Tomorrow is International Women’s Day; with that in mind, today I’m making it my goal to highlight my favorite characters in popular culture. (This isn’t quite a definitive list for all of pop culture, since I felt it wouldn’t be necessary to mention the mainstays of pop culture heroines. There’s no need to highlight why Ellen Ripley or Hermione Granger or Wonder Woman or the Bride from Kill Bill are feminist because just about everyone has already covered those characters.) So, without a further ado, let’s take a look.
Daenerys Targaryen, Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire
*Game of Thrones/ASoIaF spoilers
Daenerys is one of the few characters on Game of Thrones who I’m truly rooting for, and I have no fear will die (*Knocks on wood*). In a way, she’s the story’s overarching lead character. The series is building up to two events: Winter finally coming and Daenerys finally trying to retake Westeros. (Whether or not she will actually succeed in this endeavor, time will only tell.) But first, she’s had to overcome some nasty misogyny.
Dany’s first season story arc has a rather feminist flavor to it. Her brother, Viserys who is a bit of an arrogant brat, marries her off to Khal Drogo in an exchange for an army. This holds with the old-world tradition of a wedding dowry, which essentially equates women to objects, to be married off in exchange for things of value. “He bought you, but he never paid for you,” Viserys says when Khal Drogo has yet to present him with an army. (This is hardly the most misogynistic thing that Viserys says.) Viserys treats his sister like an object, and he gets some of the show’s most satisfying comeuppance.
Dany, meanwhile, charms Khal Drogo. Initially, Drogo also treats her like an object, but throughout the first season we see the two grow closer, and Drogo comes to respect her more. The conflict in which Khal Drogo is mortally wounded (in the show, it happens differently in the book) involves one of Drogo’s warriors thinking that Dany has too much political power within their tribe. When he speaks out against Dany’s decision, Drogo defends her. After Khal Drogo’s death, she carries this power with her. In the course of ten episodes, she transitions from being Viserys’ bartering token to being a brave and powerful monarch.
And of course, Dany’s other notable move for power comes in Season 3 when she’s in the process of buying her army from a sexist man who makes derogatory comments about her in another language. I would describe this in greater detail, but it’s easier to link to a video of this badassery. I look forward to seeing Daenerys doing more of these badass and noble things, until she finally takes back the throne that her family once had.
(She’ll likely have another feminist story arc in season 6; the House Targaryen teaser indicates that she’ll be expected by the Dothraki will try to send her to live with all the old crones of Khalessis past. Dany will likely spend the bulk of the season convincing the Dothraki that she needs to reclaim Westeros and unite the world. I’m looking forward to this.)
Rey, Star Wars: the Force Awakens
Rey has been one of the most admirable heroines in recent years. And she’s a notably feminist and independent character. As the character Finn meets her, he notices that she is in distress, and being attacked by some goons. Before he has a chance to intervene, she fights them off herself, and rather competently. She’s had a tough existence on her scavenger-covered home planet, and she has grown tough in turn.
*Force Awakens spoilers*
Rey is very powerful in the ways of the Force, and is the first female Jedi main character in the franchise (aside from the Clone Wars series). Out of all the new characters, it certainly seems like Rey might be our main protagonist. She’s powerful, she’s badass, she’s a great lead.
And the treatment of her connection with Finn was well-done. Finn wants to pursue her in a romantic sense, and looks like an oaf doing it. (“You got a boyfriend? You got a cute boyfriend?”) They try running away, and Finn grabs her hand trying to lead her (Doctor-Who style), and she forcefully demands “Stop holding my hand!” I like when stories recognize that just because you have a male and female character, that doesn’t mean they need to be a couple.
Molly Solverson, Fargo (FX)
Fargo, both the film and the television show, have general character archetypes that recur in every story they do. There’s always a bumbling and comedic criminal (or perhaps more than one), who is juxtaposed with a psychopathic one. There’s always a catalyst for the story’s events, which is usually an everyday person who gets absorbed into criminal activity. But one character that always remains constant is the well-meaning, competent, and good-hearted police officer, who serves as a main character. In the show’s most recent entry, this was Lou. In the film, this was the famed Marge. But in the first season of the FX television show, this was Molly Solverson.
