different things.

I am choosing not to mention the particular title of this book because I don’t think it’s this one writer’s fault. Or, I don’t know, maybe it’s her fault. Or maybe it’s men’s fault. Or Barbie’s fault. Or should the blame be on fashion magazines and pop culture?

I’m not here to point any fingers. I think it’s easy, even for a nice female writer from the midwest or a male writer in Hollywood, to use common reference points. How do you symbolize strength in one sentence? How do you symbolize independence in one scene? Let’s just use the pre-existing tropes that people are used to seeing, rather than building a whole new world within which men and women act like decent, reasonable human beings.

I can sympathize with how easy it is to fall prey to these shortcuts. Yet, I beg you, can we all try a little harder? Let’s write diverse female characters where strength is nuanced, objectives are plentiful and conflicting, emotions are not taboo, and—call me crazy—sexual prowess isn’t even mentioned. While you’re at it, can we write some male characters that are like that too, please?

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4 thoughts on “When the ‘Strong Female’ Trope Becomes the ‘Emotionally Unavailable’ Trope

  1. Wow. That book sounds dreadful. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask that out female characters have more than one note to play, be three-dimensional figures in our imaginations and not flat two on the page (or screen). Realistic female characters with strengths and weaknesses without being a hackneyed stereotype… apparently that is the new unicorn, since gamer girls no longer are. 😉

  2. Keep in mind that books featuring a relationship arc go from imbalance to balance. The “emotionally unavailable” role has been so often played by men in the past that this is the genderflipped version of it, because the trope still works. One or both of the members of the duo goes from emotionally unavailable to emotionally invested, and that’s the fun in reading it. That’s the nature of a relationship arc. Granted, it is very easy to ascribe emotional distance as an end to itself, so a writer should do their character-building homework and have intriguing motivations and expressions of that emotional distance, no matter what gender the character is.

    It sounds like this writer didn’t have enough of a “Save the Cat” moment early on enough for the reader to be invested in watching the character change.

  3. This has been bugging me, I swear, since I learned to read. Thanks for stating it so clearly.

  4. This (among other reasons) is the reason why I’ve moved from wanting “strong” female characters to wanting “complex” female characters.

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