My Top 10 Badass Female Movie Characters!
As I sit and write this, the England women’s football team are safely through to the final of Euro 22, and they’ve been absolutely brilliant so far. They’ve restored a little faith in the sport I’ve fallen out of love with over the past five years, so it’s sad to still see many blokes still moaning or belittling their achievements. The Lionesses have played with passion, belief, and a real swashbuckling style - the kind that the men’s team could only hope to emulate at the moment. In short, they’re absolute badasses, and to celebrate I thought I’d put together a list of cinematic female badassery.
Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark
Karen Allen memorably played Indy’s old flame Marion, now running a roughneck bar in Nepal which is possibly the swarthiest watering hole in movieland. There she makes extra cash drinking mountain men twice her size under the table, until Dr. Jones darkens her door in search of a gold medallion that the Nazis want to get hold of.
She saves Indy’s life during a massive shootout in the bar when a creepy Gestapo agent and his henchmen arrive to seize the trinket, which is key to locating the Ark of the Covenant. “At least you haven’t forgotten how to show a lady a good time,” she scolds Indy as her bar burns to the ground, before wrestling control of their relationship, “I’m your goddamn partner!”
As the rollicking adventure progresses, she saves the endearingly fallible archaeologist at least one more time; uses her hard-boozing skills to outwit Belloq (Paul Freeman), Indy’s rival working for the Nazis; and even buys the drinks at the end when Jones is feeling downhearted.
Raiders of the Lost Ark features one of the biggest plot holes in movie history: World War II would have been over much sooner if Indiana Jones hadn’t kept meddling with the Nazi’s plans to get the Ark back to the Führer. By that reckoning, I make Marion the true hero of the film and, to top it all off, she also has a higher body count than her old boyfriend. According to All Outta Bubblegum, she notches up 12 kills to Indy’s 11.
Varla in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Russ Meyer was a breast man and breasts were his whole reason for making movies. He had little ambition other than looking at and filming lots of breasts, and using those breasts to make money. Meyer wasn’t daft; he understood that a certain demographic of the nascent exploitation/cult/midnight movie market really enjoyed looking at breasts too.
A director who blatantly and unapologetically objectified women would seem like an unlikely candidate to make an accidental feminist classic, but that’s what we have with Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! And in its star, Tura Satana, Meyer gave us one of the ultimate movie badasses.
Satana’s backstory is like the plot of a Tarantino movie. When she was just 10 years old, she was sexually assaulted by a gang of men, who scandalously beat a rape charge. So she learned martial arts and tracked each one down to exact her revenge. She also formed her own leather-jacket delinquent gang and spent time in reform school.
Satana started burlesque dancing at the age of 15, which was when she met former silent comedy star Harold Lloyd, who by that stage had become a fervent nudie photographer. She credited him with giving her the confidence to pursue a career in movies.
Her best film by far was Pussycat, and Meyer acknowledged that her iconic performance was largely responsible for the film’s lasting cult appeal, later inspiring Tarantino’s Death Proof. She plays Varla, a cold-blooded killer and leader of a trio of go-go dancers out looking for trouble in the desert, who plan to rob a wheelchair-bound pervert and his sons.
Unusually for a Meyer film, there aren’t actually any bare breasts, although there is ample cleavage on display. Instead, he often shoots Varla and the gang from ultra-low angles, making them look like goddesses, and the film allowed them to indulge in the kind of behaviour usually reserved for guys on screen, racing cars, killing with impunity, drinking, and unapologetically chasing men for sex. Satana dominates the movie as the ice-cold antihero in a performance that is scarily fierce but surprisingly human for a low-budget exploitation flick.
Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day
The contrast couldn’t be more different: when we first meet Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in The Terminator, she’s a poodle-haired waitress with a penchant for pastel colours who needs saving by Michael Biehn’s soldier from the future. Skip forward to Cameron’s bigger, faster, funnier, louder sequel, she’s banged up in a psychiatric ward doing a Max Cady-style incarceration workout.
She’s been sent totally over the edge by her knowledge of an impending nuclear holocaust, turning her into the ultimate prepper. Not only is she physically ripped and ready to hurt anybody who stands in her way, she has also trained herself in how to use firearms and has her own secret stash of heavy artillery.
