Hollywood doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to creating female characters, routinely giving them smaller parts and less screen time according to research collected by resource center Women and Hollywood. But what they do with that screen time? That is increasingly becoming more interesting. From Danai Gurira’s fierce Okoye tossing her wig so that she can better fight the enemy in Black Panther to Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince not thinking twice about entering No Man’s Land in Wonder Woman (or just some sassy lip service from old Hollywood greats like Mae West and Katharine Hepburn), there are quite a few moments of women in film that make us say “f–k yeah.” So we rounded up a few of our favorites for this list.
With her sultry purrs, swaying hips, and mastery of the double entendre, Mae West could easily take up 90-percent of the spots on this list. But the sheer moxie of her role in 1933’s I’m No Angel is an inspiration to us all. “When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better,” she flaunts to Cary Grant’s wealthy Jack Clayton in director Wesley Ruggles’ salty romp. Here’s hoping HBO is still working on that biopic about West because the world needs her right now.
Never underestimate the cunning of a determined heiress. In this famous hitchhiking scene from director Frank Capra’s screwball comedy, Claudette Colbert’s headstrong Ellie Andrews shows Clark Gable’s washed-up reporter Peter Warne a much more effective way to stop traffic than the old waving thumb routine. The film – the first of three movies to win all of the five major Academy Awards – is adored by cinephiles and continues to be celebrated in current popular culture (perhaps you might remember it referenced in the modern-day cinematic classic, Sex and the City 2?).
Many old Hollywood films suffer from the virgin vs. temptress depiction of women, but Katharine Hepburn was not typically one for such simplicities. This film was her first big hit and the one that cemented the public’s knowledge of her unmistakable mid-Atlantic accent. “Dexter, would you mind doing something for me? Get the heck out of here,” she demands as shuts down her ex-husband, played by Cary Grant, who is intruding upon the celebration for her upcoming second marriage. (Because this is a 1940 romantic comedy, he will also become her new husband by the time the credits roll.)
This film adaptation of the Cole Porter play (itself an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew) was a celebration of female independence disguised as a cheery musical comedy. Take, for example, the bluntly titled solo “I Hate Men,” which is meant to represent one character’s complete and total side-eye to the concept of courtship. Lines like, “of all the types I’ve ever met within our democracy / I hate the most the athlete with his manner bold and brassy!” make it seem like not much has changed since the show hit Broadway in 1948 and then, eventually, theaters in 1953.
Never judge a movie by its title and never underestimate the craftiness of a buxom bombshell. There are so many great moments in director Howard Hawks’ musical comedy, but we love the way that Marilyn Monroe’s showgirl, Lorelei Lee, doesn’t raise her voice an octave above her trademark whisper when she tells off her intended’s disrespectful father, who dismisses her as another gold-digger. “Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty?,” she says. “You wouldn’t marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?” Well, we do all lose our charms in the end …
It takes a lot of gumption to stand up to the King of Siam. After all, all you risk losing is a little self respect (and balance) if you agree to squat lower than his height whilst wearing a hoop skirt. But Anna (Deborah Kerr) did it, and she got through to the hard-headed monarch played by Yul Brynner. It eventually led to some pretty remarkable dancing and romance (with a clear understanding that this kind of thing can happen, of course).
A #MeToo moment long before the hashtag went mainstream, Audrey Hepburn’s bookshop owner and budding philosopher Jo Stockton is quite clear that teaching Fred Astaire’s older fashion photographer, Dick Avery, about empathy doesn’t mean that she wants to be kissed – “by you or anyone else.” They do lock lips at the end of the Stanley Donen-directed film, but by then it’s a mutually agreed-upon action.
With a flash of fuchsia ruffles and some fancy footwork, Rita Moreno’s Anita and her gal pals offer a piece of hope during the dance number for Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s song “America” in directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ 1957 film adaptation of the popular musical. This moment isn’t just for immigrants to this country with dreams of success (or just having your own washing machine); it symbolizes the ability to stand up to the bothersome men who might be holding you back.
