Do you remember when women weren’t portrayed as nagging sidepieces (Breaking Bad) or meaningless eye candy (every sci-fi and horror movie ever)? Okay, so women have never really gotten a fair shake in fiction, at least not to the degree and nuance of their male counterparts. But every now and then a powerful woman will show up to kick ass without bothering to take names. Here are my favorites.
Becky O’Shea (Shawna Waldron) in Little Giants
This movie came out in 1994, so I was eight years old, right in the middle of the “ew girls” phase. The story line here was way ahead of it’s time: Becky, a football player falls in love with a boy football player. To get his attention, she quits football to join the cheerleading squad, only to eventually realize she needs to be true to herself. She rejoins her teammates at the movie’s climax and…well…it’s a Disney movie so you can probably guess how it ends.
Joanna Dark (Eveline Fischer / Laurence Bouvard) in The Perfect Dark Series
Perfect Dark was a game that took everything that sucked about Goldeneye (limited weapon choices and maps, no single player melee option) and fixed it. One of the things I liked about Perfect Dark was that the game never felt like it was selling you the sex of its titular character (I mean it kind of is, look at the photo), it was just a good game with a female protagonist. I don’t remember it having a stupid love interest either.
Ava (Caity Lotz) in The Machine
Most probably haven’t seen the indie Sci-Fi movie The Machine starring Caity Lotz. I called it one of the best sci-fi films I’ve seen and I don’t regret that. It was obvious from the start that Caity Lotz put in a ton of work playing Ava, and then The Machine, an android molded from her appearance and memories. The movie, and Lotz are as stunning visually as they are emotionally.
Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) in Hanna
Anyone that knows me knows I adore Irish actress Saoirse Ronan and watching her murder her way across Europe as Hanna was a joy.
Sarah Kerrigan / Queen of Blades (Glynnis Talken Campbell / Tricia Helfer) in the Starcraft Series
Like Joanna Dark, I never got the impression that Blizzard was selling sex with Kerrigan (not in Starcraft I anyway) and while I haven’t played all the way through Heart of the Swarm yet, I’m enjoying it immensely (crappy dialogue aside).
Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) in Alias
Alias too often turned into “watch Jennifer Garner play a half naked spy,” but it was one of two shows I was deeply into during my formative years and overall the show was less about how good she looked in a tank top and more about exploring the conspiracies knotted throughout her incredibly fucked up family. Alias might have started the trend of “crazy twist the show has to bend over backwards for to fit it into the plot” that’s so common in drama series today.
I liked Sydney so much because she wasn’t a physics defying unstoppable machine (at least no more than most female action stars), she was a human being. And Alias was as much about her playing a game of mental chess with the villains as it was grabbing a pistol and some leather pants.
T’Pol (Jolene Blalock) in Star Trek: Enterprise
Blalock’s performance as T’Pol is one of the most underrated things in all of Star Trek. It’s a virtuoso in subtlety. And T’Pol’s role was interesting in a mother hen meets intrepid explorer kind of way. She was tasked to accompany the human ship Enterprise as its second in command to make sure the dumb earthers wouldn’t make a royal cock of things but she ended up having to learn as much about herself and about her own people as anything.
Blalock did an excellent job of taking T’Pol from cautious overseer to someone who, in the end, was far more Starfleet than they were Vulcan Science Academy.
Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) in Whip It
The things I like about Whip It are the same things I like about Little Giants, the lesson that little girls need not grow into whatever society thinks a woman is. It’s interesting too, to think about Ellen Page as a now out lesbian and apply that to the theme of someone in their formative years happening upon a new community and suddenly realizing that that’s where they’ve always belonged.
Bo (Anna Silk) in Lost Girl
There are a lot of reasons I love Lost Girl (Kenzi, Tamsin, The Morrigan, Dyson, Trick, Hale, Vex) and most of them aren’t Anna Silk’s Bo, but Bo is one of the most important and influential characters on TV. Bo’s character, a Succubus, is bisexual, but more than that, her bisexuality isn’t her purpose for existence. Or to put it another way, she isn’t a Bisexual Character, she is a character who happens to be bisexual.
Furthermore, her love triangle with Lauren and Dyson (pictured above) has never been portrayed as being due to Bo’s insatiability. (Rather that is attributed to her being a Succubus.) The relationship conflicts present as Bo having connections with two people, mostly monogamously, for different reasons.
Lost Girl has done a lot of things really well. It’s made a point to be more diverse in fantasy elements trekking far from British and Scandinavian mythology to Eastern Europe, indigenous North America, the Caribbean, and Africa. It features another bisexual character (who also crossdresses) in Vex, and that isn’t A Big Thing either, and most of the actors are in their late 30s and early 40s and playing 30-somethings (immortality aside).
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in The Hunger Games Series
One of the things I like about Katniss, and Jennifer Lawrence, is that at one point during an interview she outlined how she wanted to be fit, not waif-like, playing Katniss. She wanted Katniss to look like every bit the athlete she is. I personally tend to like characters that are a bit less pure, a bit darker (Johanna Mason for example) so I don’t identify terribly strongly with Katniss, but she undoubtedly raises the bar for young adult fiction.
Mystique / Raven Darkholme (Rebecca Romijn / Jennifer Lawrence) in the X-Men Movies
For starters, I liked both portrayals, both the viciousness that Rebecca Romijn provided and the depth that Jennifer Lawrence did. I don’t see Mystique as a villain, not in the way of Magneto who craves power and mutant supremacy, I see Mystique as, first a victim, and then a revolutionary. People think that Professor X, and Magneto are representative of dual approaches to activism in something like LGBT rights, but it’s really Professor X and Mystique, the diplomat, and the one who can’t afford to wait for diplomacy.
