Women on Screen: A Short Guide to Great Female Characters in Film

The longer I am alive, and existing as a feminist, the more I see people complain about feminism; dragging it out to display all its faults. There is no-one to say what is right and what is wrong in feminism, and there are so many people, particularly in terms of representation, saying what “we” want and causing controversy by doing so.

Perhaps it is a good thing that so many identify as a feminist. On the other hand, there are so many different opinions flying around that we see women calling out feminism, saying it doesn’t care for a variety of issues. Despite there being no Bible on the rules and desires of feminism as a united movement, I know that at its core it does care, but this is masked by poor representation from media outlets only covering female-centric issues.

Looking particularly at film, one of the biggest issues for women comes in two stages: the first being that, historically, all women in film were thought to be generic and there for men’s visual pleasure. That, of course, was a big problem for a lot of films, but not all (try 1940s British kitchen sink dramas). The second stage of this came with the world and its wife then writing articles about “strong women” in film. That’s great and all, but I personally don’t identify with Furiosa from ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, or even ‘Mulan’.

I once saw a post celebrating the writing of emotional female characters, of needy characters and all kinds of women on screen. The reason these characters are so important is because they highlight the real wants of feminism: gender equality and reality. In this article, I’ve outlined 10 characters that I think do wonders for women in film. It was hard to make such a short list from a huge range of excellent women. Before I begin, I would like to apologise to the following that didn’t make the cut: Galadriel, Eowin, Katniss, Merida and Lara Croft. (And also Ginger from Chicken Run – I didn’t think it was fair for a chicken to make the list).

We begin with Emma Stone as the unstoppable Olive Penderghast in ‘Easy A’. The film follows Olive after she pretends to have sex with her friend, so that people will stop bullying him for being gay (for want of some better phrasing). After that, it all goes downhill for Olive. She’s such a great character because she always seems so human. She gets reasonably angry, is an unimportant student with good grades, and spends her weekends listening to Natasha Bedingfield. The funny thing about Olive is that although everyone thinks poorly of her, she never actually sleeps with anyone, nor does she benefit from any of it. As the boys’ reputation gets better, hers gets significantly worse, to the point where she is completely isolated, yet she never loses humour and ultimately takes the higher moral ground.

It’s hard for me to talk about this next character without going on for pages. In 1968, Barbra Streisand starred as Fanny Brice in one of my favourite films of all time: ‘Funny Girl’. Despite ‘Funny Girl’ being a hopelessly doomed love story, Fanny Brice is one of the best female characters of all time. She may go chasing after a gambler in the hope of true love, but she is wonderfully devoted to him and endlessly funny. She knows she’s good, funny, in charge and not afraid to speak her mind. She challenges herself so unnecessarily, but gets her dream, and she does it on her own.

Frances Halladay is a bit of a mess. Played by Greta Gerwig, Frances is making more mistakes than I am currently, and in all honesty, I like that. I like that there is a character out there who, for two hours, I can watch making hilarious mistakes and triumphantly trying and failing. ‘Frances Ha’ is a film that makes a failing attempt at adulthood enjoyable and strangely quotable, with Frances telling people “I’m not a real person yet”. That and saying she’s “too tall to marry” and generally “undateable”. It’s quite simple really – Frances is just trying her best to get her life sorted and without compromising too much of who she is.

Moving from being a bit of a mess to a life changer is Nikki Blonksy as Tracy Turnblad in ‘Hairspray’. I can keep this one ridiculously short because she is an outstanding character that everyone forgets about. Tracey is a kind soul that loves to dance, yet in the story, she goes head-to-head with racial segregation in the 1960s. She is teased relentlessly and told to find a new dream, but instead she makes it, and on her way ends segregation on the TV show. Not too shabby, eh?

When Kristen Wiig played Annie in ‘Bridesmaids’, she helped the great push for female comedy in this decade and succeeded. Whether the film is to your taste or not, ‘Bridesmaids’ has one hell of a group of ladies. Each one has a terrifically real personality, that I actually questioned which of them to write about. Annie is like a lot of us; she is insecure, will do anything for her best friend, and her life is a bit crappy. The film gives a sneak peek at how, quite frequently in a bad way, Annie deals with her life. When I watch ‘Bridesmaids’, I get Annie – particularly when she has a breakdown at her friend’s wedding shower and kicks a giant cookie.

Elle Woods. Controversial, I know. Reese Witherspoon is one of our favourite rom-com stars, but if you actually pay attention to ‘Legally Blonde’ – there is more to her than just a bend-and-snap. Elle is the female stereotype of dumb, blonde and head-to-toe in pink. Yet in ‘Legally Blonde’, we have the pleasure of watching her transform when she puts her mind to it, and decides to go to Harvard. She becomes a great law student and friend, and has a ‘eureka’ moment of what’s really important in life. She’s one of the best blondes that’s ever been in a chick flick, and a saviour for the genre.

Matilda (played by Mara Wilson) has a rubbish home life and family, but she finds solace in books and reading. She frequently visits the library, until her parents finally let her go to school. There she meets Miss Honey and Matilda is finally treated like the wonderful, smart little girl that she is. By the end of the film, Matilda’s life has changed for the better and I can’t help but feel how much more it mean if I was a child like Matilda – I would be so comforted by her. She stays true to herself and always stays on the side of good.

Julia Stiles as Kat Stratford in ‘10 Things I Hate About You’ was a late addition to the list, but a great one. She’s mainly on here because I want to casually remind you that as much as I’m mainly highlighting clever, counter-stereotype females with good hearts and kind souls, you don’t have to be like anyone else. That’s Kat’s motto, anyway. In the film, Kat is happy being who she is and gets along just fine doing what she wants. Kat Stratford is one of my all-time favourite 90s characters and quite possibly one of my idols.

Again, you’re not all Harry Potter fans, but how can anyone say something critical of Hermione Granger’s character in the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’? I chose the first film for a reason; although she shines as a leader and a truly wonderful friend in some of the later films, 11-year-old Hermione is defiant and brave. She is intelligence and bossiness. She is friendless for half of the film because her personality doesn’t suit her classmates – I like to think they are intimidated. Her shining moment comes at the end of the film, when she tells Harry that it’s more than books and brains that make a person. She always was a bright character, and a girl that reminds me a lot of my first year at an all- girls’ grammar school…in a good way.


Gamora – played by Zoe Saldana – in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is my badass character. She’s not entirely relatable because most of us aren’t green, in space and wielding knives, but she is a fantastic and fearless female. She is smart and conniving, and unafraid to go against the greatest forces of evil in the galaxy. A tortured childhood has led to a tough exterior, but she is one of the better and slightly less generic females in action films – especially the Marvel universe. She is incredible in the fight scenes, she is not romantically involved with the lead, nor is she naked all the time (well done Marvel). She’s the smartest and probably the best all-round person in her team.

So there you have it, a selection of great female characters for us to admire from cinema screens and comfy bed set-ups. I highly recommend having a day strewn across the sofa with a giant bowl of popcorn to view these fantastic females.


Words: Briony Brake
Image: Harry Johnson

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