When I was little, I wanted to be a superhero. (Who am I kidding, sometimes, I still do. Or, at least have a non-obvious power that I can use under a secret identity. I've never really liked the spotlight or extra attention, so, a secret identity would really be best.) I used to watch cartoons before school: G.I. Joe, Transformers, and something that I now think was an incarnation of Justice League, since it had Superman, Wonder Woman, and others. I wore Wonder Woman underoos and dreamed of fighting crime/evil/bad guys. Somewhere along the way though, I noticed something about these cartoons. Wonder Woman never really did anything. I mean, she flew around in her invisible jet, but, I don't recall her ever really employing her Lasso of Truth or fighting the bad guys. What's the point of being a powerful Amazonion warrior if all you do is fly recon? The male heroes did all the fighting & apprehending. In G.I. Joe, Scarlet was part of the team...but she really didn't do anything either except provide background color & yell "Go Joe!" when applicable. (Sure, G.I. Joe had the Baronness, and she did a lot but, if you're looking for a positive heroic female model...yeah...) So...disappointed. I stopped watching these shows and still looked for strong female characters in other places.
I didn't pay much attention to comics for quite awhile, since most of the images of women there looked like these crazy, gravity-defying creatures who couldn't possibly exist. (Lady Death, anyone?) So I started reading fantasy novels and found what I was looking for in the works of Anne McCaffrey, Terry Brooks, Mercedes Lackey, Marian Zimmer Bradley, and others.
At the end of high school and just after, I discovered Xena, the Warrior Princess and her (sometimes annoying) sidekick, Gabrielle. Then came Spc. Agent Dana Scully...and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. These were some of the women I'd been looking for! Particularly since Scully & Xena didn't have any superpowers. They were, and are, just fucking awesome. (In fact, for awhile, it annoyed me when people would proclaim Buffy as this pinnacle of "girl power" when, in fact, X-Files & Xena pre-dated her. But it's ok, because they're all there now as fine examples of feminine strength.)
I read my first comic when I worked at Target after high school - the title "Ghost" from Dark Horse. Elena, while being rather gravity defying and in an impractical outfit, was pretty kick ass. (I think I kind of gave her a pass on account of not being actually alive and because the stories were pretty great.)
Later, at Borders, I would discover Oracle. While shelving & organizing the graphic novels I happened upon a title called Birds of Prey. I thumbed through it, ordered my own pristine copy, and I was hooked. See, a few years prior, Alan Moore wrote a disturbing piece of fiction called The Killing Joke in which the Joker pays a visit to the Gordon home & shoots Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl), rendering her wheelchair bound & paralyzed. (On a side note, this was another sore point with myself & many, many other readers - Batman can recover from a broken back, why is she stuck in a fucking chair? There's been so many injustices towards female superheroes and superhero girlfriends, that the writer Gail Simone once devoted a site to it called "Women in Refrigerators.") Anyway, Babs decided to use her considerable mental & computer skills to become an information broker to the superhero community & she ran her own team - the Birds! After meeting Black Canary, Huntress, Lady Blackhawke, etc, etc, I found out comics can be awesome. The heroines can have real lives and only slightly exaggerated features. Now, I'm hooked not only on Birds of Prey, but also on Buffy's continued run in the comics. Then, I found the new Batgirl...
Last year, DC Comics sort of re-booted most, if not all, of their more popular titles under the heading of "The New 52." Birds of Prey & Batgirl were amongst the titles. I eagerly read the first couple Birds of Prey issues & was a little confused...Black Canary went to Barbara Gordon's place to invite her to the team...and Barbara was standing up! Well, the newest graphic novel explains it. I'll admit it. I'm one of those people who is going to dearly miss Oracle...but...it's nice to see Barbara as Batgirl again, scaling the rooftops of Gotham city. Gail Simone, who wrote the Birds of Prey stories that drew me in, is the author of Batgirl and she does a fantastic job. In this reboot, Barbara still gets shot by the Joker and was wheelchair bound for 3 years. She took an experimental treatment and has regained the use of her lower body. The story is told in an interesting way, she's still dealing with the emotional aftermath of being shot, (PTSD, if you will) - the first time a villain threatens to shoot her, she freezes. There is much of her inner monologue, a look inside her head as she thinks about why did she get this miracle, but so many others never get a second chance. One moment I love, is a flashback in her head when she remembers first taking up the mantle of Batgirl. Batman wasn't terribly pleased, as he wasn't looking for a partner & she says that neither was she. Barbara Gordon is a bit vulnerable, just moving into her own place after getting her legs back, looking for a job, learning to trust other people again. Batgirl is confident, witty, and kind of personable in her crime-fighting; she ends up getting hugged by a couple she saves from a couple of violent muggers. She's still building the strength in her lower body, but learning on the fly to compensate for her current weaknesses. The story is well-crafted & now that Gail is back (DC fired her via email last month & then a couple weeks later hired her back. The story goes that the move was partially due to outrage from fans & professionals alike) I look forward to so much more.
So where does that leave me & others looking for strong female characters? Well, one could look to the work of Joss Whedon. His work is full of them & they pretty much all rock. He has rather famously answered "why do you keep writing such strong female characters?" with "Because people keep asking that question." (After the way Black Widow was portrayed in the Avengers movie, it still pisses me off when I see things that say Avengers and it only has Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America. I mean, seriously - they're not the only ones. She's a badass. So is Hawkeye & all the others we haven't met yet, but, you get the idea. Why do people making the promotional stuff behave as though she's not a part of the team? *sigh*) There's also the new Battlestar Galactica . At this point, I think it's pretty easy to find good female characters in literature, film, comics, etc. Even real life. I read a blog the other day where a woman was speaking about this topic & discussed the teachers from Sandy Hook Elementary School. The stories of heroism about these ladies were phenomenal.
As an adult, I still favor female superheroes, look for books with good female leads, and I've learned something along the way. We don't have to have superpowers, or amazing abilities to be heroes. We just have to realize we're capable of heroism.
Some interesting related links:
Women in Refrigerators - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_Refrigerators (Info about the term, the trope, and other tidbits.)
Heroes of Sandy Hook Elementary School/Strong Female characters -