One of my favorite parenting websites, Geekmom, just wrapped up Princess Week, an interesting theme for a site that focuses on raising intelligent, confident girls who enjoy and succeed at whatever they want to, especially math, science and the arts. The week’s posts, like this one by Rebecca Angel, looked at the pros and cons of the conventional princess character in pop culture and children’s literature. As expected, much of the criticism of the princess ideal focuses on negative portrayal of girls as helpless and in constant need of a male rescuer. This idea is near to my heart as the parent of a whip-smart little girl who I hope has every chance to succeed at whatever she wants to do in life, so continuing the theme I started in this post 2 weeks ago I would like to present my totally non-exhaustive and not at all authoritative list of 11 fictional female characters who set great examples for young girls to look up to. As always, these are not in any particular order, though I think #1 is where she belongs.
1. Hermione Granger
You know her from: Harry Potter books and movies
Portayed on film by: Emma Watson
Created by: J.K. Rowling
Reasons she makes this list: Hermione OWNS this list. If I could have Yosi look up to one character on this list, it would be Hermione. She is the ultimate heroine – tough but tender, talented but (mostly) unconceited, bookish but stylish, highly intelligent but generous to those who aren’t, merciful but savvy. She is the most well-rounded character in the Harry Potter book (and movie) series, and arguably the most important, as Harry would be completely hosed in almost every challenge he faces in the series without her help, though he could often get by without Ron. I like Ron, but Hermione is definitely marrying down when she ends up with him, and you have to figure sooner or later she’ll figure that out.
Reasons she could be left off this list: None come to mind.
You know her from: Lord of the Rings books and movies
Portrayed by: Miranda Otto
Created by: J.R.R. Tolkien
Reasons she makes this list: After Aragorn, Eowyn is probably my favorite character from this most esteemed fantasy series. She refuses to be relegated to “woman’s work”, and wants the opportunity to stand and defend her people. When asked what she fears most, she answers, “A Cage. To stay behind bars until use and old age accept them and all chance of valor has gone beyond recall or desire.” She’s one tough chick, yet this grit never displaces her essential femininity. And when her king (and uncle) Theodon entrusts her with leading her people to shelter instead of fighting, she shoulders the responsibility and recognizes the different kind of valor contained in this charge.
Reasons she could be left off this list: None come to mind.
3. Buffy Summers
You know her from: Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series (we do not speak of the 1992 film version. Ever.)
Portrayed by: Sarah Michelle Gellar
Created by: Joss Whedon
Reasons she’s on this list: An otherwise average high schooler entrusted with great responsibility and granted extraordinary skill, courage, and strength to meet it, this is one girl who doesn’t need rescued by the boys – she rescues the boys. Buffy is loyal, protects those she loves and those who can’t protect themselves, thinks on her feet to tackle problems (sometimes literally), and is tender and kind when she isn’t kicking demon ass. She’s not the smartest, but she’s resourceful; she’s not the most popular girl in school, but she’s confident and knows who she is.
Reasons she could be left off this list: She can be a whiny brat on occasion. She can also be a bit naive – She falls for a the bad boy (Angel), though to her credit she’s the one to break the relationship off when it becomes destructive for both of them. She also gives in to the sensitive wiles of an upperclassman her freshman year of college and sleeps with him, only to learn the hard way he didn’t really care about her. She learns from it though, and doesn’t repeat the mistake. She also sometimes dresses to, uh, kill.
4. Katniss Everdeen
You know her from: The Hunger Games book (and soon to be movie) series
Portrayed by: The role hasn’t been cast yet.
Created by: Suzanne Collins
Reasons she’s on this list: She’s tough, resourceful, and strong while still showing mercy and kindness. By now you’re noticing a trend in this list – women and girls who are confident and capable without sacrificing their generosity or grace of spirit. Katniss displays this when she is forced into a horrible situation and fights her way out of it without losing her humanity in the process. She is brave and protects those it is in her power to defend.
Reasons she could be kept off this list: Confession – I’ve only read the first book in the series so far, so I can’t say if there is anything revealed in Katniss’ character in the final two books that makes her a less than ideal role model, but based on what I know nothing is likely to disqualify her.
5. Dora the Explorer
You know her from: Dora and Diego television cartoon series
Voiced by: Kathleen Herles and Caitlin Sanchez
Created by: Chris Gifford, Valerie Walsh and Eric Weiner
Reasons she’s on this list: One of our favorite lines from Dora is when she explains that being a princess means being kind and brave and helping friends. She consistently sends the message that being friendly and loyal is more important than being pretty. She respects diversity and accepts everyone. Even when the sneaky fox Swiper repeatedly tries to sabotage her plans she doesn’t respond by fighting or being mean. She stands her ground and tells him no. She shows that it’s fun to try new things and she’s always up for an adventure.
Reasons she could be kept off this list: None.
6. Princess Leia
You know her from: Star Wars movie series
Portrayed by: Carrie Fisher
Created By: George Lucas
Reasons she’s on this list: She’s Princess freakin’ Leia. Really though, she’s the rare major movie action heroine who actually does something besides look good and swoon. She handles authority with class and dignity, standing her ground with confidence and making difficult decisions for the best of those following her. She is brave in the face of danger and competent at decidedly non-girly skills, such as piloting a speeder and picking off storm troopers with a blaster. She fights for good even when the odds are against her.
