Over the last few years, Hollywood has tried to reinvent its definition of the “strong female protagonist” – but the result has been mixed. Although there has been a greater representation of empowered women in Hollywood films, there has also been a dissolution of nuanced characters. All of this begs the question: how do you effectively write a female protagonist? Well, it starts with all of the tenets of effective characterization – and by analyzing the best female protagonists of all-time. We’re going to break down the best female protagonists by looking at what makes them strong and weak. By the end, you’ll know why female protagonists (and any protagonists for that matter) need to have strengths and weaknesses.
Female Protagonists in Films
Background on female characters
It’s unfortunate to say, but female protagonists are not treated the same way as male protagonists. Female protagonists (and actors by extension) are often held to a higher standard than their male counterparts.
Why? Well, one is due to cultural biases relating to women. The other – perhaps more pertinent – reason is the fact that men are far and away more represented as the protagonists of stories.
Brianne Hogan cited in her Screencraft article on “How to Write an Awesome Female Protagonist” that “according to a 2015 study by Dr. Martha Lauzen at the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, only 12% of film protagonists were female in 2014. More depressing is that only 29% of major characters and 30% of speaking characters in the top 100 films were women or girls.”
Think about it: how many great films have you seen that are centered around uniquely masculine themes? Fight Club, The Godfather, There Will Be Blood; these are all movies that are majorly focused on masculine issues. And there’s nothing wrong with that – but then again, there’s no denying that their protagonists are easier to relate to through a masculine lens.
So, we’ll be approaching this article by looking at some examples of female protagonists that are developed in a variety of ways. But first, let’s watch a video essay from Now You See It that makes some good (and not so good) points about writing women.
This video essay makes some good points about how writers use traditional masculine/feminine aspects of character to support, and or subvert expectations. But it also tends to suggest that masculinity (or physical strength) is what empowers women. That can be a slippery slope.
Oftentimes, the best female protagonists are empowered by their own agency, not necessarily physical strength.
The characters ranked here are not necessarily heroes, nor are they judged by superheroic powers. Instead, they were chosen for their complexity, and how they represent important elements of writing female protagonists; whether they be something defining, subversive, or simply well-executed.
Strong Female Characters in Movies
1. Ellen Ripley — Alien
Ellen Ripley is the action-hero that changed everything for female protagonists in big-budget cinema. Prior to her arrival on the cinema scene, most Hollywood action-movies were dominated by big-bulking brutes like Charles Bronson and John Wayne. Or even dashing charmers like Cary Grant and James Stewart.
But Ripley proved that female protagonists could serve a big film’s leading role just like male protagonists could. What's interesting about this character is that her arc over the entire franchise has evolved with auteurs such as Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet all contributing.
Movies With Strong Female Leads
2. Christine McPherson — Lady Bird
Christine McPherson, or as she’s known in the eponymous film of the same name Lady Bird, is a deeply nuanced protagonist. She’s flawed – but hey, who isn’t at the age of 17?
Lady Bird’s coming-of-age story is a sincere portrait of growing up in a world that always seems to move too fast. Writer Greta Gerwig said in an interview with Rolling Stone that she was inspired to create a coming-of-age story in the vein of The 400 Blows and Boyhood, but from the female perspective.
Strong Female Lead Movies
3. Clarice Starling — The Silence of the Lambs
Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs is a tricky character to analyze because she’s almost entirely represented through a corrupted gaze. By this, I mean that the camera quite literally makes a point to show how Clarice is sexualized and degraded (even if subtly) by the characters around her.
Still, Clarice demonstrates considerable agency and tactical skill, even in the face of frequent discrimination. Her development from beginning to end may not be as nuanced as some of the other characters on this list, but there’s no denying she is one of the most layered female characters.
Best Movies With a Female Lead
4. Cleo Victoire — Cleo from 5 to 7
Cleo Victoire from French New Wave pioneer Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 is one of the most well-written female protagonists in cinema history. Why? Because she represents the nirvana found at the end of the treacherous journey to self-satisfaction.
Cleo is an encumbered yet powerful woman in a cafe society.
Her journey from being fearful to accepting is universal; and dare I say optimistic. Varda is one of the great French filmmakers of all-time – and those looking to learn more about how to write a female protagonist should absolutely watch Cleo from 5 to 7.
