6 Female-Centered Movies That Don’t Revolve Around Love

Romantic movies can be a mixed bag. Some days there’s nothing better than sitting down and watching two beautiful people fall in love. Other days I want nothing more than to see a female protagonist deal with any facet of life but relationships. It’s hard to find female-driven movies, much less films not about women and love: the female protagonist is looking for love, she lost love, or she doesn’t want love.

While there’s no shame in liking romantic films, there needs to be a balance of options to choose from when selecting a female-driven movie to watch. Often the market for movies with multi-dimensional, non-romantic female-leads falls short. Where are the women whose lives include men but don’t revolve around them? Where are the females who are mercilessly climbing to the top like The Wolf of Wall Street, where are women who have raunchy filled nights like The Hangover, the women who are getting beat down by life, the women who are saving lives? Too often, even in female-centered films, the women play second fiddle to the male as he defines her through being in love with her or not.

This list provides 6 films that revolve around females where love is last thing on their mind. This list is for those who want a female-driven movie that isn’t driven by love. Some spoilers ahead.

6. She’s the Man (2006)

She's The Man
Amanda Bynes and Channing Tatum in She’s the Man

This comedy follows Viola (Amanda Bynes) as she pretends to be a man so she can play soccer after her old school cut the funding for the women’s soccer team. Viola’s true passion is soccer and she will stop at nothing to compete: soccer comes first, even before boyfriends. When Viola’s boyfriend refuses to stand by his comment that she is a better player than the boys, she declares “end of relationship.” Viola refuses to be constrained by the relationship and immediately frees herself from it once it’s clear that her boyfriend doesn’t support her athletic passions. Afterwards, Viola barely looks back on her relationship. There’s no emotional breakup scene, feeling of emptiness, or plot for revenge. Viola is happy with her decision and moves on with her life.

Sure, Viola falls for another man and they end up dating, but this is because Viola wants a man. While boyfriends take a backseat to soccer, Viola having a relationship shows her multiple interests. It doesn’t have to be a choice between soccer or a boyfriend, Viola can have both. She also doesn’t need a man to complete her because she’s secure in her own abilities and so, the film is really about Viola stopping at nothing to pursue her true love: playing soccer. She isn’t dissuaded when her brother says the chance of her becoming a pro-soccer is low because Viola believes in herself and proves herself to anyone watching. She doesn’t need accolades from her brother, her boyfriend, or even her teammates. Viola knows she’s good and lets her playing do the talking.

5. Fargo (1996)

Frances McDormand in Fargo
Frances McDormand in Fargo

With Fargo resurfacing on television, it’s pertinent to look back at the movie that started it all and brought to life Marge Gunderson. Marge, portrayed by Frances McDormand, is a tough, persistent police officer trying to solve a suspicious ransom case. On top of that, Marge is pregnant. Marge is a respected police chief and she investigates the case without hesitation. Her determination isn’t portrayed as lonely or depressing like the male detectives seen in True Detective or Detective Benson in Law & Order: SVU. Marge is happy and satisfied with her life. She has a successful family and a successful career.

Marge’s optimism isn’t her downfall. It makes her a better cop as she willingly jumps on cases and not only wants to solve them, but believes she can. She is a wise character, one who knows that money isn’t the answer to everything. By not making Marge bound by love the viewer can see that the possibilities available for portraying a character like Marge where the case doesn’t take over her marriage or life, but is just another facet of Marge’s existence.

4. Gravity (2013)

Sandra Bullock in Gravity
Sandra Bullock in Gravity

Sandra Bullock plays medical engineer Ryan Stone whose first decent into space goes horribly wrong when her shuttle is destroyed. Ryan is left alone in space, grasping at air to save her life. Bullock’s counterpart is a male astronaut, portrayed by George Clooney, but the two are not romantically involved. Instead, the focal point of the film is about courage. Bullock’s character must find both the mental and physical strength insider herself in order to survive. Ryan has no man or family waiting for her at home on Earth: her only reason to survive is for herself.

