My top 4 inspirational female characters

Guest post by Pemcat
Zoe Alleyne Washburne Firefly Bookmark
Zoe Alleyne Washburne Firefly Bookmark

Growing up, many of the women I found whilst reading or watching movies seemed to follow a certain pattern.

The woman character was beautiful, and that defined the way that others related to her. She followed the rules, and she didn’t create a fuss. Perhaps her main function was to give the hero something to aspire to, or to add a little light relief. She was graceful and dignified. Whatever else you might say about her, she often wasn’t the main protagonist in her own story.

A lot of these attributes are awesome things that women (and men) can be, but they aren’t the only things that we can be. Certainly they aren’t adjectives that I easily identify with. Beautiful and graceful? Give me smart and sassy any day. Follow the rules without making a fuss? I’d rather be helping to create a culture where the rules make sense and are helpful — and that might mean they need changing.

I wanted to take a minute to appreciate some of the fictional women I grew up with whose creators dared to make them different. The ones that I could relate to. The bad-ass women who didn’t just let life happen to them — they happened right back to life…

1. Major Samantha Carter

(Stargate SG-1)

For sure Sam is top of my list. Sam was a female scientist at a time when I was taking science and maths classes with mostly male peers. She is smarter by miles than any of the men around her, and highly respected for it. She solves problems and has brilliant ideas. Oh, and with her military training she could kick your ass for sure. Part of what I loved about Sam was that although there is no denying that Amanda Tapping is a beautiful woman, it was never ever the focal point of Sam’s character. It just didn’t matter.

2. Alanna of Trebond

(Song of the Lioness, Tamora Pierce)

Alanna is a girl who decides that she wants to be a knight. As this isn’t allowed, she disguises herself as a boy for the entirety of her training, dealing with issues like breasts that start growing, periods and contraception at the same time as learning how to shoot arrows and fight with a sword. She also can kick your ass. I’m grateful that I live in a world where I don’t have to pretend to be a boy to follow my chosen male dominated career, but I still admire Alanna.

3. Zoe Washburne


Zoe is the perfect example of a woman who been able to retain the traditional female value of “family first” (one that my husband and I both hold) whilst still being able to (I’m spotting a pattern here) kick your ass and have a career that matters to her. She’s definitely smart and sassy, and I love the dynamic between her and Wash (don’t talk to me about the movie, that didn’t happen). Again, Gina Torres is a beautiful lady, and again, that’s not the damn point.

4. Hermione Granger

(Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling)

Hermione of the “bushy hair” may well be the most all-out competent woman on this list. The brightest, most dedicated student in the books, she saves the day on countless occasions. Although she is obviously astoundingly clever, it’s made clear that her hard work is of equal value. She’s emotionally astute as well, and kind, and caring, and idealistic. Hermione doesn’t compromise. She may or may not be able to kick your ass, but she could certainly hex it into oblivion.

I have a lot of love for women like Elizabeth Bennett, Anne Shirley, and Jo March who are absolutely themselves and make their own decisions whilst following more traditionally female paths (marriage, teaching and writing/child rearing respectively). But we need more female scientists, warriors and lawyers in our collective consciousness, and I’m fiercely grateful that these women were ahead of the curve and around when I was a teenager.

At least I know that if I ever find myself short of inspirational women in the fictional world, I won’t ever have to look too far or too hard to find them in the real one. On that note, I’m so excited that the first woman to ever do so (Maryam Mirzakhani) recently won a Fields medal (basically the maths equivalent of the Nobel prize). We live in interesting and amazing times.

Who are the bad-ass women from literature and films that inspire you?

Comments on My top 4 inspirational female characters

    • Not to mention that basically every show since 2000 that features kick ass women (Battlestar Galactica, Once Upon A Time, Caprica, Arrow, Supernatural, the list goes on) has a writer or producer who once worked for a Whedon show. It’s like he’s this beautiful puppet master making Hollywood better….

  1. Jacky from the “Bloody Jack” series of books (which I HIGHLY recommend listening to on audio) is a bit of a fire cracker as well. While sometimes a bit full of herself, and sometimes edging almost into Mary Sue territory, I find her to be a lot of fun. The first book is her as a girl of about 12, disguising herself as a boy to join a Royal Navy ship as a ship’s boy in order to escape a life of urchin-dom on the mean streets of Cheapside London.


