Among the many issues raised by the Wiscon panel on feminist foremothers in sff, one that resonated with something I had already been mulling over was the one about the 'strong woman character'. Quite often there seems to be a segue from the idea of a strong character in the sense of one who is written in such a way as to interest and engage the reader (sense A) to the notion of a character who has to manifest some (rather stereotyped?) notion of 'strong' (sense B).
What is meant by 'strong' anyway? I'd been thinking for some time about the tendency of writers to put in 'strong woman characters' in sense B, who are very far from being strong characters in sense A. These are usually women in some non-typical female role (leatherclad ninja amazon bodyguard, daring guerilla fighter, ship's captain): but they don't actually do anything. They're just set-dressing. Or, if they do do anything it is simply for plot purposes to facilitate the endeavours of a central male character(s).
The whole question of 'strong woman characters' generates troubling questions about what is strength in women - is it only women-in-roles-traditionally-conceived of as male who can qualify, and does strength in more traditionally female forms, for example as a matriarch, simply replicate longstanding stereotypes, or get dismissed as the kind of stock trope that figures in female and/or domestic fiction.
When women in sff are depicted in more traditional roles they often have a distressing lack of agency: this tends to be excused on the grounds that 'that is what it would be like for women in a society like that'. The remedy for this is to go away and read some history, both biographies of specific women of the past and works such as Amanda Vickery's The Gentleman's Daughter, Norma Clarke's several studies of networks of women writers and intellectuals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a whole range of works both recent and older (Alice Clark's and Ivy Pinchbeck's pioneering studies are still worth reading) that demonstrate the fallacy of simplistic notions of 'separate spheres'.
There are also issues about what constitutes a strong character in sense A: are fictional characters who are already shining exemplars of certain qualities particularly interesting, does the reader empathise and engage with them? More flawed, less perfect, conflicted, struggling characters who make mistakes or fail to do the right thing at the right time, characters who are questions rather than answers, are surely 'stronger' in this sense because more vivid, more interesting.
Literature is full of characters who remain in the memory even if the author is not setting them up as models to be imitated. Sometimes, indeed, they are meant to be an awful warning. But they are memorable because even if they are not the hero or the heroine, they are written in such a way that they have lives of their own beyond any plot-function they may be serving. They are not just a reward for the hero's quest or a self-sacrificing sidekick.
Perhaps we need another word than 'strong', with its potential for blurring the boundaries between these entirely different things, to describe this?