Ryan learns to have faith that she can make it back to Earth and surprises herself along the way as she masters maneuvering between shuttles. Gravity shows a female protagonist that is both weak and strong, one that is scared and courageous. It shows a woman that is human and dealing with issues beyond wondering if a man likes her back. The film highlights a woman who is capable of working towards her goals and achieving them through hard work. Showing a woman who is career-driven is good representation for girls who want more than a relationship, or a job in addition to a relationship. Gravity shows that women with multi-layered emotions and goals exists, and that their stories can be just as compelling as love stories.

3. The Bling Ring (2013)

Stealing from the rich and famous in The Bling Ring
Stealing from the rich and famous in The Bling Ring

These characters are in love. They’re in love with celebrities and material wealth. The film follows a group of teenagers, mainly composed of women, who break into celebrity homes and steal their possessions. The movie provides an honest portrayal of the toll celebrity culture can take on the everyday life of an American teenage girl as the media pressures them to look like celebrities, dress like them, be like them. The female characters steal for themselves, not to impress boys or make them fall in love with them.

This film puts its female characters in the roles of bad guys. Are the women criminals or have they simply fallen prey to celebrity culture? The Bling Ring provides the idea that not all female characters need to be saints, that they can be shallow or do drugs and drink. This film does not shy away from showing the effects a fame-obsessed culture can have on young females, but it also does not judge its characters. The Bling Ring simply shows the viewer a story about women who are determined to get what they want.

2. Winter’s Bone (2010)

Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone
Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone

In this Jennifer Lawrence film, she tries to find her father after learning he skipped out on bail. Lawrence’s protagonist is the head of the family as she takes care of her mentally ill mother and her younger siblings. She teaches her brother how to shoot and is fearless in her attempts to track down her father. Living in the rural mountains, the character does not own expensive material possessions or much of anything as her family struggles to survive on basic needs. She chops her own wood, hunts, and doesn’t wear any makeup. Lawrence’s protagonist is another portrayal showing there’s many different type of female personalities that can be represented on the big screen.

There’s no love interest for Lawrence, and the female characters are more intimidating than the males as they beat Lawrence up to silence her and don’t blink an eye at recovering dead bodies. Winter’s Bone doesn’t follow the typical structure of a film about a teenage girl, as Lawrence has more pressing issues to deal with like her father’s absence and potentially losing her home than who her prom date is going to be.

1. The Descent (2005)

Spelunking is dangerous in The Descent
Spelunking is dangerous in The Descent

This horror film follows a group of female spelunkers who find themselves stuck in a cave and stalked by mysterious predators. There’s no time for love when your life is on the line. Where the film lacks in men, it does not lack in gore. This film broadens the scope of where female-driven films can take place. Non-romantic films can take form in multiple genres, including horror.  While women in horror films is nothing new, this film breaks the mold of women serving as romantic counterparts whether it be the virgin who dies for her sexual experimentation or as the object of the predator’s desire.

The lead character, Sarah, is a widow but the film does not define her by this. In addition to being a widow, Sarah, along with her friends, are adrenaline junkies who go white water rafting and cave diving. With the women not being tied down to conversations about romance, the film explores the complications of both the friendships between the women and their fight to emerge from the cave alive. The film explores Sarah’s descent into madness that is caused both by the loss of her family and the potential loss of her life if she doesn’t escape the cave.

In The Descent, the women are not dumb. They do not run up the stairs instead of out the door, they do not forget their gear; they simply make some mistakes which lead them to entering a bad situation. While these women are strong, they’re still relatable. They do not quickly or easily defeat the predators. Instead they’re portrayed as normal human-beings who would be frightened but also fight for their lives. Sometimes they win the fight, sometimes they don’t.

What makes this movie truly remarkable is that this horror film revolves around a group of female friends, not only a sole female survivor. There’s not only more than one non-romantic female lead, but a whole group of females; The Descent shows that not all female characters are assigned to only have one friend.  Therefore to defeat the predators, the women must work together.

