Take the delicate flowers, like the Proper Lady and the Yamato Nadeshiko. Their manner and appearance suggest meekness and submission. Both of them have perfect etiquette, never speaking out of turn, and their voice is an ephemeral whisper. They are kind and pure, ladies who are neither capable of performing, nor even understanding the brutish ways of others in the world. They are beautiful maidens clothed in fine dresses and soft gloves and hold silk fans... made of sharpened blades. Beware the proper ones.
They might look like The Ingenue, perhaps even purposefully, but this rose has thorns. Neither may ever show it publicly, but they have a cunning mind with sharp intelligence and a strong will that won't bow for anyone. Neither ever loses their cool and can take anything life throws at them. Should the time come to fight, they won't hesitate. There's likely a Chastity Dagger hidden somewhere on her person.
Others may think they're powerless, but they know how to be subtle and operate within the means their "role" grants her. A word here, a look there, add a little subterfuge with Politeness Judo, and often no one ever finds out they were manipulated. Things they approve of always somehow get done, things they disapprove of are somehow never accomplished. Neither of these women appear to be anything but the perfect lady, and yet they are far more than a wallflower, Home Maker, or trophy wife. The husband that lords over the house? He's likely whipped by her.
When the time comes when subtlety isn't an option for one of these girls? Shefights. Bravely, courageously, and without holding back. She won't turn away from danger or pain. She'll deliver the final blow herself — with violence if necessary — but she'll always mix the violence with class.
In the Southern US, these women are known as Steel Magnolias. Beautiful, elegant, and symbols of their region; but they will take you down if you mess with them or their loved ones.
Related character tropes:
Femme Fatale: A morally ambiguous lady fond of dressing in the same fashion who uses charm and sex appeal to wrap men (often detectives) around her finger.
On the surface, Captain Unohana seems to be the kindest, most motherly character in the entire verse. However, she's a captain in a meritocratic military, so she must be Badass. Then it's revealed the 11th Division is terrified of her. Then it's revealed she's the second strongest captain behind Yamamoto. Then it's revealed that this sweet, demure woman was the First Kenpachi of the Eleventh Division, meaning she was the most skilled, powerful, and battle-hungry swordsman alive. In fact, Kenpachi Zarakimodelled his Ax-Crazy behaviour on hers.
Kanae Katagiri is a gentle Yamato Nadeshiko who serves the Ishida Clan as a Ninja Maid, quietly listens to her ward Ryuuken Ishida whenever he needs a confidante, and obeys her orders without a whisper of protest. However, when Ryuuken realises Katagiri went behind his back to reveal his secret to his mother, she doesn't hesitate to stand up to him and point out just how wrong his decision was. Later, when Ryuuken is forced to accept he's failed the clan and attempts to run away to live with his shame in self-imposed exile, her refusal to obey his final order, and the reason for her disobedience, is the sole thing that brings him back into line.
Fist of the North Star: Such is the unconditional love and compassion of Yuria, the fiance of Kenshiro, that even the tyrant Raoh — whose fists could shatter Heaven and Earth itself — is utterly helpless before her redemptive kindness.
Lithuania, who would be a Yamato Nadeshiko if he were not from Europe and male. He's sweet, hard-working, and shown to not only be excellent at cooking and house-cleaning (to the point where he works as America's housekeeper for some time) but also formidable in battle. However, he also happens to be the main Woobie of the cast, which tends to overshadow his other traits, especially considering that his deference, loyalty, and humility might be one of the causes of him tending to be pushed around by Poland, Russia, and Belarus.
Liechtenstein plays this straighter. So Switzerland is a super Trigger Happy gunslinger and skittish Jerk Ass? Yep, but he can't deny anything to his baby sister. Who can handle his mood swings without even blinking. What's more, she represents a country that's small and hidden in the mountains and was passed around among other nations, but the people living there stood up to the freaking Soviet Union in World War II, and the country is now among the richest ones in the whole world.
Lenalee from D.Gray-Man falls somewhere between this trope and Yamato Nadeshiko. On one hand, she's a Chinese girl who's devoted to friends and family and likes serving tea. On the other hand, she's a professional exorcist with a unique Innocence, so she doesn't fit the 'domestic House Wife' aspect.
Relena Peacecraft from Mobile Suit Gundam Wing. An elegant and reserved Badass Pacifist that scares the greatest military power in the world. When they say We Can Rule Together, she surrenders and makes them regret it. The first several episodes essentially match her will against The Stoic Heero; it ends with him protecting her without knowing why.
Crest of the Stars: Lafiel, polite and proper even when threatening someone. By her strength of will and cleverness, she maneuvered her way from 'prisoner' to recruiting Klowal's pet-like maids in rebellion against him. As for 'being in charge', she may be a princess, but she's still a 'pilot trainee' and must obey the hierarchy. BTW, She Cleans Up Nicely.
Lind, a polite and proper goddess whose job description is "Heaven's One-Man Army".
Belldandy. Sweet, nice, demure, naive, and with a valkyrie qualification. Whatever you do, don't give her a reason to use violence, or you'll regret it. She's been given access to absolutely immenselevels of power because she's so kind and gentle that she'll never abuse them on purpose — once she's given a reason to untap them, and specially if her dear Keiichi is threatened, she will fuck shit up.
