03 March 2018

Let's Hear It for Heroines

There's been a lot of talk lately about strong female characters, both in movies and books. A recent USA Today article by Maria Puente says the number of movies with female leads dropped off a bit last year, but I think it's significant that the three top-grossing films of 2017--Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Wonder Woman, and Beauty and the Beast--did have female leads. (For what it's worth, I think I'm the only person in America who liked the live-action remake of Cinderella more than that of Beauty and the Beast.) Anyhow, as a male writer, reader, and viewer, I've decided to list some of my favorite movies and novels with female protagonists.

First, the movies. And please note: In the cases of shared male/female leads, I've tried to choose only those movies that I thought focused more on the female protagonist than the male, which excluded dozens of equal-attention-to-the-guy-and-gal favorites like Bonnie and ClydeWitnessDouble IndemnityBody HeatSleepless in SeattleWhen Harry Met SallyAn Officer and a Gentleman, etc.

The ones I enjoyed most are listed at the top, in each very loose category:


Romancing the Stone -- Kathleen Turner
Star Wars: The Force Awakens -- Daisy Ridley
The Hunger Games -- Jennifer Lawrence
Kill Bill (1 and 2) -- Uma Thurman
Gravity -- Sandra Bullock
Wonder Woman -- Gal Godot
The River Wild -- Meryl Streep
King Kong (2009 version) -- Naomi Watts


Amelie -- Audrey Tautou
Sixteen Candles -- Molly Ringwald
Ghost World -- Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson
9 to 5 -- Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton
Clueless -- Alicia Silverstone
The Devil Wears Prada -- Anne Hathaway
Miss Congeniality -- Sandra Bullock
Private Benjamin -- Goldie Hawn


To Kill a Mocklingbird -- Mary Badham
Out of Africa -- Meryl Streep
Gone With the Wind -- Vivien Leigh
Hidden Figures -- Taraji P. Henson, Olivia Spencer, Janelle Monae
Music of the Heart -- Meryl Streep
The Help -- Emma Stone
Juno -- Ellen Page
Winter's Bone -- Jennifer Lawrence

(I avoided listing some of the great "message movies" like Norma Rae, Erin Brockovich, and Silkwood. Besides, how many times should Meriyl Streep's name appear in any one list?)


Mary Poppins -- Julie Andrews
Calamity Jane -- Doris Day
The Sound of Music -- Julie Andrews
My Fair Lady -- Audrey Hepburn
The King and I -- Deborah Kerr
Annie -- Aileen Quinn
Flashdance -- Jennifer Beals
Funny Girl -- Barbra Streisand


The Silence of the Lambs -- Jodie Foster
Fargo -- Frances McDormand
Wait Until Dark -- Audrey Hepburn
Jackie Brown -- Pam Grier
The Long Kiss Goodnight -- Geena Davis
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011 version) -- Rooney Mara
The Brave One -- Jodie Foster
Thelma and Louise -- Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis

Romance/Romantic Comedy

While You Were Sleeping -- Sandra Bullock
Working Girl -- Melanie Griffith
Sense and Sensibility -- Emma Thompson
Muriel's Wedding -- Toni Colette
Enchanted -- Amy Adams
Sweet Home Alabama -- Reese Witherspoon
My Big Fat Greek Wedding -- Nia Vardalos
Peggy Sue Got Married -- Kathleen Turner


Aliens -- Sigourney Weaver
Psycho -- Janet Leigh, Vera Miles
The Village -- Bryce Dallas Howard
The Terminator -- Linda Hamilton
Cat People -- (1982 version) -- Nastassja Kinski
Contact -- Jodie Foster
The Birds -- Tippi Hedren
Halloween -- Jamie Lee Curtis

Western (these were harder)

Cat Ballou -- Jane Fonda
The Homesman -- Hilary Swank
True Grit (2010 version) -- Hailee Seinfeld
Meek's Cutoff -- Michelle Williams
The Missing -- Cate Blanchett
Cold Mountain -- Nicole Kidman
The Quick and the Dead (1995 version) -- Sharon Stone
Hannie Caulder -- Raquel Welch

And here are some of my favorite novels with primarily female protagonists--again with what I consider to be the best listed first:

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris
Eye of the Needle, Ken Follett
Fierce Kingdom, Gin Phillips
Artemis, Andy Weir
The Hunger Games -- Suzanne Collins
Sunset and Sawdust -- Joe R. Lansdale
Demolition Angel -- Robert Crais
Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
Hannibal, Thomas Harris
The Clan of the Cave Bear, Jean M. Auel
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
Blind Descent, Nevada Barr
True Grit, Charles Portis
The Relic, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
One for the Money, Janet Evanovich
The Fifth Wave, Rick Yancey
Goldeline, James Cajoleas
The Beekeeper's Apprentice, Laurie R. King
Divergent, Veronica Roth

(The only surprising thing I found after choosing these twenty novels is that ten were written by women and ten by men.)

Again, this is my opinion only, which won't matter much to anyone beyond my home-office door. And I realize there are many, many more fine candidates for heroine-addiction, on both the page and the screen. These are just the ones I remember most.

What are some of your picks of books and movies with female leads? My Amazon wish-list and my Netflix queue await your recommendations.

Meanwhile, picture Sigourney Weaver saying this, in the original Alien, back in 1979: "This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off."

That still gives me goosebumps.


