Let’s Talk About Fictional Kickass Heroines: Katniss, Xena, Buffy and More

by vanessa, geneva, julia, and mey
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Here at Autostraddle, we love kickass women. Who doesn’t like to see a girl kick some ass, both metaphorically and physically (but only to protect herself from harm and/or save the world and/or consensually with a trusted partner and a safe word)? Unfortunately for everyone, strong, confident, awesome female leads are few and far between in mainstream media, and when they do exist they’re often deeply flawed or oddly flat characters. Nonetheless, there are some really badass fictional ladies in this great big world, and we want to talk about them.

At camp, the four of us – Vanessa, Julia, Geneva and Mey – will be leading a discussion about female heroines who have positively impacted our brains and our worlds, and contrasting them with supposedly strong female leads who actually kind of miss the mark and make us wince (hi Bella, we’re looking directly at you). What role do these characters play in society’s view of women and girls? How do they positively or negatively shape girls’ own perceptions of themselves and their capabilities? How can we as a community work to create kickass women characters in our pop culture and how can we influence the mainstream media to follow our lead?

Much as we’d love to have that conversation here on the website, too, unfortunately it’s a bit difficult to host and participate in an open thread when you’re hanging out on a mountain top without any internet access. That said, we have a feeling you guys might have a few words to say about all this and we have total faith that you are all kickass humans in your own right who can totally handle this without our guidance, so we’re presenting a list of our favorite kickass fictional heroines as a way to jumpstart this feelingsfest and leaving the rest up to you!

This list is by no means all-inclusive, all-knowing, or even all accurate. If you completely disagree with our inclusion of a character, please (respectfully!) let us know. If you think we left someone out and are totally shocked and appalled that we’ve never read your favorite book / watched your favorite teevee show / viewed your grandma’s favorite home video starring YOU as a fictional heroine, go ahead and school us in the comments! And if you wanna profess your love for Buffy, once more with feeling, we wouldn’t blame you one bit.

SPOILER ALERT: We are about to talk about all of these characters as if you’ve read the whole book / seen the whole series / watched the whole movie / own all the comics in which they appear. If you have not in fact done that you may want to skim and skip accordingly. 


20 Kickass Girls in Books, Comics, TeeVee, Movies, and Pop Culture In General

Miss America Chavez

Young Avengers (Marvel Comics)
miss-america-chavez

This interdimensional kicker of butt is one of only a handful of prominent Latina superheroes in all of mainstream comics. She’s invulnerable, she can fly with super speed, she can travel through different dimensions and she’s so strong that she can “throw tanks to the moon.” She’s able to fight Norse Gods to a standstill. She has one of the best costumes in the Marvel Universe and a cool, no nonsense attitude. Plus, she has two super-powered moms.

Hermione

Harry Potter
hermione

Without Hermione, Harry Potter would not have survived past book one and then it would have been a lot shorter. She is the brains of the operation without a doubt. She might even be the smartest kid at Hogwarts and intellect is sexy and powerful. She is also a mudblood so she faces a lot of adversity within the wizarding world, but she gains everybody’s respect because she really is better at this stuff than most of the kids born into wizarding families.

Kel

Protector of the Small
kel

Kel is the first known female to sign up to become a knight. The boys pee on her door and trash her room. They put weights in her practice weapons and make her life a living hell, but Kel carries on with a calm face. She gets up before dawn everyday to do strengthening exercises so she can’t just compete with the boys, but so she is stronger than the boys. She takes in animals who are bound for the slaughter house and fights for those who cannot fight for themselves. She is a truly awesome role model for girls.

Kaisa

Ash
kaisa

Julia is desperately waiting to be cast as Kaisa in the movie version of Ash, because she wants to be her so bad. Kaisa is the King’s Huntress, which is basically his right wing woman. She rides around the country keeping everything safe and leading the hunt. She has excellent archery and equestrian skills. Her position is one of power and respect. She is also super suave with the ladies.

Zoe

Firefly
zoe

A soldier, a wife, a friend, and a kickass independent woman of color, Zoe earns her spot on this list many times over. Over the short run of Firefly (RIP), we witness her show off some impressive fighting skills, and it often seems as though she’s the only member of the crew that Captain Mal Reynolds really trusts. Though it’s a little off-putting to hear Zoe call Mal “sir” so often and consistently, that does not stop her from giving her opinions (both to Mal and to her husband, pilot and crew member Wash), and she never misses an opportunity to make subtle “I told ya so” comments when Mal’s plans inevitably go awry. It’s also refreshing to see a married woman on television retain her independence; she may be a wife, but she still calls her own shots and her husband not only accepts that, it’s obvious he respects it. Solid healthy relationship modeling all around!