Demon Hammer Marie Mjolnir. A goofy version but nonetheless a feminine Death Scythe and one of the few who listens to Shinigami's orders. One of them is quietly reining in Stein's madness. As for the steel—her nickname is "Crushing Weapon." When confronting Justin Law on BJ's murder, she reacts to the possibility of him harming her students by landing a punch on his chest so hard he's thrown into the air. This comes after Justin, having clearly forgotten he's in a series full of Action Girls, points out that though he and Marie are both Death Scythes, she has only a "woman's power"..
Tsubaki is gentle, kind, and patient, she more than holds her own in battle, and early in the series, her competence is said to be the reason her Idiot Hero meister Black*Star is still alive.
Demon City Shinjuku: Sayaka, a lovely ojou who travels into the most dangerous place in the story, by herself, and defeats a demon with her kind hearted will power. Point in fact, she did not go into Sinjuku to defeat Levi Rah, but instead to redeem him.
Maison Ikkoku: Kyoko is much more independent-minded and tempermental than her sweet, proper demeanor suggests, as Godai soon discovers. Her resolve is the only thing that keeps Maison Ikkoku from descending into chaos.
Karakuridouji Ultimo: Matoko Sayama is a very polite girl, but there's some cold steel underneath. [[spoiler:It sharpens after she contracts Regula, the doji of discipline and memory wiping].]
Thorfinn's mother, from Vinland Saga with elements of a Mama Bear back when Thors was still an arrogant warrior.
Kara no Kyoukai: Ryougi Shiki crosses this with Ladyof War. Raised as both The Ojou and a competent swords-woman, she generally wears a kimono.....with her favorite knife tucked behind the sash.
Bodacious Space Pirates: Jenny Doolittle is initially portrayed as The Ojou, but then displays major nerve when facing down the Lightning 11. She later plays this trope rather literally, concealing a pistol in her (silk) wedding dress.
Highschool of the Dead: Saya’s Yuriko mother appears to be the perfect lady. She remains quiet and generally stands behind her husband. However, we last see her massacring zombies in a dress and using a gun thats almost as big as she is... in the middle of a fire.
Saeko's demure elegance and cool competence masks a bloodthirsty streak she fears could overcome her. She practices kendo to both exercise it and discipline it. And boy, does she unleash it unce the zombies started to take over.
Being able to drive a tank is part of being a Proper Lady. It's even a women-dominated line of work!
Propaganda film voiceover: If you learn tank combat, you will become a great wife, a great mother and a great career woman.
This is explicitly Hana's reason to learn Tankery: to her, tanks are flowers too and she wants to arrange flowers with 'more vigor'.
Even the demure, polite and kimono-clad maids of the Nishizumi family have experience in Tankery; Kikuyo serves as a Combat Referee for the training match between Miho and Maho's teams, and Sakuyo mentions once studying Tankery under her mistress Shiho.
Black Lagoon: Roberta and Fabiola may look demure and proper, but if you mess with them (or Garcia), prepare to die, especially in the case of Roberta. She wields a 50 cal. sniper rifle with an under-mounted grenade launcher one handed.
Hungry Joker: Literally in the case of Vivia. She's a self-described Oujo-sama who has beautiful silk clothes and metallic skin that can extend into scythes. Sadly for her she was stripped of her oujo-ness because her powers weren't proper and her parents abandoned her, but Haiji thinks her powers are beautiful.
Michiru/Sailor Neptune is a graceful Ojou whose girlfriend Haruka/Sailor Uranus is much more masculine than she is, but it's obvious that while both are badasses in their own right Michiru is the one you really don't want to cross. It's strongly hinted that the super girlish Michiru is the one with the reins in their relationship, and she could have Haruka totally wrapped around her fingers if she wanted to.
Ami/Mercury starts as a super smart Shy Blue-Haired Girl, but as the series goes on she also shows shades of the trope. Specially obvious in Stars, where she endures a massive beating from a enemy while trying to find its weak spot, and when criticized by the aforementioned Haruka she calmly says "this is how I fight" and manages to win her respect.
Black Butler: Elizabeth Middleford counts as one. She would do anything for Ciel, and goes out of her way to be seen as a cute girl by him, hiding her Lady of War side from him for this reason but her father is still The Leader of the British Knights, and when she sees no alternative, she WILL whip out a pair of swords and defend her future husband!
The Twelve Kingdoms: Lady Ribi is not an Action Girl, and she knows it clearly. She's just The Ojou in a very dangerous time, which is marked by the intrigues of Atsuyu and his disciple Kouya against the King that she works for and strongly believes in. Will that stop her? Nope. Ribi handles all of this very calmly and cleverly, protects the depowered Enki as much as she can, and in the end she unlocks Enki's powers despite clearly knowing that taking his Power Nullifier off will produce a backlash that will kill her. She dies, yes, but she also derails Atsuyu's Evil Plan, and helps to cause his fall.
Albedo Erma Felna EDF: The mother of the eponymous heroine. Eda, is a non-human and inverted example. Not so much in her earliest appearances (she once shocked Sonic in retribution for shaking her), but since obtaining her lynx form she's been nothing but shy, sweet, and nurturing... when she's not Brainwashed and Crazy.
Diabolik has Altea. She's nice and always proper, and she'll remain perfectly proper as she's hiring a Professional Killer to murder a mob boss who had put a bounty on her fiancee's head or tricking the titular King of Terror into swearing he'll do the job she had hired that now dead killer for (as Diabolik always keeps his word, Diabolik took the time to kill the mob boss when he went to rob him)...
