This has been a good year for film. Plenty of great movies ranging from independent to big blockbusters. We’ve had great first entries from new talents as well as three fantastic new additions to franchises more than 30 years old. But it’s also been a fantastic year in regards to portrayals of strong female characters. It’s been a long time coming but we’re finally seeing more and more great female characters that act as more than just props, goals, or story devices. We’re getting women characters who have their own wants, their own needs, and their own means of getting them. As the year comes to a close lets take a look at some of these fantastically feminine characters and what makes them so great. In no particular order (until the end).*
Edith Cushing – Crimson Peak
Crimson Peak was an interesting bag, and no one summed it up as succinctly as it’s lead character of Edith Cushing: “It’s not a ghost story, it’s a story with ghosts in it.” Edith herself is similarly misleading. She’s a somewhat naive young woman with a headful of fantasies and romanticisms. Edith is too progressive for her time, but not in a rote, modern sense that feels out of place for the period (I’m thinking of you, Alice in Wonderland). She finds herself in over her head with a new husband she barely knows and slowly realizes that she may have placed herself in harms way. It’d be easy to mistake Edith as another damsel in distress, but it’s important to note that this damsel saves herself.
Susan Cooper – Spy
Melissa McCarthy deserves every ounce of respect that gets thrown her way. She’s truly a powerhouse of comedy in modern cinema, but with Spy she proves she needn’t be the butt of every joke to get a laugh. McCarthy’s Susan Cooper isn’t inept, she isn’t awkward, she isn’t clumsy. Her only true downside is her own insecurity, which has kept her behind a desk instead of being out in the field, where we come to learn is where she truly belongs. Susan Cooper is not wild and crazy and unpredictable, instead incredibly self-reliant and capable. On top of all that, she’s also badass.
Ava – Ex Machina
Ex Machina is a machine in and of itself. It’s cold, methodical, and precise. At the center of it all is Ava, an android installed with the most powerful A.I. ever created. She begins the story literally as an object, a desire, a reward. The chips start falling and we begin to wonder who is truly pulling all the strings. Ava is most certainly a machine, but she’s also innocent and curious. And while I may have some misgivings about her final decision at the end, you can still understand why she makes it… and perhaps why she has to.
Ilsa Faust – Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
Rebecca Ferguson has practically done the impossible: she very nearly stole the show out from underneath Tom Cruise in his own franchise. Most characters in the M:I series have been a bit thin, but Ilsa Faust has come along to sweepingly declare: “No more.” At least I hope so, because Ilsa Faust is the best character this franchise has seen. She’s tricky, she’s complicated, and perhaps even more capable than Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. M:I has a habit of throwing it’s supporting players to the wind between installments, but it’d be foolish to toss Faust to the wayside.
Hope van Dyne – Ant Man
Throughout the entire running time of Ant-Man Hope argues with her father Hank Pym that they are wasting their time with Scott Lange. She should be in the Ant-Man suit. And the best part is that she’s right, but for all the wrong reasons. Hope is tougher than Scott, smarter than Scott (probably), and actually has a horse in this race. But it all comes down to that one very important detail: Scott is expendable, Hope is not. Ant-Man is all about fathers and their daughters. In the same way that Scott would do anything to save his daughter (including banishing himself to a quantum universe) Hank Pym refuses to put Hope in harms way. It’s not about her capabilities, it’s that she actually matters.
The Splendid Angharad – Mad Max: Fury Road
Mad Max: Fury Road was jam-packed with strong women. With each and every Bride displaying their own strength, and a biker gang made up of grannies with rifles, Fury Road knows that ladies are plenty capable without men at their sides. And while she might not quite be a woman of action, Splendid is the moral leader of the brides. She’s the one with the rallying cry, she’s the one who gives strength to the others. There have been few moments more satisfying this year than when she protected Furiosa by putting her own unborn child in harms way.
Black Widow – Avengers: Age of Ultron
I realize this might be a controversial one to include, but hear me out. There have been a lot of people crying foul at Black Widow’s portrayal in Age of Ultron, citing her heart-to-heart with Bruce Banner. But it seems that a lot of viewers confuse a few things about that scene, in particular her comment that Banner isn’t “… the only monster.” Critics say it’s ridiculous that a strong woman needs to want children, but here’s the thing that those people are missing: Black Widow is not upset that she can’t have kids, she’s angry that the choice was taken from her. She’s not a monster because she can’t have kids, she’s a monster because she’s murderer. She’s been trained since childhood to block out intimate connections, to make it easier to kill. But now she is seeking intimacy, she sees a kindred spirit in Bruce Banner, someone who is also lost and at odds with his place in the world. At the end of the day Black Widow is still the one girl playing in a boys club, but she continues to prove how necessary she is.
Riley Anderson – Inside Out
No, Riley is not a hero. She’s not even a role model. Riley is just an average little girl on the difficult journey of growing up. Riley is controlled by her emotions in every sense (that’s the premise of the film) but she learns how to come to terms with those emotions, and how growing up makes them complicated. She makes some mistakes, but all of us do. What makes her important is that she learns from them, and understands that she can’t run away from her problems (literally).
Rey – Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Let’s get this out of the way: Rey is not a Mary Sue. Every capability she displays in the film can be inferred from previous actions. She’s a scavenger who scours destroyed battleships for usable parts. She’s a loner who has had to learn to fight for herself (she doesn’t really need Finn all that much). But more importantly she’s constantly torn by a connection to a family she doesn’t know. It keeps her from standing up and finding her place in the galaxy. When push comes to shove she’d rather run away, until that final battle with Kylo Ren where she just begins to understand her destiny. She’s still got a ways to go, but I want to see every moment of that journey.
Joy “Ma” Newsome – Room
Those who saw Short Term 12 knew that Brie Larson was an all-timer winding up for a home run, and she’s knocked it right out of the park and into the next county as Joy Newsome in Room. Joy is a young woman who’s been trapped in a small room for years with her 5 year-old son Jack. The exact nature of their confinement is slowly revealed as the film progresses, and we see not only what Joy is forced to endure to survive, we see the great lengths to which she goes to raise and protect Jack while also planning their eventual escape. But even once they’re free the troubles aren’t over, as Joy is forced to make a journey with no clear path while introducing her caged son to society. And even though she makes mistakes, it’s only because she has no one to turn to. There is no one to give her the answers. She’s forced to walk this road alone with Jack, and only the two of them understand each other.
Imperator Furiosa – Mad Max: Fury Road
Yes, there are two women from from Fury Road on this list. But how can there not be? As I said before, it’s jam-packed with strong women. But none of them are as strong as Imperator Furiosa herself. I’d like to take a moment to ponder what makes a female character strong. Is it their physical strength? Their moral center? Their resolve? But those are all traits that can be applied to a man. So is it merely their physical appearance? A strategically placed X-chromosome? No. There is something deeper, something barely definable that makes a strong female character a strong female character. An important thing to ask is how things change when their gender is reversed. And while Furiosa could be gender-swapped, she shouldn’t. If Furiosa was a man it becomes a condescending journey about men rescuing women. Furiosa has an innate instinct to protect not only herself (like Max) but the Brides as well. She has empathy as well as power. That’s important. And that’s why, in my book, Furiosa has usurped Ellen Ripley herself as the toughest lady of cinema. She’s smart, she’s capable, and she’s willing to punch a man with the stump of her arm. Can there possibly be a stronger woman in film history, let alone 2015, than Imperator Furiosa?
*Just to be clear, I have yet to see Sicario, which I hear has an amazing performance from Emily Blunt. However, because I haven’t seen it I therefore cannot properly comment on it… my apologies to Sicario.