Friday, 10 December 2010

10 Female Characters Who Kick Ass (Without Actually Kicking Ass)

I saw a list of 100 greatest film characters not long ago and was fairly appalled by the lack of female characters on the list. And the few girls who did appear were in the iconic action heroine mold - the likes of Ripley, The Bride, Pussy Galore and any number of Angelina Jolie ass-kickers. Sure, there were plenty of male action heroes on the list too, but the top 10 also included characters like Atticus Finch, Vito Corleone and Charles Foster Kane. There seemed to be few comparable women. Worst of all, while listing the Scarlett O'Hara's 'defining moment', they picked Rhett Butler kissing her - a moment in which she was utterly passive.

So, on goes my feminist hat, and here's my list, in no particular order, of the top 10 strong female characters in TV, literature and film who aren't action heroines. They're just women who know their own mind and whose lives do not revolve around their men. Sorry Bella Swan fans - you're going to be disappointed.

Peggy Olson (Mad Men)

Joan gets the best outfits, but Peggy is the thinking woman's idol. She's clawed her way up the male-dominated ladder of the 1960s without ever compromising her principals. Writer Matthew Weiner and actress Elisabeth Moss have created a believably complex woman, torn between her passion for her work and her desire to conform (on some level) with what is expected of women.

Hildy Johnson (His Girl Friday)

Hildy is the newspaper reporter about to quit to get married, until her editor ex-husband pulls out all the stops to get her to stay. But it's not his manipulations that change her mind - the scent of a good story and her own passion for the job is what causes her to ditch the fiance. It's slightly depressing to compare this (from 1940) and any Katharine Hepburn roles to female characters in modern romantic comedy.

Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice)
Long before women could vote, Jane Austen created the wonderfully independent Elizabeth Bennet, a woman who only entertained the idea of marriage when she met a man who was her equal. You even get the impression that had Mr Darcy not been interested, she'd have gotten over it. Two centuries later, we got Bridget Jones - a woman obsessed with her weight and her love life. Hmm.

Lyra Silvertongue (His Dark Materials)

I refuse to use a picture of Dakota Blue Richards for this since the Lyra of the shoddy adaptation bears no resemblance to the loveable, three-dimensional character in Philip Pullman's brilliant books. Over three books she grows seamlessly from a naive, showboating child to a sensitive, mature young woman, and in a novel famous for it's religious viewpoints it's a shame that no-one ever points out that it's also a beautiful allegory for puberty.

Marion Ravenwood (Raiders of the Lost Arc)

Action movie producers take note - here's how you do a love interest. Marion isn't just tagging along because she fancies Indy, or because someone got her into this mess. She has her own motivation throughout and even when she's imperilled she's never weak. Just don't ever engage her in a drinking contest.

Lynette Scavo (Desperate Housewives)

She's a wife, a mother and so much more. In its early days the show bravely tackled the topic of a stay-at-home-Mum losing her identity and her marbles while stuck in the house looking after the kids, and as played by the brilliant Felicity Huffman, Lynette remains the only rounded character in a show increasingly populated by caricatures.

Rose Tyler (Doctor Who)
Rose is the ultimate everywoman, an ordinary girl who meets an amazing man and gets caught up in a crazy, magical life. But she stands out from the dozens of other companions because the Doctor needed her as much as she needed him. Alone, they were miserable and unfulfilled, but together - thanks to great writing and even better chemistry between the leads - they were, in the words of the Ninth Doctor, brilliant.

President Laura Roslin (Battlestar Galactica)

In a show populated by women who could literally kick your ass, President Roslin was the strongest, battling her own personal uncertainty, genocide, rebellion and eventually cancer with one of the strongest wills seen on screen. She's not perfect (she did try to rig an election) but perfect isn't believable. Laura Roslin is.

Lois Lane (DC comics)
Lois Lane is the comic book equivalent of a Katharine Hepburn character. Ostensibly, she's Superman's girlfriend/wife, and yes, occassionally she does need her big strapping man to fly over and save her, but we can forgive her that. Because the rest of the time she's a tenacious Pulitzer-winner with more balls than her famous hubby, and all the various screen and print versions of the character have had the sense to make her Clark Kent's equal in every way. Except, y'know, all the superpowers.

Juno (Juno)
I wanted a modern film heroine to round out this list (and to prove to myself that the last decent comedy role for a woman wasn't in the 1940s), and Ellen Page's Juno seemed to be the best choice. Juno is that rare thing, a teenage girl who's treated like a real, layered person and not a cliche. She's intelligent and she knows her own mind, the fact that she's 16 doesn't enter into it.

Have I missed any other strong female characters who don't have a gun in their hand or a black belt in kick boxing? Women who aren't just there as love interests or victims. Suggestions welcome!


  1. My opinion on Rose soured when she was paired with Doctor 10.
    I was always a huge fan of Romana, but that could have a lot to do with having a massive crush on Lalla Ward and frankly having a cute young version of Tom Baker's Doctor may not be the most original basis for a character - but darnit, there's worse things for a woman to be than beautiful, intelligent and able to show up the male protagonist on a regular basis.

    I've still not seen Mad Men and what I've seen has consisted of the animated gifs of Christina Hendricks people post, but damn if that outfit Peggy Olson there is wearing is the most adorable thing ever. You may think this isn't the most progressive way to comment on her character, but consider that I'm also saying that she makes that outfit work so well that I'd consider her better dressed than Joan in the red dress.

    I also give praise for mentioning President Roslin, only a woman of such quality could make the old school BSG fanboys who hate female Starbuck (I hate those guys), turn against Richard Hatch as President.

  2. How could I not mention President Roslin in this list? Her walking down the deck, ravaged by cancer but still determined to volunteer for the big rescue mission is just about the most heroic thing I've ever seen on TV!