A discussion on Twitter inspired me to write a companion piece to Dustin Lovell’s wonderful article on the modern portrayal of women in media.
In modern media, there tends to be an obsession with ‘strong female characters.’ That’s fair enough, but these characters tend not to be rather one-dimensional. They’re typically badass- they can wield weapons, wear combat boots, are master shots, can take down men thrice their size, prefer machine guns to manicures and are generally ‘cool.’ If they have to wear nice clothes and heels for an assignment, then they’ll complain about it. They’re not like other girls. They’re one of the guys. They’ll be a love interest, but only after a badass action scene.
Apparently, liking girly things makes a woman boring or uncool. In A Cinderella Story, football player Austin is fascinated that the girl he likes enjoys eating fast food. She’s not like those other girls who like going to the mall and waving poms-poms.
Historically, women were portrayed as weak-willed damsels in distress. That’s not the complete story, as we’ve seen great characters like Elizabeth Bennett written years ago, but it was a general consensus. Instead of making women more nuanced, writers have gone to the other extreme. They’re either whiny or super perfect. There’s no inbetween.
I’ve decided to share ten fictional women who are actually well-written. Not all of them are heroic, some are a bit awful, but they’re nuanced. They’re all strong women who aren’t stereotypical badasses.
*Minor spoilers ahead*
Scarlett O’Hara, Gone With the Wind (Portrayed by Vivien Leigh in the film)
The first line of the epic Margaret Mitchell novel tells us that Scarlett O’Hara isn’t particularly beautiful, but her charm makes men forget that. We first meet Scarlett at the tender age of 16 on the eve of the American Civil War. She’s spoiled, headstrong and popular with the boys. Over the course of the book- which spans over a decade- she grows from a silly teenager to a shrewd businesswoman. Scarlett suffers a lot of heartbreak and setbacks, both during and after the war, but grows from it.
That’s not to say Scarlett is an inherently heroic person. Despite her character growth, she remains somewhat cold, uncaring and selfish. Her vices are not totally numerous, but her virtues do not overcome them either. She is balanced. She does good and does bad. Scarlett’s loyalty to her family, in spite of issues, and home, is unmatched. She does what she has to do in order to survive a post-Civil War age. In some ways, she is a deconstruction of the Southern Belle stereotype. She embodies it before pushing it away when it becomes necessary to survive.
Vivien Leigh plays her wonderfully in the hit film. Despite the film clocking in at three and a half hours, it still does not give us the full picture that the 1000+ page book gives us. Scarlett O’Hara and her love story with Rhett Butler is famous in culture. Flawed but fierce, Scarlett O’Hara is a multidimensional character. Well done Margaret Mitchell, well done.
Elle Woods, Legally Blonde (portrayed by Reese Witherspoon)
Blondes are stereotyped as fun-loving but dim. Elle Woods may be fun-loving, but she’s far from dim. When her boyfriend dumps her (‘I need a Jackie, not a Marilyn’), sorority queen Elle Woods decides to get him back. She does this by applying to, and getting into, Harvard Law. Nobody expects anything from her.
Elle Woods is a great fictional woman simply because she’s essentially the opposite of the ‘strong female lead’ that we expect. Firstly, Elle is not a physical combatant. Her talents lay in her brain. Secondly, she’s super girly. Elle loves pink, shopping, her dog, parties and manicures. Usually, female characters who subscribe to that lifestyle are the mean cheerleaders or the like. Instead, we get a character who’s like a lot of women.
Her getting into Harvard isn’t all that unrealistic. She has a 4.0 GPA, near perfect LSAT, great recommendations and a host of extracurriculars. Elle doesn’t get in because she’s the protagonist, she gets in because she would in real life. On top of that, Elle is genuinely kind and nice. Whilst the other girls at Harvard treat her cruelly, Elle is nothing but nice. She also befriends the beautician Paulette and motivates her. Another great thing about this film is Elle’s sorority. They help her study for her LSAT and are there for her no matter what, despite not understanding her.
Elle shows that kindness and femininity are nothing to be ashamed of. Being a girl is great.
