– By M Pelchat –
In your basic Hollywood action movie, there are usually only a few different types of female characters: the classic damsel in distress, the sexy warrior, or the emotionless assistant. While these cliches make for simple stories, they often leave the audience with very forgettable characters. A female character should not be confined to one aspect, but should convey a well-rounded individual – even in an action flick. A strong leading lady needs to be able to take action from motivations built into her character that come from truth.
To contrast these cliches I have compiled a list of seven women who kick butt, have complex emotions, and look gorgeous while doing it.
1. Ellen Ripley – Aliens
In the beginning of the film, Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) wakes up after a cryogenic sleep, only to discover that her daughter has passed away. While this defines her character, it does not hold her back from being able to take action throughout the film. Instead, she lets her grief and her nurturing qualities inform her actions. In this second installment, this development in her back story allows for her to have more compelling connections with the other characters, particularly with the little girl. In an interview, director James Cameron responded to a comment about how many writers just take a male character and swap out the gender. “It has to be written from the standpoint of a female psyche, which at least has some sort of nurturing and emotional connection that is processed differently. As good as Alien was,” he continued, “I don’t think Ripley would have had the same female character without the motherly aspect. Her strength is an emotional strength, and it is an intellectual strength, her native intelligence as a survivor.”
2. Diana – Wonder Woman
Another great example of nature informing action is Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. The main character Diana grew up in a world, where she knew no suffering, no pain, and no evil. She is raised in a world governed by justice. So, when it seems that an old nemesis threatens mankind, she decides to take action. Although it seems that her naïveté is what drives her, it is actually much more. While her naïveté allows her to act almost blindly, it is her desire to deliver others from suffering that drives her to place herself in harm’s way multiple times. Director Patty Jenkins once said in an interview with NPR that strong female characters need to be universal; they can be strong and fierce but they also need to be vulnerable. She went on to elaborate, “You would be short-changing them as universal figures if they didn’t have both ends of the spectrum.” In Jenkins’ approach to Wonder Woman she talks about how she took on the role of Diana when developing her character, taking a moment to step into the character’s shoes to see the story from her point of view.
3. Furiosa – Mad Max: Fury Road
Furiosa is a character we know very little about. We know that she was taken from her home as a child, that she does not stand for injustice, and that she’s a fantastic driver. However, look a little closer and you’ll see that each decision that she makes, every risk that she takes, is fueled by hope and her desire to save the wives from a horrible existence. Director George Miller did his homework on his characters and even went as far to hire writer and performer Eve Ensler on as a consultant, since Ensler worked many years with abused and sex trafficked women. He didn’t just try to write a variety of female characters, he created a story with female characters based on truth, instead of perception, with a leading lady who is tough yet flawed.
4. Fa Mulan – Mulan
While this film is widely considered a children’s film, it is still a great action movie. In the original Disney Cartoon, Mulan is just a young woman, trying to save her family. Originally, this film was meant to be a cross-dressing rom-com, but director Chris Sanders steered the project back to the original legend. Mulan is not a super talented fighter, but she is strong willed and goes to drastic measures to save her family’s honor. What this film does is acknowledge the hurdles of being a woman in the army, and shows a female successfully working around those hurdles. It is also believable: in lieu of an epic showdown that ends with her defeating a man three times her size with unrealistic ease, Mulan instead uses her intelligence and creativity to defeat the Hun not by besting him in battle but with a bunch of fireworks.
5. Aubry and Morgan – The Spy Who Dumped Me
The first thing to note about this film is that there are both strong male and female characters. But unlike so many other female-driven, action comedies, writer-director Susanna Fogel takes us through the story without making men the punchline. Instead, we get a variety of well-choreographed slapstick and riffing humor. The central relationship between Aubrey and Morgan feels real and genuine, making them very relatable. Fogel explains, ”Sometimes my friends and I are silly and sometimes we’re serious, and sometimes we are emotional and sometimes we’re not. We should be allowed to be all of those things, but it can be hard sometimes when were written about by people who don’t necessarily know what to do with us, because they can’t put us into one category or another.” Both of these characters are motivated to protect one another and the need to see things through.
6. Rosalee – Hostiles
In creating this character, director Scott Cooper drew on one of his own worst fears, the loss of a child, creating a deep connection between himself and the character of Rosalee. In the beginning of his film, Rosalee not only loses one child, she loses all three of her children and her husband. Rosalee then has to leave her home behind, her hands still stained with her child’s blood. Scott Cooper went on to say in an interview, “It is not just the strength of women, which is very important to me, but also about the strength of the human spirit to overcome.” Through the first half of the film, Rosalee is very much traumatized from her experience and allows others to make decisions for her. It isn’t until much later when she develops a nurturing relationship with a young boy that she becomes moved to protect. With her motivations realized, Rosalee moves into a formidable character, willing to do whatever necessary.
7. Eowyn – Lord of the Rings
Eowyn is a character before her time. Originally written in the 1940’s, her character is full of resolve from the very first moment we meet her as she cares for her sick uncle. She never wavers in her resolve, and the effect is a powerful, yet very human character. But it is this very resolve that ultimately becomes her undoing. Ruled by her fear of being trapped whether physically or socially, Eowyn leaves her post to join the war effort and nearly dies because of it. This makes her triumph in conquering the Lord of the Nazgul even bigger. Peter Jackson in an interview describes the process of casting such a character, “We wanted somebody that had strength, that has a sense of being able to play the depths of Eowyn; she’s a rather tortured soul, too, she has a certain melancholy about her.”
Strong but imperfect female heroines can ground a film in ways an emotionless, sexy spy never could. Strong female characters come from an honest and truthful approach towards women, their personalities and other characteristics. Niki Caro, the director of Whale Rider, The Zookeeper’s Wife, and the Disney live action remake of Mulan expressed, “Femininity has often been equated with weakness, but as we know from our mothers and our daughters and our colleagues and friends, female strength comes in all kinds of shapes and textures and flavors.”
Seeing strong, powerful women in film not only inspires us, but reminds us of those who are already in our lives. Growing up, my favorite characters were always female; they were who I looked up to. These women played a huge role in creating the ideal that I measured myself against. So I leave you with a question: Who do we want the next generation looking up to?
About the Author
M Pelchat graduated from JPCatholic in 2017 with an emphasis in screenwriting and film production. She currently lives in California.