Hamilton didn’t mess around when it came to preparing for the role, getting in such incredible shape in only two months and undergoing weapons training with an Israeli special forces soldier. Even former Mr. Universe Arnold Schwarzenegger was impressed: “I come from the physical fitness world where you reshape and resculpt your body, but what I saw there was extraordinary.”
Her new appearance went completely against how women in Hollywood movies usually looked, and she matched the pumped-up physique with a performance of steely, haunted determination. This time around, she looked like she could seriously kick Arnie’s butt if his reprogrammed android got up to any funny business.
Yuki Kashima in Lady Snowblood
Some readers might wonder about the absence of Uma Thurman’s Bride from Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 from this list, but I have two good reasons. Firstly, I have an even better Tarantino character in mind, and secondly, there would be no Kill Bill without Lady Snowblood.
Meiko Kaji plays a young woman hellbent on avenging her mother, who was raped by a gang of villains and died just after childbirth. Destined to become a child of vengeance, she undergoes rigorous training with a sword before single-mindedly tracking down the hapless scumbags.
Toshiya Fujita’s heavily stylized and brutally gory thriller is a thing of beauty, especially in the opening scenes where the predominant colour scheme is black, red, and white. When Yuki launches into action, we get the luridly over-the-top blood spurts that Tarantino would lovingly recreate in his homage. Homage is a kind word for it, because it’s amazing just how much of Lady Snowblood he ripped off for Kill Bill Vol. 1.
Lady Snowblood is more authentically badass, anyway. While Tarantino often plays violence for pure cool factor, the blood-letting here tends toward the operatic and has far more of an impact. Thurman’s Bride is also a more warm and humane character compared to Yuki’s implacable, serenely furious spectre of death.
Jackie Brown in Jackie Brown
So here’s my Tarantino pick. The director has been a great resurrector of careers, finding excellent roles for John Travolta, Don Johnson, Kurt Russell, David Carradine, and Harvey Keitel, to name just a few.
Pam Grier was already a badass icon from her heyday in blaxploitation classics such as Foxy Brown, Coffy, and Friday Foster, but her career had languished for years by the time Tarantino cast her as the lead in Jackie Brown.
Adapted from Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, Tarantino switched the main character from a white woman to a black woman with Grier in mind. She certainly didn’t let him down amid an excellent ensemble cast, giving a soulful turn as an ageing woman with few options who sees one great opportunity to pull a daring switcheroo that leaves her enemies in the dust.
While Tarantino’s films usually lean into grandstanding performances, her wonderfully tender scenes with fellow resurrectee Robert Forster gives Jackie Brown an emotional core that is often lacking from his films. Some, like myself, believe this is his best movie, and I think when people look back at Tarantino’s career in 10 or 20 years, this relatively low-key film will increasingly emerge as his masterpiece. Pam Grier will deserve a lot of the credit for that.
Ellen Ripley in the Alien Franchise
Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) was mankind’s last line of defence against deadly xenomorphs and evil corporations foolishly trying to bring them to Earth for four whole movies, and each instalment found a new way for her character to evolve.
Weaver was barely known when she first appeared as the jobsworthy warrant officer in Ridley Scott’s Alien, only emerging as the film’s hero when the rest of the cast were killed off by the single creature stalking the crew of the Nostromo. James Cameron, with his love for strong female characters, put her front and centre of the gung-ho sequel, taking charge when the military grunts around her start losing their heads. The result was the best-loved performances of Weaver’s career, matching grit with maternal instincts as she battles to save Newt, an orphaned young girl, from the marauding creatures.
The epic battle between Ripley and the awesome Alien Queen was one of the greatest slobberknockers in movie history, and she earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, something of a rarity in the sci-fi and action genres.
David Fincher’s much-maligned Alien 3 callously undid Ripley’s work from the previous film by killing off Newt, but brought her character arc to its natural conclusion. Having lost everything fighting against the Xenomorphs over three movies, she dies making sure her own parasitic offspring dies with her.
Reactions to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s goofy and grotesque Alien Resurrection was even more mixed, but it at least found an interesting way to develop Ripley’s character further, bringing her back from the dead as a human-alien hybrid. Weaver had plenty of fun with it, and her performance was one of the few plus points of a wildly uneven fourth chapter.