Clarice Starling, The Silence of the Lambs (portrayed by Jodie Foster in the original film)
Often, female characters are written as overly-perfect with a range of unbelievable skills. Clarice Starling is a perfect example of a competent character who is not overblown. We’re introduced to Clarice when she’s about to graduate from the FBI Academy. It’s immediately made clear to the viewer that she’s an excellent student, but not unrealistically so. She’s intelligent, athletic and clearly has the aptitude.
Clarice’s humanity is what makes her so compelling. She’s disgusted by the evil that is shown to her and shows great compassion. Like many protagonists, Clarice has undergone trauma. Writers have a tendency to make their characters victims of trauma pain in that their lives have been awful. Clarice is clearly still affected by said trauma, but realistically ignores it until it’s forced out into the open. She’s vulnerable. It’s normal.
Clarice is also fundamentally a good person. She wants to fight monsters and do so without compromising her morals. She’s also willing to seek help when it comes to the case because she knows it’s needed to save lives. Her relationship with Hannibal Lecter is one of revulsion and respect. Clarice knows he’s evil, but that he’s the lesser of two evils. Morality is hard, but she believes in it.
Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Hannibal Lecter is seen as one of the best pieces of acting in recent years, but Jodie Foster still holds her own. They both rightly received an Oscar for their performances. Clarice is played in other media by Julianne Moore and Rebecca Breeds.
Margaery Tyrell, Game of Thrones (portrayed by Natalie Dormer in the series)
Game of Thrones generally suffers from a ‘not like other girls’ affliction. Arya Stark calls other girls ‘stupid.’ Talisa Maegyr disparages the other noble girls who enjoy balls and pretty dresses. That being said, there are some great women in the series. Margaery Tyrell is one such woman. We first meet Margaery when she’s just married Renly, a gay man- something that she’s perfectly aware of. It doesn’t bother her, because she’s got greater ambitions.
Margaery’s greatest asset is her emotional and social intelligence. She’s quickly able to integrate herself in any situation and is one of the few who doesn’t find herself out of depth in King’s Landing. Margaery is aware that her beauty and femininity can open doors for and she uses that. Despite this, she’s not absolutely perfect and does find herself outfoxed more than once.
Whilst a lot of her kindness is essentially PR, Margaery is capable of being very genuine. She is devoted to her family, especially her grandmother Olenna and brother Loras. Margaery also does show compassion towards Sansa Stark, who at that point is living in utter hell.
Princess Leia, Star Wars (portrayed by Carrie Fisher)
It would be remiss of me not to mention Leia Organa when talking about well-written women. She’s been a popular character ever since she debuted in 1977 and remains beloved to this day. We meet the young princess when she’s been held captive but it’s not long before we realise she’d made of sterner stuff. From the moment she’s rescued by Luke, Leia takes charge.
Whilst Leia is a dab hand with a blaster, she’s more at home behind the scenes. She’s the strategist and the brains. She was the one who hid the plans in a robot so that the Empire couldn’t get them. Leia may not be the traditional fighter in the hand-to-hand combat and shooting type, but she’s not exactly passive.
Sometimes she’s flawed. Leia can be abrasive, overly passionate and sharp. She’s also lost loved ones and her home, so of course she’s going to do anything in order to defeat the Empire. Leia is also brave, loyal and ready to match wits with Han Solo. She survives torture and never gives anything away.
Vivien Lyra Blair portrays Leia in the Star Wars show ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi.’
Amy Dunne, Gone Girl (portrayed by Rosamund Pike in the film)
Not every good character is the hero of their story and if anyone deserves praise for being a bit of a villain, it’s Amy Dunne. On the outside, Amy Dunne has a perfect life. She’s beautiful, wealthy, Ivy-League educated and seemingly happily married. Then one day, she vanishes. It seems that her husband has killed her. It’s not quite that simple.
Amy is compelling because she is very, very ahead of the curve. She knows how to make things look a certain way and what people will think. Amy is cold and manipulative, yet hides behind that sunny All-American demeanor. She has some legitimate grievances, but she’s also done some terrible things. Amy also does stumble sometimes, but she’s a legitimately intelligent sociopath.
I don’t want to spoil the story beyond Amy’s character. That being said, Rosamund Pike not getting the Oscar was a sin. There’s something about that way she plays Amy that makes her very sinister and unnerving. As a villain, she’s not super unrealistic. There are no powers or anything. Amy uses her mind. You’re more likely to meet her than Bloefeld or the Joker.