Karolina Dean and Xavin

Runaways (Marvel Comics)
karolina-xavin

Karolina is a glowing, flying teenage daughter of alien supervillains who’s the emotional center of her team. Xavin is her shapeshifting Super-Skrull fiancée who’s one of the few transgender characters in all of comics. Together they form one of the best queer couples in recent comics, showing not only that you can have three-dimensional queer characters, but also that gender isn’t a simple, straightforward binary. These two are able to not only overcome their supervillian legacies, but also the racism and homophobia that they face for being an interracial lesbian couple.

Katniss

The Hunger Games
katniss

When we meet Katniss she is a young woman with almost no support system who manages to look after both herself and her family with no complaints. That would be impressive enough, but when she’s thrust into the world of the Hunger Games (by bravely and selflessly volunteering as tribute to save her little sister) her character gains strength and independence that make her an unstoppable force. Throughout the series we see her attempt to discern right from wrong, decide who she can trust and who is lying, and her humanity is celebrated even when it is not immediately rewarded, providing nice depth in comparison to a robo-girl who just kicks butt and takes name. Katniss does all this while being human, and it’s inspiring.

Tara

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
tara

Tara is arguably one of the most underrated Scoobies of the gang. She’s shy when we first meet her, but over the course of her arc she proves herself to be a powerful witch with both natural and learned talents, she stands up to her father and rejects the preconceived notions her family has about what a woman must do and be, she supports and loves Willow but also refuses to be manipulated, and she is always willing to offer wise advice, sweet encouragement, and an extra brain when it comes time to research. Honestly the only critique we can think to lob at Tara is that she’s too perfect – for real, try to think of a single moment during her entire arc when she bothered you. You can’t use the time Joss made her and Willow wear weird princess dresses during the musical because that wasn’t her fault. See?! She’s perfect and kickass. Also also also: she’s a gay lady – we love gay ladies!

Xena

Xena: Warrior Princess
xena

Xena was originally a character on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, but her spin-off show surpassed its dude-lead counterpart in both ratings and pop culture prominence. Xena is everything we could ask for – she’s confident, multifaceted, queer and can kick the asses of most gods. She has intense relationships with a whole bunch of female characters over the course of the show as friends, enemies, family and thinly-veiled lovers, flying in the face of the widely held belief that no one will watch a women-lead action show.

San

Princess Mononoke
san

San, in my opinion is without a doubt the most badass Disney Princess. She sucks a bullet straight from a giant wolf’s shoulder. She charges into battle armed with just a knife against people armed with guns and swords. She wasn’t just raised by wolves, she was raised by a Wolf Goddess. San is willing to do anything to protect her family and her home. She’ll fight tooth and nail for what she believes in, even if it means trying to single handedly stop a rampaging Boar Demon.

Brienne of Tarth

A Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones
brienne

In a universe notorious for corruption, violence and greed, Brienne is the one true knight. She can’t technically become a knight because of the patriarchy, but she doesn’t care and earns a place in Renly’s Rainbow Guard anyways. She’s honourable, determined, street smart and doesn’t let men belittle her. Though her journey is closely intertwined with Jaime Lannister’s redemption arc, Brienne always has her own story and her own motivations. And she kicks his ass in a swordfight.

Echo

Dollhouse
echo

This show starts slowly, but once Echo’s character arc kicks in midway through the first season a really cool feminist narrative unfolds. Echo is trapped in a child-like state, controlled by the staff of an underground company who program volunteers to become various fantasies of rich clients. In her supposedly blank state, Echo develops self-awareness and rebels against the company. When their technology gets in the wrong hands and turns Los Angeles into an apocalyptic nightmare, Echo leads a band of guerrilla warriors to save the world from itself. The show never shies away from dealing with the misogyny and consent issues inherent in its premise, and Echo, Sierra and Adele always find a way to upset the order of the institutions trying to control and exploit them.

Ginny

Harry Potter
ginny

Ginny is fierce. She is the youngest and only girl in a large family of boys and she is totally awesome because of it. She always steps in to be at the front of the battles, even when she is told she is too young she manages to sneak in to lend a hand. She is one of the bravest/strongest characters in the series. She handles the love stuff with Harry in a mature and responsible way, she is helpful and insightful, and she knows exactly how to use a wand.

Faith

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
faith

Faith does everything we wanted to do high school – she skips school, has sex whenever she wants and rocks snakeskin bell-bottoms. Though she was introduced strictly as a foil to Buffy, Faith’s journey from teen bad girl to supervillain to stoic hero is one of the stand-out arcs of the series. Whether she’s picking fights with cops, possessing Buffy’s body or leading an army of fellow Slayers into battle, we always understand Faith’s motivations. While Faith has to make amends for her mistakes over the course of her redemption arc, she never apologizes for who she is. Faith’s as outspoken, confident and kinky after her heel-face turn as she ever was while evil.

