A little while ago, I finished reading Jim Hines' Codex Born, which seems to be a perfect book to think about this problem in genre fiction. One of the characters, Lena Greenwood, was written in part to explore how women are portrayed. (Jim Hines talks about Lena Greenwood in John Scalzi's "The Big Idea" series.) Lena is one of those "strong female characters" and I like her a lot. One of the things I enjoyed about Codex Born where the glimpses into her past as Lena grows (no pun intended*) and changes in response to what other characters around her think she should be.
But McDougall would rightly point out that if Lena had been male, we wouldn't be asking these questions or even describing the character as strong. We'd be talking about other things, like the character's abilities and motivations--not whether she's a symbol or whether she's portrayed in an appropriate way. I'm about as feminist as they come, but it bothers me that this symbol-hood is such a big issue. I'm a reader, too, and whether or not the character is well-written, interesting, and original is more important. I want great characters.
McDougall makes a great point with Sherlock Holmes. Does anyone talk about his strength? No, they describe him thus:
He’s a brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, polymath genius. (McDougall)That's how we should be talking about female characters: in detail, without trying to put them up on a pedestal as a "strong female character." The character's gender shouldn't be one of the character's adjectives.
* If you've read the series, you'll get it.