So much of the legacy of outlaw Bonnie Parker is tied up in Faye Dunaway’s Oscar-nominated depiction of her in director Arthur Penn’s 1967 film: A bored young girl from a nowhere town who jumps at a chance to break from the rulebook that fate set out for her — even if it means going whole hog into a life of crime. The way she taunts this power and revels in the danger of it by telling Michael J. Pollard’s C.W. Moss that “we rob banks” is so brazenly anti-heroine that it makes even the most stringent pearl-clutchers pause and consider adding some excitement to their lives.
Maybe the world needs more vigilantes like Pam Grier’s eponymous crime fighter in writer-director Jack Hill’s 1973 blaxploitation film. A nurse who is sick of seeing her neighborhood (and, specifically, her own sister) destroyed by drug use, Coffy goes rogue to take down any and all responsible parties – especially the ones who double-cross her. Car-jacking, faking a drug-induced stupor, and the killing of corrupt cops ensue.
Carrie Fisher’s Leia Organa may be a princess, but she for sure isn’t a damsel waiting to be rescued. In the first few minutes alone of the 1977 Star Wars movie, A New Hope, she acts quickly to hide the blue prints for the Death Star space station, is so over the threat of an uber-villain like Darth Vader, and mouths off to Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing), even though she seems headed for certain death. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo could never.
Sometimes all it takes is one woman who is willing to risk it all. Sally Field’s Oscar-winning turn in the role inspired by union activist Crystal Lee Sutton brought increased public attention to the need for safe and healthy working conditions. In the film’s stressful climax, we see her strongly and silently stand on her work table and hold up a sign with a single, solitary message: UNION. It works, even if she is hauled off to jail.
With all the workplace revenge fantasies about lecherous bosses that have been made, we really could just name director Colin Higgins’ seminal film and be done with it. But let’s concentrate on Dolly Parton’s fed-up Doralee Rhodes. Sick of being sexually harassed and gossiped about by her boss, Franklin Hart, Jr. (Dabney Coleman), she takes advantage of his current moment of immobility (he’s been kidnapped and tied up) to make him think she’s willing to change him from a “rooster to a hen in one shot” of her gun.
Apparently messing with fate is just asking to get your head squashed. By the end of director James Cameron’s first Terminator movie, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) has embraced her inner badass and is ready to finish the job that resistance fighter Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) was sent from the future to do: Take down the killer robot played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and save humankind. How does she do this when pipe bombs aren’t enough? Flattening its head in a hydraulic press and uttering one obvious-but-mighty catchphrase (“you’re terminated, f—er!”).
There is so much pain and suffering in director Steven Spielberg’s 1985 period drama (and Alice Walker’s novel, which serves as its basis), but the idea of a woman encouraging a man to abuse another woman? That is squashed in one wrenching scene. “All my life I had to fight … but I ain’t never thought I’d have to fight in my own house!,” the hardened Sofia (Oprah Winfrey) challenges her step mother-in-law Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), who had herself become weak and submissive after a lifetime of abuse.
There comes a time when a woman can no longer handle the put-downs and harassments; a moment when she (hopefully) dares to prove her naysayers wrong and that she can (and will) amount to something without them. For Angela Viracco (Faith Prince), that moment came when she accepted that her lousy, kidnapping crook of a boyfriend Eddie (Chris Murney) was more interested in his own ego than her feelings. She calls him a “misguided … asshole” before walking out for “elocution class.”
“Get away from her, you bitch!” The phrase that will be forever associated with Alien franchise star Sigourney Weaver also works for so many of us who have never had the pleasure of battling an alien queen while wearing an exo-suit (try it the next time you’re at a club, a grocery store, or a dog park when someone gets inappropriately close to your friend). To her credit, Weaver has said that she thinks she got the line in one take. You better just start dealing with it, Hudson.
Burned out by life and distrustful of everyone and everything? Shirley MacLaine’s Ouiser understands. At this point in director Herbert Ross’ 1989 film adaptation of Robert Harling’s play, Ouiser has zero qualms about telling Julia Roberts’ Shelby that, in no uncertain terms, she does not want to be fixed up with some seemingly kind-hearted widower. Don’t take it personally, though. As Ouiser says, “I’m not crazy. I’ve just been in a very bad mood for 40 years.”
