"I think the major problem here is that women were clamoring for 'strong female characters', and male writers misunderstood. They thought the feminists meant Strong Female Characters. The feminists meant Strong Characters, Female."
Media has had a bit of a struggle with trying to come up with usable female characters, particularly in children's programming. The main culprit behind this is the prevalence of The Smurfette Principle. If a male character is the default, then the only characters that can really have "quirks" are male characters, since the majority of the female characters will end up being The Chick. Unfortunate Implications and Double Standard ensue.
Girls Need Role Models is the resulting mantra of trying to deal with this problem. The idea is that by making characters who are actually intended to appeal to girls (instead of just "being around" the normal male characters who appeal to boys), we can avoid the pitfalls associated with The Smurfette Principle. Traditionally, this means portraying female characters as strong and independent.
The pitfalls of this are in the perception. Female leads in shows like, say sitcoms, are still relatively rare. As a result, the foible of a female lead character is going to stand out a lot more than a similar foible from a male lead character on another show. A female character, as long as this is a rare thing, will always stick out for better or worse. Usually for worse — a female character must be better written and have more plausible flaws than her male counterpart. Otherwise, she's likely to stick out as being filled with stereotypes. It's likewise tempting to make the female character better at everything to avoid such allegations.
Obviously, the best way to remedy the problem is to make female characters more common — that way, flaws really aren't that big a deal. Western media stand out on this issue — Japanese comics pioneered the Shoujo Demographic, and shows accessible to girls are ubiquitous today. Girls in Japan don't really have to worry about role models because there are enough characters, good and bad, that they avoid Unfortunate Implications to a greater degree. Metrics such as the The Bechdel Test can be used to determine the extent to which the work treats girls and women simply as regular characters.
Compare You Are a Credit to Your Race.
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Wonder Woman was created by a psychiatrist that thought this. Of course, the kinds of girls he had in mind were into bondage and swinging, so one would have to wonder if this is a Broken Aesop...
Comics and music critic Douglas Wolk once wrote a series of reviews under the secret identity of clueless Comics Journal intern Jess Lemon. "Jess" tears into a Vampirella/Witchblade crossover when her apologist brother claims that it has strong female characters: "When people say they want strong female characters, they don't necessarily mean strong in the sense that they can lift things."
The original Larry Hama-penned GI Joe comic from Marvel is well regarded by feminists, citing that the female character's gender was not a focus, and the fact that their gender did not define them or their positions on the team.
In Runaways, most of the team consists of girls, with two boys at the most in the line-up (this receives several lampshades). All of them have powers or skills of some sort and all are able to think on their feet and take down villains. And while they have various issues they deal with, they're about on the same level as the guys, in terms of angst.
Besides the lead character, polymath adventurer Gina Diggers, Gold Digger features a wide amount of distinctive and compelling characters who happen to be female, and has made it an ongoing mission to feature equal opportunity treatment for both genders.
In an issue of X-Men: First Class (nothing to do with the movie), Professor X seems to think that Jean Grey could use a female role model, so he arranges her to job shadow Sue Storm of the Fantastic Four.
Beauty and the Beast: Belle, who was well-read when no one else cared for it and had the courage to stand up to a terrifying creature when he was roaring and yelling at her. Despite some damsel moments, she was also proactive in rescuing her father from the Beast.
The main character of Mulan. She took on the burden of going to war, was one of the best fighters, saved the day and the romance was underplayed. Not to mention, the only time she wore a fancy dress was a disaster and she never wore makeup thereon, either in the movie or the merchandise.
In Wreck-It Ralph, we have Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun, who commands her troops, shoots down Cy-Bugs, and is Badass as hell. Then there's Vanellope Von Schweetz, who is a Plucky Girl and Badass Driver. At the end, it seems like she's going to be yet anotherDisney Princess, but she rejects the dress and becomes a PRESIDENT instead.
On the first day of June, 2009, a female writer at NPR wrote this blog post. In it, she innocuously mused aloud that, since Pixar created so many memorable female characters in their films, it would be nice if, for a change, one of them was the lead rather than a supporting character. And while 2012's Bravedoes have a female lead, she's a princess, and the writer wanted something more original upon hearing about it. Hilarity ensued. This thankfully level-headed writer summarizes the "Pixar Needs Women" debacle very nicely.
