I think it’s fair to say I’m a little obsessed with any girl who can handle a broadsword. And not only personally – right now I’m teaching a university class titled Girl Warriors, in which we trace, investigate, and dissect the roles and representation of female warriors and heroes in contemporary culture. It’s an exciting time to be teaching a class like this, because I feel as though this landscape has been changing dramatically in the last five years, if not in the last five minutes. Which is not to say that everything’s all better now; many of my 18-year-old students still come into my class thinking feminism means burning your bras, no matter what Taylor Swift says.
One of the tropes we come back to often in our discussions is the Strong Female Character, a stock character famously dressed down by Sophia McDougall, who wrote:
Nowadays the princesses all know kung fu, and yet they’re still the same princesses. They’re still love interests, still the one girl in a team of five boys, and they’re all kind of the same. They march on screen, punch someone to show how they don’t take no shit, throw around a couple of one-liners or forcibly kiss someone because getting consent is for wimps, and then with ladylike discretion they back out of the narrative’s way. … Their strength lets them, briefly, dominate bystanders but never dominate the plot. It’s an anodyne, a sop, a Trojan Horse – it’s there to distract and confuse you, so you forget to ask for more.
These women usually get saved in the end, no matter how tough they are. They usually get kissed. They often get called “feisty” by reviewers.
That said, even in the adventure-based genres (which are the genres I’m focusing on here, with a few exceptions, because “strength” is less of a buzzword for women in dramas and comedies), there are a few strong female characters who aren’t Strong Female Characters, at least in my book, and these are the figures that give me hope – because the dream is, of course, to see women and men represented equally (note: not as if they are the same, just like, equally human) in our culture. So below you’ll find some books, films, comics, and television shows (these I am lumping together as “stories”) that are changing the SFC landscape in a variety of ways. Some of these stories are new, some are not so new, because progress is a process (and so is reinvention). And also because, well, guilty as charged: I just can’t resist a chance to give a shout-out to my best girl Buffy.
Jessica Jones is Strong. It’s kind of like her whole deal. But the thing I like best about Jessica Jones is how beside the point – how even forgettable – Jessica’s superpowered strength often is. Whole episodes go by in which I don’t think of it, or in which it’s only used in place of a good set of bolt cutters, you know, for efficiency’s sake. In the end, the only strength that really matters is located in her mind, or maybe in her will not to be dominated.
She also drives the whole story, has flaws, develops as a character, all that good stuff. She’s the hard-boiled detective and not the femme fatale. She’s complicated. She doesn’t care (and, importantly, the show doesn’t care) if she’s a role model. Most crucially, perhaps, she’s a rape survivor, and suffers from PTSD because of this, and spends a lot of time trying to come to terms with what happened to her, but the fact that she is a survivor is never treated as a weakness.
(On the other hand, I could sort of go either way on the whole tough-as-nails, no-new-friends, whiskey-chugging thing. Yes, it’s cool, and it makes sense for her as a character, but it’s also so masculinizing in the expected ways — Strong Girls Have No Feelings! Feminine Stuff Is Not Strong So Strong Girls Shall Hate It! — that I’m not sure it’s advancing anything. Which is totally fine, but for the purposes of this list, etc. etc.)
Edge of Tomorrow
All hail Rita Vrataski, aka The Angel of Verdun, aka Emily Blunt doing a one-handed (and no-footed) plank. What’s excellent about Rita is how, for 90% of the film, her female-ness is besides the point — she’s just a regular warrior who happened to stumble across a Groundhog Day-esque glitch in the alien system, and then happened to stumble across some other schmuck who found the same glitch. Yes, there are probably parts where Tom Cruise’s Cage has more concern for her safety than he would for a guy in the same situation, and yes, the movie doesn’t quite restrain itself from having Cage and Rita kiss. But it almost does. It really almost does. And hey, people kiss sometimes. What’s more important is that the film treats Cage and Rita like equals, which is really always all I’m hoping for.
