Fangirl Thursday: Let’s Talk About Strength

Castle Teen Spirit

COLIN O'DONOGHUE, JENNIFER MORRISON

Today’s post is more of a straightforward essay than a typical Fangirl Thursday discussion-starter, but I hope it still inspires plenty of discussion in the comments because this is a topic very close to my heart.

I say it often, but it bears repeating: I’m a lucky fangirl. In the last few years, I’ve gotten to watch many of my favorite female characters on television grow in incredibly honest, believable, and inspiring ways. I’ve watched these characters grow from places of isolation and fear to places of love and hope. And watching them grow has helped me grow as a woman in ways I might never have without their example.

However, this growth that I find so inspiring is often met with skepticism from other fans—claims that these characters are “weaker” now than they were when we were first introduced to them; statements that people miss who these women were in their shows’ first seasons; and impassioned cries for a return to the “badasses” these women were before they started wearing lighter dresses and hairstyles, smiling more, and opening their heart to other people. These arguments present a fascinating look at the ways we define what it means to be a “strong woman” and how certain definitions of that phrase do more harm than good.

Female characters have often fallen into one of two extreme groups: the damsel in distress who always needs saving or the superwoman warrior who shows no emotion and never relies on anyone but herself. However, there’s a beautiful middle ground emerging in the media right now—especially on television. Female characters are being created who fight for themselves and others but draw the strength to fight from an open heart and steadfast support system. They do a lot of saving, but sometimes they need help to save others and even themselves. That doesn’t make them damsels in distress; that makes them realistic. That makes them human.

When we were first introduced to Kate Beckett on Castle, she appeared to be everything a woman could want in a fictional role model: smart, self-sufficient, and successful in her career. She didn’t need or even want anyone to battle her demons alongside her; she was surviving on her own and had been for a decade after her mother’s murder.

That’s the thing, though—Beckett was just surviving. She may have been all those inspiring things, but she was also sad, scared, and resigned to the idea that she had to shoulder her burdens on her own. On the surface, Beckett might have looked more like a “badass” back then—with her severe haircut, permanent scowl, and annoyance over Rick Castle’s presence in her life. But never in a million years would I want to see that character go back to that place. Because there’s a difference between the appearance of strength and the reality of it. Kate Beckett may have looked strong and confident in the early days of Castle, but appearances can be deceiving.

Beckett has done a lot of “badass” things during Castle’s seven-plus seasons—from interrogation room confrontations to brutal fight scenes. However, the most “badass” thing she’s ever done is admitting that she needed a professional’s help to work through the emotional trauma that came with her mother’s death and her own near-death experience. Beckett has never been braver or stronger than when she started going to therapy after she was shot—and then when she told Castle about it. Going to therapy allowed her to begin to let go of her need to push people away, ultimately leading to her relationship with and later marriage to Castle, which has also helped her grow into a better and more confident version of herself.

Beckett is lighter than she was when we first saw her. She smiles more now. She laughs more easily. And she loves more openly. Her rough edges have softened, but her core has never weakened because of that. In fact, that core sense of self is stronger than ever because she’s allowed herself to lean on people—especially her husband—when she needs support.

There’s a big difference between carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders because you have to and doing it because you don’t want to let someone else help you. The former is sometimes necessary; the latter is a choice that will make you too tried from shouldering your burdens alone to ever have the energy to grow as a person. All too often, people seem to think that women have to try to do it all and do it without help. In the quest to avoid the damaging “damsel in distress” narrative, there’s sometimes a sense that any time a woman—real or fictional—needs support from someone else (especially a man) she’s less admirable than she would be if she faced all of life’s problems alone. And that mindset has its own problems that come along with it.

In the same vein as Kate Beckett, when we first saw Emma Swan on Once Upon a Time, she was every bit the appearance of a “badass.” She bashed a guy’s head into a steering wheel and wasn’t afraid to throw punches; she wore her leather jackets like armor; and she didn’t rely on anyone but herself in any aspect of her life. Emma Swan was tough.

But if Emma’s journey has taught us anything so far, it’s this: “Tough” and “strong” aren’t the same thing, and neither are “soft” and “weak.” Like Beckett, Emma may have appeared to be the kind of woman people think of when they envision a “strong female character.” But underneath that tough façade, Emma was a lost girl who wore her cynicism as armor like her leather jackets and stood alone not because she was brave but because she was afraid to let anyone get too close to her.