Once the movie was actually released, Merida was notable for independence, resourcefulness, skill in combat (particularly with a bow), and being the first Disney princess whose movie doesn't even have a romantic subplot — rather, it involves her efforts to avoid an Arranged Marriage. Unfortunately, the fact that she antagonizes her mother and winds up threatening the entire kingdom in her attempt to avoid it made her the movie's Base Breaker, with some viewers seeing her as a lovely role model and others seeing her as unsympathetic, whiny, and selfish. In other words, exactly like the flawed teenage girl the original female director and writer had intended her to be. Moral: do not be a female character with flaws you need to overcome - you need to be all righteous ass-kicking, all the time or a you're a bad role model. It was in fact this very mindset that led to Brenda Chapman having her film taken from her out of concern that it wasn't "action-oriented", and thus it would fail to attract boys (who are still the favored demographic).
Films — Live-Action
Liz Hoggard openly invokes the trope in her review of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, noting that what makes Alice a "good role model" is that "she is not girlie", according to her. Clarification is desperately needed for this, as the linked review does no such thing - "Girlie" in the review refers specifically to the archetype of the Damsel in Distress. A role that Alice does not fall into despite being quite conventionally feminine. At no point is it claimed that Real Women Don't Wear Dresses.
Down with Love might be done comically but Barbra Novak is the heroine of all women around the world by having taught them to be equal, self-reliant citizens of the world.
Sara Melas's boss in Hitch says that she is so good at her job.
It appears that The Powers That Be working currently on the film of The Hobbit are fully aware of this trope. Many fan eyebrows have been raised on the revelation that Evangeline Lily will be playing a film-only character called "Tauriel," and she is an "elf warrior-maiden." Granted, the alternative is to abide by the book, which hasn't got a single female character to its name, but fans are still prickly — not least because "elf warrior-maiden" are three prime Mary Sue buzzwords.
Princess Leia is often hailed by fans and critics as a breakthrough female role model. Let's count the ways: In the first movie, she has a rather traditional "role" — the object of a rescue — but acts absolutely nothing like any female has in a similar role in a movie — she takes over her own rescue mission, for one thing. In the second movie she busts herself and her friends out of a heavily-guarded stronghold with a BFG before doubling back to rescue her brother. And then by the third movie, she winds up rescuing her lover from a Hutt. Repeat: the princess rescues the pirate from a dragon. Which she then kills barehanded, while said lover is incapacitated. And she drags her brother on a shoot-'em-up speeder chase after the bad guys. Basically, Leia broke just about every single rule regarding female characters in the whole book.
Padme Amidala has her big career, can fight with the Jedi and clone troopers and refuses to even be with Anakin throughout Attack of the Clones even if she does wear pretty dresses.
In the Twilight books, nerdy Eric is class valedictorian. In the movies it's changed to Jessica.
In an interesting comparison, the movies of Michael Bay tend towards macho Rated M for Manly and Stuff Blowing Up popcorn movies. Most of the women tend to be exceptionally attractive and the movie makes sure we know that, even the extras. BUT, when you isolate those female characters from the revealing clothing and explosions, they all tend to be rather strong willed, intelligent, with a personality and relevant to the story beyond being a Damsel in Distress (even if barely). Yet this is often lost because, well, the women are also exceptionally attractive. This creates an irony that these women don't come across as the typical "Role Model" for girls because they are surrounded by testosterone. For example:
Liv Tyler's character Grace in Armageddon is basically the girlfriend and eventual wife of the hero, A.J. When her father Harry disapproves she has this rather long monologue yelling at him about what he expected when he took her on these long oil drilling sessions, and, surprise, she fell in love with an oil worker. Beyond that she is also shown being very savvy with investors.
Kate Beckinsale in Pearl Harbor is a nurse fueling the Love Triangle, but when the attack happens she is front and center doing triage on the wounded, using her lipstick to mark the ones they can save versus the ones who will just get morphine to ease the pain when the die.
