Editor’s Note: This article was first published in in December of 2012 as “The 5 Most Underrated Pop Culture Heroines.” It is being reprinted as part of a new weekend series at PJ Lifestyle collecting and organizing the top 50 best lists. Where will this great piece end up on the list? Reader feedback will be factored in when the PJ Lifestyle Top 50 List Collection is completed in a few months… Click here to see the top 25 so far and to advocate for your favorites in the comments.
Recently, I argued that we like heroines who act like men and so writers construct stories enabling women to physically compete. So what about the female characters that don’t act like men?
If writers don’t have a female character fight for herself and by herself, then we typically ignore them. Sometimes we ridicule them. If given the opportunity, we rewrite them. Then, we complain that there aren’t enough of them. There are many, and the comment thread on the last article mentioned a few. These are my favorite five.
5. Princess Buttercup, The Ignored Heroine
In The Princess Bride, Buttercup lives on a farm and falls in love with a quiet and dedicated farm boy. The boy, Wesley, goes off to seek his fortune so he may marry Buttercup, but his ship is attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts. Buttercup despairs for Wesley’s death. Years later, the prince of the land choses her as his bride. Powerless to refuse him, she agrees. Soon, Wesley returns and rescues her and the land.
Targeted by an evil prince for her beauty, but with no physical way to resist him — no superpowers — Buttercup relies on her courage and wits to keep the prince and his henchmen at bay until help arrives. With Wesley’s help she escapes and together they save the kingdom from a needless war. But she got rescued and does not physically fight. She engages in elegant verbal sparring, of which I’d provide a video clip, but I can’t find any of those scenes online. They aren’t popular enough that anyone thought to upload them. I’ve rarely seen Buttercup mentioned as a feminist favorite even though The Princess Bride‘s cult following rivals Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s. Strong-willed and spirited she might be, but she’s just not manly enough to merit much attention.
4. Princess Leia, The Hidden-in-Plain-Sight-and-Left-There Heroine
The anonymous twin sister of Luke Skywalker and daughter of Darth Vader, Princess Leia is a young Galactic senator dedicated to ridding the Star Wars universe of intergalactic imperialism.
Seasoned, gray-haired generals take instruction from her not because of her physical prowess or her political position, which has no more force as neither her world nor the Galactic Senate exists any longer, but because of her smarts, endurance, dedication, and sacrifice. She possesses super powers, but she doesn’t know that she has them, much less how to use them. Furthermore, while Lucas kept it vague to maintain his PG rating, the floating needle, a lovers’ kiss, a disgusting lick, and a metal bikini all hint at rites of passage or horrible violations. Lucas did not exempt her from the vulnerabilities of womanhood.
She endures and overcomes these challenges of state and sex without tapping into anything more than her own courage. Princess Leia should hold a more vaunted place in the heroine pantheon considering the iconic popularity of Star Wars. I used to think she didn’t get her due praise because Lucas did not understand her character, admitting in one of the many “making of” shows that when he was writing the final confrontation between Luke and Vader he had not yet worked out “the significance of the sister.” I’ve also suspected that Carrie Fisher playing Leia while in the bowels of heroin addiction hampered her ability to bring much power to the part by Return of the Jedi. Neither helped the character, but I think if she punched Han or sliced Jabba up rather than strangling him, we’d have more respect for her.
3. Princess Allura, The Consummate Heroine
Princess Allura, heroine of the ’80s anime Voltron, is the only surviving member of the royal house of Arus. The forces of Doom conquered her planet, killed her family, and took most of her people as slaves when she was about 8 years old. Her father’s diplomatic advisor hid her from raiding parties for years until five space explorers — all men — came looking for the mythical robot Voltron. They find the component lion ships and, at Allura’s direction, begin to defend the planet. Eventually, one of the space explorers is killed/injured (the show has a Japanese version and a sanitized American version) and Allura insists on flying the lion herself.
Undaunted by threats to her person, Allura always steps in to defend her people. But the fight isn’t easy, and Allura contends with many female vulnerabilities. While her piloting somewhat equalizes her footing with the men in the air — male strength and size isn’t decisive in a cockpit — her lack of piloting experience often creates tension with the men who she nominally leads. Since Allura is the last member of the royal family, her advisor, nanny, and people pressure her to stop flying so she can marry and produce an heir. The villain, Lotor, lusts for her from the first time he sees her and mounts incessant kidnap attempts to make her his queen. He even rapes her lookalike cousin because until he can have Allura, Romelle “will do.” (As with Star Wars, one must infer the details, but children understood that evil lurked while adults could figure out the specifics.)
Despite overcoming all of this to bring peace to her planet, she gets rescued too much for modern tastes. The boys teach her how to fight, but instead of filling the show with unrealistic escapes, the training mostly enables her to keep her head and stall until help arrives whenever she is captured. In several awful reboots of the cartoon the writers toughened her up and got rid of any amorous subplots. The shows did not last long because messing with Allura was not the only mistake the writers made, but in the Voltron fandom there is a fair amount of chatter that new Allura is more heroic than the original “wimpy” Allura.