These six films show that it’s possible to make entertaining movies that provide females with storylines that don’t center around romantic relationships. Female-driven films can portray women as athletes, friends, head-strong, sensitive, anything they want. Too often female characters are given love stories because Hollywood has perpetrated the idea that females are one-minded human beings. Hollywood perceives women as dainty people, whose only goals in life are to get a husband and walk without falling down. But women filmgoers want more than a dainty, klutzy, love-struck protagonist.

Time and time again women filmgoers have proven that they will attend non-romantic films in droves like Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Pitch Perfect. Many of these women attendees are simply asking to see themselves in a different light just as male filmgoers can see themselves as more than husband characters. To help broaden the storylines of female-driven films, audiences need to attend these non-romantic films and prove that they’re worthwhile and can be hits for Hollywood and filmgoers alike. After her Oscar win for Best Female Actress, Cate Blanchett said about female-led films, “people see them! they make money!” Audiences need to support that women characters can engage in romantic relationships on film, but they can also be defined by more than the love of their partners.

As actress Greta Gerwig said:

“I’m really interested in trying to tell stories about women that don’t involve romantic components. That’s so much a part of the way we feel about female characters and their needs that it feels like it’s built in — but I’d like to find a way that it’s not. There are so many more stories than that.”

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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44 Comments

  1. Nilson Thomas Carroll

    I like what you’re saying, especially about She’s the Man. On the note of the Bling Ring, have you seen Springbreakers, which is a similar film about teenage girls? I’d be curious to read a feminist critique on the film…

    Great read ; )

    • Emaloo

      I couldn’t make it all the way through Spring Breakers because the film didn’t keep me entertained, but I think I could watch the whole thing if I planned on writing a feminist response to it. I agree that a feminist critique on Spring Breakers would be very interesting!

  2. I don’t disagree with your analysis and claim, and do agree with the fact that more movies should be made that depict women in a multitude of ways, giving them more ownership and/or agency. However, I think some of the films that you talked about still characterize women in the cliche maternalistic personae, wherein they are conceptualized as person’s that only care for and tend to others, which is a hard trend to break away from–due to the fact that it has been ingrained in the social atmosphere since time immemorial. But at least these movies are attempting to shift that focus as much as they can…anyway, good article, made me think a lot…oh, and the “she’s the man” movie, I haven’t seen that one, but it sounds a lot like “ladybugs,” a direct opposite situation with a boy playing soccer as a girl, with Rodney Dangerfield…just thought that was interesting.

    • Emaloo

      Wow i haven’t thought about Ladybugs in a long time! That movie is a classic haha, and now that I think about it the premise does have similarities with She’s the Man.

  3. THE HUNGER GAMES! I watched the hunger games like 5 times . It never got old . I loved it . I can’t imagine someone hating it .

  4. I think Mulan is a great example bc she stands up for her family friends and her country, something every girl should do.

    • Taketomb
      0

      Even then, though, Mulan still has to have a love interest (Shang). Maybe it’s because Mulan is a Disney film, but they inserted a male love interest when it wasn’t necessary. I think the film industry does so because if a movie has a strong female lead, but nothing to ensure that she is heterosexual, then it is a problem. If Mulan simply had her go to war, make some friends, and come back home without Shang being involved, then it would be perceived as bad. The film industry pushes role models onto the general public, and especially for little girls viewing a disney movie, they want them to look up to their heroine. A heroine for our western culture can be allowed to be tough, but she at LEAST has to want a man.

      • Mary Awad

        Viola also has a love interest in She’s the Man. Mulan’s plot wasn’t based around love really anymore the She’s the Man was. Viola and Mulan’s catalysts for action were not based on love, and I think that’s the point. They found love along the way. Mulan’s love didn’t make her return to China when the Hun’s returned from the mountain, her sense of duty did. The two ideas need to be separated.