Emma has come so far since Once Upon a Time’s first season. She believes now—in magic, in herself, and in the people she’s chosen to love. She’s more open and honest with her feelings. She hugs the people she loves and forgives the people who’ve caused her pain. Even her wardrobe has changed with her, as romantic dresses and soft sweaters have worked their way in alongside the familiar jackets and jeans.

Romance is a part of Emma’s life now, but it’s by no means the only part of it. There’s a difference between a female character being reduced to a love interest and a female character growing into her own love story. And Emma is the perfect example of that. Her relationship with Hook exemplifies the ways romantic love can help us be stronger than we were before—much like Beckett’s relationship with Castle does, too. These relationships are partnerships in which both parties encourage and support the other. They’re sources of courage and confidence to draw strength from when one of the characters is locked in a struggle they shouldn’t have to face alone.

Emma is facing one such struggle now, but she was at the perfect place in her life to take on the darkness that enveloped her in last season’s finale. Because of her open heart and faith in the people she loves—not despite them—she was brave enough to let herself be consumed by the darkness and believe she could be saved from it. When we first met Emma, she probably still would have taken on the darkness; that’s always been who she is. However, she would have done so with pessimism, a feeling that she was doing this all on her own and probably would be lost to the darkness because no one would try to save her. Now, though, she took it on with hope, a feeling that she had people who would help her and, therefore, wouldn’t be lost to the darkness forever.

Emma telling her parents to find a way to drive out the darkness and telling Hook she loved him while physically reminding him of his promise to protect her heart spoke volumes about the things we can do and overcome when we don’t try to do everything on our own. The idea that a woman has to always save herself on her own is just as concerning as the idea that a woman always needs someone to save her. It leads to a belief that asking for help is a sign of weakness; it keeps women from admitting they can’t carry overwhelming burdens alone because they don’t want to seem like damsels in distress. It’s good to be self-sufficient, but it’s also good to have a support system. There’s no shame in wanting or needing a loved one to help you fight your way out of the darkest times in your life.

As Beckett and Emma clearly show, strong women aren’t defined by the ways they hide their emotions or by the battles they fight on their own. True strength comes from being honest with yourself about what you’re feeling and finding the healthiest ways to deal with those feelings. Sometimes that means fighting your battles on your own. But sometimes that means having the courage to accept help from someone you trust.

In reality, strong women can laugh, love, and let themselves accept help when they need it. And thanks to characters like Kate Beckett and Emma Swan, it seems like that’s becoming true for strong women in fiction, too.

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29 thoughts on “Fangirl Thursday: Let’s Talk About Strength

  1. OMG, I love this whole essay.

    All too often, I read comments about Emma, how this new romantic side of her makes her weak and it isn’t who she is or whatever, but I see the emergence of Emma accepting love into her life as strength and I always say, she can show both her romantic and her bad ass side. There’s no problem with that, because women, at the end of the day, are multifaceted people. There’s different layers to all of us and showing the feminine romantic layer, seriously is not a bad thing.

    I think the problem is, general fans, like to see her as the hero but she’s still the hero regardless of how she dresses and chooses to be with the people in her life. That aspect of her doesn’t change. And I think deep down, this romantic side of Emma, is something she’s always wanted to share but was scared of being hurt and let down.

    Bravo on this!

    • Thank you! 😀

      I completely agree with everything you wrote here. I think people still struggle with seeing a woman in a dress who’s kissing her boyfriend goodnight as a hero. But, like you said, women are layered, multifaceted beings. We all have different sides to us, and I think the strongest people are those who embrace all the sides of their personality and aren’t afraid to let every part of them be known to the world. Emma is becoming that person now, and I love her even more for it. I think it’s clear from “Tallahassee” that Emma always wanted to be in a loving romantic relationship, but she let go of that dream for a long time. It’s always been a part of her, but it was a part she thought she needed to give up. That’s why it’s so special to see her getting to embrace and enjoy that now after she thought it would never be hers to have.

  2. This essay reminds me of a quote from the show Bones (for those of you who don’t know it, the main character, Bones, has a similar backstory to Kate Beckett)

    “Brennan: I am improving.
    Booth: Improving?
    Brennan: Yes, I’m… quite strong.
    Booth: Yeah, well, you’ve always been strong.
    Brennan: You know the difference between strength and imperviousness; right?
    Booth: No. Not if you’re going to get all scientific on me.
    Brennan: Well, uh… a substance that is impervious to damage doesn’t need to be strong.
    Booth: Mmm.
    Brennan: When you and I met, I was an impervious substance. Now I am a strong substance.
    Booth: I think I know what you mean.
    Brennan: A time could come when you aren’t angry anymore and… I’m strong enough to risk losing the last of my imperviousness. Maybe then we could try to be together.”

