This is the next installment in my series about strong women characters in sci-fi and fantasy. My goal is to highlight some well-written female characters who are strong leaders, every bit equal to men, and yet still feminine.
I will begin by repeating that a strong female character is not a male character in a woman’s body. Women are inherently different in more than just biology, and those differences are important to portray well in fiction if a strong female character is to be believable. Yes, women can be warriors, leaders, and protectors (traditionally male attributes), just as men can be gentle, calming, and nurturing. But in a story, a strong female character needs to be so much more than just a gender-swapped man.
Many fantasy and sci-fi stories have an overwhelmingly male cast. All too often, the “token female” is just that—serving either as romance/sexual tension, and/or to simply say “this story is all about equality because look a woman.” In this post, I’ll be discussing the character of Elisa Maza from the 90s Disney TV cartoon Gargoyles. In this fantasy adventure story, the cast was, predictably, overwhelmingly male. Elisa may have initially stood out as the “token female,” but it was quickly apparent that she was to be a main character every bit as important as all the male humans and Gargoyles.
Elisa Maza, Police Detective
Elisa starts out as a strong woman from the get-go, because she’s a New York City police officer. One can’t be a wimp if you’re a plain-clothes cop in the Big Apple. She’s determined, smart, and doesn’t back down when she knows she’s in the right—all traits of a strong woman. She refuses to be bullied (by human criminals or fantastical monsters), and though she uses her authority as a cop to get things done, she uses violence or her gun as a last resort. She also chooses to act rationally rather than react emotionally when faced with the shock of meeting living Gargoyles for the first time.
She’s every bit as brave as the male Gargoyles. True bravery is choosing to act courageously even while feeling afraid—Elisa deals with fear on more than one occasion, but always chooses the courageous and honorable action. She’s intelligent, creative, and able to think on her feet, which makes her the perfect human liaison for the Gargoyles as they try to stay hidden while adjusting to their new modern big city life.
But what makes Elisa a strong woman, not just a strong character who could easily be a male? Even though her regular working outfit is plain and utilitarian, she knows how to dress up in her off-duty time if she wants to. While her natural protectiveness (as a cop and as the oldest of three siblings) is a trait seen the most, she has a tender and nurturing side. The calming nature of her femininity encourages the Gargoyles to think before they act, gives strength to her friends and family members when they’re struggling, and even sometimes helps a villain to see the error of their ways.
Working Together—Strong Women and Strong Men
A true woman of strength (in fiction and real life) can stand on her own, both without a man and with a man. Her strength as a woman comes from within, not from emasculating the men around her. While there are a few other strong female characters in the Gargoyles show (police chief Chavez, the Gargoyle Angela, the antagonist Fox, the indomitable Princess Catherine), the females are vastly outnumbered by the males—especially when it comes to heroics.
As a police officer, Elisa’s focus is on duty and honor, never on personal glory. And despite her independent nature, she can follow orders if she believes they are right. Therefore, she takes no issue with allowing the Gargoyle Goliath to lead in a situation that calls for it. She knows how New York City and the modern human world work, so she usually leads the Gargoyles in those matters. But since the Gargoyles are obviously superior physically in battle, Elisa is humble enough to let them operate in their strength zone and leave the masculine fighting to them most of the time. She never considers herself (as a woman or a human) to be superior (nor inferior) to the Gargoyles, and treats them with the same respect she does anyone else.
And yes, there’s a bit of romance, too. Over the course of the series, Elisa and Goliath develop feelings for each other (though it’s subtle and kept very PG, since this was a children’s TV show). Elisa Maza is a strong, independent woman who definitely does not need a man/lover in her life, and yet she treasures the small romantic moments that she’s able to share with Goliath. The inter-species love thing is touched on lightly (kids’ show, remember), but their relationship is encouraged by all of the Gargoyle characters (and some of the humans). Elisa and Goliath work together as equal partners as any strong couple would.
Elisa Maza is strong in her leadership, her sense of honor, and in her love, making her a great role model and example of a well-rounded strong female character.