In Downfall We have Unohana, who is an example of this trope in Bleach canon. In this case, however she's the villain, sort of, and slaughters an entire platoon of Soul Reapers with her bare hands before takes on Zaraki Kenpachi himself.
The character of Pretty Butterfly, Twoflower's eldest daughter, appears in canon as Rincewind's reluctant bodyguard and escort in Interesting Times. While she looks demure, petite and a perfectly submissive Agatean girl, she is lethal in a fight. The canon hints she is Ninja-trained. Fanfiction takes this a step further. In the stories of A.A. Pessimal, Pretty Butterfly comes to Ankh-Morpork, ans accepts a position as the Assassins' Guild School's visiting lecturer in Agatean Studies. These include origami, flower-arranging, Agatean language tuition, how to wear a formal kimono (Girl students only), and how to chop somebody in two with a shuriken. Kicking somebody's kidneys out through their ears is also a skill she teaches to pupil Assassins, who refer to her with the most respectful honorific 'Koukouchou-sama''. Oh, and she's also quite fond of Rincewind.
Queen Elinor from Brave is always polite, graceful and well-versed in every courtly art. When you threaten her daughter, she will make sure you don't hurt her again , being the one to kill Mor'du. In an earlier scene, she stopped an all-out brawl by simply walking through the middle of it.
In Epic Queen Tara is introduced as flighty and gentle, but willing to go through great lengths to protect her people.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers: Millie is an example in territorial America. She embodies every ideal of femininity at the time: she's not afraid of working hard; she cooks, cleans, and sews for seven men, and yet turns a house of barbarians into a matriarchy through sheer force of personality and timely laundering.
Mary Poppins, the title character. A prim and Proper Lady; the only one not to lose her composure during the laughing scene. She also manipulates her employer with the ease of a pro. See her entry on Reverse Psychology.
Horrible Bosses: Not only is Dale's situation an almost perfect Gender Flip of the workplace sexual harassment seen in films like 9 to 5, Dale himself is an almost perfect Gender Flip of the sort of sweet, innocent girls most likely to get harassed in films of that nature—complete with their deeply buried rage.
1944 Sherlock Holmes film The Spider Woman: Adrea Spedding is a thoroughly evil version of this trope. She's beautiful, feminine, charming and polite, and even after Holmes and the police catch up with her, she never loses her cool or stoops to uncouth behavior. She's also a criminal mastermind who orchestrated the murders of several innocent people for their insurance money - and if Holmes hadn't caught on, the authorities would never have realized that the deaths had been murders at all.
Lady Alys Vorpatril is the perfect Barrayaran Lady: very concerned with being Right and Proper, in the old tradition of Barrayaran high society... and has enough leverage and experience to bend that society to her will without their even realizing it. She's not above playing dirty pool, either; One Upper-Class Twit brusquely dismisses the value of her opinion, offhandedly remarking to Miles Vorkosigan that "Lady Alys holds no vote in Council". The next we hear from Alys is a polite letter to Miles letting him know that thanks to some judicious social networking on her part, the twit in question is now down half a dozen votes (out of sixty total). She also blithely circumvents the standing orders that serving military personnel are required to avoid involving themselves in political matters by adding a written order for her son Lord Ivan to assist Miles - and at the time, she is technically Ivan's Commanding Officer. Miles doesn't take her up on it.
Ekaterin Vorsoisson, although it takes some time for the steel to appear.
Edith Stone from The Rolling Stones. She's a quiet House Wife who appears to have no strong opinions, but her kids point out that no family debate is resolved until she weighs in, and she politely but firmly dismisses her husband's objections to her going on a dangerous mission.
Lady Jessica in Dune: Bound concubine to Duke Leto. Basically his Duchess but not married for political reasons. She's also extremely dangerous and so says to Thufir Hawat: "You've glimpsed the fist within the Bene Gesserit glove".
Lady Sybil Vimes (nee Ramkin) more attempts this trope than succeeds in any conventional fashion, but the intent is there. She's convinced that there are certain duties a woman does for her husband based solely on the fact that she's his wife, so she does them, even though she's not very good at them. So she cooks and darns his socks even though she (and, since the wedding, Sam as well) is reckoned to be the single most wealthy individual in Ankh-Morpork and could hire someone different to do it every day of the week. In Thud!, the iron comes out when everyone is suggesting she stay behind where it's safe, and she silences everyone by naming every time one of her female ancestors has assisted their husband during times of conflict. In other words, her steel shines through, but she does try for the silk.
Gone with the Wind: Melanie is a stellar example of this, and the book contains several monologues on the quietly awesome nature of 'true ladies' as Southern society calls them. She is sweet, humble, and seems frail as a kitten for most of the novel...but hurt her friends, either verbally or physically, and she will bring her persuasive abilities and status as Georgia's social keystone to bear by (metaphorically) kicking your ass.
Malloreon: Velvet claims to be this but any woman who has graduated from the Drasnian spy academy doesn't qualify for Proper Lady status even if she is a Margravine. Possibly inverted to a certain extent in that she clearly resents the necessity of pretending to be a Proper Lady, and at one point does go off on a minor rant about people thinking she's harmless.