Even though Murray (Donald Faison) would eventually school Dionne (Stacey Dash) about the cultural significance of street slang in Clueless, Regina King has zero time for the vernacular in her breakout role as Shalika in director John Singleton’s 1991 coming-of-age dramedy Boyz n the Hood. As she blatantly puts it during a party, she “ain’t no ho.” All the respect for my future Oscar winner.
Meow. The battle of wits between Batman (Michael Keaton) and the Penguin (Danny DeVito) was getting kind of droll before Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman Simone Bileses her way into it in all her red-lipsticked glory. They would also soon learn that she’d turned the department store behind them into a powder keg (after lassoing guns out of the hands of two underpaid night security guards). Because that’s how you make an entrance.
Domestic abuse is so often a hidden crime, and it’s not something we should celebrate. But Tina Turner’s brave admittance of her own suffering (and Angela Bassett’s Oscar-nominated depiction of it in director Brian Gibson’s 1993 biopic) did wonders for mainstreaming a previously taboo topic. The scene where she fights in a limo, after so many people ignored her pain because of Ike Turner’s power, resonated with an unfortunate number of audience members.
The ’90s ultimate Final Girl, played by Neve Campbell, finally puts an end to Billy (Skeet Ulrich) and Stu’s (Matthew Lillard) murder spree when she shoots the former square between the eyes. Warned that the killer always comes back, our heroine – who would go on to survive three more movies and a total of seven killers overall – pulls the trigger and declares, “Not in my movie.” Sidney Prescott: Breaking horror-movie rules since 1996.
Female empowerment sing-alongs are a trope in and of themselves. But a group of middle-aged women played by Bette Midler, Diane Keaton, and Goldie Hawn who have been wronged by love and life rocking out in three-part harmony to a Lesley Gore staple in matching white suits? Yes, we would very much like to be invited to that party. We promise not to tell them what to do, what to say, and we will certainly not put them on display.
In the future, combat is still clearly required to survive. Milla Jovovich’s Leeloo, a humanoid reconstructed by scientists in 2263 from remaining cells in a sarcophagus, isn’t always sure if she likes people and the harm that they’ve done to the planet, but she is quite good at protecting us – especially when the bad guys come at her. She also made a collection of ‘90s mall rats (well, me) want red hair and white midriff tops.
Disney heroine Mulan (who is voiced by Ming-Na Wen) accomplishes quite a feat in directors Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft’s 1998 animated hit. Not only is she brave enough to masquerade as a man and enlist in the Chinese army in the name of sparing her father, a great warrior who is now in weakened health, but she and her trusty sidekicks are able to save the emperor from a bloody attack by the Huns – and get the entire city to put sexism aside and bow down to her.
Before Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman entered No Man’s Land or Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen braced for the Hunger Games arenas, Carrie-Anne Moss’ Trinity was bending the rules of time and space without breaking a sweat in her Latex for the Wachowskis’ cyber-punk dystopian thriller. She came with quite an introduction, after all. In the beginning few moments of the first Matrix, we see her sail onto rooftops, take down a fleet of police officers and stare death in the face as she gets out just in time. A role model to us all.
It’s easy to hate Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) in writer-director Alexander Payne’s 1999 adaptation of novelist Tom Perrotta’s political farce. She is a Type-A grating perfectionist and, chances are, she reminds you of some obnoxious overachiever who went to your high school. But she deserves her success and, in a spectacular art of verbal emasculation during one scene, you can see why: Matthew Broderick’s otherwise beloved high school teacher, Jim McAllister, thinks he’s cornered her into admitting she destroyed a rival candidate’s election campaign posters while implying that his true frustration with her is that she had an affair with his married, adult friend. Tracy goes on the attack and you instantly end up rooting for her.
Much of the beginning of director Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 biopic sets up why polite society should hate Julia Roberts’ Oscar-winning portrayal of the eponymous heroine. She’s got kids from different dads, has street smarts instead of framed diplomas, and used to be a beauty queen (“Oh, the horror!” to all of the above). But Erin’s able to get answers that others can’t by playing up her other, ahem, assets. “They’re called boobs, Ed,” she smirks when her boss (Albert Finney) asks how she acquired such necessary and privileged information.
