The power of movies is something that most people overlook, however, it can be an important aspect of how we view society and societal changes. Illustrated in front of us on the big-screen, without even noticing that it’s happening. For this reason, the representation of strong female leads and supporting characters are so important for how society views women and the everyday issues that surround them. So here is a list of the top 10 female characters that became the ultimate feminist icons and helped change the way cinema represented women.
Princess Leia Organa, the epitome of independence
When Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope hit theaters in the summer of 1977, there were queues of young boys lining up to see the space opera classic. The science fiction movie was predominantly thought to be aimed at the male market. However, when Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back came to the big-screen in 1980, the audience changed dramatically. Many women and young girls lining up to see the sequel of this trilogy. One of the main reasons for this was the incredibly independent and strong female character: Princess Leia Organa.
In the Galaxy far, far away Princess Leia was anything but a ‘damsel in distress’. The end of the 1970s was the beginning of strong female lead characters in cinema, and Princess Leia was one of the first to be on the big-screen. From the very beginning, Princess Leia brought us lines like “Will someone get this big walking carpet out of my way?” showing audiences that she isn’t one to be easily slowed down. With her tenacious personality, she was the epitome of independence throughout the Star Wars original trilogy. This was more than needed in regard to cinematic representation of women during this era.
Hermione Granger, a smart, resilient and loyal friend
Hermione Granger is, without question, one of the best feminist icons of all-time. When she first reached the big-screen in 2001 with Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone, little girls everywhere finally wanted to be intelligent instead of being the “Cinderella’ or ‘Sleeping Beauty” types that we’re so used to seeing from Disney. Since 2001, little girls who grew up watching Harry Potter have all wanted to be “the brightest witch of her generation”, just like Hermione Granger.
I thought Hermione Granger was a ‘bookworm’ and a ‘know-it-all’ in the first movie. Although this might seem like a negative reflection of her character, she is inspirational and her personality resonated with many ambitious little girls who have always wanted to learn as much as possible. (Plus, now we all know “it’s pronounced Levi-O-sa, not Levio-SA!”) Her importance throughout the franchise grew dramatically, and she became a heroine for audiences to relate to. Hermione Granger shows the younger generation that intelligence, loyalty, and resilience truly defines bravery.
Sarah Connor is not another damsel in distress!
Sarah Connor in 1984’s The Terminator is a very important feminist icon in cinema history. Unlike some other female lead characters, Sarah Connor’s strength and resilience was a gradual journey through the first movie. She started out as an ‘every day’ female character with a waitress gig (why are they always waitresses?) and the usual relationship issues. As she was clearly not prepared for a deadly cyborg to show up in her life (understandable), she didn’t adapt very well to it, as we would have been used to seeing in movies.
The typical storyline of an everyday person somehow being able to do the impossible was not at play for Sarah Connor. As they targeted her for a choice she hadn’t even made yet (i.e. having a baby boy). It seemed almost symbolic of motherhood pressures and opinions that women face daily. Especially when the opinions sound robotic! However, the female lead showed audiences an authentic experience of how she gained the strength she needed. From getting queasy at the sight of blood, to destroying The Terminator to protect herself. Although Sarah Connor’s journey seemed like it imitated that of a ‘damsel in distress’ with the protection of Reese. By the end The Terminator showed us it was very far from that.
Merida, first female Disney-Pixar character to fight for independence?
Brave was one of the best movies to come out of Disney-Pixar for years, and the main reason is the protagonist: Merida. Although Merida is technically a Princess of a Scottish clan, she is anything but looking for a Prince to rescue her. Merida fights to lead her own life and fulfill her own destiny. The audience continuously hears her saying “I want my own freedom”, and honestly, that’s probably the most relatable phrase ever.
This Princess is unlike any that young girls have seen before. She is strong, independent and resilient. She rejects the fact that her parents are bringing Princes from other clans to their castle to marry her off. Instead, she fights for her independence. The movie also paints the ‘potential suitors’ in a negative way, making them mindless fools that constantly fight amongst themselves.
Her journey is an unusual look at a coming-of-age story, but Merida’s self-confidence and strong will to lead her own life is inspirational. Merida is truly one of the few feminist icons that we see as an animation, aimed at young girls. And probably the only one to ever come from Disney-Pixar at the time of Brave’s release.
Crystal, a smart, calculated and strong woman
Our latest badass girl to reach the screen is Crystal in the movie The Hunt. While I don’t think Crystal will land in history for being a feminist icon, her performance was definitely badass. Starred by Betty Gilpin, the female character shows exactly what makes a capable character. Crystal, a smart, calculated and strong woman. Far from a damsel in distress, she can handle herself like a pro. Unlike most females portrayed in slasher-movies (one of my biggest horror pet peeves), Crystal makes the wise decision to put that freaking hair in a ponytail as soon as she realizes sh*t is about to get real! “One small step for Crystal but a huge step for the horror-genre” – one could say.
This social satirical/ thriller/horror received a lot of criticism from people who couldn’t figure out its political message. The movie leaves you feeling puzzled, asking if it’s pro-right or pro-left. The early scrips suggested that the message was more pro-conservative, but it seems Director just wanted to make everyone angry, saying that the movie’s goal was to “poke at both sides of the aisle equally”. So, success I guess – I think it left everyone feeling a bit “poked”.
