Ten Strong Female Characters in Movies
First, let’s start with reality. Most movies are not good. As I see it, this is the main reason for the field of film criticism: to help audiences navigate through the muck to find productions that are worth the cost of admission, measured in both time and money. As Theodore Sturgeon, science fiction author and critic put it in 1951, “ninety percent of everything is crap,” which is now known as “Sturgeon’s Law.”
So if you are interested in watching well made entertaining movies that portray strong female characters — a very specific and narrow search, then prepare to be disappointed. Most movies and screenplays do not even pass the Bechdel Test, which only asks: does the work feature at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man? If the answer is “no,” then it fails the Bechdel Test.
This is an indicator of the fact that most movies feature male protagonists, where the female characters simply serve as background: objects of love/lust, family members, victims. Hence the female characters are not developed, they tend to be flat, one dimensional, their points of view are not explored, their individuality is not seen. They merely serve the male-centric story, and are literally interchangeable from movie to movie. This is why any two female characters in these movies have nothing to talk about to each other.
But what about that ten percent? In spite of a copious amount of misogyny in the world, a predominantly male-dominated film industry, and cultural archetypes that automatically default to male, e.g. superhero, warrior, explorer, rebel, inventor, thinker, mentor, boss — there are in fact a number of wonderful movies that feature strong female characters.
The following is a list of ten such movies, which excludes period pieces that are within a historical context or are dramatizing history, like elaborate history lessons, as well as biographies of real women. The reason for this is that those films are not demonstrating the particular capacity of a filmmaker to imagine a character, a whole, complex, believable character, that is a true creation, and have that character be female: a woman, a child, a teenager.
Movies with a group of women as the protagonists are not included either, because these tend to revolve around the ups and downs of friendship, where relationships are the focus of the movie, rather than an individual, a hero, in her life.
While the majority of the movies below do have a romantic male interest, the story-lines are not focused on “finding a man” to make the characters feel whole: there is no drawn out search that ends with “Mr. Right,” there is no suggestion that the female characters need a man to be happy or successful, or that they are incomplete because they are on their own. All of the following films pass the Bechdel Test. The main female characters are all individuals who experience many different things, make decisions on their own, find their strengths, seek out opportunities that broaden their horizons, and live their lives to the fullest.
First up are two movies starring children:
1) The Secret Garden (1993)
A drama based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett and directed by Agnieszka Holland about Mary Lennox (Kate Maberly), an orphaned ten-year-old girl who goes to live at her uncle’s estate, where she meets her sickly cousin, Colin Craven (Heydon Prowse), and finds an overgrown hidden garden, both of which she restores to health.
Q: Why is Mary a strong female character?
A: Mary knows how to say “no.” She doesn’t let others confine her, and she fearlessly stands up for herself and for what she believes.
The Life Lesson from this movie is very empowering:
Don’t let other people determine what you do with your life.
This movie goes against the common perception that pleasing others, saying “yes” to all their requests, is necessary to be liked. When in reality, pleasing others all the time will likely just lead to stress and the subjugation of the individual. This movie shows that saying “no” is a sign of strength and assertiveness, qualities that are sometimes vital.
Mary: “At least we can open the windows.”
Colin: “No! Get away from there! Don’t touch them. They’re nailed shut. My lungs – they can’t take the spores.”
Colin: “They’re carried in on the wind. And when you breathe the air, you swallow them. They get stuck in your lungs.”
Mary: “But before I got out into the wind, even my hair was scrawny.”
Colin: “You’re hair? Hair is dead.”
Mary: “If hair is dead, then how come it keeps on growing even after you die? Well, maybe not your hair. By then you might be bald.”
Colin: “Don’t be stupid. I’ll be dead before I’m old enough to be bald. I’ll get a lump on my back like my father. Then I’ll die.”
Mary: “I hate the way you talk about dying.”
Colin: “Everyone thinks I’ll die.”
Mary: “If everyone thought that about me, I wouldn’t do it.”
2) Matilda (1996)
A fantasy based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl, and directed by Danny DeVito, about a girl who is driven to seek vengeance against her tormentors at home and at school, and develops psychokinetic powers to do so.
Q: Why is Matilda a strong female character?
