Fiction gives us some of the best role models. Here are ten female characters who helped me become who I am.
The final Thanksgiving of a decade. The perfect time to look back and reflect on the people who have helped you become who and what you are today. Who has helped you achieve your goals? Who has been there to support you in times of need? What fictional characters have you loved so much that you stole parts of them to form your personal identity?
It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Media has a huge impact on the way we interact with the world, and the way we interact with others. So here are just a few of the female characters I’m thankful for in my life. Each one has had a hand in shaping the massively sarcastic fangirl who writes for you today.
Megara – Disney’s Hercules
If you want to know where a girl got started, it’s here. Hercules was one of the first movies I saw in theaters as a child, and it made a lasting impression. It’s still one of my favorite animated films to this day. The animation, the music, the bright and colorful characters. This movie has both my favorite Disney villain, and my favorite Disney heroine.
I was obsessed with Megara as a kid. I had every kind of licensed merchandise you can imagine: costumes, sweaters, pajamas, 10 Female Characters We’re Thankful Forcostume jewelry, hair clips, plates, suitcases, toothbrushes. Every single one of my stuffed animals was named Meg, which was confusing and also inefficient. To tell the truth, I couldn’t tell you why a toddler would imprint on an anti-heroine like that. But looking back, I can tell you why I still love her so much now.
Megara is unlikely any other Disney princess. (I GET that she’s not a “princess,” but humor me.) Her storyline is dark—she sold her soul to save the man she loved, and he left her for another woman. As a result, she’s jaded, sarcastic, emotionally closed off, and forced to work for the King of the Underworld. The whole movie is about how she learns to open herself up again, and make up for her mistakes. It’s a real redemption arc full of funny quips and incredible music.
If nothing else, Meg helped shape my sense of humor. She gave me confidence and faith in myself. And yes, perhaps she made me a little bit of a cynic. But the best compliment I have ever received in my life is that I have achieved Megara levels of sass. So thank you to my college classmate Dan for that one.
Anya – Anastasia
The other fifty percent of my childhood was dedicated to the incredible animated movie, Anastasia. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a children’s adaptation of the real history of a lost Russian princess, and how she attempted to reclaim her identity after the Russian revolution. It is completely historically inaccurate, and one of my favorite movies of all time.
Anya is another strong character with a dismal backstory. She grew up in an orphanage with no memory of her past of family. Upon the precipice of adulthood, she finds herself at a literal crossroads. She can go one way and accept the bleak life she’s been presented with, or she can take a chance to find her family, and find a better future she truly believes she’s destined for. Her adventure leads to adopt a puppy, commit identity fraud with two con men, fight a Russian sorcerer, and discover her true past as Russian nobility. All with more music and more sarcasm.
You may be able to sense a pattern of female characters forming at this point. Anya is sarcastic, and intolerant of lies or ignorance from those around her. Despite the troubles she goes through in life, she truly believes in herself, and knows that there’s a better world out there for her. She works hard to see her goals become reality, and gets everything she’d hoped for and many things she didn’t. As a young dreamer, Anya was everything I could hope to be, and I completely idolized her. So remember to be hopeful for yourself and journey ahead of you.
Hermione Granger – Harry Potter
Few lists of influential female characters will be missing Hermione Granger in their headcount. As the lead heroine in the series of a generation, Hermione became the role model for a lot of young girls. You’ve heard this story before, but I’m going to tell it to you anyway.
As a young girl in elementary school, I didn’t have tons of friends. There were a few people I was close with through dance and Girl Scouts, but I’d gotten comfortable being on my own with my imagination. I wasn’t plagued by doubt or insecurity, not until I was in middle school, anyway. I was sure of myself, top of the class, face in a book and my head in the clouds. In other words, not all that unlike Hermione.
I was like Hermione in the not-so-great ways too. I was a little bossy, I was a tattletale, and I was an unrepentant brownnoser. But as I grew up, and watched Hermione grow, we both changed for the better. Through Hermione, I learned the importance of education and work ethic. I learned why school was important, and why friends were equally so. And while I was working on book reports and science labs, I got to live vicariously through her and the world of magic.
It made my life more bearable to have her and her friends with me, even as my real friends came and went. Hermione and I shared the same fear of failure, the same pride in our achievements. She helped me appreciate my talents and mediate my faults. She’s undoubtedly been the biggest fictional influence on my life. For that, I can’t thank J.K. Rowling or Emma Watson enough.
Elizabeth Swann – Pirates of the Caribbean
A lot of women my age have an unhealthy attachment to at least one Keira Knightley movie. For me, that first film was Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean. Zany pirates and the charming Orlando Bloom aside, Elizabeth was my favorite character in the film. Here is another girl who lives a contented life, but still has her head in a fantasy world—more than the people around her found entirely appropriate. She is beautiful, with fancy dresses and corsets, and I wanted to be just like her.
