The phrase “strong female character” is problematic. Oh, so problematic. It’s a phrase used mainly by guys, first of all, generally by guys who think referring to women as “females” is somehow a more scientific and precise nomenclature, as if the women in their lives are an alien species that must be studied. The phrase also implies that a “strong” female character is an anomaly, in the same we might describe Spock as a “pointy-eared male.”
This mindset often bleeds over into the depictions of strong women in books, film, and TV; instead of being believable as, well, women, they’re often basically men described with different pronouns, with all femininity removed—because the author believes that femininity is weak, and therefore the only way a women can be strong is to ditch all the girly stuff. There are, of course, exceptions, and more of them every day, as we celebrate books by more authors, male and female, who truly “get” that strength in a character doesn’t necessarily mean masculine traits. Here are 12 kick-ass women from sci-fi and fantasy who are the best kind of strong—their own.
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Buffy Summers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, by Joss Whedon
What makes Buffy special aren’t her superpowers or her fighting abilities, it’s the way she accepts her role as a Slayer without fanfare, and doesn’t let it impede her sense of herself as a well-rounded person. Too many “strong” female characters are presented as one-note killing machines or gruff, unfeeling robots. Buffy wants to date, she wants to shop, and she wants to kick evil’s ass. The character’s nuance has, from the very beginning, made her a much more believable human being, while also making her butt-kicking skills even more impressive—and the fact that she totally bucks the patriarchy while appreciating the good men who support her just underscores what a great character she is.
Dana Scully, The X Files, by Chris Carter
Often being a strong women in SFF is taken very literally. Dana Scully, on the other hand, never once lifts a car over her head or unleashes a roundhouse kick on a dozen ninja assassins, yet she’s one of the strongest and most intimidating female presences in any SFF universe—because she’s brilliant and confident, the sort who is routinely certain that she’s not only the person in charge of every room she walks in to, but also probably the smartest person in said room.
Hermione Granger, Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling
Hermione Granger is another brainy girl who doesn’t have any problems being brainy, and another woman who shows her strength through courage, persistence, and loyalty to her friends rather than via super-strength, body armor, or unnatural abilities with a katana (although she is quite badass with a wand). What makes Hermione a wonderful character in general is how well she knows herself and how she makes no apologies for who she is or how she approaches things, making her evolution throughout the series a pleasure to witness.
Meg Murry, A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
Meg Murry has no weapons, no special training, no superpowers, and no gadgets. And yet she is unquestionably the hero of L’Engle’s classic book—and also unquestionably a 13-year old girl. Meg’s insecurity and awkwardness don’t make her weak, they make her human, and that’s part of what makes her an amazing character. The other part is that while she uses her brains and good sense frequently, she also achieves incredible things because of her emotions, a wonderful touch when “strong woman” often means a woman who shows no emotions whatsoever.
River Song, Doctor Who
Whereas the (frequently, but not always, female) companions of the Doctor on this classic series are variably capable and strong, River Song is flat-out incredible, and every bit the Doctor’s equal. Born to companion [spoiler redacted], she is kidnapped as a baby, brainwashed and raised to be an assassin. She then meets and falls in love with the Doctor, despite living her timeline in a different direction, so that she knows him less and he knows her more as they progress. (It makes snese as long as you stop trying to make it make sense.) Through it all, she’s hilarious, quick with a gun or a punch, emotional, and always a woman.
Princess Leia Organa, Star Wars
Sure, she’s a princess. Sure, she has a hairstyle that obviously requires the aid of multiple servants to get right. But across the ever-expanding Star Wars universe, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a stronger character than Leia Organa (regrettable slave bikini aside). She tells Darth Vader where he can stick it, she witnesses the destruction of her entire planet, she undergoes torture, and has the bad/good luck to fall in love with Han Solo and then unknowingly kiss her own brother to make him jealous. She’s always a woman and she’s always a force to be reckoned with (see what we did there), and those two aspects of her personality are never once hinted to be mutually exclusive. Runner-up: Rey, who is probably not Leia’s daughter, but is definitely going to inherit the her title as “Empowering Woman in Star Wars.” (We’ve also got high hopes for Rogue One’s Jyn Erso.)
