The rise of the Unlikely Heroine

Meme culture encapsulates generational sentiments. How many DMs are in your Instagram inbox that are memes? Probably at least 3, right? Meme culture has exposed resurging popularity for female characters who were unpopular when we met them. Mainly, I’m referencing The Simpson’s Lisa Simpson and Sex and the City’s Miranda Hobbes. Both characters were regarded as annoying, unappealing, and unpopular in their introduction, but through social media and a new consciousness are enjoying unlikely popularity.

Lisa Simpson is a feminist icon. Lisa is nerdy: a vegetarian, saxophonist, disparate from her family. Lisa is cultured in ways that Springfield lacks, and her difference makes her the target of mockery. No kid wants to be Lisa Simpson but most adult women love Lisa. She possesses a strong sense of self in a world trying to influence her otherwise. She wants acceptance on her terms. She cares. She’s expressive and messy. Screengrabs posted to social media illuminate a lot of her character richness that went largely unseen, and especially in an era where feminism is celebrated, Lisa is getting her due.

Then, there’s Sex and the City. Most women identify with one of the four women. Unless you’re me and Mario Cantone’s character spoke to you more. “You’re such a Miranda” used to be an insult. NOBODY wanted to be Miranda. With short-cropped hair and style that lagged behind her three friends, it felt more flattering to be the stylish Carrie, the confident Samantha, the demure Charlotte. But with political consciousness raising and the actress who played Miranda, Cynthia Nixon, running for governor of New York, being a Miranda is now a compliment. And it should be! Miranda is a Harvard Law Grad. Her relationship with Steve is sincere and realistic and forgiving (even after the infidelity). She’s the first of the women to become a mother. Miranda is a badass, and hell yes it is a compliment to be compared to her!

Pop culture has always included flawed heroines. Jane Austen created Emma Woodhouse as a character who no one would like but her. You could argue that both Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy’s roles in John Hughes films are non-traditional female leads. The Golden Girls presented complicated female characters as did the show, Girlfriends. But these characters are still vying for the socially prescribed prizes (IE: a man. And let’s be honest, a man is not a prize. He is a person). The difference with both Miranda and Lisa Simpson is that they put themselves first. They say the unpopular things and desire unglamorous rewards. There are, of course, exceptions. CJ Craigg from The West Wing comes to mind. But these women are few and far between. The common pop culture belief was that women needed to be perfect, even within their imperfections (think Carrie Bradshaw) for audiences to embrace them.

The first character to receive all-out fanfare in her time was Dr. Cristina Yang from Grey’s Anatomy. Yang, played by badass Sandra Oh, is unsympathetic, ambitious, selfish, not white, not glamorous. She sleeps with her attending. She has an abortion. She puts her career and herself first. She doesn’t get the guy when she’s left at the altar. And we LOVE HER! Grey’s premiered when I was in middle school, an impressionable preteen. Oh’s portrayal of an unapologetic woman who wasn’t trying to “have it all”, who was making strategic and unpopular choices and was flawed made a profound impact on me. I think a lot of women felt that way. Yes, Meredith is the lead, and Izzy is a former model, and Addison is a damn icon (case in point, her entrance scene in the first season finale), but it’s Cristina who wins us over.

These days, the unlikely heroine is commonplace. Take HBO’s Girls, all of the other Shondaland programs, Orange is the New Black, FX’s You’re the Worst, Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project, or Gabrielle Union in Being Mary Jane. This ideology has shifted our perspective on works that predate this shift. Take Zooey Deschanel’s Summer Finn in 500 Days of Summer. When the film was released, Summer was the villain. She didn’t want Tom. HOW DARE SHE NOT WANT TOM! He liked her and so she should like him back. In retrospect, Summer directly communicates her intentions with Tom. He chooses not to listen, to observe her as object rather than subject, and is distraught when Summer remains consistent with her desires. Since then, the film creators have said that their intention was to have Tom projecting. I’m not sure if this is true or not, but Summer Finn has gotten more compassion in the years since the film’s release. We’re no longer invested in narratives where women need to be perfect to be seen. We believe plotlines that reflect our flawed and frenzied lives. And when we root for the unlikely heroine to win, we’re rooting for ourselves to win.

I grew up believing my loud mouth was a liability. I thought I’d prune myself to be presentable. And then, media shifted a little. Cristina Yang entered my life. More and more, complicated female characters became the norm, as opposed to an exception. This inevitably impacts my self-image. I now see that my unruliness, the gnarled and unkempt parts of me, are assets, not anvils. In the same way, I’m not interested in seeing ideas of women on screen, I have no desire to be the concept of a person. My personhood is fully fleshed out, complicated, and doesn’t detract from my value.

We are all the unlikely heroine. No one fancies herself this commanding, Helen of Troy vixen. So, it’s only fitting that media has caught up. We’re starved for people who look like us, who talk like us, who err and stumble and rise as we do. For a long time, we didn’t get that. For a long time, we didn’t want to see that, and now, we’re ready. Seeing old fan favorites again with new eyes.

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