  5. It’s refreshing to see entertainment analysis that doesn’t paint women to be driven by traditional portrayal of women. Too often entertainment paints women to be crumbling under the pains of romance and rarely covers them dealing with the struggles of power, career or even social stability.

  6. Persepolis should certainly qualify as well. Its a thought provoking film about girl growing up during the Iranian Revolution. And while I’m on the subject of animation, many of the films released by Studio Ghibli / Hayao Miyazaki would count as well (i.e. Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Kiki’s Delivery Service).

  7. Megan Kelly
    mkelly12
    0

    This is a great list, but why so short!? There are so many great films that feature this same theme. The Hunger Games, Bridesmaids (in terms of you mentioning a raunchy ‘Hangover’ style comedy). I thought your list however featured some interesting ones, I have never seen ‘Fargo’ but feel I must if it’s in the same vein of the other great ones you listed.

    • Lacey Womack

      Fargo is great, probably one of the best ones on this list. It’s funny and has a great female lead. What more could you want?

  8. Nicely thought out. I like that you broke down the reasons why these characters are chosen. I hadn’t seen a couple of these.

  9. Good list, I have seen and enjoyed most of the films on it, except 6 and 1 weirdly enough. And, to make a couterpoint to some of the other commenters, I don’t think The Hunger Games works on this list, not the franchise at least, since Katniss has a love triangle tension going on through most of the series. While it’s not the main point of the stories, love triangles are too big a plot point to ignore, disqualifying “The Hunger Games” as not revolving around love. Just my two cents.

    • Emaloo

      I have not seen The Hunger Games so that was one reason I didn’t include it on the list, but another is because what I do know of the film is that appears to have a large love-triangle which plays a huge role in the storyline. So I agree with you on that.

  10. I have not seen all these movies but one that should definitely be put on the list and has been mentioned several times is The Hunger Games. That is definitely a female who is not out for love, she is just simply trying to survive and win.

  11. Being from Minnesota of course I’m going to love any list that has Fargo on it. The reason why I love this list isn’t resting primarily on the fact that it is snowing outside in Minneapolis and I’m feeling rather Marge-like today, but rather that this list literally has something in every genre. Female-driven movies are few and far between, you’re even less likely to find female movies in certain categories such as dramas with no love (i.e. winter’s bone) or horror films. I think that we can all agree that most female-driven movies aside from the obvious rom-com genre are generally found in the comedy genre where the leads are portrayed as misifts, weirdos, or females that are forced to band with a bunch of misfits to improve her life or reach a goal (kinda like Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys).

    More back to your list, what I love was the fact that you left out Bridesmaids (a movie I love mind you), instead it focused more on complicated female-driven storylines which are sadly a rare breed indeed. I can only share your sentiments when I say how I wish there was a female-driven version of Cool Hand Luke (Cool Hand Lulu?)

  12. RLTerry

    EXCELLENT topic! I absolutely loved reading your article. With the exception of “Gravity,” “She’s the Man” is my favorite movie from the list. So often we attribute female protagonist movies to romantic dramas. This just goes to show that a female can lead a movie and not need to be primarily engaged in a romantic subplot. Sure minor “love” plots can still have a place in a non-romantic film (“Easy A,” “Fried Green Tomatoes,” or “She’s the Man”); but, this article explores the reality that films can have strong female leads without having the external goal be a relationship (straight or lesbian). Actually, I just thought of another prime example of a “Wolf of Wall Street”-esqu movie featuring a female leads “Devil Wears Prada.” It appears though, in recent years that more movies have been produced lead females in non-romantic plots, but there is certainly room for more. Thanks for the insight!

  13. As long as a woman is appreciated for what she does, that’s the only thing that should matter most. As long as your work is noticed and appreciated for the hard work you put in it, male or female, your on good solid ground.

    • Nenita Kuykendal
      0

      The best way for more women to break into making Hollywood movies is to take the leap into independent filmmaking. Write original screenplays, fund their own indie projects (including documentaries) and get recognized at festivals such as Sundance.

