Finding Inspiring, Powerful Female Leads in Asian Media

Image courtesy of Lord of the Rings Wiki

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.

Image from Fact CO UK

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.

Mulan

Image Courtesy of Moviefone

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.


Honorable Mentions

Courtesy of Mic

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?

13 thoughts on “Finding Inspiring, Powerful Female Leads in Asian Media

  1. Jim says:

    Here’s one you didn’t mention. Maybe not the best role model, but I love Uma Thurman in the “Kill Bill” series. I’m male, so I wouldn’t exactly say she’s an inspiration, but I love strong women. For a better role model, I agree with you that Michelle Yeoh is worth watching.

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      Totally agree with you. I don’t know if I would call Uma Thurman a role model, but she’s definitely badass. Loved the Kill Bill series. Michelle Yeoh is the kind of role model you can show your kids, I guess, haha.

  2. Todd says:

    Yes, I also like your choice of Asian female role models. I think Chinese female actors can balance masculine and feminine roles very good and I enjoy their movies. Unfortuanetly, many Japanese lady actors stay in the creepy submissive role, which is what male Japanese want, and the U.S. sometimes swings too far into the masculine side, as the actor?, politician? (sorry forgot her name) described themselves during the post Trump election protest, yelling ” we are nasty” Yes, agreed, too much nasty, hard acting sometimes from western female actors,

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      I generally like Chinese films better than Japanese ones too (female roles aside); in a lot of Chinese movies the female leads are whiney btches, but usually they demonstrate some kind of intelligence and independence (unlike Japan, as you mentioned). Japan does have A TON of dramas starring women, but the premise is always the same and it’s so depressing: female in mid-late 30s is single. Worried she will die alone. Worked too hard on her career so no one wants her. But wait! An attractive, young, Japanese man suddenly has the hots for her and they get together–the end. Sadly, in real life, the Japanese woman doesn’t usually get the dude. She’s single because she wanted a career. Ugh it’s really depressing because it’s so true to life. I used to watch those dramas and sympathize hardcore.

      I’m fine with being a “nasty” woman, but yeah, I think the US really needs to work on putting better females in the media. Although I love Amy Schumer, her movies are all about how women have low self-confidence, just want to drink and only care about hooking up with a dude–I mean, if that’s what we women in the US can relate to, that makes me very sad. Don’t get me started on the Kardashians, they’re not only a disgrace not only to all women, but also to the entire country of America. In movies we see female actors getting more roles, but again they’re either trying too hard to be tough or they’re super sexualized. It is improving (like with the Star Wars movies) but Hollywood still has a long way to go.

      • Todd says:

        In the late 90s and early 2000s there were some great Japanese dramas that featured women actors portraying life for single, widowed, divorced, over 50, etc Japanese women, discrimination at work etc. I think the bubble era as still having a residual effect, as the dramas had a different vibe to them then. Now its all about weirdness, the women adored now are girlie groups and cutesy annoying cartoonish crap. Japan has become sick. I dont know what / when /how it all went wrong, but there used to be really good Japanese dramas about life in Japan that portrayed women as real adults.

  3. autumnashbough says:

    Yeah, I hear you. I am desperately wracking my brain for female heroes in all the books I read and movies I saw. Mostly, they just got in the way and got rescued. It’s very irritating.

    I think the movie near-exceptions are Princess Leia, although Marian from Raiders of the Lost Ark was a worthy effort: “I’m your goddamned partner!”

    Like you, Eowyn was my favorite, but I didn’t mind her ending up with Faramir. Aragorn was boringly good, while Faramir was more complex, thanks to Daddy issues. I liked that they discovered compatible baggage and got over it together. Seemed realistic to me. Still does, actually.

    I think I just wound up identifying with the male heroes. Thanks to my mother, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t grow up and be a badass. Of course, it helps to be a strapping lass. I never could never relate to a tiny Princess. The Thing and the Hulk? Me and my temper identified with them!

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      Ha, I love that line from Lost Ark!

      I liked Faramir better in the long run, too. I guess as a little girl I was just stunned that Aragon would choose Arwen over Eowyn, especially since Arwen was so useless (especially in the book, she didn’t do anything).

      Actually, I think Bujold’s character Ista in Paladin of Souls is a very unique ‘heroine.’ She does get saved by multiple dudes (and the messenger chick), but in the end it’s her who ultimately solves the conflict with her god-speaking powers. I thought that was a good protagonist because she was an “older” female, something you don’t see often.

      Yeah in Hollywood movies it’s REAL HARD to think of a solid heroine (this is so sad!). I guess the new Star War heroines are ok…? I’m not crazy about them, but at least they’re female, ha! Outlander, maybe..? Oh! Dany (Khaleesi) in game of thrones. She’s a good one (at least, in my book).

      Haha I love how you identified with the Hulk. You’re amazing Autumn.

  4. errant musings says:

    I grew up a total fantasy nerd too. Mostly for the worldbuilding/cultures and swords. I liked Eowyn, but also didn’t because she went off to battle to the death because Aragorn wanted the classy elf maiden. I also appreciated Arya Stark’s badassery. But I’ve never really been into fictional characters, not even them. And I often couldn’t relate to many book fantasy heroines anyway, because they were almost always white, running around in yet another reimagined medieval Europe.

    It’s so hard to find a heroine who is feminine, not just objectified, and badass. I so loved Buffy for that reason. When I was a kid, I felt all sorts of mixed feelings about Mulan…still do, but I just let myself enjoy it now.

    I’m trying to think of a book that was a good influence on me before I was ten, independent heroine-wise, and nothing. My constant dissatisfaction shaped me more. It’s not that I was so enlightened on my own back then; it’s just that I was always looking for someone like me, who would react like I would. Or how I’d like to react. If you know what I mean.

    And thanks for reminding me to get back on my quest to vet diverse fantasy for my niece 🙂

  5. Joelle says:

    /lotrgeekhaton

    Movie!Faramir was more complex and interesting than book!Faramir. Book!Faramir was a goody-two-shoes who had no character growth. I strongly preferred movie!Faramir.

    One of my issues with Lord of the Rings as a whole is that none of the women in the series are particularly well-written, which stands to reason, because Tolkien pretty much had this really idealized vision of what women were. I mean, come on, look at how Arwen was idealized. She practically spent the entire war embroidering a banner!!! Again, movie!Arwen was way more badass than book!Arwen, but they had to replace Glorfindel, a male elf, with her! Not that I’m upset about that or anything. *ahem*

    While LOTR is definitely a fantasy classic, I definitely think that its greatest flaws are its lack of realistic female characters. This stands to reason though, since Tolkien wrote it during WWI while he was in the trenches, iirc. So it makes a lot of sense to me that his focus is on the male characters, and the fellowship bonding and overcoming impossible odds. It is definitely very much a product of its time.

    /lotrgeekhatoff

    There are so many fantasy books with strong female characters, though! I really liked Anne McCaffrey’s female characters as role models when I was a teen. Menolly of the dragon harper series was definitely one of my favourites. Lessa was also another favourite of mine, though I found her a little too abrasive for my liking.

    One of my favourite books of all time that I can’t find a copy of any more (and it is totally killing me that I can’t) is Diana Paxson’s The White Raven, which retells the story of Tristan and Isolde from the point of view of Branwen, Isolde’s cousin and companion. I am desperately hoping that an e-book version of this story will be made some day, because I reread this book so many freaking times. Branwen was crazy amazing to me.

    Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels series, also another good one with a strong female lead. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, was so revelatory to me. It tells the story of King Arthur from a female perspective, and it was just… it really gave me a different view of the Arthurian legend.

    So many strong female characters!!!!

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