Badass Women in Contemporary Cinema: Top 10 Females to Favour and Fear

Despite the recent global success of female-driven films, such as Bridesmaids, female representation within films, and accurate representation at that, is diminishing. In attempts to present reality within popular film, women are becoming merely simple presentations, rather than complex reconstructions of the actual being.

In a typically intensely and irremediable patriarchal system, females in film are often constructed with a certain purpose or set of defining characteristics.They are created for men, by men, and evolve under the influence of men.

In a study completed by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, their findings revealed that, out of the 4,475 speaking characters in film in 2012, only 28.4% were female. Only 16.7% of the 1,228 directors, writers, and producers were female across the 100 top-grossing films of last year. Approximately, this calculates to a ratio of 5 males to every 1 female behind the camera in 2012.

The narrative structure of cinema is molded by a male-dominated industry, leading the ideologies and characters within the film medium to be masculinised. However, the following list might ensure that you don’t give up hope. Here are ten intelligent, assiduous, courageous and compassionate women in recent and older films that act as clear reminders that women too can be gentle and brave and vicious and everything in between. We are not cardboard cutouts, nor should we be represented as such.

10. Juno MacGuff (Juno)

juno

“You’re, like, the coolest person I’ve ever met and you don’t even have to try.”

No, Juno, you are. You are fantastic and funny and smart and capable and we all know that you try really hard, actually, but all of your hard work pays off. A young, free woman who makes a deliberate choice to continue being liberated should be praised. In a way, this film is some sort of meditation on maturity, and Juno’s clever and refreshing outlook on adolescent life is inspiring. Diablo Cody, the writer of Juno, has stated that “[w]omen are clever, women are funny, women are sharp, and I wanted to show that these girls were human and not the stereotypical teenage girls that we often see in the media.” In the 96 glorious minutes that we share with Juno in her dynamic world, Cody does exactly that and more.

9. Tiana (The Princess and The Frog)

pFor a children’s film (or so they say), The Princess and The Frog deals with some very pleasing and adult truths. You must labor and make sacrifices to pave your way in life. If something goes wrong, work hard to make it right. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Luckily, to convey these messages, we have an extremely reliable and hard-working heroine. Tiana is the perfect mix of determination, charm and gusto to inspire adults and children alike. Oh, the jazz music! And the luxurious ballgowns! And mysterious witch doctors! And a smart, independent and fearless woman who works day and night to fulfil her dream and doesn’t lose hope when her circumstances threaten to overwhelm her! Huzzah!

8. Aibileen Clark (The Help)

Viola_Davis_The_HelpConventionally, many films with issues of racial tension at its core centre around men and their fight to be heard. Just look at The Blind Side, Remember The Titans, Hotel Rwanda and To Kill A Mockingbird. Alarmingly, I can only think of a few off the top of my head that revolve strictly around women. Fortunately, Tate Taylor’s The Help is one such film. Set during the civil rights movement in early 1960’s America, one particular character that we come to admire is Aibileen Clark. For a woman whose only son perished while she was raising other children, Aibileen is phenomenally resilient. Combined with wit and bravery, Aibileen embodies a contained ferocity and determination that makes her exciting and unpredictable in equal measure. This is clearly illustrated when Hilly, her megalomaniacal boss, confronts her about stealing some silver, and Aibileen names her “a godless woman”. Emphasised by the blatant racism and discrimination which surrounds her, Aibileen’s perseverance, in this scene and the film as a whole, is clearly remarkable.

7. Natasha Romanoff (The Avengers)

The Avengers Black Widow_2Resourceful. Passionate. Vastly intelligent. Feisty (and not in that lame, ‘I will only say this because it’s sassy and flirtatious’ way). Quite possibly the world’s most skilled assassin. In short, Romanoff resides over an integral position within The Avengers and they would be lost without her extensive range of weapons and martial arts skills. Also, great hair.

6. Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games)

katniss-everdeenDystopian literature has held a lingering fascination for many all over the world. In reading novels of such a genre, we discover a world that, at first glance, differs hugely from our own. They are an exploration of our inner landscape, and the consequences on our exterior if we should choose to indulge in those impulses. Suzanne Collins’ gutsy protagonist works to embody many of the thematic elements included in works of this genre; being loved, being afraid, being alone. Katniss Everdeen is dauntless, sympathetic and knowledgeable. She fights aggressively and extensively against her male, and female, counterparts who attempt to dictate her life. However, she’s also self-serving, ruthless, vulnerable and damaged in more ways than one. This not only makes her character more believable to a modern-day audience, it also allows us to attach ourselves to her imperfections and acknowledge our own. Through her, we can understand our own flawed nature, and realise that complexities and insecurities do not make us weak. They make us brave, and resistant to emotional attack, because we already see in ourselves what our enemies would have us recognise. Ultimately, Katniss is human. Wholly, unforgivingly, terrifyingly human, and in neither the books or the film do we forget that.

5. Fa Mulan (Mulan)

imagesUnfortunately, the construct of a Disney princess may forever be a paradox – they will need to be saved, at some point, by a charming, albeit too well groomed prince, but hey! They can still save themselves if they must. Fa Mulan, on the other hand, does not flounder about, waiting for a hero. She fights in a ‘man’s world’ and wins the soldiers’ kinship through kindness and valour, something that she should not have to fight for at all. She is the personification of heroism and pluckiness, daring to defy ancient traditions and family honour, in sake of protecting the very family who may cast her out. Her unwavering loyalty extends past her family as well, to defending her country and government. She is compassionate and relentless, and has a sense of humour. WHAT?! A SENSE OF HUMOUR?! How unnatural, it would seem.

4. Hypatia of Alexandria (Agora)

Film still from Agora, distributed by Focus Features, produced bAs head of the Platonist school in Alexandria in 4th century Roman Egypt, Hypatia was a philosopher, mathematician and astronomer. She was admired for her dignity and intelligence, and her demise signified the downfall of intellectual study in Alexandria. In Alejandro Amenábar’s 2009 film, Agora, Hypatia exceeds the expectations of her male colleagues, inspires her students and defies all cultural and societal conventions of a woman in favour of maintaining her intellect, competency and dedication to her work. Ultimately, even in the face of death, she stands her ground, refusing to sacrifice her integrity for a lesser cause; revenge.

In historical accounts, it is detailed that Hypatia remained a virgin, which is in no way an indication of her capability, but it was something she was ridiculed for nonetheless. How did she respond to these taunts? By waving her menstrual cloths in their faces. If that’s not wonderful and courageous and bold, I don’t know what is.

3. Hermione Granger (Harry Potter series)

hermione_granger__hbp_promo__5One of the most famous heroines of modern literature, Hermione Granger’s presence in the Harry Potter films are also heavily weighted. She provides a much-needed sense of level-headedness, as well as shattering the female ‘sidekick’ stereotype. She is equally as capable and responsible as her male companions prove to be, perhaps even more so. She’s impossibly intelligent and has amazing, deft recall. She’s altruistic, tolerant and honest, sometimes brutally so. She punched Draco Malfoy in the face. I mean, she punched Draco Malfoy in the face! Plus, “they haven’t invented a spell that our Hermione can’t do.” One thousand points to Gryffindor.

2. Queen Elizabeth I of England (Elizabeth)

elabethan-womenMonarchs, by their very nature, encompass power and dominance. In one particular scene in Elizabeth, we see the Virgin Queen thoroughly prepare and rehearse the speech that she would later deliver to her Parliament. This speech would serve to convince the political powers of her country to develop her reforms, the Act of Uniformity. On a variety of occasions, we also witness Elizabeth demonstrating ruthless and vindictive behaviour – ordering the execution of those she considers dangerous to her rule without batting an eyelid. Considering the historical context of her actions, and her disregard of any marriage proposals, choosing to “marry nobody except England”, she is audacious and assertive. She is firm in her resolutions and warm and empathetic all at once. If we ignore her duties as Queen, and focus on her resilience (after being imprisoned for many months) and her patience, we can understand the importance of a female figure such as Queen Elizabeth I. Her nerve and her passion speaks volumes, and her influence has reverberated, quite rightfully, across the pages of history.