  14. I love this list! I’ve always found stories that revolve around a strong female character to be the most intriguing. For example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer! I mean who doesn’t love how powerful that character is and the impact of other important women in pop culture. We need more films and television that highlight this. This list is a perfect representation of how character development and an interesting story can propel women out of stereotypical roles of physical objectification as well as steer them away from the general “love story” formula. Oh and good call with Winter’s Bone, love that film.

  15. Christina Cady

    Nice analysis of these films, it is very true that female driven movies are far more likely to be given romance as a crutch compared to their male driven counterparts, which is really quite a shame.
    Though not entirely relevant to the discussion of female driven movies, I think it is still worth mentioning Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Solider. I think she is a good contemporary demonstration of a strong female lead that (pardoning my French and inability to resist a raunchy pun)kicks ass with out having to get any. Any thoughts on this?
    Thanks for the article!

  16. Madelaine

    This is the first article I clicked on because I think it’s important for women to be portrayed in more than one way, which is typically a love story. I think you did a great job analyzing these movies and created a new understanding for “women lead roles.” I really enjoyed it. I think there are bound to be more movies coming out that can hold an audiences attention with out the sole purpose and stigma of finding/needing love. Awesome.

  17. Watching the first episode of the Fargo series, I felt a bit annoyed that so much emphasis was placed on the male cop character rather than the female cop. Knowing now what happens in the episode, I guess this makes sense (no spoilers!) — but I hope that they start focusing on the female cop, because (the film version of) Fargo’s focus on Marge is what makes it so interesting!

  18. I’m so glad you included Fargo on this list. I think a lot of people forget about Marge as a hero.

  19. nicholas
    0

    This might be a controversial, but I’d put a vote in for “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (either version). Lizbeth Salander dishes out full on justice and revenge without ever hitting anyone with a fist or firing a shot.

    • Emaloo

      That is a good example! Especially since even though she falls for partner, and it shows her in sexual relationships, the story is both about her yearning for companionship of any form (not purely sexual, but just trying to connect with someone) and taking down a serial killer. That movie is a good way to show how movies don’t have to completely cut out the love-element, but also not make it the focus.

  20. I sincerely enjoyed your article, and I agree, it is so important to have accurate representation for women in media. I find too often that I’m seeing one romantic comedy after another and they never seem to change. I think it’s important that you added “She’s the Man” to show that it’s not a bad thing that women HAVE love interests in media, it’s a bad thing that women with love interests seem to be the only ones out there. On another note, I also think it’s problematic that there aren’t any women of color being represented in media, I feel like women of color are often forgotten about when trying to do a “cast diversely” as people think diversity means there need to be men of color and women in order to make their film “diverse” and I often find that women of color are severely underrepresented.

  21. It’s a question of authenticity. On the one hand, it’s preposterous to suggest that because love is such a well known cliche in the female story in western civ that there is no authentic place for love in that story. On the other hand, stories that put cliches to the side are always refreshing and feel more meaningful.

  22. SparrowDemeter

    When thinking of other movies that would fit in with this list Brave comes to mind, I thought it was refreshing to have a story come from Disney centered around a princess but not focused on a romantic storyline, but instead on the relationship between mother and daughter. Two other random movies come to mind, The Help and Mary Poppins. I don’t feel that The Hunger Games would fit into this list becuase of the importance of the Love Triangle to the storyline

  23. I really enjoyed reading your article! It made me think of movies in a way I haven’t before. Reading through the comments above, I wonder if I really relate to any of the protagonists in many of the movies listed. Do you think that by trying to avoid the love theme that writers go too far in the other direction? I don’t know anyone trapped in a cave or having to chase their fathers while being sole provider of their families. What about the women who live much more “common” lives and the stresses/goals/desires there? Or, like many male-driven story lines, are we stimulated by the fantasy of the uncommon?

