I was all set to make Princess Moana the Woman of the Month for November – and then I found out that the film doesn't open in New Zealand cinemas until Boxing Day (which seems kinda unfair considering she's a Polynesian princess - we should be getting her first!) So I'm fast-forwarding the entry I had planned for December...
Yes, there were plenty of them, but the fantasy/scifi genre (at least in this decade) wasn't particularly kind to them. It was not only dominated by male characters, but more often than not it reduced many of the women to distressed damsels or supporting characters. I read another review that pointed out most Eighties heroines were hookers, victims or doormats, and it's sadly true – though I would also add "plot device" and "love interest" to the list.
As compelling as they are, the Child-Like Empress from The Neverending Story and Dana Barrett from Ghostbusters fundamentally exist as Distressed Damsels in the narrative, as does Ysabeau from Ladyhawke and Princess Buttercup from The Princess Bride.
Others play second-fiddle to the men, such as Kira from The Dark Crystal or Valerian from Dragonslayer, who each start out promisingly enough, only to succumb to Trinity Syndrome, allowing the male protagonists to take over the world-saving action. The same could be said of Brenda in Highlander, introduced as a proactive career woman who takes matters into her own hands – but who is ultimately (and literally) Conner's prize by the end of the story.
Excalibur has Morgana (evil), Guinevere (a pawn) and Igraine (a rape victim whose fate goes completely unexplained). Time Bandits has not a single noteworthy female character to speak of. Ditto Gremlins.
I seriously considered Princess Lili from Legend or Sarah from Labyrinth, both of whom go through fascinating coming-of-age journeys in their respective films, but they still aren't standouts compared to other characters I've featured in the past. And as good as Fairuza Balk is in Return To Oz, I've already covered Dorothy Gale this year.
Then I realized: Sorsha from Willow.
Though she's certainly not as iconic as the likes of Xena Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Princess Leia Organa, Sorsha still makes for a recognizable figure with her red hair and serrated sword, and her role in the film is surprisingly progressive for its time.
Sure, her characterization is still contingent on a High Heel Face Turn, in which the bravado and attractiveness of the male hero is enough to make her betray her mother, but Sorsha is a unique component in a movie that otherwise shamelessly cherry-picks from Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. At a stretch, Sorsha is a blend of Eowyn and Leia – if Leia had been raised by Darth Vader and if Eowyn had been able to ride into battle without disguising herself as a man.
That's right, the most interesting thing about Sorsha's role in the film is that no one ever questions her abilities as a leader or warrior. She's never objectified by the camera, there are never any gendered slurs used against her, and her armour is imminently practical.
In general, Willow is a fantasy film teeming with women in a way others simply aren't. Most have a token girl (usually a love interest and/or a distressed damsel) but as well as Sorsha, Willow has a woman as its Big Bad, its Living MacGuffin and its Wizard Classic. A woman makes the entire plot possible when she saves Elora's life at the start of the movie, and another provides Willow with the tools he needs to complete his quest. Heck, it even passes the Bechdel Test! Even today you don't see this level of representation. All that taken into account, I like to think that perhaps Sorsha had a much bigger impact on the fantasy genre than we give her credit for...