Nani

Lilo and Stitch
nani

Nani holds it down. She’s recovering from the tragic loss of her parents, raising her little sister, and working full-time. Not only that, but she also has to deal with government agents and a whole mess of aliens trying to take away either her little sister or that sister’s pet and best friend. Nani is by far one of the best role models in any Disney film. She’s able to show the importance of family and love, and that when someone is a part of your family, you accept them for who they are and hold to them as tight as you can, no matter what.

Bo

Lost Girl
bo

Bo is the big-hearted, brave lead of Lost Girl who loves breaking rules. She refuses to align herself to a side in the ongoing magical war, chooses humans as best friends and lovers despite cultural stigma and makes no apologies for being bisexual. Bo and her bestie Kenzi handle monsters-of-the-week, doomed romances and the trials of being young and broke through humor and self-reliance. When it’s revealed that Bo is the prophecized savior of her people, she begrudgingly accepts her duty without ever compromising her morals, attitude or sex life.

Willow

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
willow

We had a hard time deciding whether or not to include Willow on this list because of that time she raped her girlfriend via magical mind-wiping, but the world is a complicated place and we think she still belongs here. Willow begins the show with little agency as the computer nerd everyone picks on at school with a hopeless crush on her best and only friend, but she soon proves herself critical to the Scoobies’ adventures thanks to her book smarts, loyalty, and growing magical prowess. In college, Willow forms more of an identity outside of the Scoobies, joining a Wicca group and beginning a secret relationship with another witch, and she asserts herself as much more than just Buffy’s sidekick. Though her buried self-hatred, need for control over her loved ones and arrogant overuse of magic eventually drive her to become evil and try to end the world, it’s hard not to cheer for her rises in confidence and power. Having Willow mess with the established order by magically imbuing thousands of potential Slayers with their superhero powers is a kickass final act for her story.

Kaede and Taisin

Huntress
kaede-taisin

We put these two together because they are both awesome heroines in their own right, but as a team they are unstoppable. Taisin has crazy magical sage powers and Kaede is fierce and kickass. They support each other through a journey to save the world. They share a unique mental bond, as well as having the complimentary skills to complete their mission, as well as fall deeply in love with one another.

Batwoman

batwoman

The first lesbian superhero with her own comic book, Batwoman is just as tough and fierce as any of her male counterparts. After being kicked out of the military for refusing to lie about who she is back when DADT was still in effect, she decided to become a vigilante in the most dangerous city in the DC universe. She teams up with the likes of Wonder Woman, The Question, her fellow members of the Bat Family and even the Justice League of America. She flirts with the Police Women who pull her over and looks great in a tux. She may share a name with Batman, but she is no sidekick.

Buffy

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
bo

For better or worse, women who kick ass on television will always be compared to Buffy Summers. Over seven seasons, Buffy takes on the patriarchy in many of its guises – she emancipates herself from the patronizing Watchers Council, fights demons posing as douchey frats guys and abusive boyfriends, slices a misogynistic preacher in half via crotch and always has a snappy retort and ass-kicking in store for vampires who underestimate her. The overarching theme of the loneliness Buffy faces as the only Slayer in the world comes to a satisfyingly feminist conclusion in the series finale when Buffy and Willow do a spell that shares Buffy’s power with thousands of girls around the world, creating a Slayer army.

Vanessa is a queer feminist writer and photographer currently based in New York. She really misses Portland. Find her on twitter and instagram.

Vanessa has written 333 articles for us.

154 Comments

  1. Éowyn! Éowyn! Éowyn! Éowyn! Éowyn! Éowyn! ;)

    Also: I think it used to be sort of mandatory for gay ladies to be in love with the warrior princess? At the time I never really got the obsession* my ex had with Xena but now I sort of do.

    *And I mean obsession. She used to write and record songs about the series and performed them at conventions, even. (If you’re reading this: Hi, Theo! I really kind of get it now! ;)) Some of her stuff is still up at DocCovington.net if any of you wanna check it out.

  2. I’d also throw in Starbuck, Athena, Kat, and Duala from Battlestar Galactica. And that’s only partly because I have an enormous crush on Starbuck. I love that there were so many strong female characters on that show, and it’s wasn’t even a thing. Nobody said anything like “Can you believe it? Starbuck is the best pilot ever, and she is a WOMAN!” It was just sort of common knowledge that women were as capable as men.

      • And most importantly 6. I’m not kidding, 6. She’s an inspiration.

        First of all – her total dignity, pride and sense of self in the face of being denied even personhood.
        Gaius: so you are a machine? and this was all a pretense?
        6: No i’m a woman. And a Cylon. And it was all real.
        To see her cool is an inspiration, seeing it backed by nuclear weapons and a Basestar or two is a feel good message.

