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Posts Tagged ‘strong female characters’

Image from Barnes & Noble

Image from Barnes & Noble

From just a glance at the popular shonen series, Fairy Tail, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that this series is one of many that marginalize its female characters to the role of pin-up manga girls rather than, say, useful members of the team. You know, the ones that serve to satisfy the need for disproportionate busts on a slim body, topped with a face featuring big, doe-like eyes who are often featured in boob or panty shots. That was my first impression upon popping open the first volume of the series, which boasts its amply breasted female protagonist, Lucy Heartfilia, on the front. While it can’t be denied that Fairy Tail‘s female characters do suffer from something I like to call “power boobs,” the series boasts an array of female characters who actually are powerful, as opposed to the many faux action girls we see in shonen and other fiction. So, what are we supposed to make of this long-running action/adventure series?

Fairy Tail centers around a group of young wizards in a fantastical world of dragons and flying cats where people can join specialty guilds, including powerful guilds for wizards who take on job requests ranging from mundane to highly dangerous for money. Right away, Fairy Tail caught my interest by choosing to start the story following Lucy, a female wizard looking for one of the most well known (and slightly infamous) guilds around, Fairy Tail. Opening with a female character is a move that seems to be fairly rare in a sea of shonen series with male protagonists. Natsu, the boy Lucy meets while looking for Fairy Tail, is arguably the real protagonist of the series, evident from the fact that he is the one to fight the main villains and is often featured front and center on the cover, but the narrative usually sweeps back to her at the start of a new arc. As the rest of the guild is introduced, the series continues to impress when Erza, an armor-wearing, sword-wielding woman who takes command even in the presence of her male teammates and is one of the strongest members of the guild, enters the picture. And unlike some series, where only one or two female characters make frequent appearances, it quickly becomes clear that Fairy Tail is a world realistically populated with both sexes.

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Image from Barnes & Noble

Unfortunately, what also becomes clear is that out of the wide cast of female characters, ranging from villains to heroes, a couple have moderate to small chest sizes (one of those characters being a little girl) while the rest are drawn with very prominent breasts(1). Of course, it’s not just that practically all of the girls have large bust lines, but also the way the series cashes in on fanservice. Lucy is often featured in super-tight tank tops showing cleavage and even a little side boob, and even Erza uses magical armor that transforms into different sets, ranging from beautiful but impractical armor showing breast and skin to outfits that were clearly made as an excuse to show Titania wearing cat ears or in a sexy goth lolita look. Many of the other powerful female guild members are also highly sexualized in battle and out such as Mira, the wickedly strong demon girl turned wizard pin-up girl, which links back to the old power boobs trend. (Lucy aspires to be a featured pin-up girl in one of the wizard magazines like Mira one day, something she makes clear from the start of the series.) Frankly, whether the character wears more conservative outfits or not, the chest always seems to be accentuated. The female members of the guild also participate in beauty contests wearing swimsuits and cheer leading outfits, just to make sure your attention is where is should be. Despite the great power and skill of the women in the series, Fairy Tail falls into the trap of putting focus on the female characters’ bodies rather than their abilities.

The emphasis on the girls’ sexuality(2) continues in reoccurring jokes throughout the series, jokes that are usually at the cost of Lucy’s dignity. In volume 17, she’s humiliated twice, once when her short skirt falls down, revealing what readers can assume is her underwear since we see her skirt around her ankles and a few male characters gawking with hearts bulging out of their eyes, and a second time when an enemy transforms herself into Lucy and lifts her top to show off Lucy’s breasts. An ongoing joke is the perverted master of the guild, an old man with an adult grandson,who constantly hits on the girls in the guild. One of the most blatant and disturbing examples of this behavior comes when the guild master uses punishment as a thinly veiled excuse to repeatedly slap Lucy’s backside. It’s all supposed to be funny, but I find it especially troubling when a girl’s humiliation or sexual harassment are made into a sexually gratifying joke for readers. Fortunately, the latter type of fan service is not as prominent in the series as the former type, but the problems still remain. No matter which kind of fanservice it is, the overwhelming amount of it in manga (and in other forms of fiction) perpetuate ideas that men should look at women as breasts and butts or objects of sexual fantasy, a problem we certainly have here in the United States.

