Word Choice and Stronger Characters (On the page, the screen and in real life)

By Alexa Padgett

One of my all-time favorite television shows is Alias. Many of you don’t remember the hour-long drama, I’ll bet—though I bet you’ve ALL heard of Bradley Cooper, whose breakout role occurred on the show. You’re welcome for that bit of trivia.

Starring the smart, funny and versatile Jennifer Garner, the show ran for five seasons from 2001-2006. Now, why would I bring up a fifteen-year-old TV series? For a few reasons, and the first is the character Garner played: Sydney Bristow is a “young, athletic, college graduate who was recruited her freshman year as a secret agent for SD-6, a top-secret branch of the CIA.” When the evil head of SD-6 kills her boyfriend, Sydney learns SD-6 is–gasp!–actually part of a rogue international agency hell-bent on world domination. Sydney becomes a double agent, working with the real CIA to bring down SD-6 with the assistance of her handler, Michael Vaughn (yum!) and her estranged father Jack Bristow.

This plot explodes with action and questions, which is why I had to watch each week. These were the days before Netflix binge-watching, people. I had to watch the show at the appointed time or the plot confused me the next week! But that’s actually not the reason why I loved the show. I loved the show because Jennifer Garner kicked some bad guy’s ass every week.
My other favorites follow a similar vein: Wonder Woman (the 1970s version with Diana Prince–I wanted to be her every year for Halloween, folks. And, yes, I had the Underoos.) Today, I like Black Widow in the Marvel movie series. I mean, Scarlett Johansson can take out an army of villains with her legs. That’s so awesome.

The parallels are obvious (now), but from early childhood, I gravitated toward strong women. These ladies didn’t always make smart choices. They were hurt physically, emotionally, and even mentally, but they always—always—got back up for another round.

As a mother, I love this message. Heck, I wanna slather my kids in it wherever I can. I know what you’re thinking…I’m crazy and a man hater. Nope, couldn’t be further from the truth. I love my husband and I’m still (mostly) sane. But I’m a product of a culture that says men go first on house and car deeds (as if a penis makes you less likely to default on a loan); on invitations; for promotions… the list is long. My point I’ve been too slow to get to? What we say and how we say it slammed me between both eyes last week when I saw the YouTube video about stereotypes, especially those related to doctors, firefighters, and fighter pilots. Ninety-three percent of the pictures kids drew of these professions were male. White men, I’ll add. (Which may well be my next topic to tackle because we have a LOONNNGGG way to go on diminishing stereotypes and living, together, in a diverse America or Europe or Africa…)

If gender biases really do begin to emerge prior to age seven, then, people, we need WAY more strong females in early children’s literature. (A particular favorite for the picture-book crowd is Rosie Revere, Engineer).

Also last week, my daughter brought home her school picture. See the words here?


We’re teaching our girls, through words, that sweet, pretty and kind matter more than smart, analytical and, yup, kickin’ ass.

Last Sunday, at church, five young teens “graduated” from youth to adult status. As part of the ceremony, the reverend blessed the five young adults—four girls and a boy. Guess what words never came up? Pretty, cute, soft, sweet, smile, feminine. Those words had no place in defining these young ladies like handsome, muscular, cut, ripped, hot or sexy had no place in describing the young man. These teens are more than their outward appearance; their minds and actions create the complexity and wholeness of the people they are just learning how to be. Thank goodness my reverend understands that—and makes a point to speak to the person within the external shell.

Which is why I’m now on a mission. You ready for it? Kay, here goes. One: I need to find more strong female leads, whether in TV, movies or books. I’m talking TV show like Veronica Mars and Alias and book girlfriends like Anne Shirley, Jo March, Lucy Pevensie, Hermione Granger and Lisbeth Salander. Real, meaty, strong-female-lead books I don’t want to end.

Two: I plan to focus on my gender biases in the books I write. Yes, they’re instilled in me. Too many of them, I’m afraid. My husband mows the grass, saves me from snakes and puts all unneeded items in the attic even though I’m capable of all those tasks myself. (I didn’t say I liked them, but I can do them.) So if I write a strong female, she isn’t going to wait around for the man to figure out he’s wearing the pants and should ask her to marry him. Nope, she’s stolen the pants and can ask him to marry her…if she wants to.

Words matter. Description of character matters. Plots where women shine matter. Kicking ass when the bad guys or gals are hurting you matters. Just like telling girls to sit down, be careful, be quiet, sweet, to not to be so bossy matters. How we can re-frame the b-word when we’re talking about a woman who expects–demands–results. And we need more strong women in TV shows, on the silver screen, in books. Strong women. Women who use their brains and their brawn. Compassion doesn’t make women weak and tears don’t intimate give-up.

So, I say to all you writers out there, can we develop women–well-rounded, flawed, smart, beautiful, ugly, analytical, skilled, brash, and brave women who live their lives the way we want to live them?

I want to read those books. And I’m more than happy to re-watch the TV shows.





4 thoughts on “Word Choice and Stronger Characters (On the page, the screen and in real life)

  1. Great post, Alexa!

    I started watching Fast & Furious 7 the other night – got bored real quick – too much muscle and zero plot. While I was never a fan of Alias, I totally agree with you on the need to write strong female characters! The best story on the big screen of late, in my opinion, is Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s difficult to find a more positive depiction of strong woman in leading roles. Furiosa shared the lead with Mad Max and they do it so well – see the sniper scene, you’ll love it. The female septuagenarians with rifles and apocalypse trail bikes are the icing on the cake.

    As for you writing strong female characters – get it done already! Some people are waiting for book 2 in your Spirit Seducer series. 😉



    1. Yes, great post.

      I am interested in the heroine’s journey in myth, and how we re-tell the old stories and represent female characters/archetypes. I’m about to start reading a fantastic book by Sharon Blackie, If Women Rose Rooted, which goes deep into background of women’s place in story and the heroine’s journey…

      As I read the piece I thought about
      – Red Riding Hood
      – Roald Dahl’s Matilda
      – Alice in Wonderland

      then I found this: http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2016/jan/14/top-10-feminist-heroes-in-fiction

      and remember reading this with interest last year: http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/apr/29/where-are-all-the-heroines-teen-fiction

      P.S I love WW


  2. Great points! On my summer to-read list as I’m working on strengthening my female characters: Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman.


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