In whatever guise, Weaver completely embodied Ripley’s sincerity, determination, and heroic resolve, making her an iconic female badass in a sci-fi canon often dominated by the blokes.
Paloma in No Time to Die
Ana de Armas recently went on record saying she didn’t think there should be a female James Bond, but her five minutes of screentime in No Time to Die gave us a tantalising glimpse of what that might look like if the producers ever went in that direction. She was also one of the highlights of the film, totally overshadowing Lashana Lynch, who tentatively stepped in as 007’s replacement.
Playing Paloma, a novice Cuban CIA agent who isn’t as green as she first makes out, de Armas is easily Daniel Craig’s equal as they move around a party for SPECTRE agents in tandem. Wearing a little black number that somehow remains in place while she’s pirouetting around the joint kicking goons in the face, she pretty much steals the whole movie with her breezy charisma and feline physicality.
While she may be right in saying the series doesn’t need a female Bond, I sure would like to see a Paloma spin-off movie.
Moana in Moana
Offering a far more body-positive heroine for girls than the Barbie-like Elsa in Frozen, Disney’s most satisfying adventure for many moons gives us a very believable teen in Moana, a young Polynesian woman who dreams of discovering what lies beyond the reef surrounding her home island.
Naturally, being a Disney movie, a dark force threatens her people’s blissful way of life, and she fearlessly sets out on the big wide ocean to restore the Heart of Tefiti and save the day. Along the way, she battles giant crab monsters, killer coconuts, and successfully reins in unruly demi-God Maui, played with outsized relish by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in his finest screen role to date.
Auli’i Cravalho gives a great vocal performance, making Moana bubbly, head-strong, defiant, and extraordinarily brave. She also sang the radio-friendly song “How Far I’ll Go,” which reprises with increasingly triumphant emphasis throughout the film, capturing the indomitable character’s sense of yearning and wonderment.
Marge Gunderson in Fargo
Many of the films on this list are action-oriented, but Marge’s badassery comes from a totally different place. It’s rare to see a heavily pregnant woman have much of an active role in any movie, let alone bravely facing down a psychotic killer without any backup. She’s also so damn nice, too.
Brilliantly played by Frances McDormand, Marge is the police chief on the case of a botched kidnapping plot, despite suffering from back pains and morning sickness. It’s a beautifully realised character, all wide-eyes, sunny demeanour, and increasingly exaggerated Minnesota Nice attitude and accent (“You Betcha!”) While she’s probably the loveliest character the Coen Brothers ever wrote, she doesn’t suffer fools either. Whether it’s doggedly investigating the desperate salesman who pays to have his wife kidnapped, kindly but firmly letting down an old school friend who pathetically hits on her, or confronting a dangerous criminal in the grisly finale, Marge is always the boss.
Marge stands out as a rare beacon of warmth and humanity in the Coens’ very male-centric universe of bumbling crooks, hitmen, chancers, cowboys, and stoners, and is one of their toughest characters to boot. McDormand won the first of a hat-trick of Oscars for the role, and it’s a performance that makes Fargo endlessly rewatchable.
Mae West in just about anything
Mae West once told a story about how, back in the ‘30s, she was welcomed back to Hollywood by a cop who took a few liberties and gave her a kiss. Her response was: “Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?” It became one of her most famous lines and summed her up completely: razor sharp, saucy, irreverent, and completely owning any man who tried to mess with her.
West was a transgressive trailblazer before she scandalized the faint of heart with her innuendo-laden one-liners on the silver screen. Her stage play Sex caused so much scandal that the police busted the whole cast and West spent several days in jail, which only earned her more publicity. Her follow up production, The Drag, was shut down in New York before it even began due to moral crusaders campaigning against its homosexual themes.
She was just as controversial when she broke into movies, honing the sultry, voracious, risque, zero-f**ks-given persona that she developed in vaudeville and on stage. Her break came when she was almost 40, which is remarkable for a woman at the time, and she instantly became a sex symbol and one of the highest earners in movies. Nevertheless, she made a powerful enemy in media mogul William Randolph Hearst (the same guy who did his best to make sure Citizen Kane wasn’t a hit) and was hounded by censors for years. Rather than compromise her act, she ditched Hollywood and went back to the stage to do her own thing. It was Hollywood’s loss.
So there you have it, ten of my favourite female movie badasses. Who are your picks? Let us know!