Image from Barnes & Noble

Image from Barnes & Noble

Of course, not everything is about how the female characters look. This cast of female characters has had plenty of chances to fight on their own and to prove that they are, in fact, capable members of the team. In almost every arc that I’ve read so far (up to volume 18), the girls typically play a larger or less gendered role in fights than some of the heroines in other shonen series. Too often, female characters in other series get sidelined as healers or stuck fighting–and even losing to–nameless villains while their male counterparts defeat the top guys, if they do anything at all. In Fairy Tail, the girls tend to get their chance to show off their worth. Erza takes out, or at least weakened, some of the major enemies and even Lucy usually defeats a notable villain or two. Many of the female characters who aren’t lead ladies are pretty powerful in their own right as well.

Still, there are some problems on the battlefield, too. Despite Lucy’s power, she’s still one of the weakest, and often says so herself. In addition, some of her biggest battles in the series recently have featured her summoning a Celestial Spirit (magical beings she makes contracts with and who usually fight in her stead) who looks just like a young man. Yes, I know, Lucy has the power to summon strong beings, which isn’t something to sneeze at, but when she summons something that looks like he could be any other powerful guy, it seems like she’s calling for a knight to save her from danger rather than a magical being summoned by her own strength.

Another issues arises when comparing how the series puts its male characters in a pinch versus its female characters. Male characters such as Gray struggle with similar emotional and physical duress that their female counterparts do, in which they face despair and take extreme action that requires their teammates to go after them and talk some sense into them, only the female characters are kidnapped so far. Their capture forces the other members to go save them, putting the girls in temporary states of near-to-complete helplessness. The example that perhaps best sums up this phenomenon is during an arc involving the entire guild, when all of the main female members are held hostage in a plot to get the guild members to battle each other. The rest of the guild fight against their wishes to ensure that the girls aren’t harmed. To add insult to injury, the battle is designed to determine who is the strongest in the guild, yet the girls are completely discounted from the start (3).

Nevertheless, the girls don’t usually stay completely helpless for long. In the above scenario, the hostages aren’t rescued by one of the many guys fighting to save them, but rather Erza. In general, Erza is viewed as a huge threat by her enemies and gets some great heroic moments that rival those of any male teammate of the series’ protagonist. Similarly, despite the fact that it’s a minor mission, Lucy shows herself capable enough to go off by herself and take out a whole gang of criminals. In addition, as a commenter on one of my previous posts points out, there have been some women in influential positions such as those on the Magic Council, a group of powerful wizards with a lot of authority over the guilds and wizards of the world.

So, eighteen volumes in and Fairy Tail is a mixed bag for me as far as its female characters are concerned. It’s a fun, whimsical series, but it hasn’t risen above some classic shonen series, forcing readers to suffer a whole cast of big breasted, fanservice females who all seem to get their chance to be damsels in distress. It does, however, offer fans a number of female characters who are regularly shown to be capable in their own right. I’ll keep reading, and I’m planning on writing more about what the series does right in an upcoming post, but in the meantime, what are your thoughts on the female characters of Fairy Tail?

  1. I know that in the past, some readers have argued that attacking the sexy way in which female manga/anime characters dress reminds them of slut slamming or that it seems like I am making fun of women with large breasts so, I will state my distinction now: if a creator of a fictional female character decides to present her in a hyper sexual fashion, complete with over-emphasized breasts, I must address how that person has chosen to depict women. Rather than thinking of these characters as women choosing to present themselves a certain way, compare it to how media such as Playboy make conscious choices in the clothing, positioning, and, in all likelihood, photoshopping of female models to make them appealing to male consumers. If a real woman has large breasts or makes the decision to dress in a revealing manner, that is a different matter.
  2. To be fair, Mashima, the creator of Fairy Tail, does include fan service for his female readers as well. Most evident is one of the lead male characters, Gray, who has a habit of stripping off his shirt or even down to his underwear at random yet frequent moments of the series. I appreciate that Mashima tries to even things out, and making men the object of fan service seems to be some people’s response to “equality,” but I’m not convinced that giving men the same treatment that women get is the right answer.
  3. It should be noted that Natsu is initially excluded as well, but he is not being held hostage.
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!!Spoilers for Barrage!!