  3. Preach!

    One thing I tell my students repeatedly is that 90% of being smart isn’t knowing the answers, it’s knowing where to find them and knowing when you need to look. In order to do that, you have to know — and be willing to admit — what you don’t know. This seems to be your idea with strength. (Please let me know if I’m misrepresenting.) Strong characters know their strengths and their weaknesses. They know when — and have the strength of character to — ask for help. Being open and vulnerable isn’t weak and it isn’t easy. Weak characters don’t take responsibility for their actions. There’s a difference between dressing girly because I want to and it makes me happy and dressing girly because it’s demanded of me. I always feel like Emma dresses the way that makes her feel happy or feel strong or feel whatever she needs to feel — not because it’s what’s demanded of her.

    I love Emma’s “Nobody saves me, but me.” However, she has the strength to let Henry (and Hook) rescue her from the tower. Part of her strength is founded on the knowledge that Henry will come for her. I love that the whole family basically takes turns rescuing each other. Snow rescues and is rescued.

    Loved Sofia’s example from Bones, too.

    Excellent post, Katie.

    • This is such a fantastic comment! I love your advice to your students, and I wish I would have had someone tell me that when I was younger. That’s exactly how I feel about strength—it’s not about handling everything on your own; it’s about being brave and open enough to admit when you need someone else to help you work through things.

      I also loved what you said about the difference between dressing girly because you want to and dressing that way because you feel you have to. It’s such an important distinction to make. When Emma wears a dress or jeans, I always just see it as an extension of what part of herself she wants to express. It’s her choice, and it’s a reflection of the fact that there are many different sides to her that are finally getting their chance to shine now that she feels safe and comfortable in her own skin.

  4. Another great post Katie!

    “The idea that a woman has to always save herself on her own is just as concerning as the idea that a woman always needs someone to save her.”

    This x1000. This is what it means to be one-demensional. An extreme on one side or the other with no movemet towards middle ground is not an interesting or relatable character.

    I think another great example of a strong female character done well is Buffy. Buffy is the chosen one. She is physically stronger than everyone else. It is her job to protect others from evil. There is no denying that she is the true definition of a “badass”. Yet the show time and time again never shys away from pointing out that the reason Buffy is the most badass and sucessful of all the slayers is BECAUSE of the support system she has in her life. Her relationships are not weaknesses, they are her strength. She has people to live for and people to help her when she needs it.

    As a non Castle watcher I really like what you had to say about Beckett. From the sound of it, her journey is one I could relate to, and it makes me happy that the show was able to present it in a way that worked.

    And of course my love for Emma Swan knows no bounds. Like you said, there is a difference between surviving and living. Everything you needed to know about Emma Swan was right there in the pilot. She’s a badass bounty hunter that comes home, lights a candle on a lone cupcake, and makes a wish that she doesnt have to be alone anymore. Strong on the outside, but weak on the inside. Watching Emma get that wish, and having to learn HOW to not be alone for the first time in her adult life, has given me a female character I have connected with on a level that I dont think I ever have before. Emma’s happy ending is never having to blow out another birthday candle alone, strong on the outside and on the inside.

    • You love for an appreciation of Emma’s story makes me so happy. I love seeing people find characters who mean something to them on a level they’ve never experienced before, and it’s wonderful to see that with you and Emma. Also, your description of what her happy ending reminds me of my prediction for the end of the series—Emma celebrating another birthday with everyone she loves around her, showing that she’s found her happy ending. And now I’m a mess just thinking about it.

      I also loved what you said to say about Buffy. I feel like if I ever have the time to watch that show, I will love her. I also know you’d love Beckett. She’s a lot like Emma in the ways that draw you to Emma’s character. I’d say you need to watch Castle now, but I know 8 season is a lot to recommend to anyone. 😉

  5. Everything you described is why Kate Beckett is my all-time favorite TV character.. We cheered for her for so long to be able to drop her walls and let people(Castle) in. Great journey and am glad I witnessed it.

  6. Yes! I don’t get why people think that a “strong” woman can’t fall in love! Or act feminine. Or be rescued sometimes. It’s not like Emma Swan would take any crap from Killian. If he treated her badly she would kick him to the curb or kick his ass. She’s not letting him, or anyone, walk all over her. Like with her parents – when they don’t take care of her right, when they screw up, she doesn’t just shrug and say “oh well, they can do whatever they want to me because I love them.” Not at all. To me, that’s what weakness would look like. And Emma is not weak. She is still a badass. And she’s also a dimensional human character with emotions and complexities.