Best Movies With Woman Lead
5. Sabrina Fairchild — Sabrina
If you want to write a female protagonist who’s centered around a love triangle, you have to watch Sabrina. Audrey Hepburn stars in the title role of this film as a driver’s daughter turned sophisticated woman.
What makes Sabrina different from other sappy love triangle films is how it layers the plot around Sabrina’s maturation. Sabrina is not simply an object of desire, she’s an intelligent woman who’s ultimately coveted for her brains and beauty.
Best Movies With Female Leads
6. Fa Mulan — Mulan
Mulan introduced a new kind of Disney princess to the masses; one whose sole purpose wasn’t to serve as a romantic lead but rather to drive the action.
Mulan is a fun character with noble intent: to bring honor to her family. It’s because of this that we empathize so strongly with her character.
If you want to write a great female protagonist, consider making her as strong-willed as Mulan.
Best Female Lead Movies
7. Elle Woods — Legally Blonde
Want to learn how to subvert stereotypes in screenwriting? Look no further than Elle Woods from Legally Blonde. On the surface, Elle seems like a vain airhead, but upon closer inspection, we learn she’s extremely well-rounded.
Legally Blonde shows us that characteristics we typically construe as “weak” can also be strengths. Strong female protagonists don’t have to adopt typically masculine traits like physical strength to be strong – they can embrace their femininity too.
Strong Female Leads in Film
8. Nelly Lenz — Phoenix
First of all, if you haven’t seen Phoenix, I highly recommend you go watch it. It’s undoubtedly a modern masterpiece of international cinema. The protagonist of Phoenix is Nelly, a disfigured Holocaust survivor who returns home to find that her husband doesn’t recognize her.
Phoenix is a story about reclamation – reclamation of identity, love, and pain.
Movies With Strong Female Leads
9. Veronica Rawlings — Widows
There aren’t many thrillers that have female protagonists, and of the few that do, almost none give them agency to influence the outcome of the story. That’s why it was so refreshing to see Viola Davis as Veronica Rawlings in the 2018 film Widows.
Veronica is a woman who is simultaneously caught between regaining control of her life and simply trying to survive. It’s a tense set-up – but one that lends itself to the plot of the story.
Best Movies With a Female Lead
10. Blanche DuBois — A Streetcar Named Desire
Blanche DuBois is not a liberated character – but she is a phenomenal female protagonist. Perhaps that shouldn’t come as a surprise — A Streetcar Named Desire writer Tennessee Williams was known for writing great characters.
There aren’t many female protagonists in cinema that are more nuanced than Blanche DuBois. Blanche is not a good person – but we understand her plight. That’s a testament to great writing, and Williams should be commended for it.
Writing a Female Characters
How to write a female protagonist
These are just some of the best female protagonists in film; of course, there are many, many more. But cinema needs more female protagonists – and you could be the one to deliver them to the masses.
If you’re serious about writing a female protagonist, don’t forget to heed these points:
1. Female doesn’t mean feminine
Strong female characters can display traits that are both feminine and masculine.
2. Balance your female protagonist’s strengths.
Some superhero movies – not naming names, Captain Marvel, cough-cough – have made their female protagonists powerful for the sake of being powerful. Of course, this issue isn’t exclusive to superhero movies with female protagonists – Superman I’m looking at you – but it is something to be mindful of.
3. Great characters always fail.
I cannot stress this enough: great characters always fail. Some writers fall into the trap of making their female protagonists omni-successful in an effort to empower them. Just remember: success is the enemy of development.
4. Consider dependence and independence.
Many modern movies perpetuate the notion that female characters “don’t need a man” – and that is true; but it’s become somewhat of a cliche in screenwriting. The truth is that all characters are dependent on others.
So, yes, don’t be afraid to write female characters who don't need the acceptance of a man.
But also acknowledge who (and where) that character looks for dependence; whether it be another character, activity, or creative outlet.
5. A female protagonist is a protagonist.
At the end of the day, a female protagonist is a protagonist. Don’t overthink it because of their gender.
When in need of inspiration, reference the characters above and ask yourself the question: what makes them a great female protagonist?
What is the Bechdel Test?
Want to learn more about writing female protagonists? Check out our next article in which we break down the Bechdel Test by using a script breakdown. What is the Bechdel Test? You’ll have to read on to find out!