The word kick-ass, however, could use some deconstruction.
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See, the popular emphasis on toughness and independence in women tends to manifest itself as a preference for mouthy, feisty, physically forceful girls. This causes all sorts of problems. At best, the gentler strengths get devalued. At worst, a female character can seem designed as a feminist ideal rather than a real and complex woman, which comes off—to this reader at least—as both distracting and difficult to sympathize with.
This list contains some of my favorite heroines, honored here for a variety of strengths. Note that I'm using the term heroines to mean protagonists or at least part-time narrating characters, not merely heroic fictional women. I could've gone on for ages if I allowed myself to include supporting cast members like Hermione, Luna, and the other women from Harry Potter, Galadriel and Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings, Daisy Lee from Summer of the Monkeys, and countless others in non-narrating roles.
Oh, and I've limited myself to two per author, because Austen's young women were taking over the list and I couldn't seem to stick with just one.
1. Elinor Dashwood. Any girl who can put up with Lucy Steele's cruelty and pettiness without losing her cool has my highest respect. But Elinor, at nineteen, is also a stabilizing influence on her mother and younger sisters. I wish I'd had her maturity at nineteen—or ever. Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
2. Anne Elliott. Along with being patient and respectful and dutiful, Anne is wise. There's a strength that's hard to come by; it's worth any ten others, though. Persuasion, Jane Austen
3. Annie Anderson. MacDonald may have titled his book after the young hero, but it's Annie who shines: loyal and loving, pious and independent, neither constrained by nor spoiled by the harsh rules placed upon her. She walks by the law of charity, and the reader pulls for her even over Alec. Alec Forbes of Howglen, George MacDonald
4. Miri Larendaughter. Perky, assertive, resourceful, and funny, Miri is one of the most delightful tough girls I've ever come across in fiction. Princess Academy and Palace of Stone, Shannon Hale
5. Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee. Shy and used to comfort, Ani—also known as Isi—makes the best of her sudden reversal of fortunes with a queen's grace. She bears with hard work and bad weather and lousy food good-humoredly, makes friends among the poor, and still looks for a way to protect her people and her horse. The Goose Girl, Shannon Hale
6. Wanderer. As Jared said, "Altruism comes more naturally to [her] than lies." She's pure of heart, self-effacing, and strong enough to forgive enemies and make them into friends. The Host, Stephenie Meyer
7. Nynaeve al'Meara. Nynaeve would be one hundred percent determination and power if it weren't for her beautiful vulnerabilities: a passion for healing, love for Lan Mandragoran, and an explosive temper, which is not always beautiful, but keeps her honest. The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan
8. Egwene al'Vere. What I love about Egwene's cool strength is that she uses it to control herself first and foremost. She also cares about things like humility and unity and tradition, which is nice. The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan
9. Maria Merryweather. Humble enough to marry a poor shepherd and bold enough to face the Men of the Woods, Maria overcomes her own vanity and sets her whole being to the task of healing her family and her land. The Little White Horse, Elizabeth Goudge
10. Rilla Blythe. All of Montgomery's heroines are wonderful in their own ways, but I've always loved plucky Rilla, who, when her girlhood is disrupted by war, determines to be a heroine. It's hard to be a heroine when your brothers and your young man go overseas to fight and you're stuck at home, but Rilla saves a baby, organizes a Red Cross, learns to accept the consequences of her own pigheadedness, and makes a number of sacrifices of her own. Rilla of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery
All right, I'll stop at ten and save the others for the next time this question comes around. I could've kept going for another ten with just Austen and Hale and Montgomery.
What heroines would you name, and what strengths do you love about them?