A couple of weeks ago, a series by the name of Barrage concluded in Shonen Jump. Set in a futuristic fantasy world, slum boy Astro’s life is turned upside-down when the son of the king, Prince Barrage, runs away and wants Astro, his newly found look-a-like, to take his place as prince. Astro has little choice in the matter for it is not long after the prince proposes his idea he is mysteriously killed and Astro is mistaken by royal soldiers for the lost prince. Now forced to play the part of Barrage, he is sent on a journey to save his country from aliens. This one-shot manga brought some unique elements into the Shonen Jump world, but what about the main female character?

A trend that appears to be used fairly frequently in shonen manga is the main character usually has one main female friend or ally who is supposed to be an action girl. While the intentions may be well-meant, sometimes these female characters can end up feeling like token female characters who start off with potential for being competent, but are at some point undermined and reduced to the female character who relies on her male comrades to handle things or even a damsel in distress. We’ve seen this in Naruto (Sakura), Katekyo Hitman Reborn! (Chrome), and Rurouni Kenshin (Kaoru), just to name a few.

This always disappoints me greatly when I see it. It’s annoying to see stereotypical female characters, but it’s almost harder to be presented with a female character who could have been a very interesting one only to have that potential ripped away from me and left with the same-old, same-old. I can’t help but think what could have been. In addition, it feels like this trend says that people are willing to create stronger female characters than seen in the past, but with strict limits that keep them below the male characters in terms of overall competency. Even if you are not like me and don’t care particularly about female characters, doesn’t it get boring to see the same scenario played out repeatedly? There’s only so many times one can see any plot device before he/she develops a sensor for the trend and can see it coming.

That’s why I was concerned that Barrage would fall under the same line of plotting. It very well could have gone in the atypical direction with its female character, Tiko. Tiko is introduced toward the middle of the story as a young woman seeking revenge for the death of her adoptive mother. While the aliens may be her main enemy, she’s also got her eye on the military, specifically a group that has turned traitor and joined the aliens to enslave the town she lives in. Tiko is tough and ruthless to her enemies and is fixated on revenge, but she cares deeply for her friends and loved ones. She is the type of female character who has a tragic past that gives her that sympathy aspect, but it’s played out in a way that was no different from male heroes with tough childhoods. The hero of the story meets her when she is banishing a dangerous alien from her town single-handedly.

However, things take a turn for the atypical when the corrupt faction of the military and the aliens decide to take Tiko out before she causes any more trouble. She is horribly defeated and has to be saved by Astro and his comrade. After that, Astro asks to let them take care of ridding the town of enemies. Like many other shonen manga, the action girl of the series is stepping aside to let the guys take care of things.

But Barrage doesn’t play the trend as I’ve come to expect. Unlike so many heroines in shonen manga, Tiko decides on her own that she can’t afford to sit around waiting for the guys to handle everything and goes after the guys to help. In fact, the story plays out in such a way that Astro and his comrade, Tiamat, need her help as she ends up saving Tiamat who then helps Astro. Tiko ends up taking care of things alongside the guys. But the creator, Kouhei Horikoshi, takes things further. Once she’s saved Tiamat, it looks like she’ll take the support position and act as the distraction while the guy finishes the fight. There is nothing wrong with acting as support–it can be necessary and very useful–but female characters take this role so often that it gets a little old and once again seems to limit their strength to being only support-worthy. However, in a move that broke the trend and surprised me, Tiko actually used her male comrade as the distraction and took out the enemy. Once again, Tiko took initiative, this time by coming up with a plan and successfully acting on it. The way this sequence was handled really solidified that Tiko is an equal to the guys. This is what I’ve wanted to see with so many female characters who had the same potential but were held back by the trend.

Overall, I’m very happy with how Tiko’s part played out. I thought I knew where the story was headed, but Barrage‘s creator, Kouhei Horikoshi, pleasantly surprised me. Tiko shows initiative repeatedly and is not undermined by any plot devices that often cripple other supposedly tough female characters. By giving the story a competent action girl the plot was able to go in different directions than the typical one and adds new dynamics. So, Kouhei Horikoshi, please create another manga with a female character just as active as Tiko. We need more of characters like that!

