With or Without Capes: Our Personal Heroes on International Women’s Day

We take time out of busy schedules to celebrate the women – fictionalized and not – who we either idolized as children, admired as adults or both. With Captain Marvel officially being released on International Women’s Day it felt only best that we carve out at least a portion of our time to talk about the heroes who didn’t necessarily wear capes but who we idolized all the same.

Studio Ghibli

Chihiro Ogino – Spirited Away

Chihiro Ogino, or Sen, of Hayao Miyazaki’s fantastic Spirited Away is my heroine pick because she is a neutralizer, as in someone who strives for peace when facing the unknown (so, yes, it’s definitely not because she goes around and “tango down” folks). Throughout her journey in the Spirit World, Chihiro makes no enemies and if there are any their hostility simply dissipates after an encounter — or two — with her. She calms a gluttonous monstrosity. She un-hexes two dragons. She earns the respect of one of the Bathhouse’s fiercest staffers. By being the cold breeze in an otherwise sweltering universe, Chihiro is a heroic figure that can exist beyond the screen, a person whom you could always model after at any time in your life. If you have been struggling to find an evergreen hero, or a beacon that will actually grow with you, Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli are here. Is this why the film’s ending song is “Always With Me”? Anyway, what’s more certain here is that the film’s magic resides less in the quirky and ablution-eager denizens and more in how mainly internal the hero’s journey is. If pairing-watch is your thing, insert Arrival after Spirited Away since nothing is more wondrous than a person who reaches for empathy first — from within and without. (Nguyen Le)

Universal Pictures


As we know her,  Cherilyn Sarkasian is a larger-than-life pop culture icon–a trailblazing singer, an Academy Award-winning actress, an active philanthropist, a fashion icon (I said it), and provider of necessary all-caps, emoji-ridden critiques of Trump on Twitter. Cher went from being half of husband-wife folk rock duo Sonny and Cher to the Goddess of Pop we know today by boldly succeeding in–and often in spite of–the male-dominated music world in which she was introduced. As Cher famously said in a 1996 Jane Pauley interview, “I love men. I think men are the coolest, but you don’t really need them to live. My mom said to me, ‘You know, sweetheart, you should settle down and marry a rich man. I said, ‘Mom, I am a rich man.’” She’s the unapologetic master of reinvention who manages to strike the perfect balance between attracting new fans and pleasing the old.

Cher has a ton of achievements to her name, what with being one of the best-selling musical artists of all time, the only artist so far to have a number one single in six consecutive decades, and heaps of awards–but she hasn’t stopped to rest on her laurels yet. From her newly iconic role as Ruby in Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again! and ensuing ABBA cover album, to the opening of the Broadway jukebox musical The Cher Show in 2018, as well as her upcoming 2019 Here We Go Again international tour and her memoir due out in 2020, there’s just no limit for Cher–nor should there be. (Bri Lockhart)



Looking back on any past hero, Mulan immediately comes to mind. What I admired most about her was her strength and resilience in the face of uncertainty, adversity, and fear. She took matters into her own hands and did what she felt she had to do to protect her family. Mulan had several empowering character traits. She decided to fight because she didn’t want her father in harm’s way. He’d already fought in a war and done his time. Mulan also joined the fight because she wanted to prove herself capable, worthy, and that she could bring honor to her family in other ways besides getting married. I also related to Mulan a bit more personally than other female characters at the time because the film not only focused on her as a person, but on how she was affected by the pressures of family values and the implication of what a woman’s perceived bad reputation means in the eyes of community. The sexist implications were slight and overt throughout Mulan, depending on which character she interacted with. And Mulan handled everything that came her way by showcasing physical and emotional endurance at every turn. She took an impossible situation and made it possible, but also knew she had to work twice as hard to prove herself because she was a woman in a man’s world (even if none of the men actually knew that.) Mulan stands the test of time as a heroine and as a multi-faceted female character and my admiration for her hasn’t wavered after all these years. (Mae Abdulbaki)