        Secondly – Even though 6 is straight i can’t help but see her femininity along the lines of a queer femme. She’s does not fit a lazy feminine steretype, quite the other way around – she’s one of the emotionally hardest, most logical and determined characters in Battlestar (attracted to Gaius as her complementary, a diametrical opposite). And her femininity is neither a disguise nor something default – hence i can’t help but see her embracing it in a very deliberate, reflected and personal way. Also, she’s taller, heavier and more muscular that Starbuck (which showed in their one-on-one is s2) but artfully never comes across that way. Queer femme icon if i have ever seen one.

  3. I AM SO GLAD SOMEONE PUT GINNY IN HERE.

    /caps

    Seriously, Ginny gets a lot of hate and I’m not sure why except that she had the audacity to make out with a few people. If anything, she handles being pursued by Harry the emo boy of all caps with the disturbing lust chest monster with grace and she can wield one hell of a bat-bogey hex, not to mention survives being possessed by Voldemort and barely gets asked if she’s okay.

    Also, really really glad someone else appreciated Dollhouse’s tackling of misogyny. Most of my friends were like “THIS IS EXPLOITATION WTF” when it came out and didn’t realize that it was trying to make a point, which I think it does actually rather well even as things get crazy. Albeit with probably a necessary trigger warning, especially for Sierra’s storyline. (Side note: Sierra/Priya should probably be on here too. Or maybe I’m biased because Dichen Lachman *____*)

  4. I had to miss this panel on the mountain, so I’m super glad it’s here online as well! I agree with everyone on this amazing list, as well as everyone’s comments above!

    As well as all the amazing people mentioned in the comments, I’d like to add Samantha Carter from Stargate SG-1 (military professional/scientist/badass), and Sansa Stark (badass within the societal constructs of the GoT world). It always makes me sad when ppl recognize Arya’s badassry but overlook Sansa!

  5. so envious that geneva (@onthetracks) has already had time to hop in here and respond to y’all. so excited that everyone had so many feelings about this. so grateful for the 50ish humans who attended our panel on the mountain and engaged in an AWESOME discussion that made me think so so so much. so ready to get home from work tonight (ugh) and finally participate in this comment thread for real. SO IN LOVE WITH SO MANY FICTIONAL KICKASS HEROINES.

  6. I’m surprised that Kel was on this list yet her precursors, mentors and inspiration from previous book series by the same author, that take place in the same universe, weren’t mentioned.
    First and foremost, let us not forget Lady Alanna, the first Lady Knight. Pretends to be a boy in order to become a Knight, before it is eventually revealed she is female, wherein she then becomes known as the Woman Who Rides Like A Man and she takes the Lioness Rampant as her sigil. All around badass and pioneer to the ladies of the Tortall Universe.
    Then my personal favourite would have to be Veralidane “Dane” Sarasri. Starts out as nothing more than some bastard child, then orphaned by a rabid bear. She possesses a rare kind of magic, Wild Magic which allows her to speak to animals and eventually heal them as well as shapeshift. By the end of it she’s befriending dragons, defeating evil emperor mages, and fighting against immortal beings. Also it turns out she was the daughter of a god all along.
    Actually all of Tamora Pearce’s heroines are pretty stellar.

  7. I kinda wish there would have been some other Dollhouse ladies on here. Echo’s ok, but Sierra is so much more of an intriguing character to me and her original self Priya survives and gets through some serious shit. Not to mention Adelle DeWitt being a kick ass lady who takes care of her house.

    i do love the inclusion of Faith, she gets a lot of shit sometimes, but wow character development and badass-ness.

    I do second the comments about Kara Thrace/Starbuck and Laura Roslin from BSG, and Ellen Ripley.

    We could all talk forever about awesome ladies that deserve to be on this list though. Haha.

  8. Myka Bering and Helena G Well and Utena,and hell, even Helena from Orphan Black.
    HG is unapologetic and twisted and genius and kick ass and awesome.
    Myka is your super nerdy eidetic memory kickass sword savy super secret agent.
    Utena wileds a sword, dresses and behaves like a prince and fights for her princess.
    And Helena..well, Helena is super twisted and evil and whatnot,but she survived horrific abuse for basically her entire life and she’s the rockstar who keeps busting her twin sister out of tight spots and survives basically anything cause that’s how kickass she is.She’s a survivor in every sense of the word.

  9. Really I was only led to this because I searched “Willow and Tara” (I’ve been on a hardcore Buffy marathon lately), but then I read the whole list and I give all the approval. Brienne of Tarth is one of my favorite characters and it also makes me really happy to see that other people have read Malinda Lo books.

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