  24. veramosley

    I have either seen or heard of all of these movies. Great summation of a genre that lacks (as you beautifully explained) to be represented. Perhaps as Hollywood continues to produce movies, we will see more protagonists represented in this way.

  25. I completely agree that the movie industry needs more non-relationship driven female protagonists, but sadly I do not think Hollywood has succeeded with many!

  26. While I really like seeing movies with female leads that don’t center around a love interest, it seems like a lot of them are also under very stressful and/or dangerous situations. I’d love to see more films with strong female leads in more ordinary situations, still without the plot centering around a romance.

  27. A nice read and really eclectic mix of films. Great to highlight strong, dynamic characters. Would have loved to see a longer list. One of my favorite female roles is Alison Lohman’s Astrid in “White Oleander.”

  28. Zachary CruzTan

    Interesting article! You should definitely check out the Bechdel Test, if you haven’t already. It’s a test that gauges the involvement of women in film. A film passes the test when the female characters fulfil certain criteria. I don’t wanna give too much away in this comment, but yeah, definitely worth checking out, cause it relates perfectly to your article.

  29. Sander Lee

    I agree that more films are presenting strong female leads that aren’t overly sexualized (e.g., Gravity, Hunger Games, etc.) This is a positive development both in feminist terms and in terms of the elimination of unnecessary sex scenes.

  30. Yayoi Uno Everett

    Thank you for this article! I’d like to add The Hours (2002), directed by Stephen Daldry, and starring Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore, as a female-centered film that doesn’t revolve around romanticized love. It Interweaves the lives of three women, who either wrestle with suicidal impulses themselves or someone with suicidal thoughts. It deals with the subject of love, sacrifice, and existential irony in a manner that moves far beyond the romanticized convention of love.

  31. laurenpang

    It’s laughable to me that many US directors shy away from featuring female protagonists in their films because they feel as though the bulk of their audiences wouldn’t be interested in seeing a movie with a female lead. Nevermind that half of the US population is female…I digress, I was drawn to your article because, although I enjoy a good romantic comedy every now and then, it is absolutely rare to find a film that is a female-dominated movie without the plot revolving romantic love. Love is a multi-faceted and unifying theme for moviemakers to portray in their films, the problem is that the majority portrays only a certain kind of love. As you mentioned, She’s the Man is a story of a girl who loves soccer, which is refreshing because it illustrates a female who is passionate about something other than being the ends to a man’s satisfaction.
    Anyways, something related to this topic that I learned about recently, called the Bechdel Test can be used to determine (or at least weed out) if films are grossly overly male-centric. The Bechdel Test, which if you don’t already know, is a test that asks if the film 1.) has at least 2 named women in it 2.) if these women talk to each other and 3.) if they talk about something other than a man. It always shocks me to find out how many personal favorite films of mine don’t pass this test. Although, it’s worth mentioning some of the films that pass the test aren’t particularly empowering or feminist-friendly either. Likewise, although the list you have posted passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors, there still is a lot left to desire in terms of intersectionality. For example, most of the protagonists of these films are either white, educated, wealthy, heterosexual, cis-gendered and/or some amalgamation of all 5 of these privileges. Entertainment is entertainment, but perpetuating the lack of visibility of the underrepresented groups is still problematic enough to be noted. Thanks for the great read, very thought provoking and I have some new titles to add to my Netflix queue 🙂

  32. Cool topic! This could do with a companion article: male-centered movies that don’t revolve around killing people or blowing things up (or love). 😛 The apple so rarely falls far from the plot tree in the film world…

  33. Fantastic topic! I found myself trying to mirror your efforts of identifying six female-centered movies without the romantic “trappings.” I could only think of one in a 15 min time span…The Heat. My unsuccessful attempt brought into perspective your ability to generate a list primarily made up of dramas rather than comedies—a deceptive task in its level of difficulty. Well done.

  34. No mention of the Charlie’s Angels movies?

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