Amanda Bynes and Skye Sweetnam

Like many 90s babies, All That was the pinnacle of comedic television to me. The kid friendly sketch comedy show introduced us to several cast members who would go on to have their own Nickelodeon shows in the formative years of our childhoods. One of them being; Amanda Bynes. The Amanda Show was the first time I saw a girl my age being as creative and weird as I felt I was and get rewarded for it. The show featured Bynes taking center stage in now iconic skits like Judge Trudy, The Girls Room, and the classic, Moody’s Point. At just 13, Bynes had the comedic timing of seasoned adult stand-up comics. When the show ended, she moved on to film projects like She’s the Man and What a Girl Wants, where she continued to play independent young women who were also unapologetically themselves. Bynes’ roles were girls who didn’t have to compromise on certain aspects of their personality to attain all that they wanted in life. The characters she portrayed on screen fearlessly pursued goals that they were passionate about. When I think of why I looked up to Amanda Bynes when I was a kid, I’m proud to say that I looked up to a young woman who was funny, smart, and confident.

Noise From The Basement by Skye Sweetnam is an album from when I was growing up that I find really influential in my experience as a music fan. The Canadian singer-songwriter was 16 when her songs started to be included on soundtracks promoted by The Disney Channel. She wrote, and continues to write, all of her own music. As a teenager, she wrote pop-sensible lyrics with a rock edge that made her stand out among the rest of the Disney artists breaking at the time. When her sophomore album SoundSoldier was exclusively released in Canada, I listened to the tracks on Youtube for hours. She was so freely creative that even when music videos weren’t being produced by a label, she would make and post them herself on Youtube (which she continues to do with her independent punk/metal band Sumo Cyco). She made tutorials for colorful make up looks and how to cut t-shirts into something my mom would never let me leave the house wearing. Even today as a more casual fan, Skye Sweetnam is someone I constantly find myself looking towards as someone I want to be like. She was confident in a way that didn’t even seem brave, she was just being herself. (Oleva Berard)


Penelope Alvarez – One Day at a Time

The current reimagining of One Day at a Time has a kickass matriarchal team at its center. While one can imagine the incredible impact Rita Moreno has had on millions of people, myself included, my personal hero from this show is Justina Machado’s Penelope Alvarez. The fact that Penelope is such a multifaceted character is already a win for Latinx people who hardly get to see that on screen. Penelope is the glue that holds her eccentric (yet very loveable) family together and just as her strength to get through the everyday struggles is admirable, so is her ability to recognize her failings. The fact that she is doing it all as a single mother already makes her a badass but what makes her a hero to me is her realization that she cannot do it alone, and that there is no shame in that. Throughout the show’s three seasons the audience has seen Penelope navigate dating, coming to terms with her daughter’s coming out, we have seen her work her way to becoming a nurse practitioner, how she copes through anxiety and depression and the gravity of what it means to be a war veteran. In season three’s final episode, we see Penelope struggling with her dating life as her ex-husband remarries his newfound love. In the end Penelope realizes that loving herself and where her life is going is more than enough, embracing her own power makes her a hero worth acknowledging. (Melissa Linares Perlaza)


Belle – Beauty and the Beast

Disney movies were a regular part of my childhood, so many of my formative heroines came from these filmss, for better or for worse. But it felt like the company erred on the better side after I watched the 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast. Unlike other Disney heroines who spent most of their time longing for a love interest, Belle longed for something more, something she couldn’t really describe, an adventure outside of the gossipy small town who shunned her for this longing and her bookish interests. And as someone who shared many of her interests and who likewise grew up in mostly conservative small towns, I loved seeing a heroine who confidently and passionately indulged those interests anyway, even if she couldn’t find anyone else who shared them. It also didn’t hurt that she spoke her mind and told off jerks like Gaston who insisted she conform to his ideas of what a woman should be. Looking back, it’s definitely something I can appreciate as an adult, even if I wish it wasn’t quiet so prescient. Attitudes like this may not fade, but at least kids have childhood heroines who prove that being kind and being brave don’t have to be mutually exclusive. (Andrea Thompson)



