We've all seen The Girl.
She turns up in TV and film, is generally useless and makes you wonder why on earth she's there. Why didn't the other characters just leave her somewhere, their lives would surely be easier if they had.
The answer is that she is the token female character. She is there to provide romance (assuming male-only romance isn't an 'issue' plotline) and probably some sex appeal or something.
I also suspect that she's there to encourage women to watch traditionally male genres like action and sci-fi. Apparently women are more likely to watch explosions, aliens, chase scenes and robots if they are able to identify with a character - even if she is the most useless character.
Luckily there are plenty of capable female characters on screen and I'm going to look at some of those.
In no particular order...
1. Ellen Ripley - Alien films
Even before the alien turns up Ripley was working on a spaceship (which is pretty cool) and proves her worth by being the only crew-member who understands what a quarantine is for. Like anyone else Ripley has a softer, more vulnerable side, but she doesn't let it define her. And when you're fighting for your life you simply can't think about stuff like that.
Part of her brilliance may come from the fact that she was originally imagined as a he. With few alterations Ridley Scott took a male character called Ripley and created an iconic female character.
So should really awesome female characters be written in male terms? Well no, not necessarily, that's very problematic for a whole variety of reasons. I think the point is to focus on the character (who they are, what they do, why they do it, etc.) rather than on their gender. After all gender roles and expectations are changeable, or they should be.
2. Susan Ivanova - Babylon 5
A nice thing about the portrayal of Ivanova is that she is not objectified or made to appear sexy/glamorous just because she's a woman. The costume designers on Babylon 5 realised that making a military uniform for the female form does not require tight fabric, missing buttons or short zips. This sensible, practical style makes sense for someone in her position, she's busy doing an important job, looking good is not a high priority. It also means that the scenes where Ivanova is shown in a feminine way are more meaningful.
Her personal life is very understated, the male characters have far more prominent romantic relationships. It is strongly suggested that she is in a relationship with a woman for a while, but the details are left private-no girl-on-girl titillation here. Her later lack of interest in a male admirer might be a sign of her sexuality, or could just show that Ivanova is not motivated by romance, she has other things to think about.
3. Ariadne - Inception
We know fairly little about Ariadne, but what we do know is that she was brought onto the crew not because she's dating someone on the team, not because she's pretty or sexy (although I'm sure she's both when she wants to be), and not because she needed rescue. Ariadne was recommended and recruited purely for her skills, she is there for (literally) cerebral reasons. She is no last minute addition, her role as Architect is integral to the plan and at no point does she mess it up. She proves to be smart, creative and as capable as any of the male characters. The fact she's female doesn't affect how the others treat her -except for Arthur's stolen kiss (presumably)- and no allowances or limitations are placed on her due to gender.
I also quite like the fact that she's named after a character from Greek myth. Unlike her mythical counterpart this Ariadne doesn't just know the secret of the Labyrinth, she created it.
4. Samantha Carter - Stargate
A lot of what I want to say about Carter I've already said about Ivanova. They have similar roles: military, intelligent, main woman in a male-dominated workplace. Carter is more of an academic and expeditionary, plus she's modern rather than futuristic. Again I like that Carter isn't made to be glamorous, it's not what she's there for.
Her list of skills is extensive, but Carter is also an excellent character. She is possibly the most important -and certainly the least stereotypical- member of the SG-1 team. Her personality and the way she interacts with people make her a likable character. Despite her many skills and achievements she never feels unrealistic as a person or unrelatable to the audience. Unassuming yet utterly capable Carter is not about to let anyone treat her differently because she's a woman. As shown in this excellent quote: "just because my reproductive organs are on the inside instead of the outside doesn’t mean I can’t handle whatever you can handle."
This makes me grin, because reproductive organs are relevant in so few situations and people need to realise that more.
5. Sydney Bristow - Alias <O>
As the lead character in an intelligent spy thriller series we see many aspects of Sydney. She is almost a little too impressive, there isn't a discipline, skill or language she can't master. Luckily she isn't a super-awesome Mary-Sue figure, Sydney is flawed in various ways and it's these flaws that make us like her. When she's upset she cries, when she's cut she bleeds, but when someone threatens to torture her she escapes and foils their evil plans.
Admittedly she does use her sexuality a fair bit. In one respect being underestimated because you're a pretty and apparently flirty girl is a very useful advantage, as well as teaching all those guards a lesson in focusing on the job at hand. Also it's a sign that the intelligence community needs to hire more women -or gay men. The infamous lingerie scenes are what they are (I chose to watch those ironically) although at least there is humorous acknowledgment that looking sexy is not in fact a natural state of womanhood, it does require effort.
Alias was at its most interesting when there was a complex plot arc and Sydney was being pushed mentally, physically and emotionally. Luckily the bulk of the run was like that and Sydney was always an excellent lead character.
6. Sarah Connor (as played by Linda Hamilton) - Terminator films
In this respect she's a little like Ripley, someone who is tested by a terrible ordeal and comes out the other side tougher and with a purpose. Admittedly in the first film she is mostly rescued by Kyle Reese, but she handles herself pretty well considering the circumstances. Her initial instincts are sensible and practical and unsurprisingly normal, but she's compassionate enough to worry about Reese even when she doubts his sanity. When she realises the truth she's quick to put her trust in the one person who can help her.
Between films (I haven't seen the TV series, so Lena Headey not entering into my thought process here) she goes from an everywoman in a terrifying situation to a powerful, determined and frankly rather scary warrior/protector figure.
One of the great things about Sarah Connor is that she starts out ordinary - she doesn't work on a spaceship, she isn't in the military, and she's not a spy. She didn't choose any of the crap she was landed with. She had a bad job that she wasn't very good at, she lived in a flat with a mate, her main interesting feature was that had a pet lizard. With no training, no contacts and while pregnant/with a small child in tow, she managed to forge a new life on the fringes of society, constantly moving, constantly vigilant and never far away from a massive weapons cache. She is woman who must never give up, no matter how hard it seems, because the future of humanity is at stake (again a little like Ripley).
Happy 100th International Women's Day!