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.