Peggy Olsen – Mad Men

Where do I even begin with Peggy Olson? There are a thousand and one sobriquets to which I could give her, one of the only female characters with which I have truly connected: feminist icon, She Who Knows She Wants Some Pot, an angel in a high-rise office filled with devils, the light of my life, My Actual Wife Thank You Very Much, Boss Lady and Boss Babe, punchy Peggy, passionate Peggy, vulnerable and flawed and funny and perpetually determined even when it hurts Peggy. For as many monikers she’s deserving of, there are reasons Peggy Olson is my personal hero, the woman I want to be when I grow up and into myself.

I met Peggy Olson at a dark time in my life, and the sparkle that shone off her as she spoke her mind and climbed her way — blood, sweat, tears, and lipstick-stained tissues in the basket of kisses that inspired her first bright advertising idea — through Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce offered a kind of enlivenment and inspiration I’d never experienced before. Played to sheer perfection, the lines between actress and character melting into honeyed togetherness, oneness, by Elisabeth Moss, Peggy began as a shy, ponytailed secretary and, throughout the years, rose to become a copywriting phenom — though she was never out of reach, her meteoric rise never undeserved or unbolstered by genuine effort. Amidst her professional endeavors, which ran the gamut of sweet highs and sour middling moments, she encapsulated so much of what womanhood can be made of: self-assuredness and uncertainty, sex positivity and the power to say “when” and “no” and “goodnight,” laughter and light in chaos, poise under pressure, sacrifice that can sting, and so much more.

Though Mad Men is set in the ‘60s, Peggy feels markedly modern, vastly ahead of her time and a cut above even the best of us today. That she speaks to me when sobbing in the bathroom, swaying to a Sinatra song with Jon Hamm’s Don Draper, and delivering a stunning outpouring on double standards between men and women — “No one should have to make a mistake just like a man does and not be able to move on.” — speaks volumes.

Of all the things I’ve learnt from Peggy — and I’ve learned a great deal — those that stick out most ones I’ve gleaned from words she’s given: “Your problem is not my problem,” “I’m the person you need to impress right now,” and, my favorite, “A thing like that.” (AJ Chase)

Liz Harris

Grouper is a musician that, to some, may contravene the typical definition of a superhero. When examining all of the tropes that have been attached to the archetype, there a lot of variables that seemingly contradict the very nature of her music. Superheroes are generally seen as figures of immense power that burst into a situation with a loud introduction that makes their presence known to all around. Conversely, the music of Liz Harris is often abstract with an assorted number of layers to peel away. There is distinct darkness to her music that I can only describe as simultaneously revelatory and cleansing. Accompanying her trademark ghostly ambiance, Harris’ soft and often haunting vocals enshroud the listener with harsh vulnerability. To put it plainly, Grouper instilled in me a very important lesson; There is beauty in being alone.

Thinking back to 2014 is often very difficult for me. I had just begun my freshman year of university in an entirely brand new environment with nary a friend in sight. Life was, frankly,  not working out for me. A depressive phase quickly manifested itself and it was difficult to function at an even rudimentary level. Being alone and lonely was the norm and while previously, I enjoyed the solitude, the overwhelming weight of everything just arduously burrowed its way into my subconscious. It wasn’t until I engulfed myself into Grouper’s 2014 album Ruins that I discovered the underlying truth behind it all. The raw and vulnerable nature was just what I needed to fully accept who I was and more importantly, learn that I was going to be okay. That is something I will never forget. (Mark Wesley)

Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Rachel Weisz

Looking at Rachel Weisz’ list of roles is all one needs to ascertain her talent. However, one of the roles that cemented her in the lexicon of all-time great actresses is her most recent appearance in Yorgos Lanthimos’ recent film The Favourite. At its core, The Favourite is all about power and the effects that accompany being at the top of the food chain. While Olivia Colman and Emma Stone both presented career-defining performances, Rachel Weisz’ eloquent approach to Sarah Churchill is one that deserves much more attention. On our first viewing of the film, it can be very easy to side with Abigail (Emma Stone) as she vies to become Queen Anne’s favorite. After all, she starts out from the very bottom of this hierarchal society and rises to the top using her own cunning. Even the Queen mistakes her sly advances and tactics for warmth and true love; A mistake that she ultimately realizes by the end.

However,  Weisz’ character is deliciously complex both written and acted. Upon further viewings, it becomes increasingly clear that she has Queen Anne’s best interest. At first glance, her character comes off as cold and often times condescending. She forgoes the stereotypical feminine tropes of being focused on outward appearance and instead, deals with extremely important matters of state and in-house drama as well. By all accounts, she might as well have been the queen at this time. Still, under her steely exterior is a woman who deeply cares for her queen and country. When Churchill says to Abigail, “We are playing very different games”, their motives become aware to all. In all of this, Weisz delivers this role with such a stunning swagger that it is almost impossible not to lose yourself in her performance. (Mark Wesley)

The CW

Rebecca Bunch – Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Every night before I go to sleep, I listen to music and picture what my next day looks like in scenes set to whatever I’m blasting. These fantasies range from cheerful, to bland, to horrific depending on my mood and I’ll stay up for as long as it takes for me work through all of it. It’s such an intimate coping mechanism, certainly not something that I ever expected to see brought to life. Then, I met Rebecca Bunch – the lead of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

We see the world in the same way. Each micro interaction its own set piece, every new friend a potential player and every spiral a massive musical number. She lets me live inside the moments that bother me and realize that there is some light and warmth in even the darkest ones. An utter disaster, wildly intelligent and loving woman often consumed by a high voltage imagination overcharged by her borderline personality disorder, her strength comes from her ability to channel and own her mental illness. She’s not perfect, she’s not crazy – she’s just a work in progress,

I do not have borderline personality disorder, but watching Rebecca grow more aware of her mental illness and seek help has inspired me to do the same. We’ve made a lot of similar mistakes, but in 2019 we’re both hell bent on correcting them. If she can do her work, I can do mine.


Saying farewell to her next month is going to be absolutely painful. I’ll miss her like I would a dear friend who has moved on to the next phase of their life. Perhaps this is how it’s meant to be. Perhaps she’s the wildly literal manifestation of my own internal issues that I needed to see in my developmental years. Perhaps she can have a permanent home inside my mind, even if she never makes her way out and onto my screen again. Thank you for showing me that even the most hopeless moments have curtain calls. Thank you for  finding your happiness and health without losing the parts of you that are so lovable. Thank you for being one of my best friends, Rebecca. (Michael Fairbanks)

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Jo March – Little Women

There are plenty of women I’ve idolized as I’ve grown – both real and fictionalized – but few have lingered with such a sense of permanence as Louise May Alcott’s Jo, the second eldest of the March sisters. While the novelization is what first drew me to her story as I read it at any opportunity I could manage, it was the 1994 adaptation with Winona Ryder in the leading the role that truly captured my eyes and heart. She’s ferociously independent and, crucially, flawed in a manner that makes her all the more winsome to both young girls and adult women. Her plucky resolve and passion for writing endeared her to me while I was young and easily influenced me, while her stubbornness and protective inclinations of her sisters allowed me to relate to her later. While there are surface level attributes that make her an obvious idol for a young, similarly bookish child with ink-stained fingertips, including her abrasive and sometimes combative attitude, it was the deep lining of insecurities that made her someone of ultimate value to a bright eyed girl. There have been no shortage of representation in my life as a white woman but there’s always something special about feeling seen in media – no matter the medium. I felt seen and heard with Jo. More than anything though, what allows her to be such a tremendous, fixed point in my life is that as I grow, so does my admiration for the character, developing from shallow relatability to deeper understanding of a woman who was inherently flawed but persistent in trying to both better herself – in mind and heart, who didn’t need to sacrifice her sense of self for a man but was mature enough to accept love when she stumbled across it. At 27, I’m still hoping to grow up to be like Jo March. It may never be, but just trying feels good enough to someone who has carried her words in her pockets for two decades. (Ally Johnson)

