This year, projects driven by — and marketed to — females are dominating pop culture. It's about time.

The baddest, bravest superhero this summer wasn’t a man in a cape or a suit of iron. It was 6-year-old Hushpuppy, a girl in rain boots from the Louisiana bayou whose courage and resilience are the heart of indie sensation Beasts of the Southern Wild. ”I gotta take care of mine,” she says at one point, which neatly sums up the driving motivation of devoted big sister Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games (recently released on Blu-ray and on demand). In the Pixar hit Brave, Princess Merida is more concerned with her own self-interest — which refreshingly does not include finding true love — but one bets Hushpuppy and Katniss would both appreciate her warrior spirit. If last year marked the genuine breakthrough for women in comedy, then a new breed of female hero owns 2012.

In Lena Dunham‘s loving New Yorker eulogy of the glorious Nora Ephron, the Emmy-nominated Girls creator and star praised her mentor’s patient method for dealing with ”women in film” questions: ”a mix of a raised brow — ‘Do we really need to go over this again?’ — and an understanding that sexism isn’t gone, and that we have to engage in the debate a bit, even when it frustrates us.” In that vein, this is not a trend piece or an announcement that women are suddenly tough or capable or cool. But still, there seems to be a legitimate shift in how pop culture serves and represents women — and that is worth celebrating.

After fueling phenomena from Twilight to The Hunger Games, female buying power can no longer be overlooked. ”Women make a lot of the decisions in families and couples…and wield an enormous amount of influence in the film marketplace,” says Hunger Games producer Nina Jacobson. ”Hollywood is getting wise to that later than perhaps they should have. But better late than never.” Exhibit A: The next big buddy-cop comedy is shooting right now, but it doesn’t star Eddie Murphy or Will Ferrell; The Heat features Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy.

”The more women [on screen], the more people are going to see their choices, their hopes, their dreams, their sense of humor reflected back at them,” says 2 Broke Girls creator Michael Patrick King. In other words, it’s the abundance of voices that matters. Bring on Mindy Kaling‘s sitcom The Mindy Project, about a gifted ob-gyn who yearns for a romantic-comedy love life. And Jodie Foster‘s female-driven Mob drama, Angie’s Body, or the dramedy Guide to Divorce from Buffy the Vampire Slayer producer Marti Noxon, both in development at Showtime. That network (already home to kick-ass Claire Danes on Homeland) also picked up a pilot called Girls With Guns, an hour-long drama about two Los Angeles sisters drafted into the Israeli armed forces. ”We led with the female piece,” Robert King (co-creator of The Good Wife) says of the pitch he and his producing partner/wife, Michelle King, made to the net’s execs. ”We were interested by female empowerment and how it’s changing familiar institutions.” Sold.

In the No. 1 New York Times best-seller Gone Girl (coming soon to the big screen), author Gillian Flynn‘s deliciously twisted main character Amy rips apart the archetype of the ”cool girl”: ”Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer….” (Think any underwritten, unrecognizable female love interest in a male comedy vehicle.) The Cool Girl probably wouldn’t admit to being in a book club that gleefully ripped through E L JamesFifty Shades of Grey (30 million copies sold in the U.S., with a movie in the works). And she probably wasn’t invited to join those same women out for a night of hooting and hollering at Channing Tatum to stop talking already and take off his clothes in Magic Mike ($113.2 million in domestic box office). You know what’s cool? A woman having the right to a cheap thrill.

But indulgence should not be confused with frivolity. Just ask Scarlett Johansson. She skillfully smacked down a reporter at an Avengers press junket who, in a two-part question, asked costar Robert Downey Jr. to deconstruct the layers of his character and then asked the actress about her diet. ”How come you get the really interesting existential question, and I get the ‘rabbit food’ question?” she snapped.

In this ugly homestretch of a campaign season, President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney will continue to court the decisive female vote. These are disillusioning times, when stump speeches proclaim that women are the backbone of our country even as others casually use the words legitimate and rape in the same sentence. In Parks and Recreation‘s Sept. 20 premiere, Leslie Knope will assume her duties as the newly elected councilwoman of Pawnee. I want to go to there.

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