Megan Fox in her two Transformers movies sometimes proved to be more resourceful than her love interest, the actual main character Sam. She has a checkered past working with her dad stealing cars, and is also aware of her own tendency to go after bad boys, admitting she can be rather shallow. Her car stealing and Badass Driver skills come in handy in both films.
Rosie Huntington-Whitely in the third movie may have the role of Damsel in Distress during most of the second act, but she remains aware of her surroundings and pays attention to the budding feud between the Big Bad Duumvirate, which gives her some VERY valuable information that is useful when she is rescued. Even when that happens, Sam fails to get right TO her, but she instead takes off like a rocket and jumps out a window when the opportunity comes.
Subverted in Animorphs. Initially, Rachel is the obvious choice as the feminist role model in the series (strong-willed, good-looking, personable, bold, courageous, capable in combat, etc etc), with Cassie acting as her meek best friend. However, by the end of the series, Rachel is miles away from a Mary Sue, her "bold and courageous" personality ultimately evolving into that of a sadistic action junkie. Cassie, on the other hand, while proven to be smart and capable, remains a relatively passive character uninterested in leadership qualities, stemming from her belief nonviolence. This makes her an atypical feminist character in that while she can take a more active role she simply chooses not to.
In an interview regarding her novel Bridget Jones' Diary, Helen Fielding remarked upon the idea of a comic female protagonist being controversial for this reason, whereas no man ever took Bertie Wooster as an insulting stereotype of the entire male gender. A derogatory stereotype of English fecklessness, sure, but not a stereotype of men.
Clearly one of the aims of the Kiki Strike books. Indeed, in the first book, Inside the Shadow City, not one of the major characters is male.
The American Girl series is made for this and in fact has a magazine specifically dedicated to this.
The Dear America books created a generation of female history nerds.
Harry Potter: Hermione Granger fills this role pretty successfully, being not only better at most kinds of magic than Harry, but also possessing a lot more common sense and intellectual ability. The only problems some have with her seem to be the presentations of her flaws (telling, rather than showing).
One of the most famous role models for girls, Nancy Drew, started as something of a subversion. Her creator, Edward Statemeyer, was actually something of a chauvinist (although, this was 1929, his belief that women belonged in the home wasn't exactly uncommon). The only reason he allowed the series to go to print? He saw that girls were reading the Spear Counterpart Hardy Boys books and realized there was a market. The one saving grace was the series first ghostwriter, Mildred Wirt (later Benson), who decided to put more into the character than what Stratemeyer outlined on the page.
Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet is an intelligent, lively, attractive, and witty young woman. Considering she's from Regency England and her family is troubled financially, matrimony is her only option to secure her future. Nevertheless she refuses to marry for money without love or reason twice.
BJK White places his books "squarely in the sub-sub-genre of 'Girls Kicking Arse'."
Phryne Fisher; as her creator Kerry Greenwood has said, "But Phryne is a hero, just like James Bond or the Saint, but with fewer product endorsements and a better class of lovers. I decided to try a female hero and made her as free as a male hero, to see what she would do."
The Hunger Games which, aside from the main character, Katniss, also included fleshed out and strong characters such as Rue, Johanna, Clove and to some degree Foxface, Mags and even Prim (who, despite being treated as the Damsel for most of the series, still got moments to shine). Rue's main role in the Hunger Games was to fuel Katniss' desire to win the Games and she gets killed off about halfway through the first book. Clove is a psychotic Knife Nut who likes causing people pain and she gets violently killed for gloating about it.
Strongly invoked in the first entry in the Artemis Fowl series - Holly Short is bluntly told that her commanding officer is harder on her because she's the first woman in LEPrecon forces, and many elf girls and women are looking to her to succeed.
The Discworld universe has a lot of Deliberate Values Dissonance on the subject of female empowerment, but women's rights seem to be advancing rather more quickly than they did in the real world of the equivalent era. Most of the protagonists are either not chauvinistic or at least eventually realize the error of their ways. Those that don't are mainly the ones that are the butt of most of the jokes (Fred and Nobby, for example). The wizards tend to fall into the "Humorously Politically Incorrect Seniors" category.
The female Sgt. Angua, while for a long time being The Smurfette, is probably the third-most capable officer in the Watch after Commander Vimes (the focus character of the Watch books) and Captain Carrot (Memetic Badass and King Incognito). Being a werewolf, she's also the most physically powerful officer after troll Sgt. Detritus.
