What makes a strong female character? Is it the way they use their specially honed skills to challenge the status quo? Or is it how they can put a male lead in his place with one well-timed quip?
Whether they can wield a sword, a pen, or sarcasm, these impressive female characters are strong role models for audiences of any gender.
Although America Chavez is the first Latina superhero in the Marvel universe (not to mention one of the highest-profile LGBTQIA+ heroes in said universe), that’s not the only part of her character that makes her amazing. She’s literally bulletproof, she can fly, and she has superhuman strength and speed.
She first appeared in the Marvel comics in 2011 and in the 2022 MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) film Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, where she was played by Xochitl Gomez.
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Anne (don’t forget the “E”) Shirley from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel Anne of Green Gables doesn’t take “No” for an answer.
Sure, she’s an awkward red-haired orphan who wasn’t the boy her adoptive parents were waiting for, but Anne gets herself a family, friends, and a home regardless. The cutest boy in town has a crush on her, but rather than swoon like her fellow female students, she smashes her slate over his head (don’t call her “Carrots”).
Although she is the youngest Stark sister on the HBO show Game of Thrones (and George R. R. Martin’s novel series A Game of Thrones), Arya Stark was never really a child.
She was driven by revenge and her skill with the blade — both of which lent nicely to her impressive list of assassinations — to become one of the most intriguing characters on Game of Thrones, male or female alike.
Played by Maisie Williams over the show’s eight-season run, Arya quickly became (and remained) an audience favorite. She’s got the words we all wish we could conjure in the face of adversity (or in her case, the God of Death): “Not today.”
In The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Starr Carter starts out as a mild-mannered Black teenager who’d just as soon mind her own business. Her world changes when she witnesses the murder of her best friend, Khalil, by a police officer.
Where others have weapons, she is armed only with the truth — Starr must speak up about what she witnessed before the world writes a new narrative about Khalil’s death.
Played by Amandla Stenberg in the 2018 film adaptation, Starr soon realizes that she cannot remain quiet, as peace is an illusion for her and the members of her community. Injustice — and hate — will keep occurring if people like Starr don’t speak up.
Starr’s strength comes not only in her journey toward community leadership and racial justice, but in her ability to overcome her largest hurdle — her fear of truly knowing herself and her identity.
Clarice Starling is an FBI agent in training (played by Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs, based on the novel by Thomas Harris). It’s not Clarice’s superior mind or unshakeable hand that makes her a role model though.
In fact, she doesn’t really have either of those qualities — she is often outsmarted by Hannibal Lecter, the brilliant psychiatrist (and supervillain), and her hands tremble wildly when she’s trapped in the dark with serial killer Buffalo Bill.
Clarice’s superpower is her ability to stand as the sole woman in a room of men who dismiss her presence, let alone her opinion, despite her unique insight into the mind of a criminal.
After being left behind in the last steps of the case, Clarice is the only FBI agent to correctly solve the mysteries placed in front of her by a psychopath. And despite aforementioned shaky hands, Clarice is the one to save kidnapped Catherine Martin and ends Bill’s reign of terror.
We can all relate to Ripley from the Alien (1979) film series. She’s good at her job, she loves her cat, and she just wants to go home at the end of the day. She just has to get past that murderous alien to do it.
As one of the first female action heroes, Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver in four of the eight Alien films) isn’t a soldier or classic scream queen. She’s a regular person faced with extraordinary circumstances.
In fact, Ripley was originally written as a male character, meaning that her characteristics aren’t tied to her gender. Perhaps that’s why it’s so satisfying to see her unleash the flamethrower in Aliens (although that might just be satisfying on its own).
Hermoine Granger, the cleverest and most talented student at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, constantly gets her friends out of trouble throughout the Harry Potter book series.
She knows advanced spells, obscure magical history (despite being muggle-born), stands up against elf slavery, and is the only character to land a punch into the sneering jaw of Draco Malfoy.
While Hermione (played by Emma Watson in the film series) is relegated to being the smart sidekick to Harry Potter, her role is crucial to saving the world from Voldemort and the forces of evil. She doesn’t rely on luck or impulse like her less-studious friends; rather, Hermione values hard work, intellectual integrity, and nurturing one’s magical talent (not to mention a well-placed right hook).
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Shuri is a brilliant, innovative scientist of Wakanda whose technology enables her brother T’Challa (and later, herself) to become the Black Panther. Oh, and she’s also the princess of Wakanda, but that’s the least important part about Shuri.
Featured in the Black Panther comics and played by Letitia Wright in the MCU Black Panther films, Shuri is more lighthearted than her serious brother despite her technical intellect and genius-level mind.
She is able to wield and use the valuable element vibranium to create the Black Panther, and after ingesting the heart-shaped herb during the Black Panther trials, she achieves the super skills of enhanced speed and strength.
