Strong women are hard to find – at least, they are in movies and TV. The roles offered to women in mainstream entertainment tend to fall into an alarmingly narrow range: victim, wet dream, and killer bitch, with a long-suffering wife or girlfriend thrown occasionally into the mix. These parts are not only far from aspirational, they have little or nothing to do with the realities of the women who watch them.
Now, here’s the good news. Though they’re not easy to come by, great female characters do exist: tough, smart, funny, complicated women, who give normal girls something to shoot for, or at least allow us to indulge in some quality couch time without sacrificing our souls to the dark altar of the Chick Flick.
Here, a roundup of recent favorites.
4. Veronica Mars, Veronica Mars
Veronica Mars – the sharp, sarcastic teen detective at the center of the WB’s much-beloved (and cancelled) series by the same name – triumphed over her show’s painfully cute premise to become one of the best female characters in recent years, due in large part to a fantastic performance by Kristin Bell. The writing didn’t hurt, either; Veronica worked several startlingly dark cases, including her own date rape, but she was never portrayed as a victim, and the show’s witty, self-aware dialogue kept it from dissolving into melodrama.
3. Lee Holloway, Secretary
At first glance, a woman who lets her boss slap her around doesn’t seem like a feminist role model. As always, however, it’s the thought that counts. Lee Holloway likes to be slapped – a lot – and she won’t take no for an answer. At its heart, Secretary is a story about a girl coming to terms with her sexuality: as she enters into an S/M affair with her boss, a closeted and guilt-drenched sadist, Lee becomes ever more determined to get off in the way that suits her best, social conventions be damned. What’s not to admire in that?
2. Hayley Stark, Hard Candy
Female rage is taboo. Angry women – particularly angry women with power – threaten the existing social order so profoundly that they’re rarely tolerated in life, and almost never permitted to triumph in fiction. However, what with women being human and all, we do occasionally get a mite peeved, and many of us have a soft spot for girls who get away with murder.
For a demonstration, measure your friends’ reactions to Hayley’s gory revenge against her pedophile stalker in Hard Candy. Men, in my experience, tend to react with horror and thinly veiled pity. Women have a different reaction: a hard-edged smile, laughter, and a quietly muttered “oh, hell yeah.”
1. Starbuck, Battlestar Galactica
In the 1978 series Battlestar Galactica, Starbuck was a tough, reckless, cigar-chomping fighter pilot. In the updated remake (which enters its final season this year), Starbuck is a tough, reckless, cigar-chomping fighter pilot who also happens to be a girl. Therein lies the charm.
Kara Thrace breaks all of the unspoken rules about female characters in television. She drinks grown men under the table. She starts (and wins) fistfights. She hooks up with guys to blow off steam, and she does not stick around to cuddle. The best – and most subversive – thing about all of this is the fact that she’s never, ever defined, punished, or limited by her gender. In most shows, Starbuck would be a lone female trying to make it in a boys’ club. In Battlestar Galactica, the boys are in Starbuck’s club – and if they want to compete with her, they’ll have to catch up.
[Have any of your own favorite female characters? Let’s hear ’em!]