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To ring in the New Year I’m doing something a little different from my normal posts. I thought I’d end the year by shining the spotlight on some movies, books, manga, and anime that I found satisfied both my need for a good story as well as my need for awesome heroines. As I’m sure you all know, it’s not easy finding strong, realistic female characters in fiction all the time and while everything I’ve chosen may not be perfect, I’d like to give some suggestions for those of you looking for some satisfying fiction (and some non-fiction) for the coming year. I’d love to do individual posts on these suggestions in the future to further explain why I found them appealing, but for the sake of quickness, here’s the list:

Fiction Books
  • Abhorsen trilogy (by Garth Nix)
  • Fire (by Kristin Cashore)
  • Graceling (by Kristin Cashore)
  • Harry Potter series (by J.K. Rowling)
  • Moribito series (by  Nahoko Uehashi)
  • Pride & Prejudice (by Jane Austen)
  • Song of the Lioness series (by Tamora Pierce)
  • The Twelve Kingdoms series (by Fuyumi Ono)
Non-Fiction Books
  • America’s Women (by Gail Collins)
  • Elizabeth I (by Anne Somerset)
  • Enlightened Sexism (by  Susan J. Douglas)
  • The Mysterious Life of Private Thompson (by Laura Leedy Gansler)
  • When Everything Changed (by Gail Collins)
Manga
  • Nana
  • Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
  • Ouran High School Host Club
  • Paradise Kiss
  • Sailor Moon
  • Skip Beat!
  • Usagi Drop

Anime

  • Avatar: The Last Airbender
  • Beast Player Erin (streaming legally on Crunchyroll.com)
  • Cross Game
  • Library Wars
  • Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
  • The Twelve Kingdoms
  • Revolutionary Girl Utena
  • The Rose of Versailles
  • Usagi Drop

Movies

  • Elizabeth (2008)
  • Fried Green Tomatoes
  • The Heiress (1949)
  • Disney’s Mulan
  • Offside
  • Persepolis
  • True Grit (2010)
  • The Young Victoria

This list will be posted as a page labeled “Recommendations” from now on. Some of these I chose based on the thought-provoking messages dealing with gender while others simply presented strong female characters. I enjoyed (or am enjoying in the case of a couple of those on-going manga) all of the stories in the fiction I have on this list. As for the non-fiction, I listed a couple of books dealing directly with feminism and a number of books about women in history that I found inspiring. If I have done a more thorough review of something on the list, I will put a link to that review on the page (there aren’t many right now). Finally, because I’m always looking for more stories of strong women, this list will certainly grow (I’m positive I’m forgetting a ton as well). On that note, if you have any suggestions for me to look into, I’d love to hear them and will try to read/watch it when I can. I wish everyone luck in the coming year and hope you’ll continue to support Gagging on Sexism! See you in 2012!

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Warning: some spoilers for those who have not read/watched up to 6th Harry Potter book/movie!

It’s amazing, for all the stories centered about kid/teen protagonists that’s out there, how few of them have mother characters. Sure, there may be a side reference thrown in there about some deceased mother or kind mother, but how many solid, involved mother characters can you name? Disney fairy tales? Dead. The Inheritance Cycle (Eragon)? Dead. For those of you who read manga, specifically shonen manga, it was pointed out that in many major series such as Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece the mothers are either long since deceased or never even mentioned. Ok, so maybe we don’t want parents in every story we read, but this trend is reminding me a bit too much of Neverland–a bunch of kids running around without a parent in sight.

That’s where the Harry Potter series stands out for me (or at least, one of the many things that stand out for me); Harry Potter has moms and lots of them! From the normal mother to the mother who picks up a wand and fights, there are moms a plenty from the get-go. What’s more, these moms play a very active role in the story.

I think I can safely say that many of us Potter fans think of Molly Weasley, the tough, but loving mother of all those Weasley kids, when the topic of Harry Potter moms is brought to the table. Mrs. Weasley is certainly one of the main mother figures not only to Harry, but to the readers and watchers of the series. In many ways, she’s the typical mom–fretting over her kids (and Harry), sending them away with a kiss and a snack, sending them a Howler when she can’t be there herself to give them a talking to–which gives her a warm, homey and loving feeling, something that is far more important than some realize.

But Mrs. Weasley can also use that toughness and perseverance that got her through taking care of seven kids to get them through hard times. Mrs. Weasley does not sit idly by when the others start a resist against Voldemort, but actually becomes heavily involved in the Order of the Phoenix. And when Molly Weasley can, she will fight to save her children as many of us know from the famous scene in which Bellatrix Lestrange attempts to kill Ginny Weasley in a fight and Mrs. Weasley rushes forward, hurling curses, screaming, “Not my daughter, you bitch!” Don’t underestimate the fierce protectiveness of mothers.