I emphatically disagree. Original Allura is my favorite heroine, a mythical and campy mashup of Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria. If interested, I recommend the original Japanese version of the cartoon, Golion, which is available with English subtitles.
2. Bella Swan, The Heroine Feminists Were Waiting For
Bella is a plain teenager who falls in love with a good vampire, Edward. They marry and she becomes pregnant, an experience that almost kills her. Edward barely saves her, transforming her into a vampire. Once happily married with the unexpected joy of a baby, the vampire law comes after them assuming that the child is the product of a forbidden transformation. With a vampire super-ability — mental shielding — Bella thwarts the attack.
I’d be hard pressed to find a female character that feminists loathe more than Bella Swan. Yet Bella is the non-violent, compassionate, persuasive heroine feminists claim women naturally are. In the book Bella saves the land and averts violence without throwing a punch. If only for this, feminists should laud her, but instead they revile her.
They cannot forgive Bella for illustrating feminine realities they try so hard to pretend don’t exist.
Bella is a normal girl while both of her love interests have super strength. She has a superpower, but it is mental and only defensive. Bella marries before her twentieth birthday and doesn’t merely contend with the possibility of motherhood but endures a pregnancy that enhances all of the normal dangers of childbearing. In sum, the author, Stephenie Meyer, does not use her myth to obscure the differences between men and women but to highlight them.
For this offense, Bella’s feats ranging from enduring a life-threatening pregnancy to ending a brutal battle before it starts are either denied or ridiculed. Feminist screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg tried to edit Bella’s “weaknesses” away throughout the series, and in the final movie, Rosenberg changes the story so that Bella’s defensive power is not decisive, but a fight is. Sure, Rosenberg and Meyer — whom I think less of for her complicity in this edit — added the battle to provide some onscreen action, but that just makes my point: regardless of any talk of women’s better, peaceful nature, we want girls in fights.
From one of the first, and rather typical, reviews of Breaking Dawn 2: [emphasis mine]
[Bella] finally gets to do something aside from be adored, and even participates in a fight or two (in defense of her family and child, of course, but still, where Ms. Swan is concerned we’ll take what empowerment we can get). In that regard it continues the incremental upward trajectory of Bella’s character from blank, self-pitying nonentity to, you know, a person of somewhat independent thought, and this can only be a good thing. It’s just a shame that her power, when it is revealed (because here vamps mostly get a kind of X-Men-style power in addition to their regular ol’ vampire powers), is one that requires her to pretty much stand stock still and look really hard at something while death-battles are going around her.
To write a heroine feminists respect, a writer must remember: it’s only empowering if the heroine only defends herself or another woman and/or engages in hand to hand combat.
1. Buffy Summers, The Overshadowed Hero
My list of over- and under-rated heroines starts and ends with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When feminists co-opted her for the gender wars, they denied the hero who she actually is. Praise for her tough girl spunk overshadowed the themes of duty, honor, and self-sacrifice. Since the deluge of farewell articles at the series end, few write about Buffy’s honor. Instead, we cherry-pick facts to claim that she is a better role model for young girls than Bella Swan is. But she isn’t. From domesticity to damsel in distress, Buffy usually comes off worse than Bella. (I will happily discuss examples in the comments.) She fights, so we pretend she has the woman stuff down.
The first episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer were OK, somewhat dark — photography wise, not just theme wise. I remember when the show changed. Buffy came back to the library to hear Giles and Angel translating the prophecy that the Master would kill Buffy that night. From the shadows she laughed. In the next minute, Sarah Michelle Gellar rose to the role with a delivery that still gives me goosebumps: (Buffy isn’t on YouTube, so a transcript will have to do.)
Buffy: They say how he’s gonna kill me? Do you think it’ll hurt? Don’t touch me! Were you even gonna tell me?
Giles: I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to. That there was… some way around it. I…
Buffy: I’ve got a way around it. I quit!
Angel: It’s not that simple.
Buffy: I’m making it that simple! I quit! I resign, I-I’m fired, you can find someone else to stop the Master from taking over!
Giles: I’m not sure that anyone else can. All the… the signs indicate…
Buffy: The signs? READ ME THE SIGNS! TELL ME MY FORTUNE! You’re so useful sitting here with all of your books! You’re really a lot of help.
Giles: No, I don’t suppose I am.
Angel: I know this is hard.
Buffy: What do you know about this? You’re never gonna die!
Angel: You think I want anything to happen to you? Do you think I could stand it? We just gotta figure out a way…
Buffy: I already did. I quit, remember? Pay attention!
Giles: Buffy, if the Master rises…
Buffy: I don’t care! I don’t care. Giles, I’m sixteen years old. I don’t wanna die.
But too soon, confronted with grizzy deaths and vowing to give others a safer world, she put on her Homecoming dress and went to face her death. From then on, I was hooked, not because Buffy had some great girl power attitude, but because Buffy was a hero.
We’ve forgotten about heroes. We get so busy with Men vs. Women that we can’t spot Good vs. Evil.
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