Male and female dwarfs traditionally look alike, dress alike, and act alike; it's mentioned parenthetically that a major portion of dwarf courtship consists of discreetly finding out exactly what sex your intended is. After exposure to Ankh Morpork culture many female dwarfs are beginning to adopt some human standards of femininity (but draw the line at shaving off their beards).
Women traditionally can't be wizards, but men traditionally can't be witches; witches are almost invariably shown to be the more effectual and Closer to Earth of the two. An early book portrays a girl who determines to become a wizard; when she pops up again much later as an adult she reveals that she achieved that, but ultimately decided witching was simply a superior kind of magic.
The Tiffany Aching books have a few witches who also know some wizard magic, but it turns out fireball throwing isn't that useful for what is basically a local nurse and vet.
Pterry himself claims he's never had much luck writing female characters who weren't tough, resourceful and competent, either overtly or beneath superficial self-doubts.
L. Frank Baum's Land of Oz series is full to the brim with active female heroes, royalty, soldiers, witches, and villains. Hell, one of the few male protagonists of his books turns out to have been a female all along, and spends the rest of the series as the quite feminine Princess Ozma. Baum himself was active in the early stages of the feminist movement (at the time called suffragists), and was connected to many movers and shakers of the cause, including Susan B. Anthony.
In the premiere of the Bionic Woman reboot, a little girl sees Jaime outrace a car and thinks out loud that "it's neat a girl can do that." Lampshade Hanging, or an anvil so large it has the gravity of a planet?
Joss Whedon rather famously complained about how everyone kept asking him about his "strong women characters." He noted that no one ever asked a TV producer about "strong male characters," and concluded with the idea that when people stop making a big deal about positive female role models (that is, when it's no longer done for artificial reasons but just because "why not"), that will be a good thing. (Which is a little ironic, when you consider that he once said, "I can't seem to write a series without a teenage girl with superpowers." Hey, everyone has their niche.) In its abbreviated form:
Interviewer: Why do you write these strong female characters? Joss: Because you keep asking that question.
His work veers towards Positive Discrimination, however - ever wonder why Dollhouse never used Victor when an Active with combat skills was needed? Or, more to the point, how Echo survived being punched repeatedly in the face by a man twice her size in "Man on the Street"? Also, his heroines are strong fighting off demons one after another, yet they are weeping over unsuccessful relationships with men. However, this could equally be considered a logical extrapolation: after all, male heroes (Peter Parker and Clark Kent, to name but two), tend to have the same sort of relationship problems.
Power Rangers usually manages to bypass this problem as most teams have two females on them, so one can be the role model while the other can be a little quirky. For example, in Power Rangers RPM, Summer is the stereotypical role model, while Gemma is a lot goofier and whackier (not to mention freakin' insane). Unfotunately, seasons with only one female teammate can suffer. Tori from Power Rangers Ninja Storm strayed into this trope from time to time.
"I get letters saying, 'I want to do the right thing like Olivia. I want to be strong like Olivia. My friend did this, but I didn't do it because of Olivia.' For me, when a television show has that kind of positive effect on young people, it is great. I think it is a good thing that we are shedding light on darkness. I think it is a good thing to make young girls aware."
Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan. An ass-kicking anthropologist who wears jewelery, skirts and high heels while beating the shit out of bad guys, and whose best girlfriends are a similarly ass-kicking African-American coroner isn't defined by her race, who once had a comfortably relaxed affair (and is still best friends with) the man Brennan is now in love with, and a free-spirited Eurasian artist who believes in love while still being a Lovable Sex Maniac. And for that rare creature, the female teen on the Autism Spectrum, the fact that a woman with huge social problems can not only be accepted as a friend, lover and boss, but does so on national television, is enormously comforting.
In fact, Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) was so bored in her (non) role that she thought about quitting after Season One. Martin Luther King Jr convinced her to stay and keep being a role model for African-American girls.
Of Star Trek: The Next Generation's original three female leads, two (Counselor Troi and Doctor Crusher) were in traditional "nurturing" female roles, and one (Tasha Yar) was an Action Girl. Unfortunately, actress Denise Crosby's departure from the show left them with only the former two until the introduction of Ro Laren, never more than a tertiary character. Later Trek shows were always cast with an eye toward giving the female crew members more varied roles.
