I was drifting around the web yesterday and came across a great list of favorite fictional characters. I say great because I’d agreed with most if not all of the choices. I love Tony Stark (aka Iron Man). I’m a nut for Josh Lyman, of course. Thomas Covenant is by far my favorite Fantasy literature character…
But wait! I realized as I reviewed the list that these were all MALE characters. Sure, they’re terrific, but where the heck were the women? There are some extraordinary women characters in fiction — be it literature, television, film or comic books. If the abovementioned list wasn’t going to include them, then someone else needed to…
I decided to pick up the gauntlet myself and so I’ve put together the following list. Some of these choices may seem a bit odd but I should point out ahead of your reading this list that as a child in the 60’s, there wasn’t much in the way of strong female characters in any sort of fiction. Most of them would appear strong at first glance but as their stories progressed, they inevitably ended up wanting to put aside their adventures to marry and have kids.
Come on! Yes, kids are awesome (I have one). Yes, husbands can be nice (I have one of those, too). But life is more than just being defined by such roles. These particular characters proved that in spades as I’ve traveled through the last few decades. And no, it’s not a surprise that most of them come from the realm of SF/F. If I’ve missed one – comment and I’ll add her to the list! So here, without any further ado, is my own list of top ten favorite female characters going from #10 at the top to my #1 at the end:
Dahlia Malloy – (The Ri¢hes, Dmitry Lipkin)
Traveler (aka modern day American Gypsy or Grifter), scam artist, ex-con, mother of three, wife of one really mixed up husband, Minnie Driver’s Dahlia Malloy embodies the search for good amongst the greed and gluttony of modern day ‘Buffer’ society. If you’re not familiar with the series, the Buffers are us regular folk. Commercialism is our religion. As an outsider pretending to be a Buffer, Dahlia’s journey to avoid the land mines of life takes on a clarity we often lose as we claw our way through the day. Sure, she gets seduced by the carrots dangled in front of us — but then she catches herself. Her painful self-examination of what she’s been told to want from life versus what she might really want is as
complex and complicated as our own struggles with the meaning of life. What she really craves is a little bit of truth admist the lies of modern day Buffer life. Who doesn’t?
Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley (Alien, etc.)
Not only did Sigourney Weaver’s female-action heroine herald a breakthrough for tough women, the character’s journey repeatedly explored what gender is all about when you strip away the gloss, the glam and the frills. When the first film came out, I was a freshman at Boston University. While other impressionable Freshmen seemed up in arms about a gun-toting woman as the film’s hero, I remember being confused over all the brouhaha. I didn’t get it. I did (and still) adore the fact that here was a hero who you never forgot was a woman. Her strength didn’t come from being ‘butch’, it came from being true to herself. (Director Ridley Scott’s deft use of Ripley in her underwear at the end of the film is a terrific visual allegory for this sentiment). She cared about her fellow crewmates, recognized the value of life over company greed, and most importantly, listened to her inner instincts. Sure, those qualities can be assigned to male heroes as well but not with the honesty and grace with which Ripley fought to protect her own.
Dr. Jean Grey aka Marvel Girl/Phoenix (Marvel Comics’ X-Men)
Forget the films. As much as I loved the first two, Famke Janssen’s portrayal just didn’t do anything for me. Not like the comic book series. I was still in diapers when Jean (and the X-Men series) came to life in 1963 debut but by the time I hit my teens, Marvel Girl’s role had come to the forefront. I devoured each issue that explored her struggle to do the right thing, while her powers got the better of her. Somewhere in my hormone-crazed brain was a need to identify with a fictional character who not only had red hair like myself, but more importantly, was an allegory for the mixed-up feelings that teenage-hood provides. Jean remained a favorite character of mine through undergrad college and I seem to have a distant memory of crying my eyes out when she died. It’s amazing how a fictional character can be so real in our hearts and minds, huh?
