May. 1st, 2013

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Recently, an article listing the top 12 movie heroines appeared in The Allegiant and featured a lot of action heroes that are the equivalent of Rambo, Indiana Jones, or Tyler Durton of a female variety. While I can appreciate some of these characters, equating strength so strongly with the physical prowess of a character is fairly shallow. Many on this list also come with a fair amount of fetishistic spectacle, which the male superheroes I just mentioned are also guilty of. If I were looking for inspiring female characters that we could emulate or believe in when we needed strength, I can see only two on the Allegiant list who really demonstrate the highest level of wisdom, daring, and virtue. Action heroes are by design archetypal, so often don't show us the true potential of our strength. Schindler's List is a good example of a story with a lot of strength even though violence does not play a prominent role in the heroic struggle.

So, here are my top 12 strong female roles in movies, for what it's worth. And yes, I too had to leave many off the list because I didn't think they were the most inspirational examples of strength, often because their struggles were not very difficult or they were only situationally heroic.

#12 Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins in Mary Poppins. Yes, she has a bottomless carpetbag and she can fly, but she uses her powers to help children, like a real hero would. She has no problem standing up to anyone, and is not afraid to show her sensitivity and wisdom either. Julie Andrews racks up extra points for films with other strong female roles, such as Victor, Victoria and the Sound of Music, but those characters are not nearly the role model Mary exemplifies. At no point does she compromise either her virtue or her lady-like demeanor, and she is perfectly at home in the soot-stained streets of the less glamorous parts of London.
#11 Gina Torres as Zoe in Serenity. Zoe doesn't need a man, she has one, and he is not arm candy, but a believable character. Beyond that, she is a soldier, first mate of a ship with a demanding captain, and a self-defined woman who clearly decided to be the strong, self-reliant person she is. She doesn't shy from bloodshed or criticism, and is sensitive to those who cannot match her courage and ability. Her sacrifices are also a testament to her strength, as she doesn't break down when precious things are taken from her.
#10 Lisa Wilcox as Alice Johnson in Nightmare on Elm Street 4. Yes, this is a sort of personal entry because most of you will have forgotten or never bothered to watch the girl who beat Freddy Krueger, but Alice Johnson is the one victim who took him to the cleaners. Her character arc is also one of self-discovery, as she realizes her potential and must defy her parents and others to do what she knows is right. She has none of the irreparable damage of many other queens of horror and the film featuring her is the best in the franchise besides the original.
#9 Anne Parillaud as Nikita in La Femme Nikita. An assassin who is horrified by her own business paints an interesting picture. Although we don't know much about Nikita, we do know she makes a mean lemonade with the lemons she's been handed. Her relationship with her handlers is portrayed with a human quality, and after she decides to change things in her life, she shows the kind of daring we all wish we had. In a less inspired film, the ending would simply be that she triumphs, but this film is much better than that. Nikita also happens to be the initial archetype for every other female super-spy/assassin that so many authors and film-makers have copied.
#8 Milla Jovovich as Joan of Arc in The Messenger. Milla's roles in Resident Evil and even the Fifth Element seem small compared to her portrayal of the maid of Orleans. Christianity has come under a lot of criticism these days, and for good reason. However, sacrifice is still a noble human act, and just as we can appreciate the martyrdom of Jesus, so the martyrdom of Joan of Arc has a persistent resonance. As with some of the other heroines on this list, the reason this version is so powerful is because she shows vulnerability and character. Her confessor, an angel or hallucination, absolves her after she admits to her pride and recklessness in leading warriors into battle to save her country. This shows us her conviction and courage, but also the complexities of Christian virtue that define her struggle.
#7 Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in Aliens. Ripley is an enigma because we get to see her character evolve over three films, all of which inform her story. Like other action girls on this list, she demonstrates ability and vulnerability as she takes care of business. While she was amazing in Alien, in Aliens she faces off with an Alien queen mother, and they both threaten to destroy the others' children, completing a very succinct picture of how dependent upon females all diploid species are, and if it came down to genocidal galactic conflict, the women, specifically the mothers, would hold the true power.
#6 Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as Jodhaa Bai in Jodhaa Akbar. Baliwood today is much bigger as an industrial complex than Hollywood ever was. It is little wonder then that they should produce epic scale historic dramas like Jodhaa Akbar. It is perhaps surprising that one of the biggest films to come out of this lately would concern the marriage of a Muslim warlord to a Hindu princess, and to suggest that the princess was also responsible for the reformation of the Mogul empire to be religiously tolerant. Princess Jodhaa Bai has also learned the Rajput art of the sword, but only fights on screen with her brother and her husband. While the historic accuracy of this version is dubious, she is a magnificent hero who is also timely for this era of fanaticism.
#5 Natalie Portman as Evey Hammond in V for Vendetta. Although V for Vendetta is an action film, Evey Hammond is a non-violent person who manages to stay alive and mostly sane after she accidentally befriends a violent revolutionary in a socialist police-state version of Britain. Initially, she shows some nerve, but the defining scene of her character occurs after she is tortured and sentenced to death. She never submits to her oppressors. She never loves Big Brother. This demonstrates for the audience the caliber of her mettle, and shows us what real conviction looks like.
#4 Whoopi Golberg as Celie Johnson in The Color Purple. Whoopi almost made this list twice, but this is a stronger role than other strong women she has played. The way Celie works is that she is constantly tempted to murder the evil people in her life and has many opportunities to do so. Any lesser form of defiance carries the burden of physical and sexual abuse. Yet she resists temptation and earns her peace righteously. Some people think this is an ugly story, but courage of this kind is rare and beautiful, and films often romanticize revenge, which Celie rises above.
#3 Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2. Imagine that you are certified as criminally insane, you know the exact day the world will end and how, your son is the salvation of the human race after the bomb, and machines from the future are sending unstoppable cyborg assassins to kill you both. This would already set you up as one of those strong women we all look up to if you survive, but Linda Hamilton in this role manages to hook us into her absolute desperation and crushing sense of defeat from the first scene in which she appears, wherein she is also doing pull ups in her cell on a mental ward. This is strength in the fetishistic sense, combined with strength in the real and human sense. Sarah Conner is not violent as a rule, this is simply what she has to do in order to survive the ridiculously awful circumstances she has been placed in.
#2 Mélanie Laurent as Soshanna in Inglorious Basterds. Quentin Tarantino is good at handling stereotypes, but of all the female heroines (and many non-heroines) he has created, Shosanna Dreyfus, the French Jewish survivor who plots the death of the Nazi high command edges ahead as one of the most steadfast and intelligent, using film as her weapon. Her story is heroic and tragic despite her completely compromised position, which is really where a character's strength is most visible. She is the sort of person who, if she existed, folk tales would be sung about.
#1 Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo in Frida. Frida Kahlo was a real person, so sometimes movies made about her are not thought of in the same way as other films. However, this one is more surreal and sensitive than any strict telling of her life. The disabled artist and socialist weaves her way through the important men of her time, the sensibilities of two world views that remain relevant in politics today, a thoroughly despicable romantic interest (whom she has the strength to reject), and her personal struggle with her body, all drawn over an artistically informed landscape. In this version, hers is an inspiring story that demonstrates that living life on your terms is seldom ruined by adversity, but is instead informed by it.

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