This show is all about deconstructing femininity as it is portrayed in the media. Well, I mean, it’s about clones. But it’s also about deconstruction! As Lili Loofbourow puts it,
The show’s premise allows Maslany to portray a bewilderingly diverse set of stock characters — the punk-rock con artist, Sarah; the shrewish suburban housewife, Alison Hendrix; the geeky stoner, Cosima Niehaus; the Ukrainian psychopath, Helena; the icily aloof career woman, Rachel Duncan; the pill-popping cop, Elizabeth Childs; and many others — encompassing almost every trope women get to play in Hollywood and on TV… By structuring the story around the clones’ differences, Orphan Black seems to suggest that the dull sameness enforced by existing female archetypes needs to die.
I couldn’t agree more.
One of the main issues with the whole “girl warrior” trope is how relentlessly white it is. (I know, I know, there’s a girl right there, what else could I possibly ask for? WELL.) Enter the new Ms. Marvel, aka Kamala Khan, a teenage Pakistani-American shapeshifter from New Jersey. But she’s not just a quota-filler: Kamala is well drawn and immediately compelling, and Ms. Marvel Vol. 1 recently won a Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story. Even better, she’s written by G. Willow Wilson, who also wrote the great Alif the Unseen. And now, because why be satisfied with all this greatness, I say: how about a Kamala movie, Marvel?
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Patricia C. Wrede
Princess Cimorene made me the woman I am today. Seriously: she doesn’t dig embroidery and having to learn when to scream during ogre attacks, so she runs away to become a dragon’s princess. Lots of knights and princes come to rescue her, but she says no thank you, very politely, and makes them go away. Instead, she makes cherries jubilee and organizes the library. Also, said dragon is female, and later winds up being King of the Dragons (not Queen, because that job is just boring). Also Cimorene goes on all these adventures and eventually marries her own King and later adventures while pregnant, because hell. It’s everything you’ve ever wanted from a fairy tale.
Olivia Pope, my friends. Talk about strong. Talk about flawed. Talk about wearing my dream wardrobe, because even though I like feminist television, I also like clothes. Yes, yes, like so many strong female characters, she has a boy problem that keeps tripping her up. But you know what? Olivia Pope is one of the few female antiheroes on screens today (although keep letting Shonda Rhimes make shows and you’ll keep getting them, it seems), so she’s breaking barriers in my book.
How to Get Away With Murder
While we’re on Shonda Rhimes… Annalise Keating is basically Olivia Pope turned up to 11. I love how the show isn’t afraid to make the (very attractive) Viola Davis look ugly, tear her down in every way conceivable (including with bullets), show her again and again at the bottom of the barrel — and then show her rallying, taking charge, and saving everyone’s ass. Also she’s just plain exciting to watch. That’s pretty much exactly what I want from a strong female character.
The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
Often, during class discussions about the dearth of passable female heroes in American culture, someone will pipe up with one of my favorite questions: Well, what about Katniss? Because Katniss Everdeen does solve (in the sense that any one character can “solve” an institutionalized problem with gender on screens) a lot of the problems of Strong Female Characters. She is physically strong, but not unduly so; instead she’s skilled (at hunting). She has emotional weaknesses and emotional strengths. She’s pretty much not interested in romance (particularly in the books) or this love-triangle that everyone seems to want to shove her into. She’s not particularly nice, a lot of the time. (Hell, in her position, would you be?) But yes, sometimes she is warm, kind, self-sacrificing. She is devoted to her sister. She is highly suspicious of everyone. In the end, she suffers from PTSD, a realistic fate that is rarely offered to characters in non-real worlds, but is totally refreshing. She is a whole, round, flawed, human character, and she’s the hero. So, more Katnisses, please.
A movie for kids in which the main love story is between two sisters… yes. Two main female characters who are both strong and weak in their own ways… yes. But actually the film treats being tough and emotionally cold (ha ha) as a weakness instead of a strength… yes. Despite being a story about two women, male characters have 59% of the lines in this movie… OK, no. But still.