(Ace Books, David C. Smith and Richard L. Tierney , 1981 to 1983)
Yes – I know that Robert E Howard ‘originated’ the character as a gun-slinging warrior woman of Polish-Ukrainan origin in his story, The Shadow of the Vulture. Yes – I know about the Marvel comic book series. And please, don’t even mention the horrific 1985 film. Just the thought of it makes me cringe. So why is she in my top ten? The six novels penned by Smith and Tierney, that’s why. Finally, a strong warrior woman who did NOT want to put her sword down once she met the right man. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big deal today but in the early ’80’s, it was an extraordinary concept. Women want men and babies, right? Nope, and they don’t need to be men-haters either. Smith and Tierney imbued in Sonja a thirst for adventure that was gender-less. Again, not a big deal by today’s standards but in the early ’80’s? Unthinkable.
Lessa, Benden Weyrwoman of the Ruatha Reaches
(Dragonriders of Pern, Anne McCaffrey)
As a young girl, Lessa had the smarts and survival instinct to camouflage her real identity when her hold was overtaken by a tyrannical, bloodthirsty maniac. Though short-tempered, the tenacity that kept her alive as a child also fueled her drive when she leapt into the past to save her world. A dangerous undertaking that she not only survived but without ever being portrayed as a martyr. That wasn’t what she was about — there was a task to do and she did it, never giving thought to the jeopardy she placed herself in. I know some women have trouble with this series and in particular this character — some protesting her lack of attention to her son, others objecting to the way her husband had to ‘re-train’ her to not use her psychic powers to control others. I’m afraid those issues go over my head as I can’t help but be fond of this character’s drive to protect her world.
Zoe Alleyne Washburne, (Firefly/Serenity, Joss Whedon)
Besides the fact that she’s a damned good shot, I can’t help but love Zoe’s no-nonsense approach to her life as ‘office wife’ to Captain Reynolds while nurturing her real life marriage to Wash. Sure, her husband had jealousy issues at times, but Zoe clearly balanced the two without question. There’s plenty to applaud Whedon for when it comes to his treatment of women characters, but for me, Zoe is a clear demonstration of how women CAN have strong partnerships/friendships with men without jeopardizing their marriages. I also vastly enjoyed (and envied!) her ability to stay calm in dangerous situations. Cool headed with a steady head and heart. The few times she did get pissed, Zoe was a force to be reckoned with! You have to wonder how much Gina Torres brought to the role and how much was thanks to Joss Whedon’s writing.
Press Secretary/Chief-of-Staff CJ Cregg
(The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin)
Loosely based on Dee Dee Myers, the first real-life woman White House Press Secretary, CJ’s patriotism always came before politics. Or a personal life. Her character served as a moral compass, a reminder to the rest of the President’s senior advisors of why they were there in the first place: to serve their country, not play proverbial football with the DNC/GOP’s eternal battle of wits. Smart, funny, sure. But it was CJ’s struggles to be heard admist the all-male inner circle without selling out her own core beliefs that made me admire her the most. Been there, done that and yes — struggle is definitely the word to reach for. I know there’s an element out there that thinks Sorkin wrote demeaning women. I’m afraid I’m not one of them — I stood in CJ’s shoes when I was an exec in the entertainment industry. One woman in a room of male suits is not easily taken serious. Allison Janney’s complex performance as CJ demonstrates how a woman can maintain her identity while succeeding at the highest and most competitive levels. But please, don’t think she was a saint. CJ could banter with the best of them — especially Josh Lyman. My favorite bit:
Josh Lyman: You know what, CJ? I really think I’m the best judge of what I mean, you paranoid Berkeley shiksa feminista… Wow, that was way too far.
C.J. Cregg: No. No. Well, I’ve got a staff meeting to go to and so do you, you elitist, Harvard, fascist, missed-the-dean’s-list-two-semesters-in-a-row Yankee jackass.
Josh Lyman: Feel better getting that off your chest there, C.J.?
C.J. Cregg: I’m a whole new woman.
Teenage Sleuth Veronica Mars (Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas)
When I first scratched out this list, a friend asked me why Veronica Mars made the top 10 but Buffy didn’t. I had two very specific reasons:
1) Buffy used her special powers, Veronica used her brain. Sure, they both had sharp tongues but while Buffy’s banter came out of a sense of bravado and superiority, Veronica’s insights provided genuine social commentary. While Buffy fought physical demons, Veronica fought not only her own personal demons but those of her classmates as well. She’d stop at nothing to get at the truth, not even caring if it affected how others perceived her.
