The ‘90s gave us many memorable things. People wore hypercolour t-shirts on purpose, they danced to the Macarena on purpose, and they saw Clueless four times at the cinema because they were secretly in love with Alicia Silverstone but pretended they loved Paul Rudd. Or, that might just have been me.
Besides all of these amazing things, the ‘90s also gave us iconic female television characters, the likes of which we hadn’t really seen before. Xena, Buffy, Scully, all names that sound like something pirates would say around the ship, and also all women that are held up as examples of ‘strong female characters’; pure specimens of what was then a desperately needed leap forward in female representation on television.
Now it’s 2016. The hypercolour t-shirts are faded, the Macarena is long banished to the back of the CD case, which in turn is at the back of a cupboard in your first disgusting share house, and Alicia Silverstone is in the news mostly for feeding her baby like a mother bird feeds her bird baby. But the recent revival of The X-Files raises the question of how Scully now fits into the current television landscape. While she and other ‘strong female characters’ of that era were essential, we also need to recognise that they could only take us so far. The progression towards a much broader representation of women is vital, and still has far to go.
(It’s also very important to ask, how does Gillian Anderson become younger with each passing year? What kind of deal with Satan did she make, and how can I too make it?)
As a teenager in the ‘90s, having the privilege to turn on the television and see women who were both tough and smart was very important to my personal development, and also my relationship to television. And it wasn’t just me. A whole generation of women became obsessed with shows like Buffy and The X-Files (and it wasn’t just because of David Duchovny). These women were held up as icons, and to this day are still some of the most popular female characters ever created.
Partly, this can be attributed to the fact that viewers had been yearning for more nuanced, multifaceted depictions of women for a long time. We were longing to see female characters who were independent, and brave; who could take on men intellectually and physically. We were looking for complexity.
But another reason they are cherished is due to the inherent limitations of the ‘strong female character’ trope itself. The extremely narrow definition of this trope meant that very few fictional women could possibly fit all the criteria. Those that did were (and still are) lauded because each of them seemed to be unique example – but this was also because only a small number of them were able to exist at one time.
If you can look back over the span of an entire decade of television and immediately isolate which characters were ‘strong female characters’, it means there were not enough of them, there was not enough scope in the definition, and each of these characters was in danger of becoming tokenistic.
The term itself is problematic for the condescending tone it captures. You would never hear male characters described as ‘strong male characters’. Male characters have always been allowed to exist as complex, complicated, varied humans with agency. Their strength is assumed and automatic. Women in television have often existed purely in relation to men, and when they have not done so (or at least, not entirely), the ‘strong female character’ label was firmly affixed to their chest, differentiating them from other representations of women.
This has traditionally been the main drawback of the concept of strong female characters – the definition of ‘strong’ is incredibly inadequate. Placing this label on a character immediately restricts them to a preconceived type. A ‘strong female character’ must be kick-ass, she must be feisty and brave, she must match it with the boys, and she must take no shit (all while still being young and hot, of course). Sure, we all looked up to the women who could defeat men in a fight, or an argument, who were not just there are as foils for the male protagonist – because we hadn’t seen characters like them before. But it is not enough for only one kind of role model to embody the concept of strength.
As Scully re-enters the landscape, it’s my hope that we will leave the idea of this one-note ‘strong female character’ in the ‘90s, and instead continue to see new and varied kinds of strength, and many more different kinds of women. True strength is not just the ability to beat a man in a fight. It emerges from divergent and diverse portrayals of women, which dilute the clichéd trope of physical strength and replace it with something more complex and interesting.
Portraying the lives of women with disparate personalities and vulnerabilities disproves the narrative that says women who are shown in a more realistic and human light aren’t strong. Instead, it helps create a narrative around women in all situations – women who might be flawed or abrasive, funny, mean, kind, smart or selfish. It says that we think these complexities and differences are powerful.
The definition of strength has changed irreversibly, and continues to evolve. It is now encapsulated in the characters of shows like Orange is the New Black, Jessica Jones, and Broad City. Strength is exemplified not just in Jessica Jones’s (above) superhero abilities, but in the way she fights against her own self-destructive tendencies. It’s shown in the mothers separated from their children while in prison, as depicted in Orange is the New Black, or the openly queer and trans women who stay true to their identities. It drives anti-heroes Olivia Pope (Scandal) and Patty Hewes (Damages). It’s the bravery of Maura from Transparent. It’s coursing through Abbi and Ilana as they unconsciously take up as much space as they want, as they move through their daily lives in Broad City. And there is absolute strength in the different kinds of relationships these women have with themselves and with other women.
In the ‘90s, the existence of amazing female protagonists who were permitted to take charge was ground-breaking. But now, the progression toward a media landscape where female characters are abundant, and contain complexities that aren’t automatically tied to their gender, is far more important and satisfying. I hope these characters and relationships continue to dominate our screens.
And I hope the last episode of The X-Files solves the mystery of how Scully somehow got younger over the past twenty years.