Imagine everyone in town knowing the most scandalous secret about you — because you literally wear its evidence on your chest. And if an actual scarlet “A” isn’t enough to reveal your past, what about the fatherless girl trotting beside you?
Hester Prynne from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter endures whispers, accusations, and betrayal as she remains in Boston, the scene of her supposed crime, and raises her daughter Pearl.
But it’s not just her stiff endurance that makes Hester a strong female character: It’s her ability to do so while the father of her child, Arthur Dimmesdale, cannot. He even expresses jealousy that Hester’s sin is visible on her chest, while his must (as he believes) remain interior.
In the end (spoiler alert), Prynne receives the redemption previously denied to her after Dimmesdale dies in her arms.
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Mulan is a legendary female character who does what needs to be done — whether it’s protecting her family or saving her entire country. Hua Mulan (Fa Mulan in the 1998 Disney version) becomes a soldier to keep her father from having to enlist in the military, and with cunning, courage, and newfound strength, she accomplishes her goal.
There are many historical and modern adaptations of Mulan over the past centuries, some of which change details about Mulan’s story and outcome. However, in each version, she is a woman who rises above the gender-based expectations of her culture to perform incredible feats.
Jo March from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is so iconic that she’s been played by some of the greatest actors of the last century, including Dorothy Bernard, Katherine Hepburn, June Allyson, Winona Ryder, and Saoirse Ronan.
The novel has been adapted for film six times (not to mention television and stage adaptations), and each time, Jo’s ferocity and contrarianism are matched only by the self-doubt and fear of her written character.
Jo is an unconventional 19th-century female character. She cuts her hair to save her father, howls like a banshee when her sister burns her manuscript (we can relate), rejects the handsome Laurie’s proposal of marriage (we can’t relate), and pursues the type of life that was only open to men.
And even though the novel’s ending does pair Jo with Professor Bhaer, Alcott’s original intention was for Jo to remain a “literary spinster” as the author herself did, eschewing her audience’s traditional preference for Jo.
When Kamala Khan first appeared in 2014 in the Ms. Marvel comic series originally written by G. Willow Wilson, she made instant waves — and not only because of her ability to “embiggen.”
Here was a Pakistani-American, Muslim girl who was the manifestation of every South Asian and Muslim Marvel fan’s dreams. But what set her apart from other popular representations of these cultures?
Well, her pure geekiness, optimism, pride in her culture, and most importantly her compassion — which is continually amplified by the support of her family.
Since then, she’s come to life on the screen via the Disney TV series (played with charm by Iman Vellani). Now we can all see her powers firsthand — from the superhero ones like extending her limbs and shape shifting, to the more earthly ones like dancing a Bollywood routine and striving to make her parents proud.
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In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Lady Macbeth manages to kill a king and promote her previously un-promotable husband without getting her hands dirty. (Well, except for that pesky spot.) All she needs to do is whisper into Macbeth’s ear and goad his ego and greed — matched only by her own — and the world can be hers, if only temporarily.
Lady Macbeth is a coveted role on both the stage and the screen. She was notably played by Frances McDormand (The Tragedy of Macbeth, 2021) and Marion Cotillard (Macbeth, 2010), as well as Isuzu Yamada in Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) and Maura Tierney in the adaptation Scotland, PA (2001).
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In most stories and films, rescuing a captured princess is the ultimate task of a hero. But Princess Leia in the Star Wars film series (played by Carrie Fisher) just needs her rescuers to open the door — she can do the rest.
Even when Leia is forced to become a slave girl in an iconic gold bikini, she gets out of that mess herself with the help of a Jabba-length chain.
As possibly the only woman to resist the charms of Han Solo (for a while, anyway) and an expert with a blaster, Leia moves quickly from the ranks of princess-turned-rebel-leader to General Organa, an influential woman whose connection to the force would have probably made her just as strong a Jedi master as her father or brother. Her last living act was to turn the heart of Kylo Ren from darkness to light, truly bringing balance to the force.
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You don’t have to be nice to be a hero. That’s something we’ve learned from Alina Starkov, the immensely powerful (and just as flawed) hero of Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy (beginning with Shadow and Bone).
As a Sun Summoner, Alina is one of the most powerful Grisha in existence and can manipulate light as a weapon. How’s that for strength?
But what really captivates us is her willfulness to strike her own path and not listen to what other (predominantly male) perspectives have to say. She will own every decision she makes, even if she has regrets.
Alina does show an early weakness for the Darkling, but the journey toward realizing your powers and self-worth is never a smooth one. And she recovers swiftly, as we get to see in the Netflix series Shadow and Bone. Alina, played by Jessie Mei Li, shows us that no sacrifice is too big when it comes to freedom and justice.
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