Then there are characters who appear little or not at all until later in the series such as Narcissa Malfoy. Mrs. Malfoy is very different compared to Mrs. Weasley–prim and stiff to Mrs. Weasley’s slightly frazzled and warm–but her love for her child is no less than Molly Weasley’s. When her son Draco becomes the unlucky target of revenge on the Malfoy family from Voldemort after the failure (yet again) of Draco’s father and Narcissa’s husband, Lucius Malfoy, she snaps into action. Though the Malfoy family have supported Lord Voldemort (if only out of fear) for years and protecting her son at this point means going against Voldemort, Narcissa would break her pact with and even betray the most feared wizard in the world rather than sacrifice her son.

Finally, there’s Lily Potter, one of the most influential characters in general in the series. Yes, she’s dead and is dead from the very first page of the series, but Lily Potter is different from all those other dead moms of protagonists. Lily Potter could have saved herself, but instead sacrifices herself to save her son, Harry. Her influence doesn’t stop there though; her sacrifice and love protects Harry more than just that one time and her actions embed themselves deeply into Harry. Lily Potter represents a mother’s love and sacrifice for her child. She’s not a small side note in the story, she is at the very heart of the plot and meaning of the Harry Potter books. I also appreciate that, unlike some fiction where the male protagonist is said to take after only his father, Harry takes after both his father and mother. Furthermore, Lily Potter is not the only mother long since deceased who holds great influence over the characters of the series. Voldemort’s mother molded the life of her son in ways as well.

Mothers play a great role in the Harry Potter series and are one of the embodiments of the theme of love throughout the story. So, with the last Harry Potter movie coming out this week, go see those amazing mothers in action (and maybe bring your mother with you).

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What makes a good female character? Because I have now done several posts on potentially good female characters undermined by various factors (in my opinion), I’ve decided to try to map out what I think makes a good, solid female character. To be honest, it’s a difficult question. There may be some characters I bring up as good examples that you will disagree about, but I will try to pinpoint the actions and characteristics that bring them to a realistic and strong level.

Original book series

She accepts or ends up accepting herself for everything that she is and isn’t. 

Great example: Yoko Nakajima from The Twelve Kingdoms by Fuyumi Ono

“A young girl who is pushed beyond her limits physically, emotionally, and mentally” –Tokyopop

Yoko Nakajima is a 16-year-old honor-role student from Japan who tries to please. She tries to please her parents, her teachers, and her fellow classmates, but in the process,  isn’t really honest with herself or others. But through a series of events, Yoko is taken to another world where suddenly, she is under attack by demons and confront espionage, terror, betrayal, and herself on a harrowing journey.

Yoko’s story is a brilliant mix of action and psychological adventure. She is lost in this new, strange world and travels alone for good stretches of time where she has a lot of time to think. She’s forced to confront her fears and doubts, not to mention how she behaved previously. However, instead of letting that destroy her, Yoko becomes stronger by realizing her mistakes and not letting her fear defeat her.

The other great thing about Yoko is that despite being utterly lost in this other world, she isn’t helpless. She figures a lot out on her own and, although it’s a skill bestowed upon her, Yoko fights off the demons after her by herself.

Here’s how the author of The Twelve Kingdoms series, Fuyumi Ono says she created the story and character of Yoko Nakajima:

Many of my readers end up writing to me and they often share their personal

Anime adaptation which I also recommend

problems. I was never able to write back to them, so instead, I wrote Sea of Shadow. As for the events that befall Yoko, I feel that all people end up experiencing, to a greater or lesser extent, the kinds of mental and emotional trauma that Yoko does as they grow and establish themselves in the world. – Fuyumi Ono (Interview with Tokyopop)

She can think and decide things independent of the influence of society or other people, is intelligent, and an equal.

Great example: Elizabeth Bennet from Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen

“Do not consider me now as an elegant female, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart.” – Elizabeth Bennet

Elizabeth Bennet is her own person and not afraid to show it. She’s intelligent and witty and isn’t wholly concerned with marriage. She also “demonstrates her intelligence by acknowledging that marriage does not always bring happiness.” (College Term Paper) That’s part of what makes Elizabeth Bennet different to me compared to other heroines in romance novels, but that’s not all.