In Smallville, Lois Lane in general. She's a dedicated career woman and heroine who stands up for what's right and helps protect her loved ones as well as innocents. Chloe Sullivan as mentioned by Allison Mack in an interview.
A frustrating case is the women of the BBC's Robin Hood. At the beginning of the show the writers, directors and actress all gushed about how their take on Maid Marian made her a strong, intelligent, kick-ass female role model...and so she was...until the end of season two in which she's hit in the face with the Distress Ball, taken prisoner by the Sheriff, dragged to the Holy Land in chains, offers herself up as a reward to Guy of Gisborne if he kills the Sheriff for her, and is finally stabbed to death by Guy in a death scene that was specifically shot to suggest rape.
To make this even more frustrating, this second season finale also had Djaq, an equally cool and kickass female character, be Put on a Bus and the third season tried to replace the loss of these two female characters with Kate...except that they apparently thought that "shrill, whiny female who acts like a bitch to everyone around her and keeps on needing to be rescued" equaled "strong female role model" in her case.
30 Rock's Liz Lemon is universally praised for being a well-devolved, proactive protagonist that can withstand being mocked for her own social awkwardness and chronic overeating. Her boss Jack Donaghy even considers her his only worthy protégé. Some find it difficult to believe Tina Fey would ever be Hollywood Dateless, however.
The writers of Sherlock may well have had this trope in mind when they introduced Watson's girlfriend Sarah into the show, an intelligent doctor who helps crack the Chinese code and takes out a hitman with a plank of wood, to off-set the female characters of the first episode (a bitchy police officer, a ditzy morgue worker with a rather pathetic crush on Sherlock, and an aide to Mycroft who barely looks up from her Blackberry). And of course, Adler is on her way... and she's sparking the same debate due to her portrayal in "Scandal in Belgravia."
Ms. Hudson is a strong female character, and obviously not defined by any little girl role models.
Amongst the younger female characters of Downton Abbey there is Sybil and Gwen. Whilst Mary and Edith partake in the The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry, Anna pines hopelessly after Mr Bates, and Daisy is relentlessly manipulated by Thomas, it comes as a relief to watch Sybil and Gwen form an inter-class friendship based on Gwen's desire to become a typist and Sybil's interest in women's emancipation.
In the second season, Anna is easily one of the most competent characters (if Bates had listened to her and told the police from the start that his wife bought poison, he likely would never have been arrested). Edith also undergoes some Character Development after seeing how devastated convalescing soldiers are because of the war.
Stargate SG-1's Major Samantha Carter has been cited as one of the greatest female roles in science fiction for a very good reason - she always held her own with "the boys", and aside from one rather embarrassing speech in the pilot episode (after which actress Amanda Tapping put her foot down and said, "Okay, women don't talk like that,"), rarely made a big deal about being a woman unless someone else made an issue of it first. She was smart, she was a badassAction Girl, and she was a real character with real flaws and real emotions. And on top of that, she had one of the firmest friendships in the show with Dr. Janet Fraiser, which was based not on mutual romantic woes but on common interests and real regard for each other.
An odd inversion - according to producer Rick Sigglekow, Shining Time Station introduced series regular Billy Twofeathers because they felt that boys needed role models.
He played the straight man to balance the antics between Schemer and Stacy. We also thought that he was a good role model for boys, who really don’t see that many grounded men on television. So many men on kids TV are buffoons or bad guys, although I think that’s changing.
Women such as Chyna, Trish Stratus and Lita were heavily promoted as role models for girls. Chyna competed in the men's division (Older Than They Think: As Miss Texas, Jacqueline had made her name in Memphis fighting both women and men), Lita wasn't afraid to stand out amongst all the busty blondes and glamorous Divas (she was a bit of a tomboy punk), and Trish started out as eye candy before dedicating herself to improving as a wrestler and became one of the standouts of the women's division during her stay there.