Addison Montgomery Shepherd, Grey’s Anatomy (portrayed by Kate Walsh)
If there was a prize for entrances in a TV show, Addison Montgomery Shepherd would certainly be up for it. She turns up at the end of Series One and is revealed to be Derek Shepherd’s wife. Meredith Grey, the protagonist, had been seeing him but had no clue he was married. The season ends there and one imagines you’ll feel hatred for Addison, but you could not be more wrong.
Addison proves to be a classy woman who treats Meredith well. She also owns up to the fact that it was her that really broke the marriage, though it had probably been doomed for a while. Addison is extremely intelligent, being a world-class double board-certified surgeon in OB/GYN and maternal-fetal medicine. She shows huge amounts of compassion to the women and babies she helps. Addison also becomes close friends with many of the other characters. She becomes good friends with Callie despite the pair being rather opposite.
Of course, Addison is deeply screwed up in her own way. She’s from money (her family is LOADED) but her parents weren’t the best role models. She’s excellent at what she does but is arrogant and not the best communicator. Addison’s popularity allowed her to head the six-series spin-off ‘Private Practice.’ She’s also made several appearances back on GA after officially leaving in Series 3.
Æthelflæd, The Last Kingdom (portrayed by Milly Brady in the series)
We’re slightly cheating here because Æthelflæd is based on a real person, but we’re counting her because it’s not like it’s an exact match. Æthelflæd is only a child when we first meet her, but it’s not long before she’s a grown woman. She proves to be more than a match for her famous father, showing herself to be intelligent, spirited and wise.
When her husband died in real life, Æthelflæd was named Lady of the Mercians. Women in leadership roles were extremely rare at this time, so people must have thought very highly of Æthelflæd to allow her such an honour. In the show, it’s clear why. She’s devoted to her adopted land, protects the people and gives good counsel. Æthelflæd also isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty.
She scores great victories but also suffers defeat. Her love for her family, especially her daughter, and her people is unwavering. Æthelflæd is sometimes naive, but she knows how to learn a lesson and grow from it.
Jody Mills, Supernatural (Portrayed by Kim Rhodes)
Supernatural ran for a long fifteen series and it was often criticised for its treatment of female characters. One woman who received wide praise and frequent billing was Jody Mills. We first meet Sheriff Jody Mills in series five. She’s a policewoman in a small town and she immediately shows off her credentials when she assists the protagonists with their supernatural foes. Jody proves an important ally to the Winchesters as a recurring character.
Fundamentally, Jody is capable. She’s excellent with a firearm, has a cool head and thinks logically. Whilst she prefers human cases, she’s always a good person to call. Jody has seen a lot of tragedy in her personal life but breaks out of the cycle by helping those in need. Her home is open to orphans and runaways and strays in need of security. Jody is a great friend and pseudo-mom.
You’ll always see Jody in social situations and she’s got a knack for forming friendships that the leads don’t. There’s also a maternal aspect that isn’t mocked or laughed at. That capacity for kindness is what makes Jody who she is, whether she’s in uniform or at home.
Ellen Ripley, Alien (portrayed by Sigourney Weaver)
How could we leave out sci-fi’s greatest heroine? Ellen Ripley burst onto (if you’ll pardon the pun) our screens in 1979 in Alien. Since then, the character has remained a perennial favourite and is widely regarded as one of the coolest women on screen. In the first film of the series, Ripley is part of the crew of the Nostromo, a spaceship which answers a distress signal. If you haven’t already guessed, what’s calling is not human. Ripley is already level headed as a crewmate but really shows herself off when things go bump in the night.
There’s a reason why Ripley is so popular. Not only is she competent, but she keeps a cool head and works with the situation. She may seem cold, but her pragmatism really helps save her life. Ripley is what you expect of an action heroine- not particularly feminine, surrounded by guys, yet she’s written with more depth. Aliens expands her role- she’s more prepared to take on the enemies this time. Her relationship with young survivor Newt is heartwarming. She just fundamentally wants to help.
Ripley was written as a man, but was flipped to a woman in production. Is that why she’s well-written, because she was not imagined as a woman at first? I’d argue that the character would still be cool as a man, but Weaver’s portrayal gave Ripley that extra depth. She’s one of the guys, but not in that cringe, women-hating way. She’s Ellen Ripley.