Reasons she could be kept off this list: She’s a bit cold and bossy early on in the series, but when your planet gets blown up in front of your eyes that’s probably understandable. My one major annoyance here is that when she finally let’s her hair down (literally) on Endor and becomes the classic pretty princess, her role in the action of the story is over. It seems like she’s allowed to be tough and brave or pretty and vulnerable, but not both at the same time.
7. Jo March
You know her from: Little Women book and movies
Portrayed by: Most notably Katherine Hepburn (1933) and Winona Ryder (1994)
Created by: Louisa May Alcott
Reasons she’s on this list: In a time when women were mostly expected to cook, smile at their husbands and push out babies, Jo stays true to her dream to write, and writes what she wants. Under the guidance of her liberal thinking mother (who could make another entry on this list) she grows up with the understanding that girls are just as valuable and capable as boys, and she acts on this confidence as an adult.
Reasons she could be kept off this list: She loses confidence some when she firsts starts publishing, using a male pen name and writing what she thinks publishers will accept rather than what really comes from her heart. This is a natural learning phase though, and is not really much of a discredit to her.
8. Meg Murry O’Keefe
You know her from: Most of the Kairos books by Madeleine’s L’engle, most notably the Time Quartet.
Portrayed by: N/A
Created by: Madeleine L’engle
Reasons she’s on this list: Initially Meg is the most unimpressive young woman on this list. She’s antisocial and rebellious, and she has very little self-confidence. What she has, however, is love and integrity. When her loved ones need her most, she adapts to the situation and discovers courage she didn’t know she had, courage that springs from a conviction of what is right and a hope that love will triumph over hate. She is probably the most approachable and relatable of the characters on this list. In An Acceptable Time, my favorite of L’engle’s young adult fantasies, Polly is an excellent role model for all of the same reasons.
Reasons she could be kept off this list: A stubborn streak a mile wide, though it does at times prove helpful to her.
9. Lyra Belacqua
You know her from: His Dark Materials book series (and the so-so movie of the first book, The Golden Compass.
Portrayed by: Dakota Blue Richards
Created By: Philip Pullman
Reasons she’s on this list: Wickedly resourceful, tougher than the boys in her life and brave as a bear, Lyra discovers and proves herself in the most difficult possible circumstances. Her coming of age story shows a girl who, growing up without a mother and under the harsh tutelage of her demanding father, learns the lessons of loyalty and mercy and trust in the hard knock world outside the walls of her childhood home.
Reasons she could be kept off this list: She’s stubborn, mischievous, not above bullying, and doesn’t always listen to advice even when wisdom is on its side. She’s always taken care of herself and it takes her time to learn to trust others.
10. Velma Dinkley
You know her from: Scooby-Doo television series and movies
Portrayed/voiced by: Linda Cardellini in the live action films, several different voice actors on the cartoons
Created by: Joe Ruby and Ken Spears
Reasons she’s on this list: Velma is whip-smart and has an encyclopedia for a brain, and she’s usually the one who ends up solving the mysteries for the Scooby Gang. She’s brave and operates well under pressure. She doesn’t let herself get intimidated by bad guys and never ignores a problem just becuase it will be difficult or dangerous to solve it.
Reasons she could be kept off this list: One of the things that could be taken as a positive thing – Velma is not very pretty or stylish and is somewhat pudgy, going against the grain of the conventional heroine - actually kind of bugs me, because the series seems to go out of its way to make it seem like you can be pretty or you can be smart, but you can’t be both. I like that Velma sends the message that looks aren’t everything, but do we need to perpetuate the stereotype that the brainy, bookish girls are the ones who aren’t pretty enough to be princesses?
11. Yu Shu Lien
You know her from: Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon movie (yes, there were books first, but no one outside of China has read them)
Portrayed by: Michelle Yeoh
Created by: Wang Dulu
Reasons she’s on this list: She keeps her word and takes her responsibility very seriously. She has the gentleness and self-control that only come from true confidence and strength. She is one of the most skilled martial artists in the world, yet she only uses her fighting ability as a last resort. She always seeks to find compromise and common ground, and she solves problems through diplomacy and discussion whenever possible. Even though she knows young Jen (Ziyi Zhang) is a thief, she still seeks to mentor the girl and teach her integrity.
Reasons she could be kept off this list: Giving in to a problem for both men and women in her duty-bound culture in 19th century China, she is not comfortable expressing her emotions and speaking from her heart.
A few who didn’t make the cut -
Beatrix Kiddo (Kill Bill) – She kicks ass and is awesome to watch, but she operates solely on vengeance and seems to have little regard for human life. Not a tremendously good message to send.
Juno MacGuff (Juno) – One of the great characters of modern film, Juno gets herself into a bad situation but handles it with grace, poise, courage and humor. Ultimately left her off because the themes are somewhat vague until a girl reaches adolescence, and mine is three. Disagree?
Padme Amidala (Star Wars) – Easily my favorite character from the abominable prequels, she would make it on the list if it weren’t for her inability to say no to that whiny douchebag Anakin, either emotionally or physically.
River Tam (Firefly and Serenity) – Kicks total and complete ass. Is absolutely insane. They balance each other out.
Is it strange that Jo March is the only real world girl on the list? Why do we have to look to fantasy for examples of strong, confident women? I would love to hear some of your ideas for fictional women or girls who do not live in a fantasy world but set a great example of confidence and competence. I’m sure I know of some that I’ve not thinking of, but Jo was the only one who came readily to mind.
As always, I would love to hear your thoughts, especially if you’re a parent. If you have girls, what fictional characters would you consider good examples for them? If you have boys, what are you doing to help them to see girls as being just as capable as they are, when pop culture so often sends a different message?