A Study in Charlotte, Brittany Cavallaro
In her aforementioned essay “I Hate Strong Female Characters,” McDougall writes, “Is Sherlock Holmes strong? It’s not just that the answer is ‘of course,’ it’s that it’s the wrong question. … He’s a brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, polymath genius. Adding the word “strong” to that list doesn’t seem to me to enhance it much.” Indeed, and what I’m always looking for is a girl hero who fits all those descriptions. So, da-dum! Enter Charlotte Holmes, the flawed and ferocious teenage descendant of Sherlock himself, who joins up with her counterpart, one Jamie Watson, to solve a prep school murder mystery in this delightful and compulsively readable new YA novel. And there’s not even really any kissing.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The most-taught television show of all time is a critical darling for a reason. Well, many reasons, but one of them is this: its eponymous heroine is (still) one of the best characters – strong, female, or otherwise – to grace the small screen. She’s got Slayer strength and healing powers, she’s skilled in martial arts, yet she has feelings (oh man, does she have feelings) and friends. She has a complex chosen-one complex. She falls in love and has sex and has sex without falling in love. She makes bad choices. She saves herself, and other people, and sometimes gets saved too. She has patrolled many times in that halter. And sure, speaking of that halter, she has some of the same complications that plague other female characters of her ilk – does her makeup have to stay on quite so well during a down-and-out fight? Did The WB hate bras? – but ultimately, she smashes the trope of the blonde who wanders down a dark alley and gets murdered by a monster, because she’s the one murdering monsters on this show.
Aaaand while we’re on Joss Whedon, shout-out to Firefly, which is one of the few shows in which an ensemble cast is actually, um, an ensemble cast: five main male characters and four main female characters, all with their own skills, personalities, flaws, and, well, purposes. That is, none of them could be replaced by a sexy lamp.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
OK, OK so maybe Rey’s a “Mary Sue” (AKA a wish fulfillment character, too good to be true), but so is just about everyone in the Star Wars universe. What I like about her is that, much like Rita, after the whole not-needing-help-to-run thing there’s very little mention of the fact that she’s a girl. She’s just another budding hero wearing dirty tablecloths on a dust planet, and she’s not any more amazing because she has lady bits – she’s amazing in the same ways that a guy in her position would be. Plus, there’s General Leia, who now totally runs shit, and no one complains that she’s a woman. Plus, there’s Maz, who, ditto. I don’t know. It just seems to me that women are finally being let in on the whole Star Wars thing in a very real way, as participants as well as fans, and I dig it.
Mad Max: Fury Road
It might not be a feminist masterpiece, but damn, is this ever Furiosa’s movie. You can ignore that misleading title – when the camera panned back to Mad Max in the end, I had almost forgotten who he was.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson
Sure, Lisbeth Salander is, as Carina Chocano puts it, “tough, cold, terse, taciturn and prone to scowling and not saying goodbye when they hang up the phone.” In those ways she is, yes, a stereotypical Strong Female Character. But she’s also super freaking weird and a programming genius, like Tank Girl crossed with Bill Gates. Like Jessica Jones, she’s a rape survivor, and like Jessica Jones, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo doesn’t treat that as a weakness. (In fact, the book goes out of its way to directly address sexual assault statistics.) Her revenge tactics are creative and brutal. But most importantly, she (spoiler alert) saves the male lead at the end of the book, not the other way around. So often, Strong Female Characters are only strong so that they can be better, more worthy prizes for the male lead to rescue, especially in a book like this, which is narrated by said male lead, and is perhaps even more his story than hers. So the very fact that the book doesn’t even flirt with her losing any of her agency… well, that makes it a reinvention for me. (Image here is from the Fincher film, which I admit I haven’t seen and is rumored to treat Lisbeth more like a sexual object than the books do.)
Last semester, one of my students wrote a whole essay remarking on the fact that all “girl warriors” in media are skinny, model types, and wondering why larger women who manage to get famous are almost always comedians instead of dramatic heroines. Well, enter Faith, a plus-size superheroine who can fly and lift buildings with her mind (and is also a huge nerd, in case you need more reasons to love her). She recently rose from the Valiant roster to become the first plus-size superhero to get her own comic book. It’s enough to bring back a little… well, you know.