Molly, similar to her predecessor Marge, is brighter than most of the other officers. But the point where she differs is that spends most of the series trying to convince her less-competent male counterparts that the various crimes of the series are connected. This character is well-paired with Bob Odenkirik’s Chief Oswalt, who goes easy on suspects he deems to be emotionally rattled by the crimes they have witnessed, whereas Molly is more concerned with getting to the bottom of it all. The duo will approach a character who the audience knows is a criminal, and Molly will press the matter, but Oswalt will essentially let them go, because he doesn’t want to be too much of a burden. It’s an interesting dynamic; almost like a good-cop/bad-cop, but more along the lines of friendly cop/actual cop.
For the length of the series, we know that Molly is right and Chief Oswalt is wrong, and so we become attached to her. Molly is the most wholesome and appreciated characer through the series.
Just about everyone from The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra
I thought about doing this kind of thing for both Game of Thrones and Fargo – both have such a plethora of strong female characters. But the Avatar series seems to be teeming with them.
In The Last Airbender, the first character we meet is the wise-beyond-her-years and kindly compassionate Katara. Though Aang is our main character, the fact that the opening monologue of every episode is given by Katara gives a feeling that she’s the one telling the story. Not to mention, in the first season, she’s the one who teaches Aang the basics of waterbending.
The second season of Last Airbender introduces Toph. The episode which introduces her involves an earthbending competition, set up like professional wrestling. It’s a physical charade based around the silly characters that are participating… That is, until Toph enters the ring. Among all these burly male warriors, comes a small, blind girl, who doesn’t just hold her own in a fight, but wins by a landslide (pun intended).
Legend of Korra continues this trend of great female characters, most notably the titular hero, Avatar Korra. But there are plenty more; Asami, Lin, Kya… (and of course, Last Airbender villain Azula). All these women are just as impressive as any males they encounter.
A while back, I did a lengthy comparison between Avatar: The Last Airbender and Star Wars, and in this way Korra and Rey are rather similar; they both are seeming reincarnations (literal and figurative, respectively) of the previous Chosen Ones.
Jessica Jones is a Marvel Superhero that made her television debut in the recent Netflix Original series of the same name. She’s a super-powered private investigator, who is on a quest to apprehend a man from her past who is capable of mind control.
One of the enjoyable things about Jessica Jones is that she simply does not give a single fuck. Women in media tend to be portrayed as feminine princesses, but Jessica Jones is portrayed simply as a regular woman. She drinks, swears, and has extensive emotional baggage.
But the show hits the issues; this article by Cracked.com details the ways in which the relationship between Jessica and the antagonist Kilgrave is a necessary and brutally honest analog for women coping with stalkers. In this way, Jessica Jones is a powerful and progressive show. Let’s hope that it’s the first of more.
Bonus: Taylor Swift
When I first decided to write this post (a while ago) I hadn’t thought to do it about anyone other than Daenerys. As the time went on and I chipped away at this post, musician and professional clown Kanye West had lyrics on his recent album had lyrics about Taylor Swift. I’ll quote the lyric directly, because (as with any news story about Kanye) I couldn’t possibly describe it without seeming absurd.
I feel like Taylor and I might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous.
Never mind that Kanye is a married man, or that Taylor has been a star in her own right long before the infamous VMA’s incident. Not only is Kanye’s use of the word “bitch” laced with misogyny, but also, claiming that his buffoonery has made her famous is pompous. Contrary to Kanye’s claim, Swift’s PR team confirmed that Swift did not condone the lyric, (or find it amusing) and that Kanye never approached her about putting the lyric in. When Taylor received Album of the Year at the Grammy’s, she struck back with a magnificent speech.
There are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame.
But if you just focus on the work, and you don’t let those people sidetrack you, some day when you get where you’re going, you will look around and know it is you and the people who love you who put you there.
Well said, Taylor!