Films with strong female leads are absolutely vital. I'm not talking about super hero (or heroine) films, although those are cool – I like to see girls kicking butt as much as anybody. But it's those every day female driven films with real lead characters who represent real women that I most admire. Some of them are based on real women, others on females who seem real. They could be your friends, your mothers, your sisters, or your wives. In recent years, there have been many more strong, inspirational, and admiral characters; chronicling all of them would be impossible. So, here are some of my favorite films led by strong female characters. Take a look and then please feel free to add your favorites, too.
Steel Magnolias is one of my favorite movies of all time. A lot of people are tempted to pass it off as just another chick flick, but it's also one of the best films with strong female leads you'll ever watch. M'Lynn has to go through probably the hardest thing any mother can ever experience, and she comes through it with grace and strength. She is beautiful in her grief, and her speech about Southern women – which is appropriate for strong women from anywhere – always resonates. However, Shelby has her moments as well, and as for Clairee and Ouiser, they are both embodiments of strength.
The Color Purple is unquestionably a film with a strong female lead. In fact, it's inundated with strong women, and in this case they're just as amazing on screen as they are in the book. Celie is amazing, and watching her grow is like a revelation. The support she receives from Sofia and Shug is beautiful, and to me it defines the way women should treat each other. We're always so eager to tear each other apart, whether we're gossiping about people we know or even taking the time to put down and tear people apart on websites! Look at these relationships, though: who wouldn't want to exhibit this kind of strength?
Here's another fantastic film that was a movie first. I like it for several reasons. For starters, like The Color Purple, it represents lesbian relationships in a time where showing your true feelings was dangerous. The movies themselves emerged at a time when it wasn't trendy to depict gay couples in films, and certainly not women. The novel (actually titled Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle stop Cafe, if you're interested!) details the relationship between Idgie and Ruth much more fully, but even the friendship between them in the movie is amazing to see. Idgie was practically my go-to movie role model growing up, but don't discount Evelyn and Ninny, either.
I think Tyler Perry gets a bad rap. I mean, he writes many plays and films with strong female leads. Diary of a Mad Black Woman marks my introduction to Mr. Perry, and what an introduction! There are morbid elements to the story, but who didn't root for Helen? She needed to get mad, and it felt like she got mad for every woman, everywhere, who's ever been done dirty – by a lover, a spouse, a friend, a family member, or even a coworker. And even though “she's” not technically a woman, Madea kicked some serious butt as well. That chainsaw? I wish she was MY grandma!
The Help is another one of my favorite female driven films and, of course, it's relatively knew. The women in the movie are strong in different ways, but all of them are inspiring. I thought it stayed admirably true to the novel, although if you haven't read it yet, you should. Skeeter is a wonderful little rebel, not only taking a stand against the segregationist South but also taking a stand against the racism exhibited by her friends. Sometimes, standing up to your friends is even harder than taking a political stand. I can't say enough about Aibileen, whose bravery and grace know no bounds, and Minnie is a fireball. We could all use a little Minnie in our lives.
I'm just noticing that a lot of these films are based on books, but that's no bad thing – the world can use more strong women in literature, too. I have to confess, I'm not a fan of Twilight, and I'll leave it at that because I understand and respect that a lot of girls and women do love the franchise. That being said, I just find Katniss refreshing. As a trilogy, there is a love story involved, but Katniss also takes care of herself – and her family. She's fully capable, and I think if she had to live the rest of her days alone, providing for her loved ones, she'd do it admirably.
I love this movie. I love classic Disney films, but a lot of the heroines weren't necessarily strong. They had their moments, but they were definitely after their princes. I mean, I adore The Little Mermaid, but Ariel gave up her voice, her biggest talent, for a pair of legs to attract a guy. Conversely, Merida is a defiant, fiery rebel in the frigging 10th century, when girls simply did not rebel. And she also kicks butt with her bow. Maybe she's a forebear of the Everdeens.