A: Matilda is a neglected and tormented child who figures out that she must get what she needs herself, instead of relying on her family, and takes advantage of every educational opportunity available in order to find a way out.
The Life Lesson from this movie is eye-opening:
You make your own happiness.
This film has a particularly useful Life Lesson because it has the potential to positively change behavior. In essence, the message is, yes, others could be making life hard for you, but you can find a constructive solution. You can take charge, embrace the challenge, and take responsibility for making yourself happy instead of wallowing, complaining or resenting.
Narrator: “Matilda already knew that she was somewhat different from her family. She saw that whatever she needed in this world, she’d have to get herself.”
[...] “And as bad as things were before, that’s how good they became … And Matilda found, to her great surprise, that life could be fun, and she decided to have as much of it as possible. After all, she was a very smart kid.”
Next, are three movies starring teens:
3) Pretty in Pink (1986)
A drama directed by Howard Deutch and written/produced by John Hughes about Andie Walsh, an independent, essentially parent-less teen from the poor side of town who is caught in a love triangle that forces her to rise above social pressure and prejudice.
Q: Why is Andie a strong female character?
A: Andie goes after everything she wants with fierce determination and doesn’t bow to social pressures of any kind. She is the embodiment of individualism. She is proud of her uniqueness, is able to carve her own path, and break away from the expectations of others.
The Life Lesson from this movie is inspiring, and summed up by a quote from author Susan Jeffers:
“Feel the fear and do it anyway.”
The protagonist of this outstanding film demonstrates a number of virtues: initiative, self-reliance and ambition, that are rare of female characters in movies. Everyday struggles are dramatized, which helps the viewer understand the importance of individual actions, and the strength of character that it takes to continue marching on in the face of opposition.
Andie: “It’s okay. I’m gonna go [to the prom].”
Andie: “Yeah, I’m not sad about it. I’m not hurt. I mean, you know, I am hurt a little bit. But I know if I don’t do it, I’ll just feel a lot worse. I’m just gonna go in, walk in, walk out and come home.”
Dad: “You sure?”
Andie: “I just want to let them know that they didn’t break me.”
4) Dirty Dancing (1987)
A drama directed by Emile Ardolino about a privileged young woman, Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey), vacationing with her family in a resort, where she falls in love with Johnny (Patrick Swayze), a dance instructor, and learns a ballroom routine to help out his dance partner, Penny (Cynthia Rhodes), who needs a medical procedure. It won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for best original song: “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.”
Q: Why is Baby a strong female character?
A: Baby finds the courage to stand up for her altruistic ideals, which includes helping those in need and treating everyone as equals, even if it means going against her family and societal norms.
The Life Lesson from this movie is significant:
Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.
This movie personifies the struggle between one person’s idealism and the harsh reality she faces in trying to live up to her ideals. It shows that it’s not easy to put into practice the beliefs that you hold, and that it takes a conscious, concerted effort to actually embody a belief.
Baby [talking to her father]: “I’m sorry I lied to you. But you lied too. You told me everyone was alike and deserved a fair break, but you meant everyone who was like you. You told me you wanted me to change the world, make it better. But you meant by becoming a lawyer or an economist, and marrying someone from Harvard. I’m not proud of myself, but I’m in this family too and you can’t keep giving me the silent treatment. There are a lot of things about me that aren’t what you thought, but if you love me, you have to love all the things about me. And I love you. And I’m sorry I let you down. I’m so sorry daddy. But you let me down too.”
5) Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
A fantasy written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, based on the book by Eiko Kadono about Kiki (Kirsten Dunst), an independent thirteen-year-old witch, who travels to a new town with her black cat, Jiji (Phil Hartman), in order to begin her training, and starts a business to support herself with the help of Osono (Tress MacNeille), a baker.
Q: Why is Kiki a strong female character?
A: Kiki finds the confidence to start a business that utilizes her best skill, in order to successfully support herself.
The Life Lesson from this movie is instructive:
Have confidence in what you are doing, even if you don’t think you have a special skill or talent.
The beauty of this animated film is that the main character is strong, well-grounded, and inventive, and is treated as such, that is, she is treated respectfully by all adults, who accept her as the independent entrepreneur that she is, even though she is only thirteen. Although there is magic and witchcraft in the movie, these are superficial elements – the real focus is her inner strength.
