Sunday March 8th is International Women’s Day. In celebration of this day, I thought it would be fun to talk about 10 roles in movies and television that not only defied stereotypical depiction of women, but have also become icons in their own right. Of course this isn’t a comprehensive list and there are still plenty of examples not featured here, but this is a great starting point. For the purposes of this list, one of the main components I’ll be discussing is a characters sense or purpose and motivation, also known as agency. Each character is not listed because they are “badass” though some of theme certainly are but instead are measured by how much they take control of their own actions and are defined by their choices.
If you haven’t checked out each of these roles/movies/shows, I highly encourage you to take the time to do so.
10. The Bride (portrayed by Uma Thurman)
If you haven’t seen the Kill Bill Duology, you’re really missing out. The story revolves around a character known as “The Bride”; a woman, eight months pregnant, shot in the head at her wedding dress rehearsal by her ex, the titular Bill. Surprisingly, The Bride survives and wakes up years later from a coma bent on revenge against Bill and his accomplices. The story is as they say a ‘roaring rampage of revenge,’ and it’s a lot of fun. That’s not what qualifies The Bride for this list though. During the story director Quentin Tarantino peels back the layers, revealing the Bride and how she became the lioness hellbent on getting revenge. While the action is top notch, it’s the quiet moments that really make you feel for this woman and how she had been brainwashed into becoming an instrument of death. When the inevitable plot twist is revealed, the tone of the movie is not that of a righteous battle between two sworn enemies but rather a long conversation as to why they have reached this point. Its not loud and it’s certainly not bloody. It’s a moment that makes you realize that she’s leaving the violence behind her, and you believe it.
9. Donna Noble (portrayed by Catherine Tate)
Some of you might be saying “Donna Noble, why her?” Well let me explain. I’m a huge fan of Doctor Who and I have always enjoyed the dynamic of the companion accompanying the titular Doctor across the cosmos on adventures and hijinks. That’s all they are though, accompaniment. Some of the greatest companions have merely been someone to act as the eyes and ears of the audience To ask the questions we need to understand what the heck is going on…and that’s great. But that’s not Donna Noble. In fact, what made Donna so different from other companions is her ability to challenge the Doctor. In her first appearance Noble stops the Doctor from committing genocide and grounds him back to earth. She also rejected his first offer to become a companion. Donna didn’t want to be someone who was merely a passenger, she wanted to be an equal. A year later when she finally became a member of Team Tardis, Donna constantly challenged the Doctor’s assumptions and made him question decisions and rediscover his humanity. In the end, she even gained the powers of a Time Lord become the “Doctor Donna”, which is still one of the best moments in the history of the modern show. No matter how you slice it, Donna was different. She wasn’t a love interest and she wasn’t smitten with a crush. She was the Doctor’s Best Friend and that’s a title no other companion has ever been given.
8. Katniss Everdean (portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence)
It’s so awesome that currently, the biggest box office franchise in the world is The Hunger Games, spearheaded by the main character of Katniss Everdrean. What makes her so memorable is that she refuses to play by the rules. I don’t mean an anarchist but rather someone who refuses to be a pawn in other people’s games. The entire story of the Hunger Games is the evolution of Katniss from a young woman who is willing to give up her life in order to save her sister to that of a revolutionary icon that throws a nation into a civil war. Katniss’ inherent independence and ability to find her own way when things seem hopeless have made her a role model for millions of women across the world. The best part is Hollywood has taken notice.
7. Hermione Granger (portrayed by Emma Watson)
While she may not be the main character in the Harry Potter series we can all agree that without Ms. Granger’s help, Harry would have died halfway through the first book. There are entire corners of the internet lauding the awesomeness of the uber powerful witch and why shouldn’t they? Throughout the story, Hermione is made fun of for being smart and tenacious, yet she never gives into peer pressure. She never loses sight on becoming the best she can be and to hell with anyone who doesn’t believe in her. What’s more telling about the character is how she challenges her friends constantly and their preconceived notions. By the final installment, its not Hermione who has changed but her closest friends: Harry and Ron. They see her as an equal, moreover someone to be respected in a crisis and not one to be teased. She vanquishes a much greater evil than that of Voldermort, she vanquishes sexism amongst those near and dear to her heart. Take that, Harry.
6. Mary Poppins (portrayed by Julie Andrews)
Seriously, it’s Mary-freaking-Poppins. Julie Andrews portrays the lovable “nanny” of the Banks family. During her tenure there she teaches the children to be independent, resourceful, creative and proper. While she may seem like an odd choice, I would like to point out that at no point does Mary Poppins have to be saved by a hero, become distressed, or even have a real love interest (all calling cards for “classic” female roles). Instead she drives to the heart of problems, finds solutions, and still has time to make sure the children are in bed on time. She is stern, yet caring. An obedient employee and yet finds a way to challenge preconceptions. She dances in chalk paintings and has an uncle who flies. Do you need anything more? How about this: this was all in a movie made in 1964. Mary Poppins was “badass” without ever resorting to violence. She was strong in motivations and yet never sacrificed her femininity. Modern movies wish they could be as awesome as Mary Poppins.
