One of my most enjoyable reads of 2015 was Samantha Ellis’s How to Be a Heroine. A “memoir in books” in the vein of Reading Lolita in Tehran (a very different but also engrossing book), it’s structured around Ellis reexamining her most beloved literary heroines of her youth, from Scarlett O’Hara to Franny Glass. It’s a really fun but also insightful read.In the spirit of inspiring, complex, or just plain awesome fictional ladies everywhere, I’m going to highlight some of my favorite female characters of 2015.
Now, I consumed a lot of books, movies, and TV with amazing female characters last year. After all, 2015 was the year of Imperator Furiosa and Rey. Female-centric and female-run shows like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Marvel’s Jessica Jones. And that’s just the media actually released last year. I also had the pleasure of getting to know daring, darling dames like Thelma and Louise, Dorothy Shaw, and Cher Horowitz. Sheila Vand’s chador-clad hipster vampire in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Ifemelu.
With such competition, it was tough to narrow my list down to a blog post of reasonable length. Nevertheless, here are some of the women I really, really wished weren’t just fictional characters in 2015:
1. Shosanna Dreyfus – Inglourious Basterds
Equal parts cool glamour and fiery revenge, Melanie Laurent’s Parisian theater owner turned face of Jewish vengeance doesn’t exactly break the mold for Quentin Tarantino heroines. Cinephile? Check! Beautiful but badass woman? Check! Gloriously over-the-top, brutal revenge? Check, check, check! But Shosanna just completely steals the spotlight from Brad Pitt’s Basterds. Tarantino’s female characters are exactly the kind of “sexy women with guns/swords/meteor hammers” character type that is so often male titillation disguised as female empowerment, but Shosanna gets to blow up Nazis instead of just contorting for the camera in spandex, so that’s something.
2. Jessica Huang – Fresh Off the Boat
I’m a second-generation Chinese-American, but unlike Eddie on the ABC sitcom, I went to a 70% Asian high school. We all made jokes about Asian parents and high expectations, but we also complained when we got on TV after a lockdown and the crew somehow didn’t interview a single Asian kid. I’ll be upfront about this: I freaking love Jessica Huang. Mama Huang is another character that could easily have been a lazy stereotype, and it would’ve been even worse in this case considering how hard it still is to find an Asian female lead on TV. The matriarch of the Huang family has a thick (fake) accent, constantly pressures her kids to succeed academically, is scheming and materialistic, and insists on being stubbornly at odds with American culture, but she’s also a self-assured, confident woman willing to fight for what she believes. Constance Wu brings so much hilarity, nuance, and heart to this role that she rises above a potentially cringe-worthy character description to form a fully realized character that challenges viewers to look beyond ethnic stereotypes to see a common humanity. And let’s face it, she’s kind of right about how fabulous she is.
3. The Vuvalini – Mad Max: Fury Road
I squealed in the theater when the Many Mothers came on screen in all their gas-guzzling, post-apocalyptic biker amazon glory. 60-something women action heroes who did their own freaking motorcycle stunts??? I could join everyone else in singing the praises of Fury Road‘s fabulous feminism (on top of fabulous everything else) and wax poetic about how rad it is to see not only multiple supporting women and women who aren’t Hollywood sexpots, but also elderly women in blockbuster action roles, but honestly I just really, really dig badass old women. You can thank my grandmother for that. I know I do.
4. Trish Walker – Marvel’s Jessica Jones
This one surprised me. If Jessica Jones is a very cool character because she’s the rare female antihero, Trish Walker rocks because she’s the rare good-hearted, put-together, sunny foil to an edgy protagonist who’s actually cool and interesting in her own right instead of boring and irritating. Trish is an amazing friend, a successful career woman, a force for real good in the world through her radio program, and, like Jessica, an abuse survivor turned bona fide heroine. Though she lacks superpowers (at least, for now), she doesn’t rely on her adopted sis to protect her anymore–instead, she takes matters in her own hands and trains in Krav Maga. Her friendship with Jessica is one of the best parts of a great show.
5. Princess Winter – The Lunar Chronicles
(Anybody know who to credit for this image?)
The Lunar Chronicles, a young-adult book series of sci-fi fairy tale retellings, have a special place in my heart. Besides being as enthralling as they sound, Cinder was the book that got me reading regularly again in high school, and Marissa Meyer’s wonderful blog inspired me to commit to writing. The series already had three great female protagonists, but I loved Princess Winter of Luna–the series’ disfigured and mentally unstable take on Snow White–most of all. Winter is the most classically fairytale princess of the bunch, beautiful, vulnerable, victimized. She’s not an expert mechanic or spaceship pilot or hacker. But she’s also compassionate and brave with a tremendous strength of will, risking her sanity so as never to use the Lunar mind-control gift that so often leads to corruption and manipulation. She’s emotionally sensitive and suffers from debilitating hallucinations, but she’s not weak or stupid. Winter even knows how to use her reputation as “crazy” to her advantage, fooling the Lunar aristocracy into underestimating her. Considering the major role she plays in ending the reign of evil Queen Levana, underestimating Winter proves to be a fatal mistake.
6. Elizabeth Bennet, Elizabeth Bennet, Elizabeth Bennet
I read Pride and Prejudice for the third time two years ago. But my Jane Austen and Pop Culture class, along with the various modern adaptations I watched accordingly, revitalized my appreciation for Lizzie in 2015. P&P was first published over 200 years ago, but Elizabeth still reigns supreme, whether she’s slaying zombies, breaking out into song and dance in India, a broke grad student filming a vlog series for her Communications thesis, or (as in the Keira Knightley adaptation) a little poorer and prettier than diehard Janeites might prefer. Elizabeth Bennet is superbly likable but compellingly imperfect, lighthearted and witty but a genuinely great person, timelessly appealing but ahead of her time. There’s a reason she’s still the gold standard for heroines.
This was just a sample of all the great fictional women I loved in 2015. (For one thing, this blog post consisted exclusively of great sympathetic characters). Here’s to another year of wonderful female characters!