But Elizabeth is far more than a pretty face. She defends herself from the start, and uses her encyclopedic knowledge of pirates to get herself out of a bad situation. From the very first film, she had a strong moral code, made her own decisions regardless of outside influence, and was every inch a badass. The way that she balanced femininity and brawn, brains and fantasy, made me anxious to do the same.
Of course, as the series went on, Elizabeth only became cooler. She’s developed from a girl who daydreams about pirates to raising through the ranks and becoming the Pirate King herself. Her passion led her down a very strange and unusual path, and we can only hope to be as successful at following our gut as she is. All hail Elizabeth Swann, Pirate King!
Rose Tyler – Doctor Who
I didn’t begin watching Doctor Who in earnest until I was in high school, but it quickly took over my life. I began watching with the series reboot from 2005, and quickly imprinted on the Doctor’s companion, Rose Tyler. In part, because Rose’s story is specifically designed to be the story of anyone. Until the Doctor comes along, she lives an unexceptional life working in a shop and living with her mother. Adventure falls into her lap. All she has to do is say “yes.”
At least, that’s the basic story on the surface. But the point of Rose’s story is that, even in her unexceptional life, she herself is extraordinary. The traits that help her save planets with the Doctor aren’t things she learns from outer space. It’s just Rose. Her compassion, her morals, her determination, her bravery—they were all part of her long before the Doctor came along in the TARDIS. She’s a hero because she gets the chance to be.
That’s one of the things I love most about the early days of Doctor Who. It preaches that everyone has the potential to be a hero, to change lives and save the world. Even if you just work in a shop, even if you still live with your parents, even if you’re making minimum wage and don’t like the life you’re living. You yourself hold incredible power. Just being a good person is enough.
Through Rose, I learned to appreciate the parts of myself that seemed unexceptional. I began to recognize my own potential. Maybe it wouldn’t help me run with the Doctor or save alien planets, but it would help with my own goals. Even the ones I didn’t see coming.
Martha Jones – Doctor Who
That’s right, Doctor Who is getting two sections! Because as important as Rose Tyler is, and as much as I love her, the story of Martha Jones might be even more so. Rose is whipped into a fantasy world of magic and danger, and quickly gets everything she wants. Martha gets the same experience, but has to temper her excitement with a certain level of disappointment. Largely because the Doctor isn’t interested in her the way she is interested in him.
But Martha’s story isn’t about rejection. Rather, it’s about how little that rejection matters in the scheme of things. Not having the Doctor’s romantic love doesn’t slow Martha down one bit. She continues to save the world, to save him, and proves her intellect and bravery over and over again. She’s disappointed, obviously, and she shows it. But she doesn’t let the disappointment make her bitter or feel any less of herself.
That story is a rare one in fiction. We see a lot of female characters fall in love with the person of their dreams. We see a lot of strong women who are above a romantic subplot. But it’s tough to find a woman who was rejected and leaves it at that. Martha gets her happy ending with Mickey, but it doesn’t define her in any sense.
Another similarity that Rose and Martha have is that they both became legends. Rose’s compassion led her to take on the power of the TARDIS, when she became the incredibly powered Bad Wolf. But when Martha becomes a legend, there’s no powers or alien technology involved. She becomes the Woman Who Walked the Earth, who prevented the Apocalypse, just through her own determination and strength. Rose might be the Bad Wolf, but Martha became Martha Jones.
Jo Harvelle – Supernatural
If you’ve followed any of my fandom work, you may know how much I love Jo Harvelle. Supernatural has a lot of interesting female characters, many of which weren’t given the attention they could’ve been. Still, out of all of them, Jo is closest to my heart. (Meg would be a close second, if anyone’s wondering.)
In Jo’s first episode, she holds Dean Winchester at gunpoint. When he tries to disarm her, she just punches him in the face and takes her gun back. So all in all, not surprising to find she’s one of my favorites. Jo is a basass, but she’s also extremely naïve. It’s something that’s garnered her a lot of hate from the Supernatural fandom, but is precisely one of the reasons I love her so much.
Like Martha, Jo’s story is two-fold. She’s struggling with a debilitating crush on Dean, which remains unreciprocated for the most part. But rather than not feeling like enough, Jo struggles with feeling like a child. Everyone around her underestimates her, which leaves her frustrated and alienated. She knows too much about hunting to be comfortable in the “normal” world, only to be told she doesn’t know enough about hunting to make it in that world either. She constantly feels the need to prove herself to everyone around her.