Herald Talia. One of her two single most significant moments in the series involved epic babysitting — specifically, being the only person in the kingdom kind enough, patient enough, and domestically talented enough to un-spoil the Royal Brat, Princess Elspeth. Which, given Elspeth's importance to the plot later on, saved the world at least twice over. She also holds the position of Queen's Own Herald — the monarch's entirely loyal, completely dependable friend and advisor. However, Talia is not tall, her hair is chestnut, curly, and short, and she can fight with a knife as well as a bow.
A slightly stronger example of the steel that Talia hides comes near the end of the second book in the series when confronted with a man who had repeatedly abused and raped his step daughters and finally murdered one who was trying to escape, she with no hesitation and no remorse then or later Mind Raped the perpetrator into reliving all that he had done from his step daughters point of view until he had accepted what he had done was evil.
The Alpha and Omega side stories of Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson universe.
Anna Cornick. As an Omega wolf, she also has the bonus of soothing empath powers over other werewolves.
Mercy Thompson herself. As a female coyote shifter in the sexist werewolves' world, she can't directly confront or even disobey the stronger werewolves, so she smiles and nods to their faces, but somehow she always gets her own way in the end.
Lady Olenna Tyrell (aka the Queen of Thorns) puts only the barest veneer of a proper lady over her thorny personality.
Her granddaughter Margaery Tyrell, who plays the part of the sweet, polite queen-in-waiting perfectly - but she's obviously a lot more shrewd than she lets on; investigating King Joffrey's true nature and taking drastic measures to protect herself from him (all under Queen Regent Cersei's nose), as well as easily seeing through Cersei's efforts to get her arrested.
Princess Arianne of Dorne, and a few of the Sand Snakes, are also this. The Snakes are Oberyn's bastard daughters, who he raises in the palace, educating them in all that young ladies should know...including battle.
Doran Martell and his brother Oberyn pull something of a double-act version of this.
Doran: "Oberyn was ever the viper. Deadly, dangerous, unpredictable. No man dared tread on him. I was the grass. Pleasant, complaisant, sweet-smelling, swaying with every breeze. Who fears to walk upon the grass? But it is the grass that hides the viper from his enemies and shelters him until he strikes."
Queen Cersei Lannister, the beautiful queen, is even more ruthless, brutal and power-hungry than most of the high lords of the realm, but she usually maintains a cold, dignified and ladylike facade in public.
Daenerys Targaryen, a beautiful, demure 15-year-old girl, who has so far sacked three cities and is bent on reclaiming the Iron Throne. Also The Woman Wearing the Queenly Mask.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: Katie Rommely is a little too willful and rebellious to fulfill it entirely. It's implied that her daughter, Francie, will grow up to be exactly the same: Beautiful and seemingly docile, but utterly iron-willed and intelligent.
Steven Brust's Dragaera books: Lady Teldra is patient, kind, loyal, courteous to the point of magical to friends, strangers, and enemies alike, will never speak ill of anyone... and once just up and stabbed a being whose power was beyond that of gods to protect her friends. In general, all Issola are supposed to be like this. Their hat is social grace and unexpected strikes.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians: Percy's mother Sally is endlessly sweet, kind, patient and loving, rarely ever gets mad or even raises her voice, and while she puts up with her husband Gabe's verbal (and physical) abuse to Extreme Doormat levels, Percy notes that she still shows subtle signs of defiance against Gabe and it's revealed later on that she stayed with Gabe solely to mask Percy's demigod nature with his stench and hence keep him safe from the monsters who would otherwise have hunted him down, and that once she no longer needs to protect Percy, she deals with Gabe on her own (with Medusa's head). Now that's being true Silk Hiding Steel.
In Daughter of the Lioness we have Sarai, the most popular belle in the Copper Isles. One time she talked down a poorly planned noble revolt while making it seem like she was only interested in a date for the Summersend ball. Also she's no slouch with a sword. Additionally, Dovasary, Sarai's younger sister is this; stating at one point that she can find more information when she's quiet. The creator has said that she's the kind of person who appears as a delicate queen and men will say they're going to show her what's what, before coming out thinking, "I was going to...what did she..."
A relative of Kel's who poured hot oil on besiegers, just like 'any delicately raised country lady' would.
Alanna, the original heroine, tries to be this but she's just no good at the silk part.
It is implied that most of the women from the Yamani Islands (aka Japan/Asia) are this, being taught to fight as well as the boys because of the frequent pirate attacks. They're also experts at hiding emotion and being unfailing polite and friendly even when plotting someone's murder. The Yamani women that are seen in the books are definitely this. The domestic side doesn't show as well because they're fighting their enemies or guiding their allies.
A particular Yamani example is "A shukusen—a lady fan. If a lady thinks she is in danger, but doesn't want to complicate things by openly carrying a weapon, she takes a shukusen". It's a heavy fan with steel ribs that are razor sharp on the end— sharp enough to easily slice through wood.
Yuki: Beware the women of the warrior class, for all they touch is both decorative and deadly.
Kel's mother appears so nice and motherly now, but she was part of the Tortall delegation to the Yamani Island, and an agreement was reached because of her. She matched their stoicism and protected the Yamanis' most sacred items from being stolen by pirates, by herself, with their weapon of choice.
The Trope Namer comes from The Wheel of Time series, where Always Female Aes Sedai are frequently described in these terms. In order to master the female half of the source, one must "surrender" to it, and likewise the most masterful manipulators show every sign of being submissive... while somehow discreetly guiding people to their goals. Rand uses this exact term to describe Moiraine, and says the more forceful Elaida is similar but has "dispensed with the silk".