  1. John,
    I don't think I saw TERMS OF ENDEARMENT by Larry McMurtry, movie with Shirley MacLaine and Debroah Winger and STEEL MAGNOLIAS written by Robert Hartling, movie with Sally Field and Shirley MacLaine.

  2. You know, I think "Rebecca" is way underrated as far as being a strong female protagonist. Our narrator may be unnamed and constantly self-disparaging, but by God she takes charge in the end, doesn't she?

    Anyway, without categorizing as neatly as you did:
    Margot at the Wedding (Nicole Kidman is intense)
    20th Century Women (all strong)
    Queen of Katwe
    Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep)
    The Snapper (great Irish flick about girl that gets knocked up and isn't going to behave)
    Grandma (Lily Tomlin)
    Hello, My Name is Doris (Sally Field)
    Learning to Drive (Patricia Clarkson)
    Clouds of Sils Maria (Juliet Binoche)
    The Lady in the Van (Maggie Smith)

  3. Lots of good titles here, John. I'm especially with you on Ghost World.

    Some older performances by strong female protagonists: Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey, Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, Katherine Hepburn in pretty much anything. And so many more.

  4. O'Neil, those two were on my long list and somehow didn't make it into the final version. (You should've seen how long that long list was.) I did like 'em both though. Still hard to believe the same writer created Endearment and Lonesome Dove, isn't it?

    Thanks, Eve--great choices! I've seen maybe half the movies you mentioned, and I especially liked Margot, Snapper, and Van. I saw Florence Foster Jenkins only a couple of months ago, and yes, Streep was once again wonderful.

    Thank you, Paul. Yep, Ghost World was different from almost anything else I've ever seen--and you're the one who steered me toward that one, last year. And thinking back on these lists, it occurs to me that I didn't give enough credit to really old movies. Thanks for your mention of Lombard, Russell, and Hepburn.

    This whole process was a lot of fun, and gave me a new appreciation for female leads.

  5. Eve, I'm with you on Rebecca. And on all Daphne Dumaurier heroines.

    John, great lists! I have to comment on your noticing that 10/20 of the great female heroine books you mention are written by men. That is our lament, as female authors. Particularly in the awards, we notice that female protags written by men seem to get nominated more than females written by females. (and this is a subject that could be a separate post, if I have the guts)

  6. Melodie, that SHOULD be a post of its own. Very honestly, I just jotted down thirty or forty novels with primarily female leads, and it was only after I narrowed it down to twenty and typed them in that I happened to notice that half were written by men. Part of that, of course, is that I'd probably read some of those books because they were by authors I already knew I enjoyed, like Follett, Crais, Lansdale, Harris, Preston, etc. But I love the thrill of finding great female writers like Phillips and Collins, and (new to me) Laurie King.

    Remember, too, that that isn't a list of my favorite novels--it's just a list of some of my favorites that featured a woman as the main protagonist. For example, I dearly loved The First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough, and A Place of Execution by Val McDermid, and The Shipping News by Annie Proulx--but I didn't remember those as having mostly female leads.

    I just realized I never even mentioned Gone With the Wind, in any of the lists. Sigh.

  7. Glad to see ARTEMIS on your list of novels. The local bookstore where my wife works scored a triumph by getting Andy Weir to come to our town for a signing for that book. (For those not aware, Weir's previous novel was THE MARTIAN, which became the movie.) The factor that coaxed him here was that he would be interviewed by Melissa Rice, a professor at Western Washington University who is one of the people who chooses routes for the Mars Rover. One question from the audience was "What should a woman study to get a job with NASA?" and Andy, to his credit, said, "Don't ask me. Ask Melissa! She got one." They sold something like a thousand books that night.

  8. Hey Rob. Glad to hear that story about Andy Weir. I loved The Martian, and Artemis as well. I'm pleased, but not surprised, to hear that they sold so many copies of the book at that event. Yes, It must've been quite a coup to get him to come speak there!

  9. At breakfast this morning, the husband & I were discussing not this topic exactly, but TV shows starring height-challenged women with strong personalities. The characters of Hetty (Linda Hunt) on "NCIS-LA" & Matty (Meredith Eaton) on "MacGyver" have serious skills & responsibilities. Then the conversation turned to The Wizard of Oz & the strong female heroine, Dorothy. Fun fact: Dorothy in the original book version was a blue-eyed blonde.

  10. As for novels, I'll list "C is for Corpse," by Sue Grafton.

  11. Liz, I did NOT know that, about Dorothy. She'll always look like 16-year-old Judy Garland to me.

    I think I've enjoyed Linda Hunt in everything I've seen her play. The movies I most remember of hers: The Year of Living Dangerously, Silverado, and The Relic. And when I think of height-challenged actresses I always think of Zelda Rubenstein from Poltergeist: "Now let's go get your daughter . . ."

    Jeff, I have those first three Graftons here on my shelf. Should've listed some of those, now that I think of it.

  12. I'll add Soapdish with Sally Field and Legally Blonde with Reese Witherspoon. Nice lists, John.

  13. Oh, and Fried Green Tomatoes with Kathy Bates, Jessica Tandy, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Mary-Louise Parker.

  14. Three good ones, Barb. Especially Fried Green Tomatoes. Thanks!

    BTW, we had fried dill pickles the other night, at a catfish restaurant. Not enough to inspire a movie title, but they sure taste good . . .


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