*Disclaimer: I am definitely anti-Trump and did not interpret the movie as being pro-Trump. I do not believe that Crystal was the “real Crystal May”. However, leaving that question open-ended caused for even more controversy – so job well done!
Erin Brockovich taught self respect to women across the world
Erin Brockovich is a name that echoed through the 1990’s and early 2000’s for people all over the world. This true story is an incredible principle for women everywhere that self-respect, hard work and resilience are all pivotal attributes in this world. Julia Roberts embodied Erin Brockovich for the feature-film biopic that highlighted the case against Pacific Gas and Electric Company in 1993, where she worked as the legal clerk.
Erin Brockovich was an educated woman, although she never practised Law as her primary Degree was in Arts. However, during the case against Pacific Gas and Electric Company in 1993, Erin Brockovich was one of the single most important people on the case, with hundreds of files and strong pieces of evidence. This led to the prosecution of Pacific Gas and Electric Company who had been contaminating the local drinking water, resulting in huge numbers of cancer in the area. The case won and Erin Brockovich remains an icon for justice to this day. She opened her own investigation agency called Brockovich Research & Consulting, and she is now a host of an ABC show called Challenge America with Erin Brockovich.
Wonder Woman a fierce, strong and confident superhero
Since her introduction to the DC Universe in 1941, Wonder Woman has long been a strong feminist icon. The Amazonian superhero first appeared in All Star Comics #8, and since her introduction, she has stunned fans with her awesome fearlessness and her tenacity. In 2017, the gorgeous Gal Gadot channeled Wonder Woman, bringing one of the very first female leads to the spotlight in the recent DC Universe movies. Although we have seen other female characters in both DC and Marvel on the big-screen, Wonder Woman is the first to have her own Titled movie in this genre. Wonder Woman is fierce, strong and confident. She is the epitome of beauty and an icon of independence and resilience. For this reason, Wonder Woman is one of the best feminist icons that cinema has seen on the big-screen in the last 10 years.
As Wonder Woman pummels her way through enemies, she sends a message to women that you can be both attractive and intelligent while maintaining your strength and dignity. Cinema and TV often portray women as being one or the other (e.g. Scooby Doo: Daphne being the attractive sorority girl and Velma being the unattractive science geek). Women by nature are beautiful and it would be wrong to take this sense of self away on the big-screen, by categorizing the importance of female characters by their appearances (especially when trying to promote feminism through our lead female characters).
Elle Woods, barbie-girl doesn’t equal bimbo-girl
You might disagree with me on this one, and that’s totally fine. Elle Woods is an unorthodox feminist icon that came onto the big-screen before the term “feminist” even really meant anything to anyone. Elle Woods in Legally Blonde illustrated to audiences across the world that just because you seem like a total ‘barbie girl’ on the outside, it doesn’t mean that you are by any means a ‘blonde bimbo’. If anything the light-hearted Legally Blonde helps to quench this stigma. It shows a younger generation that the most important thing you can have for yourself is self-respect.
The beginning of Legally Blonde shows Elle Woods to have no ambitions of her own, other than to become a housewife to her longtime boyfriend. But the movie quickly shows that once she put her mind to work, she achieved so much more than she could have ever dreamed of. The audience watches her transition from silly sorority girl to top-of-her-class Harvard Law graduate. The storyline may be skewed towards unrealistic, however, it sends a message to young girls that education and self-confidence are two of the most powerful things you can have for yourself.
The Bride (Beatrix)’s “survival energy” emerged from Thurman’s torture on-set?
Quentin Taratino seemed to have hit the nail right on the head when he created the Kill Bill series. The horrendous working conditions for Uma Thurman in the production may have been far from supporting women and their choices. But I think the Kill Bill series illustrates the power and strength that women have within them. For this reason, Kill Bill will forever be an iconic feminist movie due to the storyline and Beatrix’s journey. Beatrix remain fearless through her journey to avenge the murder of her husband. She overcomes major obstacles while emanating fierceness and power.
When the first movie released to theaters in 2003, audiences were excited as Quentin Taratino was already a huge name. His movies were famous for their excellent storylines and scenes of vengeful violence. However, the reception became so much more than expected! Women around the world came out to say that Beatrix’s character gave them “survival energy”. An energy they needed to get out of bad relationships and other dangerous circumstances in their lives. A positive outcome for the message of this story, this “survival energy” emanated from Uma Thurman’s mental and physical exhaustion on-set (which is understandable when having to deal with Harvey Weinstein). So is it a feminist movie? I’ll leave it up to you to decide. There is still much debate around this today.
Ellen Ripley strongest feminist icon of the 20th Century
Since Alien first appeared on the big-screen in 1979, the movie’s lead female character Ellen Ripley, has been (rightly) dubbed the ‘first action heroine’. Sigourney Weaver portrayed one of the best female characters of all time. Since audiences first learned that “in space, no one can hear you scream!”, Ellen Ripley has been one of the strongest feminist icons of the 20th Century (and even spilling into the 21st Century). During Alien, audiences learn that this everyday woman can step up and be a total badass! Especially when we see her slinging guns and fighting aliens. She emanates a sense of mental strength and determination. She is inspirational throughout the entire film as she gradually becomes an icon of power and resilience through her battles.
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