Kiki: “Morning, everyone!”
Osono: “Well, look who’s up! Did you sleep well?”
Kiki: “Yes. Oh, that smells good [bread]! Can I help out?”
Osono: “Sure can!”
Kiki: “Osono, I have something I want to talk to you about.” [...]
Osono: “Ooh, a delivery business, huh?”
Kiki: “Well, I really only have one skill and that’s flying. So I thought a delivery service wouldn’t be a bad idea.”
Osono: “It’s a great idea — Kiki’s Flying Delivery Service. And, since you’re staying right here, I can be your very first account.”
Kiki: “You mean it! Oh, that’s great!”
Third are four movies starring adult women:
6) Strictly Ballroom (1992)
A comedy co-written and directed by Baz Luhrmann about Fran (Tara Morice), a novice dancer who convinces Scott (Paul Mercurio), a ballroom champion, to be her partner for the Pan Pacific Grand Prix, and dance the steps their way, non-Federation, even though it means forfeiting a win. It was nominated for a Golden Globe for best motion picture.
Q: Why is Fran a strong female character?
A: Fran follows her passion, challenges herself to learn more, and finds ways to open up opportunities for herself.
The Life Lesson from this movie is very motivating:
“Vivir con miedo es como vivir a medias.” — A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.
This movie encapsulates the dedication and commitment that it takes to pursue a dream that seems out of reach. Fran is not only a novice, she is an outsider, from a different cultural background than the world she inhabits, yet she is able to harness her resources and triumph.
Fran: “Do you want to dance your own steps or not?”
Scott: “It’s none of your business.”
Fran: “Well, do you?”
Scott: “Look, a beginner has no right to approach an open amateur.”
Fran: “Yeah, well, an open amateur has no right to dance non-federation steps, but you did, didn’t you?”
Scott: “That’s different.”
Fran: “How is it different? You’re just like the rest of them. You think you’re different but you’re not because you’re just — you’re just really scared. You’re really scared to give someone new a go because you think they might just be better than you are. Well, you’re just pathetic, and you’re gutless. You’re a gutless wonder. Vivir con miedo es como vivir a medias!”
7) Contact (1997)
A drama based on the book by Carl Sagan, and directed by Robert Zemeckis, about Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway (Jodie Foster), a SETI astronomer who discovers a coded message in a radio signal that has instructions for building a transporter. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best sound and a Golden Globe for best performance by an actress.
Q: Why is Ellie a strong female character?
A: Ellie is one of the few female scientists in film: she is a SETI astronomer, the director of a research project. We see her leading, decoding, making discoveries, recovering from setbacks, competing and finding what she seeks.
The Life Lesson from this movie is encouraging for those who feel isolated because they are not like others:
Keep searching— you are not alone.
This is a rare film that shows a woman as hero, as fighter, as pursuer of knowledge on a journey that takes her beyond known boundaries. It has all the elements of a science fiction adventure, with the veracity of real science to back it up: worldwide impact, military and government involvement, dangerous situations, advanced technology, aliens and nearly insurmountable obstacles.
Alien [talking to Ellie]: “You’re an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone. Only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.”
8) Legally Blonde (2001)
A comedy directed by Robert Luketic about Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon), a college student who enters Harvard Law School in an effort to win back her ex-boyfriend, Warner (Matthew Davis), who broke up with her because she didn’t fit his elitist image of a future senator’s wife. It was nominated for a Golden Globe for best motion picture.
Q: Why is Elle a strong female character?
A: Elle learns to embrace her potential, to confront the low expectations others have of her, and to recognize that some people will be too closed-minded to accept her as capable.
The Life Lesson in this film is insightful:
Learn to see the potential in yourself and in others.
This movie represents what is a common experience for many people who are stereotyped in a negative way, and find that no matter what they accomplish, some will only see flaws. The movie has a piquant answer to that dilemma: ignore the haters and move on.
Elle: “I feel like we barely get to see each other since we’ve been here.”
Warner: “Oh, I know. I’m so busy with these case studies and hypos.”
Elle: “I know what you mean. I can’t imagine doing all this and Callahan’s internship next year. That’s gonna be so much.”
Warner: “Oh, Elle, come on. You’re never going to get the grades to qualify for one of those spots. You’re not smart enough, sweetie.”