The careers of these women heavily influenced many of the next generation of women wrestlers. Natalya Neidhart who comes from a prestigious wrestling family has said she never considered wrestling until she saw Trish performing simply because she had never seen big female stars in wrestling. Ditto for Madison Rayne, who belongs to a company that frequently likes to take shots at WWE due to a complete lack of good ideas. Lita was also this for current Diva AJ Lee and there's even a video clip of a teenage April meeting her at an autograph signing. So essentially WWE creating these role models for young girls helped create their next generation of female employees.
Molly Holly spoke of this trope in her shoot interview. She has said that a lot of wrestlers hated playing babyfaces and didn't like the pressure of being role models for children. However she said she loved being a positive role model for young girls which is why she hated being a heel.
Speaking of Lita, she has cited this trope as the reason she never posed for Playboy. She felt it would be wrong as she had a huge fanbase of young girls (plenty of wrestlers have said she would often get so many presents from fans at tapings she would have to leave some of them behind).
Subverted with her heel turn and the "Live Sex Celebration" with Edge.
Saints Row 2 + 3 approaches this trope from the other direction by being completely indiscriminate. The fact you might be female pales to the fact you might, for example, have blue skin, luminous green tattoos and be roughly the shape of a pear. No-one will care, except for the odd comment in the 2nd game calling you the toughest chick they've ever met. By the third game there's plenty of female characters inhabiting the main cast, the main thing that subverts the 'you too, can be a chaotic, violence-loving psychopath!' message, is how Stripperific most NPC females are.
Recently, many Game Mods of popular video games have appeared that alter their protagonists to be of the female persuasion, e.g. Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (it helps that Link is rather androgynous). Many of these were explicitly made for the creators' daughters, who were disappointed at not being able to play as a female character.
Major plot point of Bayonetta: Seeing Bayonetta fight and kill angels makes Cereza even more confident of herself, thus changing history when she comes back to her time.
Cheer! takes four male-football players-turned-female-cheerleaders who were used as a series of gags in The Wotch and develops them into likable characters. All of them have interests and goals they pursue and all of them are devoted friends to one another.
Girl Genius also features a female polymath adventurer as the lead character, and has quite a few distinctive strong female characters. Some of them are extremely nasty though, and as such not exactly role models.
They also discuss how the concept of "strong, independent women" is used to sexualize and objectify women in movies, specifically in the Female Superheroes and Charlie's Angels videos.
Also of note, Lindsay has lamented on her personal blog how hard it is to write female characters that both defy typical stereotypes but also won't be judged more harshly than male characters will. This is noted in her review of The Little Mermaid as well: later Disney Princesses are better role models, but at the same time it feels as if Disney is trying too hard to achieve it.
Rebecca Stone from Demo Reel has some serious issues and is allowed to be funny, but unlike the other Ax-CrazyBroken Birds of That Guy with the Glasses, she's a Plucky Girl with several angry feminist rants, has partaken in over forty jobs so doesn't just go for the intentionally pathetic and bash movies, and only beats on two people because they hurt her boyfriends.
In an interview on the Star Trek Online fan podcastThe Foundry Roundtable, Terilynn Shull of Massively remarked that, particularly in a military or quasi-military setting like Starfleet, the best way to write a "strong female character" is to take the word "female" out of the mental equation entirely and just write a strong character. In other words, make the fact that she has two X chromosomes an afterthought when she's on the job.
Joss Possible: Ron here is afraid of practically everything, but does he let his fears keep him from sidekickin'? Let's face it, Kim. You can do anything. So facing all those dangers and villains, well, it's just like you say. No big. A fella filled with that much fear always chargin' into action with you? Seems to me that's a true hero.
Some fans were left banging their heads on the wall after the series finale. Her sidekick finally had to save her. Though one could make the case that since the normal roles both of them have are such that Kim is always saving Ron, this is a different Aesop altogether, implying the need for mutual reliance in their by-that-point romantic relationship. It would have been better conveyed if they had won through a joint effort, but season 4 was intended to focus on Ron's character growth, so they wanted to give him a real hero moment. At any rate, while the "that's a true hero" thing may break the positive role model idea, it's a valid point that real courage is about facing down what you fear. If half-incompetent villains with death rays don't scare you, it may be heroic to fight them, but it's not especially brave.It's just really, really unfortunate that this idea plays out along gender lines.