20th Century Fox Television

Faith Lehane – Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Often when people think of strong female characters, they’re usually characters that are genuinely good people from the outset. They may make mistakes along the way, but they always end up in the same place in terms of morality. 

One of the most fascinating female characters to grace television is not that. At least, for a good part of her run time on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” she kills some people and betrays the Scoobies and swaps bodies with Buffy to wreak a little more havoc. Faith Lehane (Eliza Dushku) is the perfect foil for Buffy Summers, but there’s much more to her than that.
I appreciate Faith because she is deeply flawed, but I also appreciate that we’re allowed to watch her fall from grace and subsequent struggle to earn a little redemption. For the most part, her redemption arc actually happens on the “Buffy” spin off show “Angel,” during which she does some more torturing, but then finally has the break down that’s been building since she accidentally killed a human mid-season 3 “Buffy.” Instead of writing her off as a lost cause, Angel, in the middle of his own redemption arc, begins taking the steps to walk Faith through on how to even begin to make amends. Angel’s guidance is only the beginning for Faith, and her two episode arc during “Angel” season 1 culminates in her turning her self over to the police of her own volition, the first step in accepting most of her troubles began with her.  


But here’s where Faith really makes a statement, and why I’m deciding to include her on this list for International Women’s Day. During “Angel” season 4, Angel has lost his soul. Wesley, out of options, turns to the one slayer in town who can help: Faith. The second she learns Angel needs her help, Faith breaks out of prison and goes to try to save the day. This might seem like she’s turning her back on her redemption path, since it really began when she turned herself in to the police. But really, Faith breaking out of prison to save Angel, the one guy who believed she was worthy of seeking a second chance, is the ultimate defining characteristic of a hero — someone who’s willing to face the consequences of their actions, but is intelligent enough to know when it’s time to step back into the game. What “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel” are both good at is never letting redemption be easy. It’s a constant fight. When it comes to female representation on screen, Faith is a great example that women can be flawed too, but still be worthy enough to save their friends, and fight for their very own souls. (Katey Stoetzel)

NBCUniversal Television

Xena: Warrior Princess

Growing up as a little gay 90’s boy in a culture (Mexican) that values extreme machismo, I rarely found myself identifying with any of the male characters in any of my favorite TV shows. In fact, I found myself gravitating to shows with strong female protagonists. Something about them was refreshing and helped me feel validated as a person. It wouldn’t be until much later that I would realize that my affinity towards them was because they showed people as not overtly either masculine or feminine, but as a harmonious blend of both. This International Women’s Day, I’d like to recognize a show that not only helped me come to terms with who I was as a person, but also with my homosexuality: Xena: Warrior Princess. At that point in my young life, there was nothing like on television. Here you have Lucy Lawless, a goddess in her own right, portraying the beautiful balance in both the warrior and princess traits of her character. Although Xena has many aggressive aspects that are typically associated with masculinity, she is able to do it while remaining fiercely feminine. It showed me that I didn’t have to be one or the other, but that I could embrace both and still be a badass person. The show also helped me understand that heterosexuality wasn’t the only option for me. I felt less shame for my attraction to other boys thanks to the themes in this fictional show. Representation matters, and Xena, to this day, is the perfect representation of the essence that every person should strive for. (Jon Espino)


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