Destructive Harmonics. Zandra's a downplayed example, as she is a punk rocker, but she's both the most traditionally feminine and the best at holding everything together in adverse circumstances.
Sharlyean Tayt-Aharmahk, empress of Charis. A skilled diplomat, a dedicated ruler, and a caring wife and mother. She's also perfectly willing and capable of helping her armsmen shoot a horde of attacking fanatics, or continuing to sentence traitors to death after getting shot by an assassin.
Young Wizards series: Elizabeth Callahan, Nita's mother. Former ballet dancer, dedicated homemaker, accomplished cook - but fully capable of facing down the Lone Power itself, without an ounce of wizardry to her name, when her daughter is at risk.
Dread Empire's Fall: Martinez's eventual wife, Terza Chen. She always bends to the will of her father and (arranged) husband, but proves to be very shrewd in advancing her and her family's interests. On rare occasions Martinez sees "an intensity that bordered on ferocity" under her tranquil veneer.
Fiona Patton's Branion series: Includes both males and females, in which a Guild of Companions provides same-sex partners to the nobility. They are highly trained, and also serve as bodyguards, assassins, and spies (you learn a lot between the sheets).
Denise Baudu from Zola's The Ladies Paradise. Completely selfless, everything she does is for the benefit of her brothers. She also shows humility under extreme provocation, and there is iron at the core of her character: she will not allow her ideals to be compromised, either through threat, hardship, or temptation. Denise is described as 'formidable in her gentleness'.
Song at Dawn: Sanchez is a pro at balancing her Proper Lady and Manipulative Bastard sides. She has everyone fooled into thinking she's a twit when she's really Dragonetz's spy. She later becomes Estela's instructor in 'subtlety'.
Sano Ichiro: Sano's wife, Reiko, is a well-mannered lady of the shogun's court. She's also an Amateur Sleuth and uses her high status and kind disposition to aid her husband's investigations. If she gets into danger, she'll usually make her own way out of it between her martial arts training and the dagger she keeps hidden up her kimono sleeve.
Azzuen, of The Wolf Chronicles, is a male example. He's the runt of the pack, patient and intellectual- everything his love interest, Kaala is not. He considers her his alpha, and follows her with Undying Loyalty, even breaking pack law to protect her. And when Kaala starts to insult him and act like a Jerkass, he calmly and fearlessly explains to her that he will not tolerate such behaviour in a friend. This prompts Kaala's realization that Azzuen is a strong wolf in his own way- that not everyone who follows does so because they're weak- and gives her some much-needed Character Development.
The Dresden Files: Charity is this- although she dislikes the series' narrator, so the readers rarely get to see the 'silk' part. She's a devoutly religious House Wife who raises several children, and she knows swordsmanship and thinks nothing of trekking into the Big Bad's freezing, Mook-filled castle to rescue one of her daughters. Harry describes her as 'a rose wrought of stainless steel.'
Towards the end of In the Heart of Darkness, Belisarius' wife, Antonia realizes the Malwa spies she has been feeding (false) information to decided to kill her and works out how they would do so with maximum discretion, but what could a diminutive thirty-something ex-courtesan do with such knowledge? Try setting up a counter-ambush that leaves seven street thugs dead, one maimed, and one frightened soul keeping her at bay with a club as he screamed for backup.
In John C. Wright's The Hermetic Millennia, Menelaus explains that despite her hyperbolically feminine appearance and her profuse declarations of love and harmony, Oenoe is a member of the Nymph security forces. Though she would drink potions of forgetfulness after the fight — to keep it from disturbing the hedonistic life — she is unquestionably a veteran.
Jasnah Kholin in The Stormlight Archive. Beautiful, always elegant in her manners and appearance, princess of the most powerful nation in the world, and then she destroys a gang of robbers with Soulcasting. To be more specific, she turns the first oneinto fire (not sets him on fire, literally turns him into fire), then turns the second one into a glass statue and turns the final two into smoke as they try to run away.
Also her ward, Shallan Davar. Despite being almost pathologically shy and a beautiful young lady, she is also a Shardbearer. To give context, it is unheard of for women to bear weapons at all in this culture, and Shallan has the equivalent of a pocket nuclear missile. It gets yet more Badass when you remember how she must have gotten that Blade in the first place, by killing a Shardbearer.
The second book goes more into depth with the spoiler-marked stuff above, and it's MORE awesome. She's not just a Shardbearer. She's one of the new generation of Knights Radiant, an order whose abilities were granted for the explicit purpose of saving humanity from extinction. And her Shardblade wasn't obtained by killing a Shardbearer, it IS the Spren that grants her abilities.
In Rose of the Prophet, the women of the Akar, Hrana and Aran are this, much to Zohra's ignorance. It's a major turning point for her to realize that just because they aren't bloodthirsty and waving swords around like the men that doesn't mean they are weak by any measure.
Live Action TV
Game of Thrones: Lady Olenna Tyrell, her granddaughter Margaery and her grandson Ser Loras (who is an androgynous-looking gay man) play around with people's stereotypes of femininity to appear much weaker than they actually are.
The series uses this trope with Londo's third wife Mariel, whom one of his other wives describes as follows:
Timov: Still the iron claw in the velvet glove, Mariel?
Delenn; Sweet, polite, The Heart, kind, generous — and able to make the most powerful beings in the galaxy do exactly what she wants, whenever she wants.