Of course if we actually got to the stage at which the person in this page's opening quote was no longer asking Joss Whedon that question, this wouldn't be a problem at all. Kim would just be The Hero, a heroic role model who learns few things along the way rather than being a girl, and Ron would just be the character who gets a few days in the limelight when he's not generally sucking and being an idiot rather than being a guy. That we're even making an issue out of this based upon their gender roles (and indeed, that the show was pitched based on those roles) is probably part of the problem.
The notion of it being based on gender roles is evidenced in the scene where Mr. Barkin challenged Ron's manhood on the grounds of Ron being rescued by a girl.
It really just boils down into the fact that making The Ace a compelling main character without becoming an Invincible Hero is a small tightrope to walk, regardless of gender. There's a reason why The Ace is usually a secondary character who competes with a more flawed protagonist.
South Park may not have strong female characters in focus (well, not counting Mrs. Garrison), but at least it took a moment to point out the problems with our "real life" role-models, using the example of Paris Hilton. Mr. Slave gives a heart-felt entreaty to parents to point out to their daughters which role-models they should follow and which they should revile.
Some episodes focus on female role model-style characters e.g.: Wendy's Moment Of Awesome when she beat the crap out of Cartman due to his mocking of breast cancer sufferers.
According to Paul Dini, this was the major reason Batgirl became a main character when Batman: The Animated Series was revamped as The New Batman Adventures despite only appearing in a handful of episodes in the previous series. The execs felt the renewed focus on Batgirl and Robin would maximize the number of both male and female viewers.
Darla "The Geek" in the animated series of Sam & Max: Freelance Police was originally meant to be male. The sex change occurred because the TV network asked for a positively-identified female character.
The female heroes in Teen Titans and Young Justice won positive response for actually having relevant roles in the ongoing storyline and even getting their own plots and episodes devoted to them. However, the pilot episode of the latter was sharply criticized for focusing on the four male members of the team and not including any women until the final few minutes.
Avatar: The Last Airbender churned out strong female characters by the boatload. Starting with Katara, the headstrong waterbender from the Southern Water Tribe who freed Aang from the iceberg, every female character that followed was more badass than the one before. Even the female villains introduced for Book Two were well rounded, interesting and not to be trifled with. The most badass female character in the show was a twelve-year-old blind earthbender who could, quite literally, rock your world.
You've also got Mai, a rich pampered girl but powerful fighter who grapples with her loyalty to her country, fear of her "friend" and doing what's right and saving her exiled boyfriend. You've also got Suki whose the leader of her all female fighting group, and Yue, a princess who will sacrifice her happiness and mortal life to protect her tribe.
The sequel series, The Legend of Korra, continues this trend, with the creators taking the risk of pitching a female protagonist. It's paid off.
And beyond Korra, the hot-headed main character, let's look at the others girls who join her. There's beautiful and apparently prissy Asami....who is nonetheless a powerful fighter, intelligent strategist and able to run her father's company. Lin, daughter of the aforementioned Toph, who is the Chief of police and will do anything to protect the city, Jinora, the clever little air-bender, and Ikki, her quick-witted Motor Mouth sister.
Averted with pretty much every female in KaBlam!, Loopy gets into dangerous situations and quickly jumps to conclusions, Thundergirl is an idiot (as with the other members of the Action League), and June is plain bossy.
The Angry Beavers ultimately lampshades this with Treeflower, whose answering machine informs callers that she's on another adventure inexplicably changing her career and personality. For a girl who went from Hippie Chick to bouffant-wearing executive to snowboarding superhero etc, dotdotdot, it's not that hard to believe.
Lampshaded in an episode of Clerks: The Animated Series, where Dante and Randal read a letter from an irate female fan criticizing the show for its complete lack of female characters. After reading one particular point that asserts that the writers are afraid of strong women, Dante and Randal condescendingly respond to the fan and then completely blow off her criticisms.
And Transformers has Arcee. She was penned as a 'forceful female autobot' and her bios state that she's 'not just a girl robot', and yet she's pink, a "Naked Princess Leia", and only picks up her gun twice. This has caused many female viewers of the original series to whine and complain about how Arcee needs to 'put on some pants and pick up a gun'.