1. Ellen Ripley (Alien series)

Ellen-Ripley-Alien-Movies-female-ass-kickers-28784180-300-400This character hardly needs an explanation. Balancing bravery, loyalty, integrity, benevolence, intelligence and everything in between, Ripley is one of the most iconic and famous female protagonists of all time. Her genuinely good core has set the bar for the qualities of future women characters in all films, not simply restricted to within the science fiction genre. She is not defined by the men who surround her, nor by her relationships with them. You will not find one moment in any of the Alien films where Ripley becomes a male’s fantasy construction of a woman, or a damsel in distress. She is herself, through and through, controlled by her own passions, motivated by her own will and taught by her own desire to learn. Women don’t come much more badass than her.

Fortunately, these women form only a slight percentage of the powerful and creative female characters that have been newly developed in the world of film. The rest? Well, some linger in the background, countless govern their own story in film, and many more are yet to be brought to life. However, within the preponderance of Western cinema, and by extension, Western art, there is a relentless reinforcement of male dominance. It is present in almost every culturally recognisable representation of women. As a result, films being produced within the 21st century have grown to accept the worn depiction of ‘reality’ and ‘real women’, instead of questioning its worth and fidelity to how our lives are actually lived. In this context, the way in which modern day women are represented in film shows them as dependent on their male other, individuals who are still marked as “bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning”, as Laura Mulvey so eloquently states. Such representation is not only insulting, but also devalues any attempts to reduce or completely terminate the stereotypical portrayals of women in contemporary cinema. In this way, although film can be insightful and sensitive, the fundamental structure of cinematic narrative is perpetuating a derogatory cultural perspective of women and their place in the world that only appears to be deteriorating.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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22 Comments

  1. I can’t wait to see what Katniss will bring us in the next Hunger Games. Great list of powerful characters!

  2. Marlon Shingles

    Claire, I wish your list had included non-fictional female badasses from the film industry too. Your introduction spoke so much about the gender bias in the industry, so I thought your list might cover that also. Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola and Sally Menke are a good start – intelligent women who are great at what they do!

    • Claire Macallister

      Although my focus was more directed towards representation of females within film, that could be an interesting list to compile. That section of my introduction was more to highlight that inequality exists on both sides of the camera, but I like that idea a considerable amount!

  3. Awesome list! Would have loved to see Jessica Chastain’s character from Zero Dark Thirty on there as well (powerful women in politics are always a plus). It’d be interesting to look at how many of these women pass the Bechdel Test in their films (http://bechdeltest.com/).

  4. Taylor Ramsey

    An interesting article that I agree with, except for 6&7. While the source material shows these women as all these things, their film counterparts were, I felt, shallow 2 dimensional things that didn’t scratch the surface.
    Particularly Natasha, who in the comics is mostly an interesting character, the film turned her in to a secondary plot solution with some cute lines and a nice ass-kicking scene.
    I would have to say she does not even belong on the list with most of these others.

    • Kevin Licht

      I actually agree with the Katniss pick, but I feel like it’s because of something brought out by Jennifer Lawrence’s performance rather than the way the character is portrayed by the film. Lawrence has a way of bringing maturity to younger roles. She did a similar thing with her performance in Winter’s Bone, which may be a female lead performance that could fit into this list rather nicely.

      • Claire Macallister

        I completely agree. However, I also think that the character Katniss herself is strongly developed and resilient. Jennifer’s portrayal was exceptional, but as is the character.

        P.S. Winter’s Bone was a fantastic film! Both Ree Dolly and Jennifer Lawrence have an exceptional sense of unflinching realism about them.

  5. Michelle Webb

    A brilliant read, I like the way you write.

  6. Jon Lisi
    Jon Lisi
    0

    The study out of USC is a great way to ground your claims in reality, as opposed to a Mulvey psychoanalytic approach. I enjoyed reading this.