Given the status Companions hold, Inara from Firefly. She's classy, well-mannered, and serves as the Team Mom, but don't underestimate her.
Merlin:Guinevere "Gwen" has aspects of this; as the future queen of Camelot she is not your typical House Wife, but considers her job as a lady's maid and castle servant a worthwhile one and doesn't hesitate to call out Arthur when he belittles the role. She is patient and understanding, was incredibly devoted to her father before he died, but will take up arms to defend Camelot or her loved ones at a moment's notice.
In the first episode of season 5, Queen Guinevere discovers her maid is a traitor and promptly sentences the girl to death. This is to root out the girl's father, the real threat, but she does sentences a traitor to death for real in the series finale.
Upstairs Downstairs: Hazel Bellamy. Normally gentle and retiring, she does show back bone when she believes something strongly.
The Big Bang Theory:Bernadette. Despite her height, her apparent meekness and her mannerly behaviour, she's among the rare characters able to make Sheldon shut up and abide. She can even handle Howard's mother, which is NO easy feat.
Hell on Wheels Lily Bell is beutifully mannered, elegantly dressed and coifured and capable of killing her husband's killer with his own arrow, trekking miles across a prairie and sewing up her own wound. She's also capable of slapping down a sneering sister-in-law both verbally and physically.
Almost every major woman on The Borgias has elements of this, but former ingenue Lucrezia Borgia is perhaps its epitome. She may look and act innocent and adorable—yet she can also outwit kings without blinking and seduce Wide-Eyed Idealist boys in a heartbeat. And don't forget that she has her brother, sociopath and Sinister Minister wrapped around her little finger and ready to do her bidding.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:Keiko O'Brian. A prime example is the Season 1 finale "In The Hands Of The Prophets" when she absolutely refuses to bow to pressures from Winn that she teach Bajoran spiritual beliefs in her classroom.
New Girl:Jess is sweet and cute and initially comes off as helpless, but she can handle herself — AND YOU — and do so classily. She's a lot braver and more direct than her roommates at navigating problems that come their way as a household.
Boardwalk Empire: Gillian is always polite, cheerful and proper, but she's also ruthless, encouraging her gangster son to murderous action and doing so herself when needed.
Call the Midwife: Sister Julienne is calm, polite, ladylike, and forever unruffled, and can make anyone on the series do anything she wants them to do with nothing more than a few calm words, an eyebrow, and a polite smile. Nobody ever dares to cross her.
Once Upon a Time loves this trope. Snow White, Belle, and Aurora, are all graceful and polite until they have a reason not to be. Even the Evil Queen was this way for a time.
Lady Sybil Crawley is kind, generous, the peacemaker of the family, described as "the sweetest spirit under the roof"....and a unfailing advocate for woman's rights, fiercely rebellious of her aristocratic society and gutsy enough to become a nurse and run off with the chauffeur.
Anna is consistently the most loyal and selfless character on the show, and Team Mum to half the cast but this doesn't mean she can't rip you apart with a few short words or single-handedly free you from prison.
The picture on this page is Michiko Konda, with the ability "Whenever a source an opponent controls deals damage to you, that player sacrifices a permanent." This beautifully captures the idea of "I will calmly endure your abuse in public, and then in private I will always get my revenge" in a game mechanic.
In Dungeons & Dragons Book of Exalted Deeds there is a goddess named "Estanna" who is the goddess of the hearth and home. Her clerics are literally the clerics of home keeping, but keep in mind this is a game where the cleric is regarded as one of the most powerful classes in the game so any Player Character who is a Cleric of Estanna is likely to end up like this.
Exalted: It's very easy to make this type of character. In fact, there two Supernatural Martial Arts styles that seem designed for it. Dreaming Pearl Courtesan Style uses elegant clothing as weapons, meaning a practitioner can seamlessly go from a formal ball to a battlefield and back again. White Veil Style (which does not exist) is an extremely subtle martial art based around casual movements. If a White Veil master is doing his job, you won't even know you were in a fight until a week later when the magic poisons start to kick in.
The Sidereal scene-length dodge charm, Defense of Shining Joy, is located in Performance, a caste ability for Sidereals of Venus (i.e. Joybringers). It reduces Defense Value Penalties for attacking, lets a character add their Performance to their Dodge when calculating Defense Values, and lets them use Performance Excellencies to bolster their defenses. One Sidereal Excellency (The Fateful Excellency) can turn an entire dicepool of the applicable ability into successes or double static a value. An experienced Sidereal of Serenity who doesn't focus on combat probably has both The Fateful Performance Excellency and Defense of Shining Joy. The Lesser Sign of Venus adds the Joybringer's Essence Rating to all of their and their nearby allies' Performance dicepools as successes. The Greater Sign of Venus is something that will make everyone fighting within a few miles have a bad day. Joybringers can be very formidible opponents even if they aren't all that martially inclined.
Luserina Barrows is sweet and graceful and apparently stays home while her dad and brother politic in the capital. However, if you talk around Rainwall, you'll find out that she is the one running the place. She also takes part in the coming battles as 'morale', in other words, encouraging them to victory.
Miakis is ever courteous and polite; she can make an offhanded comment about a river into a death threat. Her steel is more obvious, though, being a Queen's Knight.
