What does a 'Strong Female Character' look like in 2023?

by Hanna Flint, 10.3.23

Ahead of the Oscars, film critic, journalist and author Hanna Flint explores how the trope has evolved into something more tangible – and how the industry still has a long way to go.

Hanna Flint

A despondent Chinese immigrant is thrust into chaos in order to save the multiverse from collapse. 

A powerful queen is forced to lead her country against outsider parties in the face of grief.

A world-renowned conductor grapples with her own predatory behaviour as her world of privilege comes undone. 

A teenage girl deals with a family curse that transforms her into a giant red panda when her emotions run too high.

A community of women are faced with a life-changing decision to protect themselves, or not, from male violence.

There is no shortage of genuinely strong female characters being recognised at this weekend’s Academy Awards ceremony; this year in cinema, young and mature women from a variety of backgrounds have not simply been reduced to playing damsels in distress, propping up a male lead or whooping some butts as has so often been the case.

As I write in my book of the same name, “the Strong Female Character trope is an imperfect beast”, but the messy, vulnerable and multi-layered women in these films show that their strength comes through the depth of writing and complex rendering of performances rather than a two-dimensional or tokenistic display of ‘strength’.

I did still rather enjoy the moment in Tár when Blanchett’s Lydia knocks Mark Strong’s substitute conductor on his arse, and Michelle Yeoh does indeed put her decades of on-screen badassery to phenomenal use in Everything Everywhere All At Once. In fact, this is partly why she has been nominated for Best Actress alongside Blanchett, Ana De Armas (Blonde), Andrea Riseborough (To Leslie), and Michelle Williams (The Fabelmans).

Movie Still
Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All At Once

However, the brilliance of The Daniels’ absurdist action-comedy is that in playing Evelyn, a laundromat owner, mother and wife, Yeoh walks through several lives in her character’s shoes thanks to “verse-jumping”, a reality-shifting ability to tap into the consciousness of a doppelgänger in another universe.

Evelyn accesses the skills, memories, and bodies of her parallel identities; she “jumps” from being an opera singer to a teppanyaki chef and even an action movie star (a nod to Yeoh’s real-life self), all of which contribute to a better understanding of who she could be and, ultimately, acceptance of who she really is.

Yeoh has been a long-time favourite of mine, but despite her stellar work in Eastern and Western cinema from Yes, Madam and Holy Weapon to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Memoirs of a Geisha, she has rarely, if ever, been recognised at British or American awards ceremonies.

At 60 years old, this is her first Oscar nomination.

If she wins, it will be the first time an actress of East Asian descent has won Best Actress and only the second time a woman of colour has won the category in the Oscars’ 100-year history after Halle Berry’s win for Monster’s Ball in 2002.

Halle Berry
Halle Berry winning an Oscar for Best Actress in 2002 - she remains the only woman of colour to be given the award so far

"It's important to recognise how much conscious or unconscious bias plays into who gets to take home gold statues. More often than not, it's white stars who look like the majority of Academy voters."

Her outstanding, nuanced and visceral performance alone should secure her the gong, but it’s important to recognise how much conscious or unconscious bias plays into who gets to take home gold statues. More often than not, it’s white stars who look like the majority of Academy voters.

I am, of course, rooting for my girl Michelle this Sunday, but don’t even ask me to choose between the unbelievable performances in the Best Supporting Actress category. Ariana DeBose is right; Angela Bassett did the thing as Queen Ramona in the Black Panther sequel which also made her the first Marvel star to earn an acting nod. But so did Hong Chau (The Whale), Kerry Condon (The Banshees of Inisherin) and Yeoh’s castmates Stephanie Hsu and Jamie Lee Curtis. These actresses, along with filmmakers and writers like Sarah Polley (Women Talking), Domee Shi and Julia Cho (Turning Red) are reclaiming the strong female character for the better.

I, for one, welcome their continued strong female leadership into the intersectional realms of possibility for women on screen.

Read more on Strong Female Characters and what movies teach us

Hanna Flint

29 September 2022 | £12.99

‘A real celebration and ode to women who hold up the art of cinema.’ — Mollie Goodfellow

Leading film critic of her generation offers an unflinchingly honest and humorous account of her mixed-race millennial journey towards self-acceptance through a cinematic lens.