BBC adaptation which I highly recommend

Whenever I pick up a romance, whether it’s just my bad luck or a trend, the heroine rambles on about how she’s not worthy to have such a fine man, etc. While there is a point when Elizabeth realizes Mr. Darcy is a better man than what she first judged, she never wallows in feelings of inferiority. Even when they were picking at each other, it was an enjoyable banter of equal wit. Also, I appreciated that the two become friends first before it turns into a romance.

As for Darcy coming to Elizabeth’s family’s rescue, it’s a period piece written at a time when women would not have the financial power to handle that issue even if they wanted to. It just wouldn’t be realistic. Furthermore, the way Darcy handles it is not with a big ego and sense of superiority, but with love and a bit of awkwardness or embarrassment.

She plays an important role in the story (whether she’s the main character or not) and is not limited to love interest.

Great example: Hermione Granger from Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

“Just because you’ve got the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn’t mean we all have.” – Hermione Granger

Hermione is a wonderful character. She’s not the main character of the series, but she holds an important spot in the story. (Can you imagine a Harry Potter without Hermione?) She is the last of the threesome to be introduced and is initially a bit conceited when it comes to her knowledge (because, let’s face it, Hermione could beat even that computer on Jeopardy). But soon she becomes one of the group and the real brains behind the operation. She’s also the only girl in the threesome, but that doesn’t make her the weak link nor just an object of awkward flirting. Sure, there is a bit of romance later, but the romance doesn’t become the essence of Hermione and consume her completely (Look! She still has friends!).  

As Kathleen Sweeny notes in her article Supernatural Girls, “Harry Potter provides a consistent storyline of cross-gendered teamwork that is not trivialized as flirtation. Harry not only encourages Hermione’s role in the acquisition of power–he depends on her.” Depend he does. There are key things that Hermione figures out and moments when Harry may have been lost without her.

She’s human.

All three of the examples above show a sense of realism that really anchors them in my mind as complete and strong. They all have aspects everyone can relate to and/or admire. None of them are superheroes in the sense that they are supremely better in every aspect than all the other characters and certainly, none of them are the weak female character that borders on ridiculous. Each has her own personality and her character is wonderful and able to stand on its own. I’d also like to point out that her strength isn’t necessarily physical or limited to physical strength.

These are what I would probably consider some of the most important factors in strong female characters and only three examples of female characters that reach this level for me. This is obviously all just my opinion so I would love to hear what you think makes a strong female character and/or who some of your favorite female characters are.

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!!Spoiler Warning!! If you don’t like spoilers and plan to read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, don’ t read on. 

Lisbeth Salander, the main woman in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. The name has circulated like wildfire amongst book readers and pops up often in conversations about strong female characters. But rather than sparking great inspiration in me, the name Lisbeth Salander leaves me feeling cold. Of course, this is only my opinion and I have only managed to read the first book, but this is why Lisbeth Salander, despite all the hearsay, is not a strong female character in my eyes.

  1. Her chillingly cool demeanor.

Lisbeth Salander from the movie based on the book.

Lisbeth Salander has not been treated well, has a troubled and (apparently) violent past, and does not connect well with other people. She’s also a hacker and doesn’t particularly think it’s a good idea if people find out about that little secret. In short, she doesn’t let people get too close.

But her coolness toward other characters goes further than that, extending past the normal aloof character that just takes a little more time to warm up to. People often complain that female characters are too emotion, but Salander has almost a total lack of emotion and a no mercy attitude. In reviews I have read on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, this is one of the aspects that many readers link to her supposed strength as a strong female character. For me, however, it reminds me of a male archetype of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s characters: unrealistically emotionless (maybe they were trying for stoic?) and shoot-the-gun-then-asks-questions type. Actually, I felt I couldn’t connect to Lisbeth Salander as a realistic female at all. Sure, she’s supposed to have psychological issues that may play a part in her borderline sociopathic behavior, but that still doesn’t make her a strong female character. Lacking emotion is no better than having too much emotion in the strength department and the only emotion Salander shows best is anger.

