Sometimes when discussing shounen fighting series, there are disagreements among fans as to what female characters are considered “strong” and which are considered “weak.” Someone will accuse one female character of being “useless,” while another will point out all that she’s done to help the good guys, and that she’s strong in her own way. While opinions may be opinions, I think that the nature of shounen fighting series makes it difficult for those types of characters.
Hokuto no Ken is a classic example of a series with female characters who are “strong-but-not-really.” Mamiya is a skilled fighter and trains hard to keep up in a world of mutant thugs armed with only a crossbow and some yo-yo’s, but she’s still a few tiers below Kenshiro and Friends. Yuria has great will and even greater compassion, but she’s not a fighter at all, and in this series, as strong as Kenshiro’s own compassion is, fist to face action is at the forefront.
And as much as I like Hyuuga Hinata from Naruto, and as much as I think she is an excellent character, I know that she is not meant to be one of those female characters who is actually able to keep up with the guys when the chips are down. And in fact, as far as I can tell, despite the fact that Naruto is full of skilled kunoichi, there are only two or three female characters in that series who can actually fight on an even keel with the guys: Tsunade, Temari, and maybe Kurenai. Sakura definitely had the potential, and was supposed to end up as being super strong and super determined, but she too has fallen victim to the Shounen Side Heroine Syndrome.
But being physically weaker or lacking in skills compared to the main hero and the guys doesn’t mean a female character will necessarily be “weak.” Nami and Nico Robin from One Piece are both excellent examples of characters who carry their own weight. And even before Nami gets the Clima-Tact and starts participating in battles, her skills are shown to be indispensable to the team. Another good example of a female character who uses the skills that she has and contributes immensely to the overall cause is Tokine from Kekkaishi. Tokine, while not capable of as much sheer “brute strength” as her male counterpart Yoshimori, is able to use her finesse to not only match him but often outperform him.
“But wait, weren’t you the one who talked about how great it is when characters accomplish things at their own pace? Isn’t that one of the great appeals of moe? And aren’t you a supporter of moe?” And you would be right on that, but again I must say that it has to do with the fact that shounen fighting series inevitably revolve around fighting or at the very least getting characters to a point at which they can fight. Basically, the moe series will define strength within the context of their series as overcoming a small adversity which is difficult for them in particular, while a shounen fighting series is all about displays of strength, even if they are fueled by friendship and honor.
The big, essential difference between the Sakura/Mamiya group and the Nami/Tokine group is “results.” Both groups of female characters might not have as much raw skill or ability or training or whatever as the guys do, but one of those groups gets things done. Nami and Tokine don’t just contribute to the overall goal by doing something like blocking the villain’s attack just that one vital moment so that the hero can get in the final shot, but instead actually accomplish significant goals, things that can move the story along. It’s not even that they simply defeat opponents that the others cannot, but that they will do what it takes to win.
This doesn’t even necessarily apply to female characters. All you need to to do is take a look at Usopp from One Piece as a good example of a character who fights with what he has. It’s just that this is often the situation in which female characters find themselves, and often it’s done so that the guys can come in and go, “Stand aside, ladies. It’s MAN TIME.”
…Which is not necessarily a bad thing either, as having the men be strongest in a series for boys makes all sorts of sense. It’s just that if someone’s looking for female characters who really pull their weight to accomplish an overall goal, they may end up disappointed as a result. Though not a shounen fighting series, Legend of the Galactic Heroes can often seem like a sausage fest despite a plethora of genuinely well-written, strong, and clever female characters because of the fact that none of them are out there commanding ships and fleets, i.e. the very activity that is at the absolute forefront of LoGH.
Again, I like a lot of female characters who might not be the best or the strongest but try their best to do what they can even if they can’t keep up with the boys, characters who do things their own way at their own pace. However, even if a series actually says explicity, “This girl is truly strong because she really tried and her help, however small, was essential for victory,” within the context of shounen fighting “strength” is more defined by the overall setup and themes of the story, and rarely is any amount of lip-service enough to make the readers truly think otherwise.