Wow, okay, so we have another novel-to-movie – sorry about that. However, I couldn't possibly talk about films with strong female leads without discussing this film. Both it and the book are incredible. You see another side of Virginia Woolf, and not in spite of but because of her decision to commit suicide, you see both an inherent strength and a heartbreaking vulnerability. It's tempting to say that, because of her decisions, Laura Brown is not strong, but I urge you to take another look. And Clarissa … Clarissa is amazing. Just amazing.
Waiting to Exhale is an incredible female driven film for a number of reasons. Savannah exhibits strength in her relationships and even in her dealings with her mother, Robin emerges from her rotten relationships, and Glo not only excels at being a single mother, she has to deal with a very difficult situation – and I'm not talking about the one with Marvin. However, it's Bernie who always awes me – and everyone who's seen the film knows exactly what I'm talking about.
It's kind of amazing that some folks only know Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge. In this film, which deals with controversial subject matter, she plays the title character, who exhibits strength in the most incredible ways. She pays it forward daily, in spite of being poor herself, but she also stands up for her beliefs in a way that was not only unpopular at the time, but also illegal.
Much like The Hunger Games, the Divergent series features a young girl who learns that she has amazing strength inside her. Not only does Shailene Woodley do an incredible job of portraying the lead role of Tris, but Ashely Judd plays a her equally strong mother. Later in the story, Ashely Judd's character reveals that she's been leading a secret life to protect herself and her family. An amazing coming of age story with strong women that prove you don't need anyone to make you realize how strong you truly are.
I've seen this movie more times than I'd like to admit and I always walk away feeling strong and empowered. Based on a true story, this movie portrays one woman's quest to save people from a large company determined to hide their mistakes. Roberts beautifully plays this single mother who proves everyone wrong who thinks that because of the way she looks, acts, dresses and the circumstances she comes from she can't be smart or make anything of herself.
Another movie about a woman standing up for change, Norma Rae, played by Sally Field, won two awards for it's incredible story. Norma is caught between a rock and a hard place when she decides to fight to unionize her workplace and her husband tells her he's not okay with her decision. She must sacrifice some time away from home and away from her children to fight for what she knows is right, but in the end she believes she's making the right decision. A story that lets us know that sometimes we have to make sacrifices to make a change.
The name of the movie says it all. There are no men in this movie! A movie for women, about women, that shows how women can both build each other up and tear each other down. After her husband cheats on her Mary, Meg Ryan, uses her friends and family to get through this tough time. Without spoiling the end of the film, I'll just let you know that this film leaves you wanting to hug your friends and scream "I am woman, hear me roar!"
A movie about one of the strongest women in history has to make a list about movies with strong female characters. Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I is incredible. Following Elizabeth's rise to the throne and all of the expectations of marriage that come along with it is enough to inspire anyone. Queen Elizabeth I never married, which was frowned upon, but still ruled England on her own through a Golden Age. Blanchett went on to do a sequel of the movie that is equally worth watching!
You could pick almost any Katherine Hepburn movie to put on this list as she was one of the most incredible actresses and played countless strong characters. Hepburn plays a lawyer who must defend her client against her own husband, who is also a lawyer. She stands up to her husband, pointing out the double standard between men and women in their case. Not only does she fight to defend her client, but she also fights for the equality of women, something we still strive for today.
If you have a spare day to sit down and watch this movie, do it. Yes, it's incredibly long and even has an intermission, but it's moving and powerful. Sure you can see it as a love story, but you can also see it as one of the most famous characters fighting to stay strong while her world tumbles around her. Scarlett O'Hara is used to a certain lifestyle, but when the Civil War hits, her whole world is turned upside down and she must fight to keep herself and those she loves safe and together. Love story aside, even though it's one of the most famous out there, this is the story of a woman that can be seen as an inspiration to all.
There are many, many more films with strong female leads. These are just the ones that strike me and inspire me. The women in these films are inspirational, but different traits touch different people. Who are your favorite strong female characters?
This article was written in collaboration with editor Lydia Sheehan.
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