Sep 14, 2020
The best animated shows for female characters
There’s a funny paradox when it comes to geek entertainment in recent times. The general public views cartoon shows as being silly, immature, and not to be taken seriously. And yet, during the last twenty years—that’s right, people, for that long—cartoon shows have become a place where writers and artists are free to push the envelope, and tackle a lot of different issues head-on in the portrayal of their characters. As far as mass-market entertainment goes, it’s one of the few places that actually dares to try new stuff and push things a bit in a new direction.
There are a few reasons for this. Mainly, it comes down to the fact that there isn’t as much pressure on cartoon shows to deliver something big and mind-blowing while also appealing to an audience of millions each week. And also, there’s less prestige to be had in making cartoons, so they tend to attract people who are genuinely interested in telling a good story and love to do what they do, just for the sake of doing it.
With more focus on simply making a good product, you end up with a lot of shows that don’t even need to be as good as they are. A lot of animated shows aren’t even really made for children when you think about it.
For instance, what little ten-year-old would even care that Batman: The Brave and the Bold is so faithful to the old ‘40s comics? The only viewers who would care are either the people who grew up with those comics (who would have to be in their eighties by now) or comic book geeks who are into this sort of stuff enough that they would be motivated to research it.
This is a good thing, however, in that over the years, animated shows have flown a bit under the radar and have been able to give us solid proof that cartoons made by women, and cartoons made for women (and girls) can be successful. Here are just some of the extremely positive representations of women in different cartoon shows and franchises.
Tiny Toons Adventures / The Animaniacs
Nowhere else, and I mean nowhere else, have I seen this big a collection of comedic female characters in one single place. And this was all the way back in 1990! 24 years ago, it was already proven that women can be funny and you can have a large variety of different female main characters all on one show.
The gender ratios were still a little skewed, but not by much. These shows introduced such characters as Babs Bunny, Elmyra, Minerva Mink, Dot, and Slappy the Squirrel, just to mention a few. These were characters that were original and new in their own right, and still hold up today as being funny and timeless.
The DC Animated Universe
Staying with Warner Brothers Animation for a bit, let’s talk about the enormous collection of different series all tying together into one timeline that is the shared DC Animated Universe. It started off with Batman: The Animated Series, the show that said, “Hmm, wouldn’t it be fun if we gave the Joker a henchwoman instead of just another henchman?” Wouldn’t that be fun, indeed?
What people often seem to overlook, because it was done so seamlessly, is just how much effort these shows actually put into having female characters. There were a surprising number of female villains showing up in the animated Superman series, such as Livewire, Mala, and Hot-Spot.
The animated Justice League made a bold move, exchanging original team member Hawkman for his lesser-known counterpart Hawkgirl. And it paid off; she stood firm as her own character with her own motivations, strengths, and weaknesses, and by the end of Justice League she ended up becoming one of the more interesting characters on the show.
Teen Titans from 2003 could also arguably be considered a part of this expanded universe, and they really managed to do great things with their female characters.
Take Starfire, who many people were turned off to due to her… obvious sex appeal in the comic books. Yet here, she gets to truly be her own character, with traits that go beyond her being a woman. It has little to do with her teen-friendly makeover, and just a lot to do with the way she’s written.
Raven from the same show is arguably the best character out of the main cast, with motivations and inner conflicts that drive her, making her a character with plenty of layers.
So if you’re looking for a fantastic female super-heroine with depth that has nothing to do with men or romantic relationships, look no further than the DC Animated Universe! All the women manage to stand on their own.
Avatar: The Last Airbender / The Legend of Korra
Many agree, yours truly included, that Avatar: The Last Airbender is the best western animated show to have come out since 2000. The story, the world, the visuals, the characters, they all come together as a single unit and become something great.
Once again, the gender ratio is a bit skewed, as it is in the sequel series Legend of Korra, in spite of that show having a female lead. But there is effort! So much effort, and the show has a large number of female characters who have arcs of their own and different distinct personalities, meaning there’s a lot of variety here.
Azula is definitely one of the most disturbing female villains I’ve ever seen, in that she genuinely scared me several times when she appeared.
Legend of Korra is of course noteworthy for being one of the few mainstream fantasy/adventure shows with a female lead that’s not aimed at girls specifically, but rather to a general audience. Korra herself stands out as a female lead due to her bulky design, masculine rough attitude, and being in a show that’s not afraid to slap her around when she gets impatient.
She’s kind of a troubled character, which might have to do with the creators trying so hard to make a statement with her that sometimes she feels obnoxious, but the effort is there! And her first season was popular enough to warrant two more seasons, and it’s beyond amazing that that happened. So now we know that a show with a female lead not directed towards girls can be successful and can work.
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
We all know I kind of had to put this in here. It’s the little show about ponies geared towards girls that became extremely popular among teenage boys (and somewhat older boys). And yet, the show is noteworthy in its own right, in that it’s a show made for girls, with a girl cast, that completely lacks that “we’re girls, let’s shine and glitter” attitude, and instead presents a large cast of unique personalities who just happen to be female.
With the Mane Six, their personalities come first and their gender second, and that really is the key. The show is not bound by being a girls’ show, nor does it feel like it has to adhere to girl tropes. Again, these ponies are just characters who happen to be female.
And that’s all there is to it, and that’s how any female character anywhere should be written: as a person first, and a woman second. Not “the” woman, no. “She’s a woman so she has to be like this and that” is the wrong way to go. It seems simple enough (and it is), but it’s funny how such a simple concept keeps eluding so many writers.
My god, is this show astonishing, if for nothing else than the fact that its cast most likely has a perfect 50/50 split of men and women.
This is a show that appears to exist simply so it can test the boundaries and be different. This is also the show that decided to just sit down and make a gender-flip episode. Not “gender-flip” as in our characters actually transformed into the opposite gender for an episode. I mean there was an entire episode where we enter an established world and everybody just is the gender-flipped counterpart of their usual characters.
No one was acting too different because of the flip; they were just gender-flipped, and that’s all. The universe, characters, and stories still worked just fine. In fact, Fionna, the female counterpart to the main character Finn, has become a huge fan favorite and a top cosplay character appearing at most cons these days.
Aside from that, the show in general has a massive cast of female characters, and whenever we encounter a new character, the show is very aware that there’s no reason at all why they shouldn’t be a woman, or a man, or a jelly-bean sandwich. That’s the beauty of Adventure Time.
What all of this tells us is that whoever says, “it can’t be done” in regards to having a larger female cast, or a more diverse female cast, is wrong. Because it has been done, multiple times, and it’s been done well. The answer is not to have just one woman and let her be “the woman”. What’s needed is a larger background cast of a variety of women, who are people first and women second.
With most shows, there are characters who could be females or males. When their purpose to the plot is gender-neutral, why not just turn one or two of them into females?
Heck, once upon a time at the Warner Brothers animation department, someone suddenly decided to give the Joker a henchwoman instead of a henchman, and now Harley Quinn is so popular that she’s been added to the official DC canon. When it comes to creating great female characters, it really can be just as simple as that.
[—Editing/cleanup/revisions to this article provided by Dr. Winston O’Boogie and Elliot Hodgett.]