2) Buffy whined. Veronica got even. When things got tough for Buffy, she’d sit around and moan about it. Veronica fueled her anger toward the elitist hateful peers in her school into working with her father at his private detective agency…
And yeah, the third reason I adore Veronica is the collaborative relationship she had with her dad. She ‘got’ how important her father was to her and no line said it better than when she compared her dad (Keith) to her absent drunk mom:
Keith: It’s just that I never want you to think your mom’s the villain in all this.
Veronica: Isn’t she?
Keith: No, it’s not that simple.
Veronica: Yeah, it is. The hero is the one that stays and the villain is the one that splits.
Keith: I don’t think that’s a healthy perspective.
Veronica: It’s healthier than me pining away everyday, praying she’ll come home.
Marguerida Alton (Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series)
The Darkover series is filled with strong women (Magda Lorne, Camilla n’ha Kyria, Cleindori Ardais) but the one that stands out the most for me is Marguerida. Though born on Darkover, she’s the classic ‘outsider’ as she spent most of her time off-planet unaware of her real heritage and her psychic powers. Thrust back into Darkoven society, she struggles to balance what she knows from her life amongst Terran intellects with the more tenuous facts of Darkover — a planet that relies on realms beyond the classic 5 senses. Alot of times, her temper gets the better of her and that in itself makes her more real. And therefore easy to relate to. I’ll admit that part of the reason I appreciate her character so strongly is because her father (Lew Alton) is my all time favorite Darkoven. Plus, she’s a redhead (hey, we take our role models where we can get them!). But that said, Marguerida’s stubbornness combined with her efforts to merge what’s best of both Terra and Darkover, makes her a repeatedly fascinating character for me. If you haven’t seen a pattern here yet, I’ll spell it out: I like stubborn, strong women who make up their own minds in their own time and place. (Side note: It’s too bad that as she grew old in the later novels, she became more placid).
And My #1 Favorite Fictional Female:
Lieutenant Commander Jadzia Dax (Star Trek: Deep Space 9)
Don’t everyone scream at once. If you’ve got a different choice for who you think is the best female fiction character, go make your own list. My reasons for Jadzia are as varied as her eight lives of experience. What a great concept for an alien. She’s experience so much as a joined Trill yet still takes delight in discovery, romantic pursuits, and most importantly, in friendship. Played by Terry Farrell,
the character took as much relish from a scientific anomaly as she did from defending her Klingon warrior friends while overtaking the Albino’s fortress. She had a ferocious appetite for life. A relaxed sense of humor. But it was her obvious sense of joy over new discoveries that I enjoyed about her the best. That and her fierce loyalty to her friends. Plus hey, marrying a Klingon is kinda cool, but no, becoming ‘Mrs. Worf’ didn’t subdue her. If anything, Jadzia became even feister once she married, taking great relish in arguing with her husband.
Nashara from Tobias Buckell’s Ragamuffin
Abigail Bartlet from Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing
Killashandra Rhee from Anne McCaffrey’s Crystal Singer series
Friday from Robert Heinlein’s Friday (WHY hasn’t this been made into a film or tv series?)
Fred/Illyria from Joss Whedon’s Angel
Agent 355 from Brian Vaughn’s most excellent comic series: Y, Last Man
Dr. Temperance Brennan from Hart Hanson’s Bones (“Just because I have breasts doesn’t mean I have magical powers over infants.”)
Sarah Connor from the Sarah Connor Chronicles (A much more believable woman character than the films)
Det. Grace Hanadarko from Saving Grace with Holly Hunter (Talk about a tormented
character in need of redemption! Move over Starbuck)
Starbuck, President Roslin from the reimagined Battlestar Galactica
Leta from the Tom Baker version of Dr Who
Valeria, Queen of the Thieves from the 1st Conan film(written by Oliver Stone — what a great line: “Do you want to live forever?”)