I never watched much TV as a child; we didn’t have a working one for a long time growing up. But we did have movies. Media in the 1980s being what it was, there was always the token girl and, frankly, I didn’t relate. The girl’s main role in life appeared to be being vulnerable. To need saving. Sometimes they were there to take care of someone or look like a nurturing type, but the rare situations where they were actually movers and shakers stuck with me. I wanted what they had.
To take an example from one of the seminal films of my youth, Transformers: The Movie (1986) and the character Arcee. Arcee was ‘the girl’ of the film: an Autobot warrior that is never shown to do much. The scenes where she features involve struggling to move a piece of equipment, firing in a direction we can assume is helpful, but we never find out if she hits her target or does anything meaningful. She spends some time voicing concern and being smashed aside so others can show concern for her. She appears to be an extra; a figure that was needed to populate the movie. And this happens a lot.
Arcee has potential to do stuff, but the script never lets her. And that’s a shame because other extras such as Perceptor do things that drive the story forward like provide exposition and give the principal characters choices. Perceptor was a far more interesting character not because he was more important or had more personality, but because he had a part to play. It wasn’t enough for Arcee to be a girl (and apart from painting her pink, I struggle to see why they bothered to gender the robots in the first place). She had to contribute to what was happening.
Another particularly lame character is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ (1987) April O’Neil. O’Neil’s role in the story was to be some journalist somewhere that either was on TV when the turtles were watching or to get captured. She was a step up from Arcee in that she had Perceptor-like jobs of telling the audience what was happening. She also provided a damsel in distress character for the turtles to go rescue. But she still didn’t give child-me much to work with.
TMNT was a parody, first and foremost, and O'Neil wasn’t funny. I was enamoured with Donatello ‘cause I liked the staff and the tinkering, even if Raphael had the better jokes. So just as Arcee was a warrior that didn’t really fight effectively in an action movie, O’Neil was a parody that didn’t make me laugh or support any of the other humour in the show. It seemed to be enough for her to be ‘the girl’.
"..IT WOULD HAVE BEEN NICE TO NOT HAVE TO HACK MYSELF INTO THE BODY OF HAN SOLO, HOT ROD OR RAPHAEL TO GET TO DO SOMETHING COOL."
There are others, but TMNT and Transformers were major players in popular culture and continue to influence media now. Luckily, we were all smart enough to just latch onto the cool characters and not care about their gender. But it would have been nice to not have to hack myself into the body of Han Solo, Hot Rod or Raphael to get to do something cool.
Talking Star Wars, Princess Leia is a brilliantly powerful female character. Bold, angry, forceful, intelligent; Leia is the girl you want on your side. Yeah, she still ends up playing a bit of damsel in distress, but we see the distress she’s in: she’s tortured. Right from the start of the film, we see a girl that is fighting back; her moments of true helplessness are few.
There were others. I was a fan of the rather obscure and short-lived Lazer Tag Academy (1987) that featured the warrior from the future, Jamie Jaren. Jaren was special for the era because she was the saviour sent to protect the protagonists in a Terminator type scenario. It only ran for twelve episodes but it had a lasting impact on me to see this girl play the powerful mentor figure while also saving the day. But I didn’t need a full-on female protagonist like Leia or Jaren.
Perhaps the biggest impact was made by The Dark Crystal’s (1982) Kira. Kira was a supporting character in the film that provides practical know-how to principal character Jen’s bookish understanding of what’s going on. She falls into the category of damsel occasionally, but largely she is autonomous and pivotal to the story by dint of her own abilities and actions. The one time she needs prompting is from the other female supporting character, Augra.
Like Leia, Kira’s contribution to the film is difficult to list without explaining the film — and that is exactly as it should be. But there was one moment in the film that is worth explaining as it had a powerful impact on me as a girl. Surrounded and backed against a cliff, Kira grabs Jen and jumps. But instead of falling, Kira unfurls wings and glides them to the bottom of the chasm. When Jen expresses surprise, Kira says to him of course he doesn’t have wings, “You’re a boy.”
"I WANTED WINGS. I DIDN’T WANT TO FLY, THOUGH THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN COOL."
I wanted wings. I didn’t want to fly, though that would have been cool. I wanted what she had. In that moment, the film told me I could never be Kira and reconcile that with the messages I had from everyone around me. They thought I was a boy and told me I was. I couldn’t have wings.
It’s a powerful feminist message, that the female character has a capacity the male character could never hope to aspire to. It’s a message we see reversed often. That it was linked to Kira’s body, that it was just how she was, had a particular resonance for me. I never quite understood why that scene was so clear in my mind until much later in life, but the message was received. When I was a girl, I wanted what the rest told me I could never have.