Ryan Muree: Validating Strong Women in Fantasy

Obvious Disclaimer is Obvious: This is not to say there aren’t issues with how we validate strong men in fiction.

Wonder Woman (2017)

We’ve heard it before. Women don’t make profitable decent leads in action movies (clasps barrel o’ popcorn while watching Wonder Woman). They don’t make convincing warriors (cautiously nods to Brienne of Tarth). And young women are not capable of wrapping their tiny emotional minds around bigger issues (fist bumps Katniss Everdeen). If you’re anything like me, I usually greet these opinions with a healthy eye roll and a sip of my basic Starbucks pumpkin spice. As one does.

To be honest, there’s too much here to unpack. So, let’s just focus on one piece: Not only do those characters prove the naysayers wrong, but all of those women are strong. And I mean physically strong.

It’s almost like… in order to prove that female characters are just as viable as male characters in fantasy, we have to make them less stereotypically female…

Am I saying I want physically weaker women and damsels in distress?

Uh, yes, actually… And not exactly to that second part.

Michonne from The Walking Dead

I’m grateful we see fewer stories with helpless damsels in distress. However, I would argue while fewer women are being chained to a rock with their cleavage bursting out of their tops as they scream for help, they’ve sort of morphed into a different kind of damsel in a different sort of distress. Often times, we see our damsel has the audacity to think she’s smart, to think she’s doing something right for herself with all the confidence of an F5 tornado, and then, something happens (usually sexually) to slam her right back down in her place. You can’t see it, but I’m staring down the writer(s) of Julia Wicker in The Magicians right now. My eyebrow is even twitching.

So, while a lot of women in fiction and some of their creators have forged ahead to be something… better… than damsel in distress, we get back to the original point. If we don’t want damsels in distress, then we must want the opposite, right?

Enters: Physically strong kick-ass women!

We all love kick-ass women. One of my favorite tropes of all time is the Femme Fatale. And I agree that putting some literal kick-ass women into fiction pushes the clueless damsel in distress into the past. There are so many good examples: Buffy, Michonne, Beatrix Kiddo, She-Ra, Black Widow, Letty Ortiz… They’re strong women in their own right, outside and in.

But are they viewed as such merely because they’re steeped in stereotypical masculine traits—muscle, speed, agility, a love of cars, swords, and gore?

Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Media would suggest so. Movie posters and book covers love to feature kick-ass ladies holding weapons. Video games tend to highlight the physical female fighters over their counterparts.

Strong but feminine women taking the lead seem hard to find. The physically weak or stereotypically feminine characters are often viewed as an afterthought. They’re often a support role, a side-kick.

And if there’s no hiding a “strong but weak” leading lady, the entire product often gets shifted to “chick flick” or “romance/drama” or “not really a real thing people (read: men) are interested in.”

Or it’s not fantasy at all, and it takes decades to tell a story about a woman everyone should’ve known about since the ‘60s.

Katherine G. Johnson from Hidden Figures (2016)

I get it. Kick-ass characters make money. It gets people (read: men) in the door to watch and read. And of course, physically strong, kick-ass women exist in real life and deserve their space.

But we don’t have to have it one way or the other—damsel in distress or weapon-wielding killer. We don’t have to accept or define the strength of women by their sole ability to physically hold their own against men or by how much they do “dude-like” things.

But, Ryan… racing cars or using a katana shouldn’t be a DUDE thing.

Yeah, exactly! So, we shouldn’t allow one woman to be labeled strong just for liking cars and kicking ass on the streets, while labeling another woman weak for liking nail polish and baking cupcakes.

The 21st century is about inclusion and raising voices. We’re making strides in featuring all sorts of strength and interests in leading women. They’re out there, but we need more, and we do that by supporting women of all ages and lifestyles, facing the problems of their worlds head on in their own way, be it by pen or sword.

What are some of your favorite fantasy stories featuring strong leading ladies? Share in the comments. 🙂

About the Author

Ryan grew up a military brat, managed to teach middle school in Texas for a spell, and finally settled in the southeastern US with her husband, their daughter, and two black cats. She loves writing determined heroines who answer the call for wild adventures across rich lands with grit and smarts. When she’s not inventing worlds for her characters, she games, draws, paints, and uses too many exclamation points.

Reach her at:

Ryan’s upcoming release is the first book in her new romantic epic fantasy Kingdoms of Ether series, Kingdoms of Ether:

Emeryss is stuck in a library with the wrong destiny.

As the first Scribe born to the non-magical people of northern Revel, Emeryss was hauled off to the Great Library to spend the rest of her life translating ether into grimoires for her nation’s Casters. When her plan for freedom—to become a Caster—seems hopeless, Emeryss partners with a thieving illusionist for the perfect getaway: an airship, a full crew, and the promise to train Emeryss into the Caster she was meant to be. But the escape is not easy.

Grier—Emeryss’s assigned guard—is prepared to risk his life to protect her against any enemy who would hunt her for her gift. Keeping her safe and close is all he’s ever wanted. Keeping her alive is merely a stepping stone to the greatness his family expects. Letting the love he can never have walk out of the library—not an option.

As Emeryss fights for her freedom, the war between the Casters of Revel and the devastating ether-tech of the enemy nation of Ingini draws near. With the fate of her country at the brink of ruin, Emeryss must either save her people by keeping her old destiny or pay the price for a new one.

Get Kingdoms of Ether on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited and be swept away on a fantastical journey across an expansive world full of magic, politics, love, and duty!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.