Fictional Feminists


Art by Molly

So I know people always cite Kat Stratford from 10 Things I Hate About You as the fictional feminist they most remember. And sure, she makes a lasting impression. But my feminism was informed by a different set of more subtle fictional ladies. There was Jo from Little Women and Ozma from the Wizard of Oz series. There was Francine Frensky from Arthur and Rory from Gilmore Girls. There was a whole slew of girls and women from Middle Grade, Young Adult, and “Adult” fiction whose names I don’t necessarily remember, but whose stories continue to stick with me. But this here is a list of the three unexpected formative feminists from my childhood. Have at it:

Jessie Spano


Before that whole Showgirls fiasco, Elizabeth Berkley played that feisty, overachieving, hair-flipping feminist on everyone’s favorite show to watch when they were home sick from school, Saved By the Bell. Sure there were strong women on the ‘90s airwaves before her (Roseanne of course, being an oft-cited example), but Jessie was the first sassy lady who stood up to general male douchebaggery like it was her job. She may have even been the first woman to introduce me to the words “chauvinist pig.” So that was a pretty big thing for me. She was smart and driven and she never apologized once for it. Of course, her general crusading attitude was complicated by that classic TV trope (pulled straight from Taming of the Shrew) of having the uptight nerdy (yet conventionally gorgeous) girl fall for the laid-back, womanizing jock. And you know, as problematic as that trick is, it still worked on me (mostly because I’d just like to believe that Jessie’s politics were unchanged by her relationship status). Rock on, Jessie Spano; an emotionally fulfilled and still politically conscious ‘90s girl after my own heart.

Harriet the Spy


Of all the sneaky female sleuths scattered about fiction (Nancy Drew, Veronica Mars, Gossip Girl to some weird extent), Harriet the Spy was the most formative for my life. I wouldn’t exactly call her a feminist and looking back, her story was actually pretty dark and sad. Yet there was something fierce about her and her adherence to honesty that was empowering to me as a kid. As someone who still gets freaked out by the prospect of talking to people on the actual telephone, Harriet’s willingness to assert herself through journalistic writing (private or public) was powerful stuff. I can see Harriet at age 28, either doing some serious investigative journalism on Wall Street’s ass. It’s either that or else she’s running an empire of acerbic yet insightful cultural commentary blogs.

Lilly from The Princess Diaries


While admittedly I’ve never read the books, every four months or so I gleefully remember I own DVDs of both The Princess Diaries and its laughably bad/wonderful sequel, The Princess Diaries 2: A Royal Engagement. It’s Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews, okay? And Lilly Moscovitz was one hell of a best friend/save-the-whales kind of activist. She had her own cable show, I mean really. Lilly is girl I wish I could have been more like in high school: upfront, outspoken, and unapologetic. Sure I’ve always had opinions, but I never voiced them as loudly or as confidently as Lilly. She was a lot cooler than me in that respect. These days, I’m sure Ms. Moscovitz is still fighting the good fight, maybe as a community organizer or a Greenpeace campaigner or a Berkeley professor in the Gender Studies department. Something meaningful, but still with enough vacation time to visit Anne Hathaway in Genovia.

Girl power. Let’s keep it up.

Meaghan Murphy, Staff Writer 


About Meaghan Murphy

lives, studies, makes radio in Chicago. writes about it too.


  1. HARRIET. Definitely a formative female force in my life.

  2. The Princess Diaries, always always always.

  3. Joanna Harkins

    I’ve wanted to be harriet for halloween so many times, maybe this is the year!

  4. also, if I remember correctly from the Princess Diaries books, Lilly is even MORE of a feminist. In fact, Mia is a pretty hardcore one too in those books. Meg Cabot’s good about writing strong female characters in general, actually.

  5. Petra

    omg you have to read The Princess Diaries! They were the only way I was able to deal with school in high school. It’s about a girl with normal feelings and really supportive friends who’s also a feminist and cares about the environment and is awkward and is a friggin princess!

  6. Nia Wesley

    I loved that Mia was a vegetarian, donated to Greenpeace, and watched Buffy.

    I never liked the phrase “chauvinist pig”. It is speciesist. It turns the name of a pig into an insult, degrading an entire species. What exactly does being chauvinist have to do with an innocent pig?

    I agree that Harriet was actually pretty dark. I cringe in the second half of the movie when all of the kids, even her closest friends, were bullying her. And all they had to go on to turn against her were a few out of context sentences in her personal journal.


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