Who can’t relate to a conflict like that? We’ve all felt that desire to sit at the big kids’ table, to be treated like an adult maybe before we were ready. Unfortunately, unlike most female characters on this list, Jo didn’t get a happy ending. While she was easy to relate to and fun to cheer on, her lesson was a double-edged sword. Relax, because someday you will get your chance to prove yourself, and people will see you for the incredible person you are. But savor the time you have as a kid, because being an adult or a hero isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Lydia Martin – Teen Wolf
The story of Lydia Martin is another one of redemption and growth. When I began watching Teen Wolf in college, I expected Lydia to be another popular girl stock character. She was the prettiest girl in school, the most social, the envy of everyone in her grade. She was vicious and a little self-absorbed, with no real concern for the people around her. It only took a few episodes for the show to subvert that. Immediately, Lydia became one of my favorite female characters.
Largely because of the influence of actress Holland Roden, Lydia’s character developed wildly. She wasn’t just the most popular girl in school, but the smartest. In Season 1, she has a hard time reconciling the two superlatives. She doesn’t know how to be the prettiest and the smartest, and often dumbs herself down or makes deliberately bad decisions to fit her image. More than once, we see her crack under the pressure of trying to figure out who she is. This goes on to manifest physically as well, as Lydia tries to understand her own abilities and what they mean.
Even as she’s developed, Lydia never seems to change, per se. She becomes more compassionate. She stands up for her friends and takes risks to save them in ways that she never would have before. But she doesn’t lose everything that she was before being “nice.” She’s still snarky and a tad judgmental. She’s still incredibly self-confident and unrelentingly feminine. She makes changes to be a better person, but never compromises the things she likes.
I tried to emulate Lydia in a lot of little ways. I bought copies of her clothes and tried to replicate her style. I tried to maintain the same level of confidence and sass. But ultimately, Lydia’s lesson isn’t about emulating anyone else. It’s about learning to get familiar with every part of who you are. It’s about understanding yourself and not being ashamed to express that to others, no matter how strange or “basic” they may be.
Carol Danvers – Captain Marvel
With the new age of superheroes, there are a lot of amazing female characters out there. When someone else tries their hand at this kind of article next decade, I still expect to see Carol Danvers on that list. There is no question that she’s going to be a role model for a whole new generation of little girls. But she’s a role model for adult women too. And I absolutely adore her.
Carol’s story is nothing less than female empowerment. There have been so many think-pieces about Captain Marvel in the past year that I fear getting heavy handed with it. But I think at its core, Carol’s story is about not giving others the power to define you. The only person who gets to decide your worth is you, and you do not need to prove that worth to anyone else under any circumstances. When they tell you that you can’t, prove them wrong. When they tell you to smile, show them your strength.
There’s no real question as to why Carol’s story is important in our current climate. But her attitude of take-no-shit is just one of the things I’ve tried to absorb from the movie. She’s also confident, sure of herself without being cocky. She’s also goofy, proving that you don’t need to be serious all the time to be a badass. She’s essentially everything that I want to embody. Carol Danvers is newer on my list of fictional role models, but I’m going to do my best to internalize her motto: “Higher, further, faster.”
Robin Buckley – Stranger Things
When I heard that Stranger Things was getting a new female character in Season 3, I had my doubts. The ladies from the first few seasons were undeniably awesome, but rarely got any time to spend together. What was more, I was sure any new character would just be thrown together with Steve after his breakup with Nancy. Little did I know, Stranger Things Season 3 would give me my favorite female character in the series, in the shape of Miss Robin Buckley.
I can probably pin point the moment I fell in love with Robin. She’s teasing Steve about striking out with girls, doodling away on her whiteboard of important data. And when Steve reminds her that he can read, she simply smiles and asks, “Since when?” If you’ve read this much of this article, it should not at all surprise you that Robin’s sass and sarcasm is one of my favorite traits about her. Followed by her curiosity as she joins the hunt for evil Russian spies just because she’s bored. Followed again by her intelligence as she solves a government code on her own in one afternoon.
A lot of this article has been about life lessons, and the deep things I’ve learned about myself through female characters. I’m not sure that I’ve learned any philosophical things from Robin just yet. There’s still time though, as we wait for Stranger Things Season 4. Perhaps even more than Robin, I’m thankful for Maya Hawke, and the work she put into developing her character. It’s because of Maya’s influence that Robin went from a girl to be paired with Steve to a funky little lesbian genius. So thank you to Maya, for giving me this nerdy, sarcastic character I relate to so deeply.
This is a just a fraction of the female characters who have had an impact on my life. There are so many more who have taught valuable lessons, so many different stories that have made me who I am. But these are a few I’m most thankful for this year. And I’m looking forward to learning more from them in the future.
Who are your fictional role models? Are there any female characters you feel have made a significant impact on your life? Let us know in the comments, and share your lists with us on Twitter!