In the world of genre fandom, fangirls, unlike fanboys, tend to get short shrift. While fanboys have a dazzling variety of heroes to choose from, the selection for girls is painfully thin. Finding relatable heroines is even harder. While Wonder Woman and more recently Supergirl are aimed at empowering young girls to become strong women, it’s difficult to imagine these supernatural megastars facing everyday problems. Fortunately, down-to-earth female heroines do exist. Here’s a look at the some of the most relatable heroines there have ever been.
Emma Peel arrives as John Steed’s partner in The Avengers, making her the quintessential heroine for the new feminist movement of the ’60s. Clad in black leather, Emma was smart, fearless and cheeky, often engaging in witty banter with Steed. The team often called on her to rescue Steed using her martial arts skills, her expertise as driver and fencer and, not to forget, her formidable intellect. As a spy, she was a chameleon, adopting a variety of undercover disguises to conduct covert operations.
Aside from being an astute businesswoman who managed her father’s business, Emma was also a scientist who specialised in numerous fields, including chemistry. Emma’s influence on female heroines of the ’60s is enormous. Without her, there would have been no Batgirl or Agent 99.
The popularity of Star Wars changed summer movies forever and produced one of the most enduring genre heroines of all time: Princess Leia. From the moment she took charge of her own ill-planned rescue, Leia became an icon to a generation of young girls. Although she was a princess of Alderaan, she didn’t sit back and let anyone fight the rebellion for her. This princess rolled up her overflowing sleeves and got her hands dirty.
Whether facing off Moff Tarkin or Darth Vader torturing her, Leia doesn’t waste time weeping when Vader destroys her planet, not with a Death Star nipping at her heels. Leia even manages to spare some time consoling Luke Skywalker and calling out Han Solo, the world’s most loved smuggler, on his selfish behaviour. In The Empire Strikes Back, she holds the line at the doomed Hoth Base, ensuring everyone else is evacuated safely before she has to begrudgingly think of her own retreat.
Sure, Jabba the Hutt puts her in a ridiculous metal bikini in Return of the Jedi, but she strangles him with her own chain… poetic, really.
Ellen Ripley’s appearance in Aliens is the gold standard by which most fangirls, including this writer, measure all other heroines. As role models go, Ripley may be the most believable heroine of the bunch. While it’s easy to think her popularity lies in her ability to go one-on-one with the Alien Queen, it is the journey Ripley takes to their eventual confrontation that makes her so iconic.
Initially, there’s nothing about Ripley to imply her survival is more probable than anyone else in Alien. She’s an ordinary mission specialist on a glorified space tanker. She stands out because, pushed into situation after situation, each more terrifying than the last, she rises magnificently to each challenge. She does it not by possessing superpowers or ninja skills, but by solving problems and overcoming her fears to do what is necessary.
The influence of Agent Dana Scully from The X-Files was so great it led to a major increase in young women embarking on careers in science and law. Originally conceived as a sidekick to David Duchovny’s Fox Mulder, casting Gillian Anderson caused the character to evolve. Dana Scully grew into one of fandom’s greatest heroines, and evidence of her influence is in almost every genre-based show since.
When Fox was at his most outlandish, it was Dana who provided a rational counterpoint to his bizarre ideas. A medical doctor with a degree in physics, Dana mirrored the skepticism of the audience and provided reasoned explanations to the strange occurrences in each week’s episode. Capable of staring down alien assassins or ordering pizza while hands deep in someone’s entrails, Dana was the consummate professional who always respected the journey even if she didn’t agree with the conclusions.
Captain Kathryn Janeway finally broke Star Trek’s glass ceiling when she appeared on the bridge of the USS Voyager. As Star Trek’s first fully realized female captain, Janeway became an instant role model to young girls everywhere, proving a woman could be in charge without being a den mother. She was an explorer, a scientist, and a leader who could make tough decisions based on hard facts tempered with emotion.
For seven years, Janeway led her crew through the wilderness of the Delta Quadrant, operating in a situation unique to previous Trek captains. Effectively cut off from Federation space, Voyager was a ship alone, facing enemies like the Kazon, the Hirogen, and of course, the Borg. As a result, she was often forced to make morally ambiguous decisions contrary to Starfleet’s ideals. Nevertheless, Janeway never loses her integrity and eventually fulfills the promise to bring her crew home.
When Battlestar Galactica premiered in 1978, one of its most enduring characters was Starbuck, a Colonial pilot played with cocky swagger. In 2003, fans were skeptical that the casting in the remake would ever match Dirk Benedict’s portrayal. Fortunately, the new Starbuck embodied all the aspects of the old: the character was an arrogant, hard drinking, cigar chomping smart-ass who gambled and cussed with the best of them — and happened to be a woman.
At the time, the decision outraged legions of fans, but Katee Sackhoff’s magnificent portrayal soon silenced detractors and produced one of science fiction’s greatest characters. Starbuck, a.k.a. Kara Thrace not only bore the swagger of Benedict’s performance but improved on it. She was uncompromising, confrontational, and unafraid to get into a fight. But she was also capable of showing vulnerability when needed. Sackhoff took the character beyond the parameters of a crowd-pleasing scoundrel and humanized Starbuck into someone real.
There have been many live-action portrayals of Lois Lane since her introduction in 1938 as Superman’s girlfriend, but none as relatable as the Lois Lane of CW’s Smallville. This Lois was not only smart and sassy but also capable of getting herself out of trouble without help from the Man of Steel. More often than not, it is she who goes to Clark Kent’s rescue, even after becoming aware of his Kryptonian heritage.
In Smallville, Lois is a tough army brat still finding her way in the world. Her journey to becoming the Daily Planet’s star reporter is one that many young women are familiar with. She tries numerous jobs, dates the wrong boys, and has her heart broken before finding true love with Clark. Through it all, she avoids angst simply because she has no patience for it, and she goes through life with a balls-to-the-wall attitude. Smallville’s handling of Lois gave real depth to Superman’s relationship with Lois and explains why Clark would be so lost without her.