Elle: “Wait, am I on glue, or did we not get into the same law school, Warner?”
Warner: “Well, yeah. But–”
Elle: “But what? We took the same LSATs, and we’re taking the same classes.”
Warner: “I know, but come on Elle, be serious. You can do something more valuable with your time.”
Elle: “I’m never going to be good enough for you, am I?”
9) View from the Top (2003)
A comedy directed by Bruno Barreto about Donna Jensen (Gwyneth Paltrow), a woman from a small town without many future prospects who follows the advice of an ex-flight attendant and motivational speaker, Sally Weston (Candice Bergen), to start a new life.
Q: Why is Donna a strong female character?
A: Donna works hard to better herself by implementing the advice that is given to her, manages to educate herself, and continues to move forward by challenging herself.
The Life Lesson in this movie is particularly important:
Know that you are valuable, so don’t settle for less, even if others are trying to keep you down.
The Life Lesson in this film can light a fire under someone who feels beaten down and is ready to accept a lousy deal, but knows deep within themselves that they deserve better and only need a little push to find the courage to look for other opportunities.
Sally Weston: “And there I was with garbage in front of me, the worst moment of my life, and I thought, ‘what am I going to do?’ And for a second I was real scared because ever since I was a little girl all I ever heard from people was you are nothing and nothing is what you deserve. But that night something clicked, and I knew, I just knew, I was worth something… No matter how much I loved that sleepy little town, none of my dreams were waiting down there, they were waiting up there [pointing to the sky]. And frankly people, no matter where you’re from, no matter who people think you are, you can be whatever you want. But you got to start right now, right this second in fact.”
Donna: “But how?”
Sally Weston: “You should start by buying my book.”
Last is a movie starring a middle-aged woman:
10) The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
A drama directed by Clint Eastwood, based on the book by Robert James Waller, about a four day love affair between a National Geographic photographer, Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood), and an Iowa housewife, Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep). It was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress, and a Golden Globe for best motion picture and best performance by an actress.
Q: Why is Francesca a strong female character?
A: Francesca is a lady who has the foresight, wisdom and strength to accept life as it is and not dwell on a fantasy she had in her youth, but rather uses her old dreams as nourishment to sustain herself and keep her family whole.
The Life Lesson in this movie is very grounding:
Sometimes you have to accept things as they are, not as you wish them to be.
What’s interesting about this movie is that it shows a perspective that is not often seen in movies: the lead character pulling back and thinking through things rather than letting emotion and impulsivity make the decisions. In real life it is sometimes quite necessary, and empowering even, to look at things objectively and make an intellectual decision, rather than be carried away by sentiment. This movie shows us one woman doing just that, and it is refreshing as well as admirable.
Francesca: “It is quiet. And the people are nice. In certain ways. You know, we all help each other out. If someone gets sick or hurt, all the neighbors come in. They pick the corn or harvest the oats, or whatever needs to be done. If you go into town, you can leave your car unlocked and let the kids run around. Don’t worry about them. There are a lot of nice things about the people here. And I respect them for those qualities. But…”
Francesca: “Well, it’s not what I dreamed of, as a girl.”
Robert: “You know I scribbled something down the other day. I often do that when I’m out on the road. Kind of goes like this: ‘The old dreams were good dreams. They didn’t work out, but I’m glad I had them.’ [...] Anyway, I think I know how you feel.”
The above movies are lovely depictions of strong female characters. They show:
- a determined, gritty and tenacious girl (Mary)
- a smart, caring and courageous child (Matilda)
- an independent, mature and focused high schooler (Andie)
- an intelligent, thoughtful and gutsy young adult (Baby)
- a resourceful, responsible, and bold business owner (Kiki)
- a devoted, daring and creative dancer (Fran)
- an undaunted scientist and explorer (Ellie)
- a plucky, confident law student (Elle)
- a bright, self-reliant apprentice (Donna)
- an astute, far-sighted and loving woman (Francesca)
All are people most would like to know better, have in their families, or as co-workers, or would like to emulate. The characters are not perfect, but they are true individuals. Their actions are their own. They drive their own stories, and because of that, have extraordinary lives. These are characters worth meeting in movies worth seeing.
Do you want to see better developed/strong/non-stereotypical female characters in movies?
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