Over the decades, the number of fantastical stories starring female characters has slowly but significantly risen. As that number has gone up, so too have the number of lady action heroes. Girls and women are no longer relegated to the roles of “white mage” or “brainiac”; they can sling spells, slay vampires, and punch supervillains in the face right alongside the menfolk.
And this is a good thing—for the most part. As with any media trend, there are complications, chief among them the balance between combatant and noncombatant protagonists. It’s all well and good to physically defend others, but not everyone can or even wants to be an action hero. By depicting only combat-oriented protagonists, writers are subtly telling audiences that you have to be a fighter in order to be the hero at the center of a story.
By exclusively valorizing masculine-coded characteristics while snubbing feminine-coded ones, we’re just holding everyone to the same (unhealthy) standards of physical strength that boys have been held to for ages. The answer to who gets to be a hero in terms of gender identity may have changed a bit over the years, but what makes someone a hero in terms of gender expression has remained largely the same.
The ability to enact violence shouldn’t be the only way we measure someone’s value. It’s important to showcase a variety of both masc- and femme-coded roles—not just soldiers, but politicians, doctors, mediators, artists, caretakers, and so on—to highlight the different ways of doing good or being a hero. This is as true of fantastical escapist fiction as it is grounded slice-of-life stories.
So, how do we tell these stories without falling back into the old gendered stereotypes of “man fight, woman heal”? One subgenre in particular provides us with a useful template: shoujo fantasy, which features a number of action-packed tales with protagonists as diverse as their worlds.
What stands out most sharply is the importance of variety. While some shoujo fantasy, such as Basara and Yona of the Dawn, star female protagonists who make the conscious decision to become fighters, just as many do not. They may be young politicians like Shuurei in The Story of Saiunkoku, doctors and herbalists like Shirayuki in Snow White with the Red Hair, or even “ordinary” high school students with awakening special powers, like Hitomi in The Vision of Escaflowne.
Importantly, while shoujo is targeted at girls and therefore tends to star female characters, this level of variety also extends to series with male protagonists. For example, the protagonist of Natsume’s Book of Friends is by-and-large a pacifist who tries to solve his problems with communication and empathy. He eventually picks up a few self-defense strategies, but he mostly relies on his yokai friends (especially his bodyguard, Nyanko-sensei) to protect him from danger.
Each of these stories depicts their protagonists as talented and heroic, showcasing their unique skills and how they can save the day. Some of their abilities are femme-coded (Shirayuki and Natsume as healers and caretakers), others gender-neutral or even masc-coded (Shuurei the politician and Hitomi the seer), but all are depicted as equally admirable in their own ways.
Our noncombatant heroes try not to get involved in physical battles, but when they can’t avoid it, their respective series don’t shame them for needing protection from others. Receiving help in areas where you’re weak doesn’t undo your strengths or lessen your worth as a person. This is as true for civilians as it is soldiers.
Of course, nuance is everything, and it’s always worth looking at how much help the protagonist needs over the course of the story. The term “damselfication” is used far too often in media criticism to refer to any situation where a woman needs help, which perpetuates the unhealthy belief that people can only be strong if they never need assistance from others. We should allow characters to ask for help or have moments of weakness—but we also need to make sure that’s not the only thing they’re doing.
If a character constantly requires rescue, or if their main purpose is to passively wait for someone to save them, then they lose agency, stop being a character, and become more of a plot device. Fushigi Yugi’s danger-magnet of a protagonist struggles with this problem, as does Snow White with the Red Hair, although at least there Shirayuki always actively participates in her own rescue. Writers need to be aware of their protagonist’s “saving” versus “being saved” ratio, and ensure it doesn’t tip too far into the latter.
It’s also worth examining the gender balance within each work of fiction. If every female character is a noncombatant, even an active and heroic one, then the story may accidentally promote outdated ideas about the “inherent” differences between boys and girls.
This is, admittedly, a recurring issue in shoujo fantasy, where attempts to promote “feminine strength” (a valuable goal on its own) often get tangled up in the idea that “feminine” always means “girl” and “masculine” always means “boy.” Escaflowne—a series about war without a single female warrior, where toxic aggression is very literally connected to AMAB bodies—is a prime example of how a series can fall into these patterns.
The Story of Saiunkoku and Snow White with the Red Hair fare much better thanks to their supporting casts: Saiunkoku features a female assassin and a crime boss, while Snow White’s second-most prominent female character is a talented soldier and trusted bodyguard. By including positive depictions of women with both femme- and masc-coded strengths, these series hold up noncombatants as heroic figures without stumbling into gender essentialism.
Yona of the Dawn provides an important variant on the usual gendered model as well. Here, it’s the female protagonist Yona who decides to become a fighter, while her close male friend Yoon explicitly says he could fight, but chooses not to. Instead, he’s the caretaker of the group, serving as both doctor and cook. Much like how Natsume is a vital example of a noncombatant male protagonist, Yoon shows that noncombatant boys can also be valued members of the supporting cast, just like girls have been for ages.
The push for more physically powerful female characters in fiction has its heart in the right place, fighting back against the belief that girls are naturally weaker than boys. However, it can also lead to the idea that noncombatant characters of any gender are “lesser” than combat-oriented ones, or that they’re automatically rendered “damsels” just because they don’t wield a sword or kick people through walls.
As we move into the next decade, it’s important for creators to be more aware of these potential pitfalls and take steps to avoid them. The top tier of shoujo fantasy helps provide us with useful models for how to challenge outdated ideas about what makes a hero, both in terms of their gender identity and their gender-coded behaviors.
As always, nuance is key and variety is the spice of life. Hopefully more fiction, both within shoujo fantasy and out of it, will keep these considerations in mind going forward.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the limited-edition AniFem Zine. It has been republished here with minor edits with the author’s permission.