2. Her reaction (or non-reaction) to a woman’s worst nightmare.

Perhaps a moment of emotional attachment was supposed to come when young Salander is taken advantage of by a guardian of hers. Since she is seen as being unable to take care of herself, especially her money, she has a guardian to keep tabs on her. Thus, when Salander’s pervious guardian passes away, the new guardian, a man, decides to force the attractive charge to perform sex tricks on him for her own money. This is shocking and has the reader on edge; how is Lisbeth going to handle this? Fall to pieces or find strength to do something about it?

Of course, she does what any woman would do; cold, hard, violent revenge and blackmail. There is seemingly no feeling over what happened besides Salander’s anger over knowing she’s been used by some sick monster. She tortures him, giving him a taste of his own sadistic nature, and thus solves the problem. But where is the empowerment in that? To me, this act does not eliminate feelings of victimization, but rather just makes Salander an angry victim. That is not strength and definitely not empowerment. Perhaps if I knew what was going on in her mind it would make me feel differently, but there is nothing given to me as a reader but hollow revenge by a hollow character.

I believe we as a society are a little confused about what makes a strong female character. There are Kill Bill types: deadly women who know how to sling a weapon and take cold revenge, but have little or no realism and, frankly, remind me of a common, Dirty Harry male character stereotype projected onto a female character. Or the Elizabeth Swan (Pirates of the Caribbean) types: tough women (either mentally, physically, or both) placed into a damsel-in-distress position who have the strength not to cry about it (whoopie), not to mention are attached to a male character in some way (who will no doubt save her). (Let’s not even get into undermining “strong female characters” by sexualization.) Neither of these are truly strong female character types. Perhaps I am the only one who sees this in this particular character, but I feel that when I look at “strong female characters,” I should not think of the man she is in love with nor of an unrealistic male stereotype, but a person, whole by herself and fully able to take care of herself whether that means living on a prairie in the wild west or saving the world.

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On my never-ending journey in search of strong women to read about, fiction hasn’t always come through for me. Sure, they exist, like some kind of beautiful, fleeting dream, but these elusive characters (borderline myths) just don’t appear as often as they should. But with the easy switch of a genre at last this starved woman is beginning to find the satisfactory story she’s been looking for. Forget fantasy, bring on the fact!

The women of history; do we really know them? We met some of them in school, of course. Queen Elizabeth I, Marie Antoinette, Mary Washington, etc., but behind the dry pages of high school’s history textbooks lie amazing, daring women with lives that play out as well as any drama or romance. But unlike Pride & Prejudice‘s Elizabeth Bennett or True Grit‘s Mattie Ross, these women were real, starring in stranger than fiction lives!

For example, remember the story of the mysterious Chinese warrior, Mulan? Based on a poem about soldiers who later realize their friend from the army is a woman, the adventurous tale was brought to most of us through Disney. The pretty young woman who doesn’t fit in takes up the guise of a man and enters the army in place of her frail father. There she eventually finds comrades, action, and after her gender is revealed, comfort in herself.

Sarah Emma Edmonds

Now meet Sarah Emma Edmonds whom I met recently in Laura Leedy Gansler’s The Mysterious Private Thompson: The Double Life of Sarah Emma Edmonds, Civil War Soldier. At seventeen, this Canadian farm girl vanished to become Frank Thompson in order to avoid her father and an arranged marriage he had planned. Unlike Disney’s Mulan, Emma was unaided as she fled to the U.S. and made her own living until the Civil War began in 1861. Out of love for this country (and perhaps a large sense of adventure), Emma joined the Second Michigan Infantry.

For a woman who loved a good tale, Sarah Emma Edmonds’ life could beat even the best adventure novel, something so full of action, cunning, close calls, friendship, and even a bit of romance that it couldn’t have been made up half as well.

"Frank Thompson"

There are good, strong fictional female characters out there, but, if you ever get a bit tired of searching for those needle in the haystack girls, don’t pass up a good chance to get acquainted with inspiring and entirely real women. So, let me leave you with a quote from Emma, who was herself inspired by a fictional heroine as a girl:

“I felt as if an angel had touched me with a live coal from off the altar. All the latent energy of my nature was aroused, and each exploit of the heroine thrilled me to my finger tips. I went home that night with the problem of my life solved. …I was emancipated! And I would never again be a slave.”  -Sarah Emma Edmonds (The Mysterious Private Thompson: The Double Life of Sarah Emma Edmonds, Civil War Soldier)

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