Rosa of Final Fantasy IV first appears to be the Chick, due to being helpless and then kidnapped for the first quarter of the plot, but once she joins permanently, you realize she's a combination of this and the Healer; she can seriously fuck shit up with her Aim ability. And her absolute Crowning Moment of Awesome is refusing to move out of Cecil's way after he ordered her off the Big Whale for the final confrontation, flat out telling him that she won't let him go unless he takes her with him.
Gym Leader Jasmine from Pokémon Gold and Silver. The first time you meet her, she's caring for a sick Ampharos in the local lighthouse, and she seems very gentle and feminine. Then you fight her.◊ Oh, and remember that "touch of iron" mentioned in this Trope's description? Jasmine happens to specialize in Steel types.
Cynthia in Pokémon Diamond and Pearl is a pretty and kind woman who showers you in gifts, advice, and encouragement in exchange for you running an errand to her grandmother. Then you fight the Elite Four, and Cynthia turns out to be the Pokemon Champion of Sinnoh and her signature Pokemon is Garchomp, a shark-jetplane-dragon-Pokemon that has been banned from the unoffical metagame for being too powerful.
Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones has Eirika, who is known throughout the land of Magvel as a kind and tactful woman who is just discovering how harsh the world actually is... who bails out Warrior Prince Innes from an ambush and threatens to send Sunstone General Glen home with his tail between his legs. There's also the Pegasus Knight Syrene and another male, the monk Artur.
Fire Emblem Tellius gives us a female and two male examples: Astrid, Rhys and Oscar, respectively.
Fire Emblem Jugdral brings them of the three separate "timelines". In Seisen's first generation we have Princess Adean of Jungby, a White Magician Girl who's pretty much fearless (apparently she trained to be a knight before joining the clergy to search for her sister); the second generation has Adean's daughter Lana and Lana's expy Manna, also White Magician Girls and just as plucky as Adean is. Finally, Thracia 776 has Safy the White Magician Girl, Selfina the Lady of WarHorse Archer, and maybe Sleuf the White Magician Dude.
Fire Emblem Awakening gives us others as well, namely people like Cherche (sweet and classy Yamato Nadeshiko with a snarky side who willingly rides into battle on a freaking wyvern), Sumia (super klutzy and shy but VERY good at fighting), Libra (softspoken War Monk and Lucius expy) and specially Emmeryn (the epitome of Badass Pacifist, specially when she chooses either death or severe brain damage (depending on whether you play her Paralogue) rather than endangering her people.)
Leliana, French-accented bard of Dragon Age: Origins deliberately adopts this façade so people will drop their guard around her (as she puts it, men are all too willing to believe that a woman is docile and harmless). She's actually a confident and aggressive Action Girl.
Dragon Quest V: Nera, one of the potential marriage candidates. Contrary to the usual, however, she's significantly less popular than her more tomboyish counterpart Bianca — as evidenced in an episode of Lucky Star where this choice is referenced. Kagami's choice of Bianca is treated as being more sympathetic... and Konata's brief discussion of why you might pick her is purely about gameplay advantages, not character traits.
Dragon Quest VII: Neris counts too. Gentle and loving demeanor complete with that unmistakable steel will.
Princess Maker: One of the paths for the player to educate the main character. If the girl doesn't have the basics of this, she will NOT be able to befriend Castle people like the Knight (who appreciates well-mannered and polite girls) and the Queen (who will be friendly to girls with high Temperance, meaning they must be patient and be used to talking to people without losing their cool). So if you want her to hang around the Castle and get good jobs in the end, she must be this.
Suikoden Tierkreis has Erin, a sweet, gentle, caring young woman who only wants to help her father run his inn in peace. To do so, she acts as a Reverse Mole to expose the local Corrupt Bureaucrat, and when the main party reveals that all might not be well in the outside world, she insists on joining and helping them. While she isn't a combat character, she does have a cooperative attack with her father, which shows the two of them beating up the target.
Chrono Cross features Lady Riddel. A sweet and elegant girl, daughter of General Viper, who is hands-down one of the strongest magic users in the game.
Tales of Symphonia's Colette; a girl so sweet and eager to please, yet capable of redirecting her very specific quest into detours by making them sound like they're part of the quest. Thanks to her Cruxis Crystal, she's also the physically strongest member of the group (except maybe for fellow Cruxis Crystal bearer Presea,) able to effortlessly lift Regal (who's about twice her weight) over her head with one arm.
Ar Tonelico 2: Luca refers to it as 'attacking with smiles': pretending to be sweet and submissive when she's really luring someone into a trap.
Ace Combat 5 has Kei "Edge" Nagase, the only female pilot in the Wardog squadron. She's gentle and soft-spoken, often compared to a princess by her comrades, and the most idealistic character in the game. She's also the only trainee to survive the massacre at the beginning of the game. When she gets shot down, the narrating reporter Genette thinks that she did so deliberately to avoid having to kill any more enemies; after she's rescued, they find out that she captured the enemy soldiers sent to capture her, and he says he has to rethink his image of her.
Downplayed in Princess Waltz with Shikikagura Suzushiro, who looks, acts and tries very hard to be one of these. Stand in her way, however, and she shows a much more ruthless and bitchy side to her personality, and also possesses a powerful and brutal fighting style.
Rebecca Stone from Demo Reel. Girly appearance, overly optimistic and not all there, she still gets the respect of two war criminals for being an intelligent, gun-toting Violently Protective Girlfriend.
