Everyone loves “strong female characters.” From Jane Eyre to Veronica Mars, they’re so urgently desired and highly praised that they’ve practically become a brand: tough, intelligent women who can probably both beat you in a physical fight and outsmart you in a battle of wits. What’s not to like? But in an essay for last weekend’s New York Times magazine, Carina Chocano says she’s had enough of them. In fact, she argues, these “tough, cold, terse, taciturn” ladies have become so pervasive that we’re now suffering from a dearth of weak female characters — complex, well-written women who happen to also be meek, feminine, neurotic, or otherwise imperfect. Although we’re big fans of strong female characters, we have to admit that some of the most fascinating women in literature, film, and TV would never fit that description. Ten of our favorites are after the jump.
Chocano accurately describes Kristen Wiig’s Annie as a “delightfully, deliriously, awesomely messed-up and pathetic character” — but one that most of us nonetheless identify with, because we’ve totally been there, screwing up our own love lives, facing professional failure, and wondering why our friends are so much more successful than we are. Annie is a great lady who’s been sucked into a downward spiral of her own making. She’s far from hopeless, but she needs a serious kick in the ass to stop feeling sorry for herself and start fixing her life.
Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina
The heroine of Tolstoy’s masterpiece is a victim of both her own desires and society’s cruelty. Drawn into an adulterous relationship with the persistent, infatuated Vronsky, she forsakes her marriage, her good name, and her son for her new love. But her husband’s refusal to grant her a separation and her peers’ hypocritical rejection of Anna as a fallen woman leads her to grow increasingly isolated and paranoid. While she isn’t “strong,” few characters are as distinctly and believably human as Anna Karenina.
Marla Singer, Fight Club
Like the novel and film’s unnamed protagonist, odd, gorgeous Marla Singer is addicted to support groups for problems she doesn’t even have. That’s before her suicide attempt and self-destructive affair with Tyler Durden/our nameless hero. Chuck Palahniuk is no great writer of female characters, but Marla is such a glamorously nutso femme fatale that we’re giving him a pass on this one.
Ruth Fisher, Six Feet Under
Six Feet Under is full of strong (albeit flawed) female characters, like budding-artist Claire and genius massage artist Brenda. Matriarch Ruth Fisher isn’t nearly as self-assured. A meek and somewhat oblivious widow, she’s prone to troubled relationships and used to taking a submissive role. Her aimlessness after her husband dies and her children grow up makes her an easy mark for a cultish self-help group. Over time, Ruth learns to assert herself, but her struggle to discover who she is — apart from being the family’s trusted caretaker — makes her character arc an especially gratifying one.
Jeanne, Last Tango in Paris
Speaking of submissive! Maria Schneider’s Jeanne is a young, French woman who is about to be married — but first, she cedes all control in a semi-anonymous, purely sexual affair with Marlon Brando’s much older, baldly sadistic Paul. The dalliance appears to be part of Jeanne’s personal crisis in the face of matrimony, and she turns out to be the far more stable half of the couple — not that that’s saying much.
Evelyn Auerbach, Anthropology of an American Girl
The heroine of Hilary Thayer Hamann’s debut novel shares some major similarities with Last Tango‘s Jeanne. She’s a teenage girl who feels a tremendous sexual pull toward an older man — in this case a physically powerful actor and boxer who she meets when he takes a gig directing her school play. Although she’s a smart non-conformist, Evie’s animalistic attraction (and the psychological fallout of her earlier rape) causes her to become self-destructive and alienated from her peers. What makes her compelling is her intelligent analysis of her own situation, even when she seems powerless to change it.
Cindy Heller, Blue Valentine
Michelle Williams’s Cindy is in a mess. A college student and aspiring doctor who lives at home with her controlling family, she’s also caught in a terrible relationship. Along comes Dean, her garrulous knight in ripped denim, who sweeps her off her feet and agrees to raise her daughter when she learns she’s pregnant by her previous boyfriend. For a while, it all seems like a fairy tale. Years later, they’re married and he’s crazy and she’s sacrificed her dreams, supporting the family as a nurse (who’s also a slave to her job, with a boss who wants to lure her into an affair). Cindy may be a vulnerable figure, but her troubles are all too common; she seems to represent so many other women who have had to compromise to survive.
Holly Golightly, Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Truman Capote’s notorious party girl may live on her own in the big city and dress like a glamorous society lady, but her goal in life — to snag a rich husband who will transform her into Cinderella — isn’t particularly empowering. Still, Holly Golightly is one of literature’s greatest enigmas, and Audrey Hepburn’s delicate portrayal of her cemented the character’s cultural icon status.
Jackie Harris, Roseanne
It’s hard to compete with Roseanne Conner. Perhaps that explains why her younger sister, Jackie, is such an underachiever. Kooky Jackie depends on Roseanne’s guidance and has trouble holding down a job, and most of her relationships end in disaster. But, at her core, she’s a kind and loyal sister and aunt whose instability always provides a refreshing antidote to steely and capable Roseanne.
Beth March, Little Women
Vivacious tomboy Jo tends to win the most teenage fans, but we’ve always been partial to sickly, artistic Beth. A soft-spoken cat lover with a charitable heart, she’s never the same after a bout of scarlet fever nearly kills her. Although she isn’t bossy or ambitious, and her life is cut tragically short, her gentle spirit makes her an inspiration to the entire family — not to mention generations of readers.