    If I do have one caveat, it is your choice of Abilene. I think Davis is great in the role but a lot of African-Americans were quite angry with the depiction of the character within the broader context of the film. This is a case where perhaps race trumps gender.

  7. Kevin Licht

    I do have a question regarding Hermione. I do feel she’s a fairly strong female character, but (and not having read the books) as the series of films matured I felt they kind of started to sexualize that character a little bit too much and there seemed to be a damsel in distress development to that her later in the series. Did that character getting a sort of “hollywood” treatment cheapen anything?

    I have no idea but I’m assuming this treatment of that character didn’t happen in the books.

    • Claire Macallister

      That’s a very interesting point. In what way do you mean, her adapting some “damsel in distress” type behaviours? The films definitely portray Hermione as one in three, one highly regarded component of a strong group of 3 individuals. Certainly, I believe they rely on each other, Harry and Ron and Hermione, but each still maintains their sense of individuality and independence. A prime example of this occurs in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part 1, where Hermione, characteristically thinking ahead of time, packs supplies that the characters need after Death Eaters attack at Fleur and Bill’s wedding. This type of awareness and sense of preparedness is what lies at Hermione’s core. Perhaps there were some moments of “Hollywood” that slipped into these films (they are a major franchise after all), but I believe that, overall, the film Hermione that we know and love stays true to the vastly intelligent, generous and merciful Hermione that exists in J.K Rowling’s books.

  8. Kayla Eason

    I enjoyed this article very much! I agree that all these women are very strong characters, and excellent representations of female aptitude. However, many, though not all, of these characters were written and/or directed by men, yes? It may be interesting to approach this topic of badass fictitious female film characters by the gender of the character’s creator. Does it matter who wrote her? Should it matter? I only wonder due to the statistics you provided.

  9. Interesting article, definitely would’ve put Fa Mulan higher but hey. I hope the surge in strong, developed female characters continues too.

  10. Kate Lovatt

    You’ve got some really interesting choices here, and I like the fact that you chose women from a diverse range of films, showing that they don’t have to hail from the action genre to be classified as ‘badass’. I particularly liked your inclusion of animated female characters; while they may be seen as less realistic, their characters are still perfectly capable of being badass in one way or another.

  11. George Hopkin
    0

    Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth is stunning and strong – everything I imagine QE1 would have been. Ellen Ripley is a classic heroine too. But Hypatia – magnificent choice: Platonist, philosopher, unconventional. Kudos for clocking her on the list as she’s not as well known as the others!

  12. Katherine Kingsle

    I too was surprised to see that Jessica Chastain’s character from Zero Dark Thiry was not included, but otherwise a good comprehensive list of positive female representation. I’m glad you didn’t shy away from animated female representation as well. In the travesty of sexism that makes up many Disney classics, Mulan and Tiana are my favourite princesses.

  13. Amanda Gostomski

    I think I wish there were more characters in this list that were less cartoonish (even the live-action choices). But that might just be hard considering the lack of female representation in the first place. The little girl for Beasts of the Southern Wild definitely a badass.

  14. Kelsey Clark

    I find that female representations in film are getting increasingly better while in television it is going way down. I was watching “The Big Bang Theory” and while I do love the show, I couldn’t help but notice how shockingly horrible all of the female characters are portrayed!

  15. Jessica Eve Kennedy

    This list makes me want to break into song and dance. I love Juno, I thought it was such a refreshing narrative voice. Hermione, too, makes me so excited because the central trio is not a love triangle and her strength is not at the expense of her femininity. I think that’s so key to her. She’s so intelligent, but also incredibly good at applying all her knowledge in practical situations – but she’s also so relatable and still exhibits many stereotypically female qualities.

    I find that it’s increasingly common to find the Strong Female Character (TM) who is just a badass, which I question the feminism of. Is it strong writing to create female characters who are “strong” because they exhibit typically/traditionally masculine traits? It’s great to see complexity > toughness. Because great female characters are diverse in nature, temperament, strength etc.

    This was a really interesting list! I really enjoy your writing.

  16. Stephanie M.

    You gotta love Hermione and Aibileen! 🙂

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