5. Buffy Summers (portrayed by Sarah Michelle Gellar)
Look, I could have said “pick a Joss Whedon role” and that would have been fair. I decided on the legendary Vampire Slayer because there’s something about Buffy that makes her infinitely relatable. In the story, Buffy is the “Slayer”, a chosen girl who has the power to defend the world against the forces of darkness. When she dies, another girl is called and so on and so forth. First, the fact that the chosen one happened to be female was a revolutionary concept when the show premiered. What made it even more intriguing was the metaphor of being a Slayer and how it could be an analog for becoming an adult. Through the show we experience first loves, heartbreak, drug use, sexual orientation, coping with death, and the onslaught of responsibility. That’s what made Buffy work so well, each episode built on a concept about what it was like to be a teenager, regardless of gender and took you through a journey. Buffy made you forget stupid stereotypes and allowed you to get the message: “we’re all screwed up and we’re all trying to survive”. It’s powerful stuff and changed how we looked at what could be accomplished with a TV show about growing up.
4. Lt. Nyota Uhura (portrayed by Nichelle Nichols)
I’ve been rewatching the original Star Trek series for the first time in years and it never fails to impress upon me how amazing Nichelle Nichols was as Lt. Uhura. Not only was she a headliner on an uber popular franchise in the 60s but she was also black. While this wasn’t uncommon, the fact she was part of the senior staff and an equal makes Uhura someone critically important, not only for women but for people of all backgrounds and ethnicities. In fact Whoopi Goldberg has said when she first saw Uhura on TV: “I just saw a black woman on television; and she ain’t no maid!” Moreover, on a show that frequently depicted women as rank of “Yoemen” or Stewarts/Secretaries – Uhura was a full fledged member of the crew. As Communications Officer she was trained in the translation of code, interpreting strange languages and oftentimes would jump on helm control in a crisis. While she did occasionally take the role of the damsel in distress, Uhura would also take the role as the ships constant – ever vigilant at her station.
3. Sarah Connor (as portrayed by Linda Hamilton)
You’re the mother of the free world. Machines from the future travel to the past to kill you so you can never give birth to the man who will ultimately defeat them. You are the crux in which humanity will either be saved or doomed. This is Sarah Connor. Over the two movies: Terminator and Terminator 2, we see something that happens rarely in female roles of the era: an evolution of scope. In the first movie, Sarah is simply a waitress living her life and enjoying being a 20 something looking to settle down. After meeting Kyle Reese, she would not only be told of the impending doom of the world but also her role in it. From that point, we see a character change onscreen unlike any before it’s time. She went from a regular everyday person to a hard, relentless tool that had one purpose: train her son to survive by any means necessary. She became a literal badass, trained in all forms of combat and guerrilla warfare, but so many forget why this was important. It wasn’t because she was “so cool”. Instead, we see that Sarah becomes what she hates the most: a machine. Hellbent on saving humanity she nearly loses her own in order to protect the future and when presented with that cold hard reality, she backs down. In this series we see someone that can make the hard choice and still be vulnerable, and that is unique. Sarah Connor is the 100% perfect depiction of what we want from an action star, but what makes her defy stereotypes is that when she reached that precipice, she backed away. It takes guts to fight the fight but it takes true courage to stop yourself from becoming the thing you hate most.
2. Ellen Ripley (portrayed by Sigourney Weaver)
Whereas Sarah Connor might be the ultimate badass, Ellen Ripley is the ultimate survivor. Third in command of the ship Nostromo, Ripley encounters the “Alien” and struggles to escape its unending pursuit of her and her comrades. What made Ripley so much of a landmark role is that according to legend, she was originally written for a man. When no actor was nailing the role, a creative casting director brought in Sigourney Weaver to read for the character and that’s all she wrote. It was one of the first cases I know of that character was put in front of gender. Ripley turned out to be a game changer, showing that women were just as engaging in lead roles as men could be in genre/sci-fi/action films. In fact, when writing roles, gender should almost be an afterthought. Through this role Ripley would become an icon in sci-fi and for millions around the world. When she took the mantle back up in the 80s for “Aliens” – well that just cemented what we already knew. You don’t mess with a lady who considers planetary nuclear bombardment a viable option for survival, cause chances are – you’re gonna lose.
1. Princess Leia Organa (portrayed by Carrie Fisher)
Did you really expect anyone else to claim the top spot on a site called Legion of Leia? Princess Leia became an absolute game changer for women around the world the moment she was rescued from the Death Star. While she may have the dubious origin of getting captured by the villainous Darth Vader, as soon as she escaped her cell with Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, Leia took control. Can’t find an escape route? Lemme blow open a hole into a garbage chute! Need plans for a super-weapon of planetary destruction? Gimme a week, my summer ship and my trusty droids to get the job done. Want to save your best friend from a Space Slug Gangster? Let me sneak in as a Bounty Hunter, get dressed as a slave and then choke the bastich with this handy chain I have lying around. Princess Leia changed the game and practically dared you to say anything about it.
In fact, if you have some thoughts on this, leave them in the comments below!