When I grew up, there were very few strong female characters portrayed in either genre fiction or movies. The damsel was always set to be saved by the strong, heroic man.
Then came Alien with Sigourney Weaver. It wasn't until the next movie, Aliens, that strong women really began to show up on the screen. Everybody loved Sigourney Weaver's Ripley from the first movie, but it was the character of PFC Jenette Vasquez (played by Jenette Goldstein) that rocked our world. We all left the theater wanting to join the Marines, do one-armed pull-ups, and swing a really big gun. The only thing that stopped us was that marines didn't get to go on spaceships yet (or so we told ourselves--in all honesty, we would have made terrible marines).
One of our favorite exchanges from Aliens was this one:
The marines are doing pull-ups in the gym, and PFC Hudson looks at Vasquez: “Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?”
“No, have you?” she spits back at him.*
After that, we forgot about the aliens and watched for Vasquez. The second time we saw the movie, we cheered whenever her character came on-screen. We loved her, because she wasn't just physically powerful, but she had a powerful soul. Marine honor wasn't a buzzword for the character, she acted with integrity right up to the end. She reached out to a man she loathed and helped him die with honor, even though it meant her own death.
And here is the kicker: she had no superpower (although I know some marines who would say being a marine is a superpower, but that's not exactly what I'm talking about here).
She wasn't a vampire, her only weapons were standard marine issue. Her intensity came from her self-esteem. Vasquez's strength lay in her principles and her integrity, and those two qualities dictated her actions.
I think that is something we forget when we're writing female characters nowadays. We feel like a strong woman has to boast some superior sixth sense to enhance her ability to survive, some superpower. It was one of the problems I had with the Twilight series: Bella's incessant need to become a vampire meant that she entwined her self-esteem with something outside herself.
Bella didn't need Edward, she needed Vasquez. Vasquez could have shown her what qualities make a woman strong.
So how about you? Do you feel like a female character must have some sort of superpower to even the playing field with guys? What do you think makes a female character strong? Got some examples of strong women (either characters or in real life) that you'd like to share?
*A very nice article about Goldstein, the movie Aliens, and Vasquez is here.