Rarity is always prim and proper, but she boldly charges in to fight a manticore, gets into an EPIC pillow fight, and single-handedly turns the tables on the Diamond Dogs when they try to enslave her. Notably, every time she's been in an actual fight, she doesn't rely on her magic; instead, she resorts to good old hoofticuffs, such as punching out mooks with right hooks.
Princess Celestia as well. Granted, she generally desires a less formal relationship with her subjects and has a rather puckish sense of humor, but she clearly is a mare of great elegance and refinement. At the same time, when the chips are down, the steel comes out, as when she orders the Mane Six to do away with Discord (and later Queen Chrysalis) with all dispatch, or when she and her sister dealt with Discord themselves thousands of years before that, and King Sombra a mere thousand years ago.
Her niece, Princess Cadance, is described by Twilight as all sweetness and light. As for the steel? Ask what's left of King Sombra. She denied him victory by keeping him at bay and inspiring those around her.
Batman Beyond: Dana Tan as the affluent girlfriend of the new Batman, Terry. Sweet, supportive and the one of two people who can strike fear in him (the other being the original Batman). Unfazed when he tells her his secret. When in danger she can hold her own until he shows up. Even Bruce doesn't unnerve Terry as much as Dana; he'll sass the old man to his face, but only really gets worried when Dana is mad at him.
In Captain Planet and the Planeteers, Gaia is wise and respectable and generally above lying, but one time she twisted a "Freaky Friday" Flip to get a villain's minion to do her bidding even after she switched back. On a daily basis, she'd have to be steel willed to put up with the pollution of the villains.
Toph Bei-Fong, daughter of one of the richest families from the Earth Kingdom....isn't this. She's crude, rude, and out-spoken but she had to act like a demure, helpless blind girl for 12 years so she can definitely act the part on occasion. Such as when the group neeeded to get into Ba Sing Se and she manipulated the clerk in check to get free passports.
Played straight by Ursa, the wife of the Fire Lord and the mother of Azula and Zuko, and sister in law of General Iroh. While they run around the world and are driven by personal honor/ambition/friendship, she calmly takes care of her family. That means encouraging her children to play together, and killing her father-in-law and current ruler of the kingdom, while never breaking the mask.
From the Sequel Series, The Legend of Korra, Asami is the Spoiled Sweet daughter of a prominent industrialist, pretty and proper... who is also a race car driver and has had the best self-defense training money can buy. She'll electrocute her own father if it means doing the right thing and saving authority figures and her friends from terrorists. As the fighting escalates, she dispenses with more and more silk until she better fits Lady of War than this trope. There's a visual cue to demonstrate the switch from silk to steel: her formal induction into the the Krew shows her switching from her 'rich girl' clothes to a trenchcoat and Power Fist.
In The Ferals, Mixy is generally the most reasonable and sweet-tempered of the gang, yet quite capable of bullying the others into following her lead when she felt inclined to stand up for herself.
Truth in Television: Mary Ann Patten, the teenage ship captain's wife who navigated the clipper Neptune's Car around Cape Horn while pregnant and caring for her sick husband. She wasn't the only one like this. Rich New England shipping princesses of the nineteenth century were a tough breed despite their outward show of propriety. note For those who don't know anything about ocean sailing, rounding Cape Horn is a Crowning Moment Of Badass. The Southern Ocean in general is a scary place where Everything Is Trying to Kill You — those latitudes are known as the Furious Fifties for a reason — and you will be sailing in it for weeks just to get to the Drake Passage, which is the Southern Ocean turned Up to Eleven, and then you get your chance to round the Horn.
Jael of Heber, whose account is recorded in the Book of Judges. An enemy general, worn out from a long day of generalling, imposes on Jael's hospitality while her husband is out fighting. He asks for bread and water; she provides milk and a heavy meal. And a nice place to nap, since naps after big meals are nice. And while he sleeps she, ever the proper hostess, drives a tent stake through his head and the man's own sword through his neck. This would've normally earned her a death sentence or the scorn of her own community considering how people back then were BIG in Sacred Hospitality, but she was given a pass because the guy she defeated was that dangerous.
There is an expectation that aristocratic and middle class British women will develop into this trope at some point in their forties if not before. To do otherwise is a sign of bad breeding.
In the animal kingdom, swans can be an example of this. They are often thought of as elegant and graceful creatures, but you should never ever approach a baby cygnet if you know what's good for you. Swans can flap their wings hard enough to break someone's leg. It's not their main form of attack, but they can knock a grown man down with frightening ease.
Similarly, deer. Between Hollywood depictions of them and the fact they usually appear much more slender and graceful than, say, a horse, cow or moose, they're usually seen as somewhat dainty or fragile. However, anybody who has ever been victim to that frequent battle of Deer vs. Car will tell you that usually the deer will hop off (seemingly) unharmed, while you end up with your car's engine in the passenger seat with you. In example: A deer crashes into a moving bus, and its windshields are totalled. The deer is confused and dazed but otherwise unharmed at far as we can see, and it hops away the moment the bus stops and opens its doors.
One should also take note of the deer's antlers, which are very much not for decoration. Let's just say there's a very good reason why many deer hunters construct their hunting blinds on stilts or plant themselves in the branches of tall trees where the deer can't get to them.
Aung San Suu Kyi was until age 42, in the words of a biographer, "a dutiful housewife who produced home-cooked meals every day, ironed her husband’s socks, and sewed her own curtains and clothes". When her country needed her, she stepped up and made history.