There was a time when women in genre media came in three types: powerful rulers who just needed a man to tame them (Wonder Woman), helpless damsels that needed to be rescued and fall in love with the male lead (all other women), and invisible (all other movies and TV shows). There was also the Gor series, where women are, quite literally, simply sex slaves. When Star Wars introduced Princess Leia, a cocky woman who takes the gun from her would-be rescuers to effect her own escape (all while not wearing a bra), this was seen as a watershed moment for women in science fiction/fantasy. Princess Leia was seen as a fresh new type of female character, one who was actively involved in the story beyond just a plot device.
Of course, in the next movie of the series, Princess Leia falls in love with one of the male leads and by the third movie she dresses in a gold bikini, gets chained to a slug, and then plays with teddy bears. At some point, she plays all of the above traditional female roles. So one step forward, several steps back. Nobody goes to conventions dressed like Leia in her Hoth outfit.
Apparently geeks weren’t quite ready for a woman who wasn’t going to go all weak in the knees for them, so it was necessary to scale back Princess Leia to be more palatable to them. This seems to be a common fate for female characters. When Rose Tyler was introduced in the new Doctor Who series, she was lauded as being a companion who did more than just scream and ask the Doctor to explain things to her. Before long, though, her purpose seemed to be merely to make goo-goo eyes at the Doctor and ask him to explain things to her.
Which is not to say that geeks don’t embrace strong female characters. They still love Buffy the Vampire Slayer who, it must be admitted, really did embody many feminist character traits. However, it should be noted that in the Buffy universe, it’s dangerous if female empowerment extends to sexuality. Buffy loses her virginity to Angel, who then becomes evil. Faith, the alternative slayer, is sexually aggressive and also, eventually, evil. The parallel universe Willow is also sexually aggressive (and evil) and also a lesbian, which the real Willow also becomes after losing her virginity to one of the male characters. If there’s one important lesson to be learned from Buffy, it’s that it’s probably best to leave sexual power to the men, as the women just can’t seem to be trusted with it. Buffy’s creator and geek messiah, Joss Whedon, has, by association, taken on the mantle of Feminist Ubergeek, despite his next female lead, River Tam from Firefly, being an essentially brain-damaged fighting machine. (Interestingly, the actress who played River Tam is now on The Sarah Conner Chronicles, playing a Terminator.)
Speaking of Firefly, The other female characters on that show were the whore with a heart of gold (though it’s okay because whores are apparently highly respected in that universe) and the sexy farmer’s daughter who crushes on the nerd (but it’s okay because she’s also a mechanic) and the remaining type of female character in the geek world, the wo-man.
The wo-man is a male character who happens to also have breasts. She is written exactly as the male characters are, shares all the same interests of the male characters, and has all the same problems of the male characters. Other than the breasts, her only other signifier of being female is that she will be in a relationship with one of the male characters. In addition to Zoe, the Firefly character mentioned above, other notable wo-men characters are Dana Scully from The X-Files and Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica.
In the comic book world, if there’s an alleged strong female character, you can count on one thing: she was raped. Rape seems to be the hands-down favorite motivator for turning an ordinary schlubette into an empowerment role-model. Famed comics writer Chris Claremont was a champ at rocketing women from the doomed planet of Rape-ton to emerge as Superwomen. That is, when he wasn’t creating imaginary girlfriends for geeks.
The bottom line is, geeks are quite accepting of Strong Female Characters so long as they know their place as secondary to the Strong Male Characters. Even the wo-men listed above, strong as they may be, are still subordinate to a male character. If possible, Strong Female Characters should have been made strong due to actions taken by male characters (preferably via textual or subtextual rape). It is also vital that the Strong Female Characters show a fondness for either the character that is most like the geek himself or the character that the geek is most likely to think he is.
So long as they don’t get too uppity, geeks LOVE Strong Female Characters Who Actually Aren’t.