Women often get serious backlash for our ambition, whether overtly and subtly.
In the office, women who want to climb the ranks are often perceived as pushy, selfish, and all-around unlikable. Thus, for women, wearing your ambition on your sleeve can, in fact, do damage to your career. This backlash is so pervasive that even women who do make it to the top often downplay their success, crediting the people around them, writing it off as luck, or even undermining themselves with “Hot Mess Syndrome.”
Even in fiction, as soon as the A-word starts coming up, so does the L-word—likability.
Women seeking power are often seen as less likable than those motivated by goals deemed more appropriate, like putting themselves at risk for someone else. Reaching the top of their game, with exceptional accomplishment, whatever it is, isn’t “good” enough on its own.
There’s a reason it felt so cathartic and instantly iconic to see Renata of Big Little Lies flaunting her wealth and success as she lip synced to “This Is My House” during a photo shoot at the opening of season 2—we see this type of unabashed celebration of female success so rarely.
And let’s face it—Renata and all of the female leads of this story, while many wonderful things, are hardly considered easily likable.
But what’s wrong with wanting to take over the office—or the world? Here are five incredible female characters of speculative fiction worlds that prove ambition doesn’t have to be a bad word:
Legend by Marie Lu
This 15-year-old overachiever comes from a family of privilege in the Ruby sector of Republic. She’s got off-the-chart smarts and is already breaking records of the army’s greatest physical feats. Naturally, she’s got her sights set on catching her world’s most wanted criminal and rising to the army’s highest ranks. Until she starts to question everything these goals were built on, and suddenly finds herself on the side of the rebel she had set out to capture.
Vengeful by V.E. Schwab
After a near-death incident, mob wife Marcella Riggs suddenly finds that she not only wants to watch the world burn, but she can set fire to it whenever she wishes. So she does. As often as necessary. And very quickly takes over the mob for herself. Then she sets out on a mission to bring more EO (extraordinary) women together as a joint force of united power.
The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
As a human in a fae world, Jude’s life is pretty complicated. But managing to survive in this world of ruthless tricksters isn’t good enough for her. Even without the magic her peers possess, she aims to become a knight. Instead, she ends up as a member of the Court of Shadows, a royal spy ring, and precariously maneuvering to grow her influence over the fairy king from behind the scenes.
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
Rin, a war orphan from Rooster Province, wasn’t expected to be anything at all. But when her drug-dealing foster parents try to marry her off for political clout, she becomes determined to ace the Keju and earn her spot among the most talented youth of the Academies in order to escape the life being paved for her. She not only passes but tops the list. Then she sets her sights on not only proving she belongs among her elite new classmates, but surpass them by harnessing mythical—and lethal—powers.
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
At the opening of Binti, the namesake character is leaving her home to pursue the opportunities of Oomza University, the top educational institution in the galaxy. Not only does this mean journeying across the universe, but she is the first of the Himba people to leave their land. It is a choice that her family will consider a betrayal, and will ruin her chances of marrying. But Binti can’t resist the opportunity it signifies. When her spaceship is taken over by the Meduse, she not only manages to survive but to broker a tenuous alliance with the aliens that leads Binti playing a key role in negotiating a historical peace between species.