    …*ahem*…I mean. Yes. I too love Sam Carter very much as she was also an important, fictional, role model for me in my youth. So glad to see her on somebody else's list!

    • YES YES YES! We are currently re-watching Voyager on Netflix and I cannot tell you how many times I’m all “Janeway is a bad-ass!” She’s an inspiration leader, she’s brilliant, she has a sense of humor, and she’s protective of her crew. She’s also pretty, but those other things are much more a part of the story line. I love her.

  3. I am so glad you mentioned Alanna! I absolutely LOVE Tamora Pierce. She writes such incredibly beautiful and complex worlds, and populates them with REAL, STRONG women. I haven’t heard anything about Tamora in years, so it was wonderful to see someone mention them with as much love as I have! I will definitely be handing her books off to my future daughter. πŸ™‚

    • I adore Tamora Pierce so much. Daine was another one of my favorite characters. Plus everyone in her Circle of Magic series! Tris, Sandry, and Daja are all incredible characters.

      • Yeah, I know! I figured making the list ten people long and including all the heroines of all the Tamora Pierce books wouldn’t be very interesting. Daine’s probably my personal favourite (The Immortals quartet was the first set of Tamora Pierce books that I read), but I thought in the context of this list it probably had to be Alanna.
        Pierce is great for including a diverse range of characters (gender, race, sexuality) without it feeling (to me, at least), like tokenism.

      • And Keledry of Mindelan! Kel’s books are what got my sister into reading, because she finally had a character like her. Grades went way up, she graduates uni at the end of the year and is going to teach in rural areas. I’m so incredibly proud of her.

      • May I also suggest reading the Kathy Reichs books that “Bones” is based on? I read her first book and thought, “that’s pretty out there – that the character would be a forensic anthropologist at colleges in both North Carolina and Quebec”…. and then discovered that the author herself IS a forensic anthropologist at colleges in both North Carolina and Quebec. Great mysteries and a strong woman protagonist.

    • Starting in about S3 when the character starts to really develop a little more, I’m TOTALLY on board with Bones! (also, in the States, S10 premiers tonight. EXCITED)

  4. My childhood favorites include Agent Dana Scully from The X-Files and Dr. Crusher from Star Trek:TNG. I still love those characters though I finally gave up on trying to be a redhead :/ BUT I did get a science degree! My other sci-fi favorites are Ripley from the Alien series, and Saavik from Star Trek. For more contemporary works, Dolores Claiborne because she was such a strong and realistic character. Oh and Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. Okay I’m done now! πŸ™‚

  5. Alanna – I stayed up late reading those books.

    I got my husband to read them. He immediately says: I see why you like her. I’ve certainly got her temper and determination.

    Working hard to improve herself, not just a natural talent.

    P.S. Tamora followed that up with Protector of the Small (and several others) about Kel – the first ‘real’ female knight after Alanna (not aided by the gods and all that).

  6. I only said to my coworker today that what I found refreshing about SG1 (I’ve been binge-watching on Netflix) was that none of the actors seem to be there because of their looks. I mean yes, they are all symmetrically-faced, attractive people (like most people on the box, I guess) but as you say, it’s just never the point. I also love the fact that the main cast are all in their 30s and 40s (realistic considering their rank) and they wear clothing that’s actually appropriate for their characters (bulky, practical military garb!) rather than clothes designed to blatantly showcase their cleavage/pecs/abs, etc. Great list.

  7. Miss Englantine Price of “Bedknobs and Broomsticks“. An independent witch who lived by the sea, had silly adventures, and scared the hell out of Nazis. Her adventures were just as silly in the novellas the movie was loosely adapted from, but I’ve always liked that Miss Price was an older woman with a sense of self and purpose. She was also the real protagonist.

  8. As a kid who was raised in a Trekkie household, I loved Jadzia Dax. She was smart, level-headed, a scientist, and was confident in who she was and what she liked even when others scoffed (e.g., dating all kinds of odd people like a guy with a transparent skull, embracing the Klingon culture and marrying one, etc). Gave me confidence in high school that it was okay to be smart, and it was okay to like things that peers didn’t consider “cool” – like Star Trek. πŸ™‚

  9. I think Buffy is a good example – anything about her that makes me hesitate a little can pretty much be attributed to youth rather than a lack of strength. I love the way her ultimate way to save the world was to *share* her power.

