If I asked you to name some strong, empowered female characters, it’d be easy to come up with a handful of answers on the spot: Jynn Urso, Cersei Lannister, Captain Janeway, Belinda Blumenthal, Black Widow, any Sigourney Weaver character.
There’s definitely no shortage of kickass female heroes in our media these days. It’s like a Renaissance of Feminine Badassery, and I can’t get enough.
But what do all of those female characters have in common?
They’re stone-cold, hardened leaders who not only wield power and intellect like weapons, but they never reveal emotional weakness – or, oftentimes, any emotions at all.
This has long been the way of showing that a certain female character is a ‘force to be reckoned with.’ If a woman is shown as cold, rational, steely and tough, it is evident to viewers that she’s a Strong Woman. That’s how we most often perceive strength, after all; emotional people are historically not considered strong people, since their inability to mask emotion is considered a weakness.
Just consider the long history of cry babies on-screen.
Cry babies have been earning their screen time with melodramatic tears since the dawn of modern media. We had beloved characters like I Love Lucy’s Lucy Ricardo in the Golden Age of Television, cracking up audiences with a well-timed signature wail. She paved the way for the likes of The Nanny’s Fran Drescher, Married with Children’s Peggy Bundy, Will and Grace’s Grace Adler, and Rachel Green from Friends, the latter of whom couldn’t seem to face a single life problem without hand-flapping and crocodile tears.
One thing that all of these fictional women shared was that their tears were comedic devices. When Lucy tore out of a room wailing, it was funny! When Rachel and Monica got so overwhelmed by their feelings that their words became downright unintelligible, we laughed! It was silly, these silly girls and their silly feelings. Even Holly Golightly’s meltdown at discovering her brother’s death in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was so over-the-top that it was laughable, though the 60’s were a weird time for movies.
There was a period where it seemed impossible that audiences would ever get a representation of a woman who might be both: a strong woman who was formidable but also shed a few tears here and there. A woman who was a fleshed-out character, a real representation of what it meant to be in touch with your emotions, but still impressive. A woman that represented any one of us, proud fellow crybabies.
And then came the new millennium.
I’m not going to say that Buffy Summers was the very first female character to embody both the complexity of emotions and the intensity of strength, but I am going to assert that she may have been the most impactful. She was a girl preoccupied with vampires and fashion and sharp one-liners, and there were several times when she was overwhelmed by it all and burst into tears.
The difference was that when Buffy cried, there was no laugh track. There was no male character who would exasperatedly roll his eyes or waltz in to ‘save’ her. No one dismissed her tears as ‘overreacting,’ and no one winced at the sight of them. Instead, viewers everywhere empathized. They cared that Buffy was strong and cared even more that she was human. This holistic, well-rounded portrayal of a strong woman resonated with viewers everywhere.
It resonated deeply enough, in fact, that it impacted future crybaby characters.
Dr. Elliot Reid from Scrubs was a woman prone to bouts of self-doubt, hysteria, and all-out sobfests. While a few of these were comic relief, she wasn’t. She was still one of the main characters and arguably a stronger doctor than her her male counterparts. She was framed as a character we should respect and admire, even though she ugly cried sometimes.
Veronica from Veronica Mars was similar to Buffy. She might not have been superhuman but she had superhuman P.I. skills, and she had her own moments where emotions caught up to her. But, also like Buffy, these poignant moments were sprinkled into an overall arc of her kicking ass and taking names, and never once was Veronica portrayed as weak.
And now, in the 2010’s, we’re flooded with awesome fictional females who can shed a few tears and still be taken seriously.
Leslie Knope from Parks & Rec loves with her whole heart and gets teary at times, but she’s also an unstoppable political force for good in her small community (and later, D.C.). Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones has repeatedly proven that having a gentle soul and romantic dreams doesn’t mean you can’t be made of steel when it matters. Jessica Jones of Marvel’s Jessica Jones is suffering from serious PTSD and oftentimes lets it get the best of her, but she ultimately defeats her own demons while learning to face her past pain.
Red from Orange is the New Black gets honorable mention since she’s the second Kate Mulgrew character referenced in this article, though Mulgrew’s portrayal of the Russian inmate is a far cry from tough, hard-shelled Captain Janeway. They’re both head bitches in charge, but Red shows us her softer side in how deeply she cares for others and feels the pain of her time lost while still pulling the prison’s strings.
These are only a few examples plucked from the flood of awesome Crybaby Characters we’re given these days, and I am so delighted with and proud of the way writers and audiences are embracing Emotional Women. It’s no longer blindly accepted that when a woman cries, she is weak, silly, or comedic. Instead, people are embracing the truth that a woman can have a soft side and cry now and then, but still be a force to be reckoned with.
Or, in other words…
We may cry, but we can still get things done.