From Sweden to the Grand Canyon, we take a look at ten of the most empowered women in cinema.
Recently, the trailer for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 was released, leaving Katniss Everdeen fans salivating for more visions of her fighting spirit in the third chapter of the series. A born survivor and physically capable, Katniss is the symbol of strength, intelligence and resilience, exemplifying the virtues of the modernised, empowered female figure. Now, from the femme fatale of film noir, to the heroine of the period drama, to the strong female protagonist of children’s films, we list the 10 most empowered women in cinematic history and explore how this figure of empowerment may have evolved.
Lisbeth Salander – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009/2011)
This genius, computer-hacking anti-heroine is cut from a similar cloth to that of the modern day empowered women of cinema; tough, practical and savvy. The antithesis of ‘the housewife’, Lisbeth lives on a diet of fast food and Coke, defying social norms and gender stereotypes with her dark, androgynous, tattooed and pierced appearance, which acts as an asocial barrier to others. Though suffering great abuse and pain from childhood onwards, she refuses to be the victim, taking control of all situations she finds herself in and obtaining what she needs for survival. Significantly, she also remains sexually empowered even after being subjected to sexual abuse, enjoying the company of both men and women of her choice.
Elizabeth Bennett – Pride and Prejudice (2005)
Jane Austen’s 18th century creation may not be bow and arrow-wielding or resourceful in an arena of war, but she is a forerunner for women of independence of mind, possessing a strong sense of identity and intellect. She is courageous in sticking to her values and trying to live the life she wants in a time where women were given little power or autonomy. Elizabeth is complex, witty, intelligent and lively, and manages to maintain self-government in a male-dominated society.
Ariel – The Little Mermaid (1989)
Disney is well-known for producing strong, spunky, intelligent heroines, and none are more so than the adventurous, headstrong and inquisitive Ariel. She goes against the wishes of her overbearing patriarch father, King Triton, to fulfil her own desires. Fearless and excited by visiting strange, unfamiliar and often dangerous places, she moves across social boundaries, mermaid to human, with unprejudiced ease. Her independence shines through – she doesn’t blindly follow social conventions and norms, but questions them at every turn. Also, most notably, the damsel in distress motif is turned on its head, as she saves Prince Eric from the shipwreck.
Hermione Granger – Harry Potter series (2001-2011)
Highly intelligent, loyal and resourceful, Hermione is a huge contributing factor in Harry’s overall success in defeating Lord Voldemort. The brains behind their adventures, and never afraid to speak her mind, Hermione does not care about her physical appearance but prefers to focus on developing her encyclopaedic knowledge, logic and magical skills. Her empowered status is clear because, after all, knowledge is power.
Scarlett O’Hara – Gone with the Wind (1939)
This cinematic legend may be labelled as spoilt and self-centred, but she is without a doubt determined, strong, adaptable and direct. An ultimate survivor, with or without men in her life, she is resourceful in finding means to endure and prosper. The beautiful Scarlett is in no way subordinate to men, who she often runs rings around, through her sexual allure and strong-headedness. A character of great depth, her resilience and unwillingness to give up is emphasised by her famous final quote of the film: “After all, tomorrow is another day.”
Phyllis Dietrichson – Double Indemnity (1944)
Seen as the original cinematic femme fatale, this iconic character of film noir is self-sufficient, independent and smart. Through her desirability and sexuality, she exposes the weakness of the men surrounding her, outwitting them and manipulating them throughout. At a time when films were populated with simpering, submissive female lead characters, Phyllis stands out as a unique, empowered and unyielding woman. She poses a threat to the patriarchal order by subverting traditional gender and familial roles.
Maggie Fitzgerald – Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Hilary Swank’s moving portrayal of the struggles of waitress-turned-boxer Maggie in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby reveals the character’s unparalleled strength and spirit. Her persistence and determination wins over the reluctant, bad-tempered, boxing trainer Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), who teaches her the ways of boxing. Maggie fights her way through a series of heavy personal and sporting misfortunes with bravery, generosity and strength of mind, turning traditional gender notions on their head.
Mathilda Lando – Léon (1994)
Mathilda is a 12-year-old New York girl whose family gets killed by corrupt cop Norman Stansfield. She holds on to no girlish, childish attributes, but throws herself completely into an adult world of assassination and danger. She is able to think on the spot, and has balls of steel when confronting her family’s killers; a truly empowered female, not sitting passively through adversity but taking immediate action.
Selina Kyle/ Catwoman – The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
There have been many adaptations of Catwoman, but none speak of female empowerment more than Anne Hathaway’s portrayal in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. She contradicts passive versions of femininity with her assertiveness, confidence and physical strength. A role usually reserved for men, this dark character uses her sexual wiles, intelligence and hardiness to overpower her enemies. Sexually empowered, she plays with and subverts gender stereotypes to control situations, frequently using the guise of conventional, helpless femininity to deceive and thwart others.
Thelma and Louise – Thelma and Louise (1991)
This road movie sees the two eponymous characters hit back against misogyny and domineering, controlling men with equal force. They take back power and control of their lives through violence and crime, Thelma and Louise maintaining their dignity, independence and fighting spirit until the very end, in the iconic scene which sees the two friends drive over the edge of the Grand Canyon in a final bid for freedom. Ridley Scott’s film is the ultimate expression of female empowerment.
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Featured image: MGM/Columbia
Inset images: Nordisk Film; Universal; Disney; Warner Bros; Loew’s Inc; Universal; Warner Bros; Gaumont Film Company/Columbia; Warner Bros; MGM