SFF’s Good Women, Classified

From time to time I’ve had friends question me about my relative lack of enthusiasm for female villains, specifically when no “good” female characters are around to challenge them. It’s an awkward time not to love female villains, as they seem to be all the rage on the Big Screen these days. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 has one, plus several henchwomen. The Mummy of the title is a very ancient and very evil queen. Kingsman: The Golden Circle features a female Big Bad, while Thor: Ragnarok, if the trailer is all we have to go on, puts two bad-news femmes in key roles. If I cared about female villains and didn’t mind the paucity or ineffectuality of women on the good side, I’d have a lot to look forward to.

But no. Women on the good side interest me far more, because while female villains have been destructive forces to be reckoned with for as long as literature has existed, heroines and female heroes have only recently, over the last several decades, started to show up in large numbers. Not that we didn’t see them at all in centuries past — Antigone, Shahrazad, and many of the female leads in Shakespeare’s comedies serve as early examples — but their recent increase marks a sign of change for the better, as more writers and creators, men and women alike, show their faith in such characters.

As I’ve absorbed stories, both on page and on screen, and observed the female characters positioned in the stories as “good,” I’ve noted three broad categories into which they fall, based on how active a role they play in crucial events: the damsel, the heroine, and the female hero. Of the three, the damsel is easiest to identify. She’s the woman who finds herself overpowered by villains and needs to be rescued. That’s her function — to be rescued. She may have no useful skills at all, or she may have a few abilities that look impressive at first but prove to be no more than window dressing when crunch time comes.

A well-known example of the former is Buttercup from the film (not the book) The Princess Bride, whose idea of saving herself from being forced into a loveless marriage is to threaten suicide when her he-man hero doesn’t show up to save her as she expects. Of the latter type, we have Scarlet Benoit from Marissa Meyer’s Scarlet, who totes a gun but never manages to use it successfully, and Folly from Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass, who has some magical skill but has the bad luck to fall into the clutches of a villainess so powerful that her own magic does her no good at all. A heroine or a female hero in Folly’s situation would find a way to turn her relative weakness, and the villainess’s underestimation of her, into an advantage and escape. But Folly, for all the quirks and speech patterns that make her an interesting presence, never manages this, and proves a damsel. The Folly/Scarlet types may be the most frustrating damsels of all, since we’re led to expect more from them than we actually get.

Once, women characters in the SFF genre were overwhelmingly divided between damsels and villainesses. Now, thankfully, heroines and female heroes have started to outnumber them, in print fiction at least.

The line between the damsel and the other categories is clear, but between the heroine and the female hero, things get blurry. Heroines are active, courageous, resourceful, and useful. They don’t wait around to be rescued; they rescue themselves and often rescue others. They bring their skills to the table to help ensure the triumph of good. But the operative word is help. A heroine may offer invaluable assistance to the main (usually male) hero, or she may be part of a team that defeats evil with combined powers. But she does not save the day on her own.

In current SFF, heroines may be the most crowded of the three classes. Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series is the most famous and best-loved example. Hermione is a splendid character, a girl with brains, courage, and integrity who never backs down when she knows she’s right, even when her friends tell her she’s crazy. (She persists in her commitment to house-elf liberation, despite ridicule from nearly every one of her peers.) Without her, the titular hero would have been killed several times over. But even though Harry has far less personality and fewer observable skills than Hermione, he is still the story’s Chosen One. Hermione may help him and even save him, but only he can save the world.

A few more notable heroines include Starhawk from Barbara Hambly’s The Ladies of Mandrigyn; Sarene from Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris; Amara, Isana, and Kitai from Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series; Inej and Nina from Leigh Barduro’s Six of Crows/ Crooked Kingdom; Suri and Arion from Michael J. Sullivan’s Age of Myth; Steris, Marasi, and MeLaan from Sanderson’s Second Mistborn Trilogy; and Iselle from Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion. I love them all, and would recommend the books in which they appear; each gets her moments of awesome throughout the stories. But none of them get to strike the climactic blow against evil by themselves. That doesn’t make them bad or weak characters. It just makes them different from those in the final category, the female hero.

The female hero confronts evil on her own, and wins. She may have help along the way, but in the end she proves the key difference-maker. One of my favorite signs of progress is the growing number of female characters who fit this description, among them the ladies I praised in my previous post, Doreen “Squirrel Girl” Green and Matilda Wormwood. I can’t say too much, lest I stray too far into Spoiler territory, but here are a few more from my recent reading:

Shara Komayd, from Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs; Granny Weatherwax and Tiffany Aching, from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld; Vin, from Sanderson’s Mistborn: the Final Empire; Li-Lin, from M. H. Boroson’s The Girl With Ghost Eyes; Maia, from Todd Lockwood’s The Summer Dragon; Winter, from Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series; Samarkar, from Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky Trilogy (especially in the second book, Shattered Pillars); Kirit, from Fran Wilde’s Updraft; Paama, from Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo; Anyanwu, from Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed; Onyesonwu, from Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death; and Senneth, from Sharon Shinn’s Mystic and Rider.

Damsels I can do without, although I acknowledge they may at times be a necessary irritant. Heroines I always welcome. But what I love best are female heroes. Who are some of your favorite female heroes, from page and from screen?

 

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