The IDW Comics, however, have taken steps to correct this by making Arcee an Ax-Crazy berserker. This does not help. Additionally, this trope was invoked in one of Arcee's origin stories, where the Autobots built her in response to feminists calling them sexist (despite Optimus's claims that Cybertronians are asexual). However, when Arcee was built, the Autobots still received flak for giving her pink armor.
Transformers Prime seems to have struck a nice balance between Badass and Cool Big Sis (helped by making her color scheme blue with pink highlights). She is valuable for her speed and skill but too lightly armed to make a dent against bigger opponents, and is emotionally sensitive to the point of isolating herself when someone hits a sore spot. There is a scene in the pilot movie where she convinces Jack to come back to the team because she had recently lost Cliffjumper and had grown attached to him. Coming from a "male" Autobot it would seem rather "touchy-feely" but it hit just the right tone with Arcee.
When Lauren Faust created My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic she did indeed intend for the series main cast to be appropriate role models to the shows young audience. However, her idea of creating good female role models wasn't to make each and every main female character flawless, but rather to make each and every one of them different from the others, thus pushing the message that there are many different ways to be a girl. Among the main cast is a brash athlete, a strong-willed farmer, a smart magician/librarian, a fun-loving baker, a shy and sweet animal raiser, and a sassy tailor.
The show also goes as far as to include male role models that, while less pivotal, often play a large part in the female cast's lives. Twilight Sparkle often has her assistant Spike aid her (if occasionally buffoonishly) and looked up to her older brother for much of her childhood. Big Macintosh similarly, while having eccentricities, is portrayed as an intelligent and hard worker (a planned episode would have revolved around his altruism towards his younger sisters, Applejack and Applebloom).
Recess, has Gretchen and Spinelli, the 'smartest' and 'toughest' girl in school respectively. While they excel in traditionally male fields (science and wrestling) this isn't made a big deal of. They are valuable, complex characters in their own right, and notably neither of them take on the 'Chick' role in the Five Man Band.
In one episode their bus breaks down, and out of six main characters (4 of them male), its the girls who fix it. As the top-rated comment stated:
"When I was kid I didn't notice that Spinelli and Gretchen, the girls, were the ones who knew about cars. Someone had to point it out to me. To this day that's not how I think, thanks Recess".
Faust has said this was a major reason behind the creation of the Super Best Friends Forever shorts on the DC Nation block. The Black Lightning shorts focusing on his superpowered daughters, Thunder and Lightning, sprang from a similar mindset.
1980s British animation Pigeon Street portrayed the lives of ordinary people living on an urban street, with a good mix of age, race and sex. The character most people remember is Long-Distance Clara, the lorry driver with a kickass theme song.
Princess Sally Acorn was initially developed as something of a Royal Brat and a tactical opposite to Sonic (in both strengths and flaws) in earlier points of Sonic Sat AM and it's comic adapatation. As both medias developed however, Sally gained more spotlight and abilities, and her original comedic flaws became more and more nuanced to the point she was clearly the most competent and sane of the team. This was taken to an almost hypocritical extreme, since to accustom Sally's boosted role, other female leads such as Bunnie were downgraded into ineffective extras.
Here's another one arguing that "Strong Female Characters" are, in a way, just as limiting as traditional female character types and that having more varied or, more the the point, more female characters should be the real goal.
According to this video presentation, it's boys who are now desperately in need of role models at a young age.
Moral Guardians always go after young females of a certain age if they make certain mistakes (Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus) in the media. This is not an issue for young male artists, since young males don't need good wholesome pure innocent role models.
What's ironic is that their usual criteria for deciding who is a "good" vs. a "bad" role model for young girls is actually prettyanti-feminist.
A number of British Newspapers have run articles in recent years taking issue with sexualised performances on TV shows (in particular The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent)... almost all performers criticised are female, and a lot of those are declared as "setting a bad example" to young girls.
In June 2013 the Daily Mail ran a hatchet job article on Rihanna entitled "Pop's Poison Princess", with most of the criticism largely invoking this trope, going to the point of accusing her fashion choices of encouraging rape. Rihanna responded later that day, declaring the article's author a "sad, sloppy, menopausal mess".