Sansa Stark, A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin
When it comes to A Song of Ice and Fire (and the TV adaptation), the women most often name-checked as well-rounded badasses and/or sympathetic-yet-monstrous villains (no guesses which is which) are Daenerys and Cersei—for perfectly sound reasons. But while Dani keeps shouting about fire and blood and Cersei goes slowly insane as her family withers around her, Sansa Stark has quietly become one of the most intriguing characters in the books and on the show. A survivor of horrific torture, Sansa was once an innocent and somewhat silly girl, but she’s emerged as not only a savvy political operator well aware of her value as a Stark, but a woman who has held onto her humanity and her empathetic nature against all odds.
Alana, Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Saga remains one of the best sci-fi stories bubbling under the pop culture radar, and Alana is one of the best examples of a modern strong female character. A mother and a fighter all in one, she’s not man with feminine pronouns and she’s not a winsome little girl with unbelievable fighting kung fu bolted on via word magic. She’s a living, breathing person fighting for her life, her family, and for the very simple right to choose her own life. Someday they’re going to make an incredible adaptation of these books, and the casting of Alana is going to be interesting.
Chrisjen Avasarala and Bobbie Draper, Caliban’s War, by James S.A. Corey
James S.A. Corey’s space opera saga The Expanse has no shortage of awesome women, but the series’ second novel strikes a particularly deep vein with the duo of Chrisjen Avasarala, a foul-mouthed U.N. official who uses her political cunning to install herself as a key player in galactic events, and Bobbie Draper, a hulking space marine with survivor’s guilt, who becomes Avasarala’s most trusted instrument. The former is doubly memorable, as she’s also a fully mature woman who takes the occasional “grandma” crack in stride (she does have grandkids, after all, whom she adores almost as much as her affable husband, who sits at home while she’s off saving the world) as she wields her influence and shrewd mind with the force of, well, Bobbie Draper’s exo-armor-enhanced strength. Bobbie looks, on the surface, like the cliché of the masculine female soldier, but alongside her imposing frame and undeniable combat skills, she’s granted a nuanced emotional life, allowed to both suffer the consequences of the very real trauma she endures, and find the inner strength to rise above them.
Nyx, God’s War, by Kameron Hurley
We could slot in just about any Kameron Hurley protagonist here, but we’d be remiss not to mention Nyxnissa so Dasheem. She is a Bel Dame, a licensed bounty hunter who cuts off heads on behalf of her government on the ravaged, war-torn colony world Umayma. She’s a veteran of the front lines in the planet’s never-ending Holy War. Her body has been destroyed and rebuilt so many times, she’s not even sure if she’s still human. And she has not an ounce of compassion for you or anyone else. (That’s her there, up top. That bundle she’s holding? Yeah, it’s a severed head.) Hurley’s brutal Bel Dame trilogy is filled with brittle, fascinating, alienating characters, none more so than Nyx, who is a self-destructive madwoman who cleaves to no principals other than her own self-interest, and God help you if you make the unfortunate decision to become her ally, because it’s probably not going to turn out well. She is perhaps the fiercest female character in all of genre fiction, unapologetically vicious, shaped into a monster by a remorseless society and a heartless world—and her most dangerous opponents tend to be her fellow Bel Dames, women enhanced with strange, bug-based tech that gives them powers akin to magic.
Tan-Tan, Midnight Robber, by Nalo Hopkinson
When her father commits an unforgivable sin, Tan-Tan is banished along with him to the alien world of New Half-Way Tree, where the castoffs of a technologically advanced future Earth must eke out a primitive kind of survival among a strange alien race. Brutalized by her father, Tan-Tan kills him in self-defense, and flees into the forests, where she must contend with hardship, integrate herself into an alien society, and plan her revenge against those responsible for her situation. By the time she takes on the mantle of the Midnight Robber, a Robin Hood-like character who takes from the rich, Tan-Tan has hardened herself to the point she’s hardly recognizable. Hopkinson’s novel is a painful, ultimately triumphant look at the terrible reservoirs of strength it takes for an abused, controlled girl to emerge from the shadows of her past as her own strong, independent woman.
This list is by no means all-inclusive. Who would you add?