Favorite movies say a lot about someone. Media has a lot of influence on how we perceives the world and how we engage with it.
I didn't watch many movies as a little kid beyond the golden era Disney animated features and a handful of straight-to-video Christian stuff. It was ... eh. I watched a ton as a teenager, though. Whatever story I could get my hands on I played.
Most of what I watched were rom-coms, period pieces, and action flicks. A little less than half of these movies have female leads and less than half of that have strong backgrounds.
Over the years, a handful have stuck out as pieces that chipped away at my preconceived notions of sex and gender as it pertains to womanhood. Every time I watch them they shake my notions and expectations.
Here is a list of 10 female led movies that always pack a punch:
Thelma & Louise
Buddy movies are fun. There is something special about watching two people get super close and feed off of each other's personalities. When Thelma & Louise released in the early '90s, the buddy dynamic was mostly reserved to male-centered cop stories.
In this film, two women escape domestic violence and embark on a road trip that places them in a complex position of deciding whether to end their story as free or enslaved outlaws. The empathetic layers of the script make my heart ache for women criminalized for acts of self-defense and the reversed gender-roles matched with lesbian undertones leaves me longing to see less and less hyper-masculine aggressors get any more screen time. Women can take a hold of their destiny while being just as broken and badass as the rest of us.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Mad Max is the title character, but his role is entirely secondary to the women in this film. He exists as an optional form of support for the female lead and a helpless bystander to the tension between the antagonist and his hand over the supporting characters.
Furiosa, the female lead, doesn't fill in for a role that could have been cast to a man. She uniquely serves the narrative as a woman leading other women in an escape from institutional oppression to freedom through a Utopian community in a post-apocalyptic world reflective of the economic and social issues our global societies face in the present. Fury Road is a graphic yet powerful example of how men can lead through being led by powerful women.
The narrative here is flawed with an acceptance of consumer culture, the hyper-sexualization of women, and gender stereotypes. However, the message is rich in support of understanding gender politics, women's education, and making feminist conversations more mainstream.
When I watched this movie pre-2010, feminism wasn't cool unless it was pretty and extremely attractive passive women were all the rage. So Legally Blonde shows up to have a gorgeous woman use law-school to get back at her ex-fiance. Legally Blonde keeps the pretty package of a rom-com and initiates a stronger genre of easy to watch female led comedies where women could be feminine while also making waves in society.
Gone With The Wind
Frankly, I didn't give a damn about his movie as a teen. It was long, dry, and hard to follow. As an adult, though, I find it a flawed masterpiece as it is extremely racist toward people of color but progressive in its representation of white women during the Civil War.
The main character, Scarlett O'Hara, is a wealthy woman who has specific dreams and does everything in her power to make those dreams a reality. While perceived as harsh and selfish by nearly every supporting character in the film, the confidence she has to persistently pursue her desires at the cost of all her relationships is an admirable representation of the freedom women should have in all aspects of their lives and the success that is free to experience, too.
A League of Their Own
An entire sports team called the Peaches is composed of women during WWII. The Peaches qualify for their league's World Series. They win. The premise is simple, but the character development of each woman and their contribution to the ensemble is profound.
Each woman has struggles that are inherent to the war and struggles that are inherent to being human. As one unite, they overcome these struggles together and become stronger individuals because of it. A League of Their Own not only suggests these women set a new standard for sports in their own little cinematic world, but it implies they're expecting audiences to understand that strength comes from individualism crafted in a supportive community.
Superheroes are cool. They're ambassadors of justice and advocate good. They're powerful, nurturing, and intended to be super-human examples of what people can achieve in their own lives. So, you would assume men and women lead a lot of superhero stories, right?
Well, Wonder Woman is one of less than 10 female led superhero movies. Her first outing is outstanding, though. She embodies peak expectations of realistic feminine beauty, universally human character traits, and the essence of individual strength enhanced by team work without ever belittling herself, supporting characters, or the systems she infiltrated with her power. Wonder Woman makes me excited for women and encouraged to take a step back so I can hear more of their super-human stories and contributions to the plights of mankind.
Mona Lisa Smile
Women shouldn't be weighed down by the expectation to marry and not pursue a career. But if that's something they're into, they shouldn't be weighed down with opposition to that decision either. Simply put, this is the message of Mona Lisa Smile.
A female college professor grows close to her small community of female art students and she uses her platform to encourage them to make decisions that enrich each of their uniquely design characters. I found this films special growing up as all of the influential women in my life at the time chose to be housewives at one point or another and as I learned more about other roles they could lead I found their decision problematic - then this movie changed my mind. As long as these influential women are informed and making their own decisions, my opinion doesn't matter much at all. Power to the career women AND the housewives.
Alien is a horrifying allegory of a woman defeating a male creature seeking to penetrate, inseminate, and destroy her with it's spawn. It redefines horror genre tropes by having the final female victim survive, having her be the lead, and having her be hyper-masculine.
I watched the movie in the late-2000s when the only strong female leads were in comedies and genres. Tomb Raider and Kill Bill were action exceptions, but it seemed like badass female leads only had a short lap of victory before becoming history. Alien gave me an expectation to see and a desire to demand more female leads who could not only handle a wild and violent narratives, but also stand the test of time as quintissential examples to follow.
Pride & Prejudice
A bad time. A bad place. A lot of institutionalized systems and behaviors I've never liked. All of these things stand out to me in the period pieces of Jane Austen. While it bugs me, I've been conditioned to find it romantic. What makes Austen's work special is the fact that her female leads always take a stand against some institutional flaw.
In Pride & Prejudice, the female lead falls for the male lead not because he finds a way to win her over but because she falls for the changes in his heart and mind resulting from her stubbornness to challenge marriage and it's societal expectations. Jane Austen's work encourages me to become attracted to rebellion and interested in being corrected or educated on my own behaviors or beliefs.
The most popular song in this movie is titled, "I'll Make A Man Out Of You." Mulan, our female lead disguised as a man, is being sung this song by the male lead who is convinced she is male but too weak to be a soldier. Our hero is a woman who chooses to compromise her identity for a short while so she can bring honor to her family's legacy in spite of their disapproval.
Not only is this film inter-sectional through well-researched representations of race and ethnicity, it's feminist in it's ability to have a woman lead men covertly and blatantly throughout the course of the narrative with few flaws being imparted on her character. Mulan convinced me as a kid that women were just as capable if not more capable than men to lead others physically, mentally, and emotionally either on the battlefield or at home.