25 Stories That Reinvent the ‘Strong Female Character’

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.