Let’s look at some examples and I’ll explain.
The Long Kiss Goodnight
Point of No Return/La Femme Nikita
The River Wild
This is probably going to be the first of several essays on this topic, so we’re starting with the basics. Let’s work out the common threads here. All of the women in these films:
- have intense skill sets and expertise
- are courageous
- embrace having men in their lives, like husbands, fathers, mentors, or friends, and value them as well
- don’t let go of their desires for relationships or possibly even kids
- have needs and wants that they accept must be sought out in other characters, including men
The key here is a simple word: “AND”.
- “She’s a woman AND a spy.”
- “She’s a mother AND a pilot.”
- “She’s a soldier AND motherly.”
- “She’s independent, BUT can give/ask/want help from men/others” (a slightly different form of “AND” that negates a solo trait using “BUT“)
- “She’s tough, AND accepts that with help/training/support, she can be tougher”
As a writer, by using “and” you’re going to open up creative avenues as to HOW that character can be both characteristics simultaneously.
The problem with many modern writers is that they think in terms of “either/or.” They want a strong, female character but lean so hard into their definition of strong that they leave out almost anything from the feminine category, thinking (erroneously) that by mixing in classic feminine traits, like wanting male relationships, make characters weak. In reality, it’s by combining both in a realistic way that you end up with a great character.
For instance, Ripley in Aliens is survivor AND she’s also been a mother. That means she doesn’t hate men and opens up a door for some subtext and innuendos when working with a good looking guy like Hicks.
They are in an intense survival situation, but they are smiling at each other, ribbing each other a little bit, and show that they trust each other. This is a classic example of combining femininity with being a badass by using “AND”. Many modern writers would want her to be so strong that she just picks up the gun and can instantly shoot, or make someone like Hicks less competent than he is shown being in the film, or make him entirely submissive to her instead of working like a team. This duo is a classic though, because at the heart of Ripley is a character who can be tough AND need other people.
In The Long Kiss Goodnight, Sam/Charlie does a lot of action scenes (even saving the legendary Samuel L. Jackson a few times), but at the end of the film we see that when comparing her old life to her new life, she chooses the new one–with the addition that she’s still a badass who can kill a housefly by throwing a knife. At the end of the film visual cues are used really well to show this. They put her in a similar outfit to what she was wearing as a housewife earlier, but with some tweaks: She’s less buttoned down, a little sexier, (showing more leg), and is more confident. It’s a merged version of Samantha’s long dress and Charlie’s black & white motif to become a third form that incorporates both. I like this wardrobe choice a lot because it subtly shows Sam’s “AND.”
The magic of this moment is that she’s choosing her very loving, accepting, salt-of-the-earth husband and her life with him and their daughter over going back to being a spy. She actually likes and appreciates their love and shows that it’s okay for a top-flight assassin to want monogamy, family, and simple life. She is a killer, but she’s loved, appreciated, and unjudged by her family, which she finds out suits her just fine.
How do you make a badass female character without rejecting her femininity? Can she still be “feminine while being a badass?
Essentially, you’re just combining elements. If femininity was in Column A, and being a badass was in Column B, then you combine a bit of Column A with a bit of Column B to get what you’re looking for. Most of the time, that can be enough to make a really fun, compelling, and likable character.
But if this character is your lead, let me invite you to take it a step further. Here’s the secret to some next level writing: because you’re mixing elements, don’t be afraid to let the mixture create conflict. Conflict is the driving force of a good story, and internal character conflict can be some of the best fuel for that engine.
Let’s talk about The River Wild for a second to dive a little more into conflict.
Yes, the plot of the film is that two bank robbers are trying to escape the law by using the river, and need to force Gail to become their guide to get away; that hostage situation is the conflict that drives the action and momentum of the film. But the driving force behind WHY we care about what happens to Gail and WHY we want to see her get the better of Wade and WHY we want to see her patch things up with her husband is because of the inner conflicts she has going on. She starts the film in a failing marriage, fighting against her age and wondering if she’s made the right choices or needs to consider things like divorce. This generates internal conflict when she meets bad boy Wade, whose flirting makes her feeling young and attractive. She’s forced to ask herself tough questions, like how to be true to yourself while accepting compromise? How do you learn to change, or see when you’ve changed too much? Gail’s conflict between her husband and Wade also pluck at the strings of humanity and womanhood. This adds layers to this thriller beyond just the physical action, and makes Gail more relatable as a woman and a hero.
In The Long Kiss Goodnight, Charlie’s memories of her old life come back to her, creating MASSIVE conflict. In her old life, she felt free, powerful, untied, and in control. Her life post-amnesia as a “schoolmarm” feels stifling and restrictive, which is most visibly seen with her angst towards her daughter. It’s not until she can reconcile both halves of her life that she finds a way to be both a super spy AND a mom.
The inner conflict she has between her two lives are an identity crisis because she feels the two are mutually exclusive–she can only be one OR the other (that classic trap!). Seeing a third option where she accepts both sides and gets to have it all is the rewarding end of the journey. She can just be exactly who she is and be loved by her new family, even though they know her past as a spy/assassin. She can bake muffins AND kick ass and can enjoy that she knows how to do both.
Point of No Return, (the American version of, La Femme Nikita), has a beautifully simple inner conflict with Nina: she craves freedom more than anything, but throughout the film is constantly trapped: first by drugs and crime, then by the government agency, then by her job of being a spy, and then finally, her entire past. It’s this desire to be free and be herself that draws us to the character. Through her journey, she discovers the joys of being a badass AND being a charming, attractive lady, which makes her grow as a person. However, she can’t exist as either while feeling trapped, which is why her two main relationships, (with her boyfriend and her handler), are so deeply complex. Both men love her free spirit and eventually accept that for her to be happy, she’ll also need to be free… even if it means being free from both of them. It’s an action thriller that hinges around the audience connecting to the character because of the “AND” which joins “Spy AND Woman”, but her character arc is defined by her search for personal freedom.
Women make for awesome characters! Lean into femininity and what that means for your character. Some women love getting dressed to the nines in heels and makeup; some enjoy being a stay-at-home mom. Neither is any more or less feminine than the other. Choose what’s right for your character, then mix in the “badass” elements you want to use. As you do that, pay attention to some of the conflicts that may cause the character, and if you see a good thread, don’t be afraid to run with it! The only thing I recommend avoiding is trying to aim so much for badass that you lose the best parts of femininity along the way. Motherhood kicks ass. Most men love having a woman they can brag about in their lives, especially when that woman makes googly eyes back at them. When in doubt, try to find the “AND!”