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)
“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)
For 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)
Conventionally, 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)
Resourceful. 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)
Dystopian 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)
Unfortunately, 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)
As 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)
One 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)
Monarchs, 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)
This 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.
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