​10 female role models in film

More of this please, Hollywood.

by Oliver Lunn
09 March 2016, 3:22pm

You're probably well aware of the depressing facts about women in film. The pay gap. The lack of female protagonists in the highest-grossing movies. The dearth of female directors in Hollywood. Worse still, the majority of roles on offer are hardly enticing for women: the love interest, the mother, the wife, or - heaven forbid - a variation of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. These roles are supportive, submissive, passive. And they're what women, what girls, across the globe are seeing everyday when they go to the cinema. Can seeing these female characters affect their own lives?

New research from the Geena Davis Institute reveals that 74% of women said they wished they had seen more female role models in film growing up. 1 in 10 globally said that female role models on film or TV had helped them escape an abusive relationship. And 90% of women globally feel that female role models in film or TV are important. (We should all at least agree on that last one.) The study concludes that, "Female characters in film and TV motivate women to be more ambitious, more successful, and have even given them the courage to break out of abusive relationships". With this in mind, we're celebrating female role models in film. More of this please, Hollywood.

Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich

The real-life Erin Brockovich had zero formal education in law when she took on corporate giants Pacific Gas and Electric Company of California. The steepest odds were stacked against her. No one thought she could do it. Yet she did do it. In the film, Julia Roberts' Brockovich battles sexist bullshit in the workplace (she'll wear whatever she goddam pleases) and juggles the time-consuming lawsuit with being a single, working-class mum with sixteen bucks in her bank account. "I'm smart, I'm hard working, and I'll do anything. And I'm not leaving here without a job."

Julia Stiles as Kat Stratford in Ten Things I Hate About You

Kat Stratford listens to Bikini Kill, reads The Bell Jar, and is known in class as 'Miss I Have An Opinion About Everything'. Smart and interesting, Kat is a role model without being completely joyless and by-the-book. She goes to riot grrrl gigs, and dances barefoot on a table to Biggie Smalls (admittedly off her face, but still). Ultimately, though, she doesn't conform to the expectations of the boys at her school. She's her. And that's enough for Heath Ledger's lovelorn "bad boy" Patrick. <3

Susan Sarandon as Louise in Thelma and Louise

There's nothing passive about Louise. Or Susan Sarandon, for that matter. When Louise discovers a man attempting to rape her best friend in a parking lot, she holds a pistol to his head and says, matter-of-factly: "You let her go you fucking asshole or I'm gonna splatter your ugly face all over this nice car." Louise is that friend you can count on. She's strong, sharp, she knows how to have a good time, and like Susan Sarandon IRL, she definitely wouldn't take any chauvinist shit from Piers Morgan.

Winona Ryder as Corky in Night on Earth

Winona has racked up a slew of strong female roles over the years, including her gothic turn in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice. But her best is her briefest. In Night on Earth, she plays a chain-smoking cabbie called Corky. Corky is so small she has to sit on the phonebook just to see over her wheel. She wears a backwards baseball cap and chews gum at all times. Why is she so great? She's not a phony. When a wealthy passenger turns out to be a casting agent in the movie business and offers Corky a big role, she shrugs. "Nah. I'm a cab driver, this is what I do." The casting agent responds, incredulously: "You could be a movie star!" But Corky knows exactly what she wants; she wants to be a mechanic. And besides, she explains, "that's not a real life for me."

Stacey Dash as Dionne Davenport in Clueless

While Stacey Dash hasn't been the best role model IRL of late, we'll always have Dionne Davenport. Cher Horowitz's best friend takes zero shit from her boyfriend, who calls her "woman" and makes terrible jokes about her period. But more than that, Dionne always has her friends' backs when they need her - from sappy romantic advice to crazy outfit guidance. She's classy, confident, and most importantly, she has a wardrobe to rival Cher's (those hats!).

Angelina Jolie as Kate Libby in Hackers

Kate Libby, aka Acid Burn, is a total badass. Her mum is a famous feminist author who pens lines like, "God gave men brains bigger than dogs' so they wouldn't hump women's legs at cocktail parties". Like her mum, she speaks her mind and does whatever the fuck she wants. She's the video game queen at a grimy hacker hangout in NYC. She locks horns with other hackers when they invade her turf. She fires her flare gun - she owns a flare gun! - at security guards while stealing sensitive computer data. And she rollerblades through Manhattan, sporting a Spock-like hairdo, dressed head-to-toe in weird motorcycle gear. This isn't your average female character. Thank God Katherine Heigl didn't get this part, as was originally intended.

Sarah Connor in Terminator

You've gotta feel for Sarah Connor. As a waitress she has to deal with impatient customers and kids stuffing ice cream down her top. Then she finishes work, only to discover that a robot from the future is trying to kill her and her unborn son, John Connor. Rough day! But Sarah is a soldier. Instead of going completely crazy like you or I would, she hops in a car with Kyle Reese, the other guy from the future, with whom she subsequently has sex, ensuring the conception of John Connor and the savior of humanity. All this for posterity! Take a bow, Sarah Connor.

Christina Ricci as Roberta in Now and Then

In Now and Then, a coming-of-age tale that plays like the female equivalent of Stand by Me, Christina Ricci plays a tough but insecure tomboy called Roberta. Roberta doesn't want to be like other girls. She tapes her breasts down to flatten them and play sports. And she always, always sticks up for her friends - and if that means punching a boy's lights out, she won't think twice. The best scene comes when the girls take their revenge on the Wormer brothers. The brothers are skinny-dipping in a lake when the girls creep up and steal their clothes, bolting towards the horizon, laughing hysterically. It was all Roberta's idea. Obviously.

Whoopi Goldberg as Deloris in Sister Act

Deloris is not perfect. She's definitely no saint. But she's a lot of fun as a worldly singer who's been hidden by the police in a convent after witnessing a mob crime. She dons the required religious garb and gets stuck in; only she finds the place too stiff and stuffy, the music joyless. She soon changes that. Then she changes the attitudes of her fellow nuns. Then she engages the local impoverished community. Everyone is inspired by her crazy energy. Praise the Lord for Deloris.

Meryl Streep as Karen Silkwood in Silkwood

Outspoken on the pay gap and sexism in Hollywood, Meryl Streep has left a trail of glittering female role models in her wake. Her best is arguably Karen Silkwood - as written for the screen by the late Nora Ephron. The real-life Silkwood worked at a nuclear plant where she observed horrendous health and safety of workers and large-scale corporate misconduct. She subsequently became a nuclear whistleblower and labor union activist. Her steely determination in the lawsuit that followed was all the more astonishing in the face of opposition from her coworkers. They felt betrayed and they alienated her. She knew what she had to do. She knew what was right. She did it. What a woman.


role models