If you couldn’t tell, I grew up a fantasy nerd. My brother loved fantasy books and passed the tradition onto me–which meant that in 5th grade I was reading the Hobbit, and by the end of the 6th grade I had already finished the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.
After reading Lord of the Rings, I was a diehard Eowyn fan. She was the only female in the entire series to kill a nazgul. Not only that, but she disguised herself as a male to participate in the war to prove herself. What. a. badass.
Sadly, in the end, she didn’t get the stud she always wanted (Aragon). It was a life lesson for me: badass women usually don’t get the men they want in fairy tales. Because they’re just too powerful. Too cool. Not feminine enough.
In fact, I found that most western fantasy novels lacked female heroines. In most fairy tales, the woman is always getting saved instead of doing the saving. A male is always the hero. The protagonist.
That made me wonder.. why am I such an independent woman? Why do I always want a woman to save the day? Why am I such an advocate for female power? After reading so much male dominated fantasy, what is it that drove me to advocate women’s rights? Where does all of this come from?
As a child, I obviously didn’t get this from the Lord of the Rings–or a majority of the other fantasy novels that are published mainstream today. Even in big, blockbuster Hollywood movies, a woman only reigns if she’s a sex symbol that can kick ass (and usually still gets saved by a man). Sadly, this dynamic has not changed today. Exactly what was it that made me believe in the power of women, and our ability to become the hero?
We all get our strong, female heroine tendencies from somewhere. As I searched deep down for mine, I discovered they weren’t given to be by the west–they were from Asia.
Almost Every Ghibli Movie
Although Japan is one of the most sexist societies in the world, their most famous celebrity, Hayao Miyazaki, is one of the world’s leading feminists. In fact, without him, I wouldn’t be who I am today.
I grew up watching ‘My Neighbor Totoro.’ It’s not exactly a save-the-world epic adventure, but this slice-of-life animated feature starring two girls and a big fluffy beast named Totoro inspired me to watch future Ghibli films as I was growing up.
Almost all of his films have a woman as the leading role; and even in his films where a male is the protagonist, there’s usually a strong female lead by his side who is essential to saving the day (Ghibli women never, ever get rescued).
In Princess Mononoke, San is a kickass warrior woman living with wolves who not only later saves Ashitaka (the main guy’s) ass, but is also a pivotal character in resolving the ultimate conflict. In Spirited Away the young female lead has to use her personality and ingenuity to save her parents as well as survive in a bizarre world of spirits. Kiki’s Delivery Service is the story of a young witch who protects an entire city. Nausicaa is an adventurous princess who saves the day with her bravery and wit. Howl’s Moving Castle tells the tale of Sophie, a girl who teaches a pompous wizard the virtue of humility and finds self-confidence in the process.
I mean, I could go on and on. I’m just so, so glad I had the good fortune of growing up with these films. I think seeing strong female leads in all of his movies is what made me the forward-thinking, adventurous woman I am today.
Watching Ghibli movies made me realize that I didn’t have to be rescued–I could be the main character. I could be the woman who made a difference.
All little girls in the US dream of being a Disney princess. Although I wasn’t full-Asian, I still felt that I wasn’t fully represented by the traditional Disney princesses (Belle, Ariel and Cinderella). I was somehow different.
Then Mulan was released. I finally felt like I had a Disney princess/movie I could relate to.
I just re-watched Mulan last weekend; and my god, this animated film is the best thing you could ever show your future daughters. It’s the ultimate feminist Disney cartoon.
Mulan not only disguises herself as a male for the right reasons (to protect her family), but she defeats the enemy using strategy (the avalanche) and wins the heart of the general not because of her good looks, but for her brains and personality. Although this movie is historically inaccurate, it still sends a great message to women everywhere: you can fight, you can be smart, you can be a badass–and best of all, you can still be all these things and get the guy.
Mulan was my hero growing up. Instead of try to be like Mulan, unfortunately, today my younger (Asian) cousins dress up as Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. I was hoping this princess trend would change as I got older, but sadly, most young girls are still taught to dream of prince charming coming to their rescue and act like a damsel in distress rather than take initiative like Mulan. The indirect message of grace and beauty trumping brains and ingenuity is still, unfortunately, a strong message we promote to our women today.
I hope this can change.
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
Ok everyone.. I’m a huge Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon fan. Although the character for Zhang Zi Yi is a spoiled, immature, young lady; she still kicks ass. The character of Michelle Yeoh in this film is a role model for women worldwide. Really, it’s the ladies in this movie that steal the show. Everyone else is just secondary. Seeing a woman kick major ass with kung-fu (atop bamboo trees) made me realize women could be powerful too.
If anyone is dying to relive the nostalgia of the best fight in the movie…
Seirei no Moribito (Guardian of the Spirit)
Ok, I’m sure no one has heard of this series. This is a Japanese novel turned anime and live-action drama. I love this series because the female protagonist, Balsa, is just an all-around solid character. She doesn’t have sex appeal, yet she’s attractive. She is motherly and loving, but she has an identity that spans beyond caregiver. She can hold herself up in a fight, but she’s not butch. Her love interest is an intelligent man who doesn’t feel the need to protect her; rather, he awaits patiently for her to return from her journey and hopes one day she will return his feelings. It’s a magical fantasy that hits all the senses; and really, it’s one of the few anime/movies that has a female lead who doesn’t try too hard to prove herself. She is who she is.
Basically, I want to be Balsa when I grow up.
When I take a look back at the media that inspired me to become a strong and independent woman, it surprised me to find that almost all of it was from Asia.
Western media needs more female heroes. White, colored, or otherwise–and I’m not just talking about the typical ‘superhero’ like Wonder Woman. We need real heroes that inspire. That motivate us to take charge. To save the world.
Can anyone think of any other powerful female leads in literature or media that you like? Who inspired you to be who you are today? What book/movie/game did you grow up with that molded you into who you are today?