    I want to watch female (and male) characters who are strong in some ways and also vulnerable, who sometimes need help and sometimes step up and help someone else, who are complicated and a little bit damaged and working on getting better. An interesting human character, not just a Badass Woman type. Most of the Once woman fit that bill, thank goodness.

    I wonder if the people who talk about strength and badass women would prefer to watch a show where no one develops emotionally – where characters are more like caricatures – where Badass Female just kicks butt week after week and doesn’t need a family or a love because she’s not a fully developed human character.

    • I love this comment so much, Jo. 🙂

      I’m with you—give me interesting characters with strengths and weaknesses. Give me characters who need help sometimes and can help other people other times. That’s so much more relatable and therefore so much more inspiring to watch.

  7. First of all, bless you for talking about two of my favorite female characters ever, and as usual I totally agree with you.

    I have seen this trend of dismissing a woman’s worth and strength because she happens to be in a romantic relationship with someone, I really and truly can’t fathom exactly why this has become a thing to discount women (fictional and real alike) as “not badass enough”, when for example Usagi Tsukino (aka Sailor Moon) could perfectly be a magical badass girl and kick ass and correct injustices, AND be a normal teenager, in love with her boyfriend who loved sweets and hanging out with her friends. In the manga it’s even better because she clearly is intimate with Mamoru from very early on in their relationship, and yet that never diminishes from her being an incredibly power magic wielder and Princess and later Queen of a kingdom basically made from her own strength of will and heart. No one ever said Usagi/Sailor Moon was “not badass” because she wanted to go out on dates with her boyfriend, so I struggle to comprehend what has changed in 20 years to change these perceptions so strongly.

    Moreover, back to Emma Swan, she herself said in S1 one of my favorite lines of all time and why I fell in love with her as a character: “You don’t have to dress a woman like a man to give her authority” (to Graham when he wanted her to dress in a dress shirt and tie for her position as deputy), so exactly where this “dresses are not her/not badass” latest complain came from I’m not too sure, but the character herself, in the season where apparently she was “still acceptably badass” shot that notion down so maybe the fandom should too.

    Finally I just want to comment on what you said about strength not having necessarily to be physical strength/kicking ass and do it all alone: I completely agree, and I always look for character growth so if Emma or Beckett were still the guarded, jaded and distrustful people they were at the beginning I would be really angry at their respective writers. A “strong female character” is also not one-dimensional, and romantic love, forming meaningful platonic and familial relationships, and knowing when to accept help from others, are all part not only of their growth as characters, but a part of all of us too as complex human beings, again I go back to something Emma herself said in response to Cora’s firm and long-held belief that love was always weakness: “No, it’s [love] strength!”, and I for one am so happy to see Emma finally brave and emotionally healthy enough to accept and embrace the love in her life (in all its forms: familia, platonic/friendship, and romantic).

    • Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful thoughts with us! I’m so happy you brought up Emma being brave enough to accept all kinds of love because that’s one of my favorite things about this character. Yes, she’s embraced romantic love, but she’s also embraced familial love and friendship, too, and she’s stronger for all those relationships.

      I also love that you brought up Emma’s quote about not needing to dress a woman like a man to give her authority. It’s one of my favorites, and one I always come back to when people want to argue that Emma’s becoming weaker because she’s wearing more feminine clothing.

  8. This is always a topic I love, as you know. I am so done with the idea that female characters (and actual women) need to behave in a particular way in order to be strong/feminine/acceptable.

    As the article I sent you yesterday said, I want more people to embrace the “and”. Zoe Washburne is tough in all the ways that are expected of a “strong” female character and she also was very in love with her husband. Octavia on The 100 started out the series chasing butterflies through the forest and is now a warrior. She’s still the girl who chases butterflies and is still naive in some ways and she’s also a fierce fighter who will stop at nothing to save her friends.

    I don’t want the Beckett that we saw in The Time of Our Lives AU and that’s exactly who she would be if she hadn’t begun to open her heart to Castle (and also Ryan and Esposito). She has a family, she’s happy, and she’s no longer haunted and controlled by her past. She can actually live her life now and working through your baggage and refusing to let it define you any longer is incredibly strong.

    I think recently, there’s been more of a push to redefine the idea of “strong” characters as multifaceted characters rather than physically capable and I think that’s the right way to go. All I want is well-written, three-dimensional characters. I want characters who are more than one thing and full of complexity. I want to break free of the narrow box that gender roles put people in and have aspects about them that are traditionally coded as masculine or feminine and I want them to embrace both of them in various proportions at different times because that’s how people are. They shouldn’t have to be masculine and hard to be strong nor should they have to be soft and caring just because they are a woman. They can be both and being who they are is ultimately what makes them the strongest.