Parks and Recreation
Parks and Recreation is the antidote to Election. Among other things.
The Keeping Room
Westerns and war movies don’t tend to focus on women, unless it’s only for a second and also they’re wearing hoop skirts. But in this film, three women (one is a slave) wait on their otherwise abandoned Georgia farm as two Union soldiers rape and murder their way towards them. Only one of them seems to be any good with a weapon. It’s grim, and it’s violent, and no one gets saved.
It’s obvious that screenwriter Julia Hart had axing trope of the Strong Female Character in mind when she wrote this film. As she explained:
You can’t just put a woman into a classic male role. You have to reinvent it so it is inherently female. I just thought about all of the classic tropes and cliches of the Western and tried to turn them upside down and make sure that they felt realistically feminine. The women in the movie are emotional and emotionally connected and emotionally ravaged by the experience. It’s not that classic Western character who’s simply stoic and strong. … I was thinking in terms of redemption and fear. When you are a woman alone and you are being attacked by a man who is physically more powerful than you and perhaps has more experience with these weapons, you would be afraid. And I think that a lot of the time because women are physically less strong or inexperienced in a way with violence, you have to use that fear to empower yourself.
Orange Is the New Black
The female inmates at Litchfield Penitentiary certainly run the gamut from strong to not so strong (with an emphasis on the former, because you have to be a little bit tough to wind up there… unless you’re Piper. Then again, “Trust No Bitch”), but what’s important about this show is that all the women also run about a hundred other gamuts. That is, they’re all people, diverse as can be, with intersecting qualities and personality traits and issues. Now that’s the kind of ensemble we need to see more of.
Girl detective makes good! Yes, yes, but more importantly, the eponymous Veronica is a really great character: she’s feminine without being super girly or sexualized, she’s got feelings that both hurt and motivate her, she cares about her family, and she’s also brilliant and fearless and a total schemer. She’s one of those characters that are just like you, only 1/3 better. Fun fact: apparently the show was originally written as a YA novel starring a male character in the main role, but creator Rob Thomas thought it would be more “interesting” to gender-swap her. Just some food for thought.
Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein
YA novels about female friendship aren’t that hard to find these days. But brilliant YA novels about a friendship between a girl spy and a girl pilot (who are both whole, compelling characters) set in WWII? Less common.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
I think it’s fair to say that Hushpuppy is a singular character. Firstly, she’s six (at least, Quvenzhané Wallis was six at the time of filming). Secondly, the film makes her both supremely powerful and painfully small, a folk hero, “boss lady” of the bayou, trying to save her father, constant and unyielding both in the real world and in the world of dreams.
What the Joan Jett? I’ll tell you what: Five best friends (of varying races, personalities, sizes, and sexualities) who gather at Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types, where they encounter loads of supernatural strangenesses. Inclusive, hilarious, and tons of fun.
Because not every strong female character was assigned female at birth. In my class, we spend a considerable amount of time talking about Caitlyn Jenner, who in her former life was seen as the pinnacle of “maleness” and the closest thing to a real superhero we had in American culture, but has now transitioned into her true female self. On this list, I’m going with Moppa.
OK, yeah, so Beyoncé is a Strong Female, not a Strong Female Character. That said, I think of music videos – good ones, anyway – as stories, and the artist starring in them as both storyteller and character, and also Beyoncé transcends genre and form and time and space and so I’m counting it. In my class, I spend a day on music videos. We watch “Bad Blood,” we watch “Bitch Better Have My Money,” we watch “Lookin Ass,” and we talk about strength and violence as performed by women as entertainment and the many excitements and complications therein. But when I saw “Formation,” I thought: Beyoncé looks stronger, tougher, cooler than any of the women in those other videos, and though her strength has a similar tone to theirs, she’s doing it without guns or violence. Would the Beyoncé of “Formation” be any stronger if she were holding a gun? I have to say no. I have to say it would be distracting, and completely besides the point. And I have to say that’s the precisely kind of reinvention I want for my strong female characters.