Even if martial arts isn’t your thing, it’s hard not to ignore the beauty in director Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning film. The 2000 movie is also a feminist mantra, as it concentrates on fighting techniques traditionally employed by women. No matter if you’re rooting for Michelle Yeoh’s skilled warrior or Zhang Ziyi’s governor’s daughter who secretly trained in the art of Wudang fighting, it is empowering to see them duel each other in one of the most thrilling sequences of the film, as it demonstrates exactly how deadly each of these ladies is.
Does Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty really look like someone who isn’t prepared to burn rubber in a drag race? Nope. And the opposing driver should have heeded her advice to “hit Hollywood Boulevard” if he was looking for a hook-up. All she was willing to offer him was an “adrenaline rush” and a chance to lose a chunk of change. She made good on both of those.
Reese Witherspoon’s pink-partial Elle Woods showed that one could care about the law and time-consuming hair and beauty regimens in director Robert Luketic’s brightly-colored comedy. All she had to do to get her client (Ali Larter) off the hook for murdering her husband is prove that the prosecution’s star witness’s alibi that she wasn’t around to see the gun go off was a bit frizzy at the ends (perms take a couple days without shampooing to set, don’t ya know?).
It’s complicated to watch the Kill Bill movies now, in the wake of star Uma Thurman’s allegations that Quentin Tarantino mistreated her on set. But, the writer-director’s 2003 ode to martial arts films still has a message about a woman’s revenge plot to take down her former colleagues and mentor/boss. The climax in the first movie happens after she murders a nemesis’ young protégé (after begging the girl to leave her be) and involves the epic, bloody slaying of a menagerie of swordfighters and knife throwers in suits. Hell hath no fury …
While condoning violence should not be encouraged, it’s easy to understand why Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) felt the need to punch the “foul, loathsome, evil little cockroach” Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) in the nose. The sniveling little rich brat had it coming; he’d just got an innocent hippogriff sentenced to death because he’d lied to his powerful father about why the animal attacked him.
It’s not difficult to be badass when you possess the ability to control blue fire, and Selma Blair’s Liz Sherman from the Hellboy films proved more than once that she was a force to be reckoned with. Sure, she came close to burning down a hospital (not her fault, really), but who comes to Hellboy’s aid when he’s being overwhelmed by demon pups? Liz flames on and incinerates the beasties — and fries a few demon eggs in the process — proving that behind every good man (or Hellboy), there’s an equally good woman.
The only true way to survive The Hunger Games’ eponymous cruel, futuristic gladiator arenas isn’t to kill a bunch of other teenagers – it’s to outsmart the people who forced you into them and then changed the rules at will so that the odds were never going to be in your favor. When killing her ally (and budding crush) Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) seems to be the only option for survival, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) bets big and pivots to suggest a double suicide pact on national television. It works, and they’re safe – for a while.
Who says a princess has to have a suitor? Tearing her constricting dress, Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) shows she’s a better shot than all of the “eligible” bachelors fighting for her hand in an archery contest. Much like her bouncy red curls that flow in all their glory, this medieval Scottish princess from directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman’s 2012 animated Disney film cannot be contained.
Sometimes the pressure is too much and you have to roar with all your might. This is especially true if you’re a little girl in the Louisiana bayou and you desperately want to please your father. Quvenzhané Wallis received an Oscar nomination for playing Hushpuppy, the six-year-old who is mighty enough to find her own means of survival as her world crumbles around her in director Benh Zeitlin’s 2012 drama.
It’s one thing to kill your deranged, megalomaniac captor. It’s quite another to do it during a dusty, gritty car chase in a post-apocalyptic action film, like director George Miller’s 2015 OScar-winner. Here, Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa finally destroys Hugh Keays-Byrne’s Immortan Joe after his years of abuse and horrendous crimes on her community, particularly the five women he’s kept for “breeding.”
Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) was one of the smartest mathematicians at NASA. She knew she had to choose her words carefully when her boss, Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison, asked her why she kept disappearing during her shift in front of co-workers who didn’t really trust her that much already. The answer to her problem was a simple enough one; she just needed someone else to solve it – in the still-segregated building, she needed a lavatory she was allowed to use to be near her office. And she got it.