It’s easy to be patient on LGBT rights from where I live, Washington, or from the Northeast. We, by and large, have what we want, and we live in communities that tend to be fairly accepting. Mystigue is the LGBT individual in South Carolina, or Mississippi, or Ohio, a Leelah Alcorn, the person who needs justice Right Fucking Now and is going to fight for it or die trying.
Ginevra Weasley (Bonnie Wright) in the Harry Potter Series
Ginny got a raw deal in the seventh book, and a further raw deal in Rowling’s post series musings which center around her essentially shipping (or un-shipping) characters in her own work. One of the most interesting untold stories I think would be Hogwarts: Year Seven, which would follow Ginny as the leader of Dumbledore’s Army while the trio is off cavorting in the woods.
The magical properties of the number seven are hinted at throughout the series, as is the extent of Ginny’s power. We learn that her magic comes stronger than most when we see her destroy the dummy in the Room of Requirement and the power of some of her spells. A lot of Harry’s success is pure dumb luck so it would have been interesting to see her as a compliment to him, the raw power to his instincts and good fortune and also how her influences and upbringing allow her to temper and control that power in a way that Voldemort and Grindelwald couldn’t.
Havoc Bentley in Arnett Tanner Wants to Die
Yes, this is shameless self-promotion. (Buy it at the top!) Havoc is essentially a dark haired version of Survivor villain Courtney Yates, hence the picture. Her personality is part Bliss Cavendar, part Lisbeth Salander, part Claudia Donovan, though she predates two of those. She’s an incredibly intelligent and incredibly adept young woman who suffers from a debilitating lack of confidence and self-esteem.
I like the idea (truth) that not every warrior is a physical specimen, and that some don’t get into physical confrontations at all. I like Havoc’s honesty and surliness turning off virtually everyone she meets, save for Arnett Tanner, whose Holden Caulfield-esque take on life similarly turns off everyone he meets.
Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) in Star Trek: Voyager
Janeway, along with Sydney Bristow, was the other major fictional female role model of my youth. There is much debate between Kirk (the fighter) or Picard (the negotiator), but I think there’s a lot to be said for Janeway (the resourceful) being better at both aspects. Picard had the structure and the resources of Starfleet to fall back on, and Kirk never had to fight the Borg, Species 8472, or the Hirogen. (And I’d like to note here that with all he had to deal with, Sisko was perhaps Star Trek’s greatest leader.) Much like her biggest adversary, Janeway was great at adapting to changing circumstances while keeping in view the goal of eventually getting home.
My favorite Janeway moment is either her willing to go down with the ship in Year of Hell, or her final showdown with the Borg Queen in Endgame. Despite Kirk’s willingness to fight, Janeway strikes me as the most competitive, the least willing to lose.
Claudia Donovan (Allison Scagliotti) in Warehouse 13
Claudia is kind of the glue that holds the Warehouse together, the force pushing things from the byzantine era of Arthur Nielsen to the modern age of Claudia Donovan. She’s an embodiment of progressive ideals as much as she is a person and that makes some of the late series story arcs so, so on point.
Her relationship with Agent Steve Jinks produces some of the most poignant moments I’ve ever seen on TV and one that is probably the only time I’ve ever gotten emotional over a TV show. And of course, the obligatory Allison Scagliotti and Cherie Currie singing Cherry Bomb. And yes, Scagliotti can sing.
Claudia reminds me of myself in being that character that a lot of people like, but that nobody really gets.
River Tam (Summer Glau) in Firefly/Serenity
River Tam is the most powerful character in the ‘verse and…yeah that’s definitely a theme here. I think River plays into a lot of male fantasies because they can feel both protective of her and awed by her at the same time. But I think one of the more interesting things about River is the speculation of what she is, or at least what she can become as she learns to better handle her demons. The early cancellation of Firefly deprived us of a chance to see River grow in a way that she missed out on being a captive of the Alliance and Serenity really only hints at this when we see her piloting the ship in Wash’s absence at the very end.
We know who River Tam the Alliance victim is, but who is River Tam the person?
Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace / Rooney Mara) in The Millennium Series
It was always going to be Lisbeth, mostly because I am Lisbeth Slander, without the childhood trauma. Lisbeth Salander, when understood, is a perfectly charming woman who would strongly prefer that everyone in the world leave her alone. I am a perfectly charming man who sometimes goes weeks without leaving his house for anything other than work and groceries. There is probably no time I feel closer to Lisbeth than when she’s holed away on Hedeby island with Blomqvist researching Harriet’s murder. The scene, an old cottage in the middle of nowhere, the snow, a researcher and a writer barricading themselves from the world is just so…me.
One might think I’m more Blomkvist than Salander, I’m a writer, occasionally a journalist, and a man, but Blomkvist is affable, a people person (at least more than Salander), a bit of socialite, and straight. Blomkvist is a man and I get the sense that Salander has never cared about labeling herself. Blomkvist is a Neutral Good and Salander is a Chaotic Good. Blomkvist has some definition of normalcy and Salander just doesn’t give a shit. I could go on, but you get the idea by now.
As to which version I like better…I don’t have a preference. It’s a tough comparison because we only have Dragon Tattoo for Mara and I don’t speak Swedish for Rapace. If forced to make a choice I think Salander looks the part more (or at least looks more like an outcast) where Rapace gives the better performance but the distinctions are small to the point of being inconsequential. The Millennium Series in Swedish, all nine glorious hours, is probably my favorite thing on film.