    • Embracing the “and” is pretty much my favorite thing in the world right now, so thank you so much for sending me that article. And I’m also thrilled you brought up Zoe because everything you mentioned about her is so important toward this argument. She’s physically strong, a leader in every sense of the word, and tough as nails in terms of her general demeanor. But she’s also nurturing to the other women on the ship, she wants to wear slinky dresses, she loves her husband, and she wants to be a mother. Zoe is the walking definition of embracing the “and,” and that’s what makes her such an admirable female character. She’s complex and interesting; you can’t put her in a neat little box. And that’s the way it should be—because that’s the way women are in reality.

      • Couldn’t we pick any character Gina Torres has played? She pretty much rocks strong females: Zoe, Jessica, Anna Espinosa, etc. (Yes, I know Anna was a nemesis, but still . . . she was such a cool, powerful nemesis. Sydney/Anna showdowns were EPIC.) I mean there’s a reason Joss Whedon used her for Jasmine in Angel.

        • Gina Torres is the queen of complex, incredible female characters. Zoe is a personal favorite, Jessica is my professional life inspiration, and Anna is one of my all-time favorite TV nemeses. She’s going to be at New York Comic-Con the same days I’ll be there, and I am going to do everything in my power to get her autograph/sit in on a panel with her.

  9. Katie. Thanks for this post. I’ve been thinking a lot about it and the nature of the “damsel in distress” / “superwoman warrior” dichotomy. It definitely feels to me like women have been set up for this false choice. Either we’re a subservient doormat or we’re an aggressive bulldozer. Both are so unappealing. That’s why I share your admiration for Kate Beckett – a badass woman if there ever was one – and also a woman who’s wedding vows acknowledge to Castle “when I was vulnerable, you were strong.” That story is so moving to me and something I dearly wish for myself.

    What I love about Castle and Beckett’s relationship is that he could see through her walls and be strong for her, without ever doubting her strength and intelligence. And never treating her as a damsel in distress, even if she thought that was what he was doing during season 4. That seems really unusual. In my experience, if you show the world that you’re a strong woman, who has her own ideas and will not tolerate other people’s crap, then other people – especially men – think that’s the whole story. They never see beyond the persona, never get behind those walls. The fact that Castle did is what makes me love that relationship. It gives me hope.

    I’ve recently started reading the “In Death” series of books by J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts based on a recommendation from a Castle tumblr blog I follow. The parallels between Beckett/Castle and Eve Dallas/Roarke are many, especially how Roarke sees and respects Eve’s strength AND knows how to comfort her as well, even when she doesn’t acknowledge she needs comfort. My fervent hope is that there’s a man like that for me.

    • Thanks for this comment, Karen! I completely agree with everything you said about women having to fall into one of two unappealing archetypes, and why Beckett is so special for breaking out of either of those molds.

      It’s sad that the world seems unable to comprehend that women can be layered. As you said, if a woman shows she has strong opinions and is assertive, she’s automatically put into one box. And if she shows any kind of soft heart or vulnerability, she’s put into another box. What I love about Beckett is that she never had to be in any kind of box, and Castle never tried to put her in one in order to make her “easier” to understand. He loves that she’s complex and that there are things about her that will be mysteries for him to spend his whole life solving. It’s inspiring and uplifting to see those kinds of characters and that kind of relationship on television.

      I’ve heard good things about that J.D. Robb series, so I might have to give it a try sometime!

  10. Kate Beckett is the most comprehensive character on TV. She has evolved so much and you captured her journey to being a more complete person. I love her, I love Stana so much!

  11. That moment in Kill Shot where Beckett is with Worf (sorry) and says that she wants to be more is the moment where Stana went to the next level with her acting. I felt, nay, recognised the reality of that moment.
    It’s also the moment I finally admitted to myself that I’d fallen in love with the character of Beckett. Wounded gazelle she may have been but the strength the character showed in that moment was incredible.

    • That moment is one of my favorites in the whole series. It was so raw and powerful. That episode was such a breakout moment for Stana Katic, and it remains one of my favorite Castle episodes of all time.

  12. Pingback: TV Time: Once Upon a Time 5.03 | Nerdy Girl Notes

  13. Pingback: TV Time: Once Upon a Time 5.06 | Nerdy Girl Notes

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