Timid-seeming Elisa (Sally Hawkins) gets “moments” aplenty in Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning The Shape Of Water: a gorgeous dance sequence, a wonderfully matter-of-fact masturbation scene, a dreamy underwater awakening. But the one that had audiences cheering – and still does – is the scene in which she tells Michael Shannon’s cartoonishly awful Colonel Strickland “F–k you” in sign language.
As Charlize Theron’s MI6 field agent Lorraine Broughton deadpans to her interrogators in a debriefing, if she knew she’d be walking into a police ambush when she searched their dead colleague’s apartment, she would have “worn a different outfit.” Instead, she takes on a group of thugs like a real-life game of Whac-A-Mole – if, of course, that arcade game was traditionally played in over-the-knee black boots, a miniskirt, and a white trench coat.
It isn’t so much that Daisy Ridley’s Rey is able to hold her own in a fight with armed guards after Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren chooses her over his master, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Everyone knew that was coming. It’s when she realizes that Kylo still hasn’t come back to the light side of the Force and they battle for Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber so hard that it splits in two that things really get interesting.
Sometimes you want to emphasize with the villain – especially when she’s played with such vindictiveness as Cate Blanchett plays Thor’s big sister, Hela. And like so many other older siblings, she took away her brother’s favorite toy (his hammer!) when he refused to obey her. Sorry, Thor (Chris Hemsworth). You can’t win them all. But at least you still have chiseled arms and pretty blonde hair.
Well, they did call it No Man’s Land. Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince doesn’t care that soldiers haven’t been able to get the Germans to retreat from this bloody war zone. She only cares that people are suffering and they need her help. The scene, which some called the best superhero moment of the year when director Patty Jenkins’ film came out in 2017, showed a fearless, determined heroine courageously throw herself into battle in the name of protecting the innocent.
Danai Gurira’s Okoye can fight in an evening gown, but in a major act of toppling the patriarchy she feels more comfortable going into battle without her wig. This no-nonsense moment is both practical (why hold onto anything that’s a liability when things are about to get real?) and also an educational tool to teach mass audiences a lesson about Black womens’ hair.
Because one female superhero is great but three is even better, there’s this moment of comradery in Anthony and Joe Russo’s 2018 comic-book film: Danai Gurira’s Okoye had just gotten used to fighting with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow when Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch descended from the skies to help them finish the fight. Okoye does ask an important question, though: “Why was she up there all this time?”
Want to prove your loyalty? Then don’t allude to the things better left unsaid. Emma Stone’s Abigail learned this lesson well when she attempted to bond with her cousin, Sarah (Rachel Weisz) over some casual bird shooting in the lawn belonging to their mistress, Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne. Given Sarah’s not-so-veiled threats, perhaps Abigail should have waited to have this conversation at a place where firearms weren’t involved.
The clacking of the mahjong tiles. The two random ladies who don’t appear to speak English. The unflinching courage of Constance Wu’s economics professor Rachel Chu in the face of her most fearsome adversary: Michelle Yeoh’s Eleanor Young, the stoic mother of her love, Nick (Henry Golding). This battle of wits at the end of director John M. Chu’s smash 2018 rom-com, Crazy Rich Asians, displays so much deep-seated aggression. But if you think this is about which side Henry will choose, you’re only seeing half the picture.
Lock and load. By the end of director John Krasinski’s 2018 horror film, Emily Blunt’s Evelyn Abbott has lost her husband, given birth in a tub as monsters stalked her, and just watched her deaf daughter’s hearing aid make another monster explode while also sending out the signal for more of them to come. No wonder she’s ready to take charge and survive.
In this futuristic dystopia, there’s no room for love or mercy when you’re a Hunter-Warrior (or bounty hunter). So why should cyborg Alita (Rosa Salazar) show mercy to Jackie Earle Haley’s nefarious Grewishka when she finally gets the upper hand after he sliced up her body? As she tells him in director Robert Rodriguez’s 2019 action thriller, “F–k your mercy.”