    I’m going to say Princess Leia as well. She very much did kick ass and take names – and in the books, she continues to make some very hard decisions and be a great leader for her people. Being a wife and mother is incredibly important to her, but it never defines her.

    And while I’m on the books, Mara Jade! I love how she never lost herself or her edge no matter what life threw at her – and it would have been very easy to change her entirely once she was paired with Luke, but that never happened.

    And in books, Kahlan Amnell from the The Sword of Truth series – riding naked into battle in the snow just to freak your opponents out? That’s badass!

    • AHAH! I was just scanning down to check no one else said Kahlan Amnell before I did. She is exactly what I think of when I think strong, independent women. She is beautiful but not defined by it, strong but not afraid to show her emotions, in love but not desperate, caring but not frail. Incredible!

  10. As a preteen/young teen I was inspired by the character Claire Kincaid from (what is now) old school Law & Order. She seemed intelligent and well-spoken. She’s also hard working and not afraid to excel at her job. Her 1990s styling looks awful today, and someone might say that the producers did the beautiful actress who played Claire a bit of an injustice with the character’s shapeless tops and below-the-knee skirts (I’ve read critiques that have said the producers may have downplayed the character’s beauty in favor of her intelligence. Later female characters were both intelligent and well-dressed). But as a 9th grader, I thought she was the height of beauty and poise.

    More recently, I became unabashedly obsessed with Delenn from Babylon 5 (and I love everyone else’s SF ladies!!). She possesses emotional intelligence, poise, and strength. She really inspires me because she commands respect from everyone. Thinking “What would Delenn do?” is actually pretty useful because I know that she would take some deep breaths, stand up exceedingly straight, and command the attention that she deserves. This is something I need to do more of, which I think is why I like her so much. Fans of Babylon 5 will know that she also has some bad-ass scenes.

    • Alanna was my first lady knight so I’ll always adore her, but I freaking LOVE Kel – she had so many challenges going through her knight training as a young woman that Alanna never faced, and she wasn’t aided by the gods or even gifted with magic. She feels more “real”.

      I also loved having her become a commander rather than the sort of knight Alanna became, who goes on great adventures (mostly) alone.

  11. I am enjoying Lt. Abby Mills from Sleepy Hollow. I like seeing a female lead who doesn’t fall in love with her male partner. That being said, I will always love Scully.

  12. Also while Zoe is undeniably awesome, I’ll always have a big soft spot for Kaylee- showin’ us all that you can totally be a hyper-competent spaceship mechanic AND wear a frilly pink dress sometimes.

    • Kaylee was always my role model on that show, perhaps because in reality I’d be the most like her if I was “doing crime.” Even though Zoe is endless amounts of awesome.

      • Can we take a moment to talk about Inara? The girl embodies true comfort and ownership over her own sexuallity. The whole concept of the “registered companion” is a really facinating utopian verson of the sex trade, and it always struck me as one of the most interesting feminist aspects of Firefly. She is so comfortable with her self and her body, and she is very much in charge of it. In this world, it’s the women who make the rules about selling sex, and that is made very clear in my favorite episode, Shindig. She may not be the strongest warrior on the show, but she exudes a kind of strength that is so unique and tied up in her womanhood. Always a huge role model for me, and after reading the first issue of the Serenity graphic novel series, I am so excited to catch up with the crew and continue the story!!!!

  13. When my partner showed me Avatar: Legend of Korra, I was amazed that, out of the top four most interesting characters in the series, three of them were women, and two were older (50+) characters.

    My most favourite is Asami Sato. From her first appearance, she looks like a cashed-up daddy’s girl who’s almost certainly going to be Korra’s romantic foil. However, almost immediately, she proves herself to be a loyal friend to Korra, a capable warrior (even without the bending powers the other characters have), and just an all-round kick-ass woman WHO WEARS MAKE-UP! I love that this girl is incredibly feminine, and that doesn’t detract one jot from her ability to protect herself and her friends.

    • This is a good point. I enjoy action movies/tv/books as escapist fantasy, but it can be problematic when violence or the ability to physically overpower another person is equated with strength of character.

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