Top 10 Notable Female Film Protagonists

Shock horror – the new Doctor Who is a woman! To celebrate, Kris Rickards takes a look at a selection of film’s greatest female protagonists including some obvious and some not-so-obvious choices.

The new Dr. Who is a female? Let’s have a look at ten pioneering female leads in film.

10. Sucker Punch (2011) – Babydoll

Many have criticised 2011’s Sucker Punch as misogynist trash. So why in a list praising the female action hero would it be included?

Because Babydoll, regardless of attire, still overcomes all enemies and obstacles placed in her path with cognition and glorious over the top action.

Her journey begins in an asylum, but gradually becomes increasingly abstract depending upon archetypes to suggest meaning to the subconscious, without explicitly having to explain that she is being programmed by her handlers.

She has five days to wake from her induced coma to prevent her own lobotomy and this can only be achieved if she can collect all the correct objects to unlock the levels of her mind’s perceived prison.

9. La Femme Nikita (1990) – Nikita

When she is caught robbing a bank, instead of receiving a prison sentence, a mysterious handler sees Nikita’s potential and takes her away to be trained as an elite assassin. Of course this turns out to be much worse than any state rehabilitation process, and after a brief two years of horrific ego destruction and rebuilding, she is abandoned in a restaurant and thrown into her first killing mission.

The director, Luc Besson, often uses strong multilayered female characters within his films, but some of Nikita’s actions and choices make this a controversial addition to the list.

8. Coffy (1973) – Coffy

When her sister becomes the latest victim of the heroin epidemic, Coffy reaches breaking point. She continues her more feminine role of nursing in the daytime, but becomes a ruthless vigilante by night. Using her abundant sexuality to lure the pimps and pushers back to her home, she kills them in complete privacy. Gradually she works her way up the hierarchy until she finds the notorious King George.

7. Mulan (1998) – Mulan

Mulan was a legendary woman warrior from China.

When conscription for one male in every household is announced to fight the invading Huns, Mulan’s aging father no longer has the ability to carry on. In order to prevent him from a certain death in battle, Mulan disguises herself as a man to take his place.

Beyond this act of bravery and sacrifice, she also has the quick thinking tactical mind of the greatest warriors.

6. Lady Snowblood (1973) & Lady Snowblood: Love Song Of Vengence (1974) – Yuki Kashima

Illegitimately conceived by the seduction of a prison guard, Yuki is raised solely for vengeance and trained by a priest from a young age in the art of sword fighting. At the age of twenty, having been told the tale of her family’s murder at the hands of the Matsuemon gang, her mission in revenge begins with the slaughter of many men using a sword concealed in an umbrella. Yuki even saves her enemies deaths at the hands of others just so she can fulfil the act of vengeance herself.

5. The Terminator (1984 & Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) – Sarah Connor

Sarah Connor just wanted to be a free spirited party girl with the hope of one day finding a decent man to fall in love with and settle down to have kids.

Unfortunately there is always a time travelling robot to come along and scupper your plans.

Little to her knowledge she has to give birth to the king caveman of the apocalypse, John Conner. Luckily for her, her son has sent one of his best soldiers to protect her.

By the end of The Terminator, you realise she doesn’t need protection from anyone and by the time she returns to our screen in Terminator 2: Judgement Day the viewer realises how tough an ordinary woman can become.

4. Chocolate (2008) – Zen

Taekwando expert, Yanin Vismitananda, made her film actress debut as Zen in 2008’s Chocolate.

Found to be autistic at a young age, Zen becomes infatuated with the martial arts school adjacent to her house. She soon begins to mimic their moves. Add to this a fascination with the films of Bruce Lee and Tony Jaa and we soon have the making of a new warrior.

Although Zen earns money busking by demonstrating her reflexes, the money is never enough and the family resorts to calling in some debts. Things soon escalate when the debtors try to shirk away from Zen without realising her inherent skills.

3. Nausicaa Of The Valley of the Wind (1984) – Nausicaa

After the death of her father, Princess Nausicaa proves she is not only an ingenious pacifist leader; she also has the strength and diplomatic nature to bring peace and prosperity throughout the post apocalyptic world. Battling with various armies wanting to rule the planet and nature fighting back by way of oversized woodlice and poisonous spores, she has a lot to contend with.

Luckily, Nausicaa has a few extra skills that will help with the survival of the human race; she can communicate with the obscure creatures and fly her hover-board with the greatest of ease.

2. Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), Alien 3 (1992), Alien Resurrection (1997) – Ellen Ripley

Ripley, Sigourney Weaver, Top 10 Films, Alien 5,No introduction really necessary as she is the most obvious choice in such a list. Ripley upturned the portrayal of women as the action hero especially in science fiction and horror films.

Most importantly, in regards to cinematic boundaries of a lead actress in genre films, Ripley is not a just a victim, sidekick or a love interest.

And of course she saves the cat and a little girl along the way.

1. Hunterwali franchise (1935 – present) Princess Madhuri (AKA Hunterwali)

Hindi film Hunterwali (translated literally as “woman with a whip”) stared Fearless Nadia, an Australian stuntwoman, as the cloaked Princess Madhuri.

When the Indian chaste system scuppers her plans for love, she becomes the masked vigilante Hunterwali, the “protector of the poor and punisher of evildoers”.

Her stunts were so highly regarded and her cult following was so enduring that in April 2013 she was named as Bollywood’s best loved character.

Over to you: what are your top 10 female protagonist films?

Written and Compiled by Kris Rickards

Kris Rickards
About the Author
Kris is a happily married father of two boys, who currently works as a freelance media analyst and writer. He has an eclectic knowledge of global cinema and the history of film. He was recently published in the Amazon Bestselling horror anthology Twisted 50. Twitter: @KJBRickards

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  1. Avatar
    ArchE Reply

    What a wonderfully eclectic mix of films and film protagonists. I must divulge I haven’t seen your number one and my ignorance extends to having no knowledge of Hunterwali in fact. I will endeavour to change this lapse in my cinema experience. Plaudits for including everything from Blaxploitation, Disney and Hollywood horror-come-sci-fi to Bollywood, Anime and French action. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a top 10 list as diverse!

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      Kris Rickards Reply

      Thanks for the positive comments, ArchE. I think diversity is the key to making a list to pique the interest of the most.

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    Gries Reply

    Hunterwali is a perfect number one.

    • Avatar
      Kris Rickards Reply

      She’s certainly the most enduring if we consider she started circa 1935 and is still around today.

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    CineGirl Reply

    Am I right in thinking Tarantino favours some of these and that they inspired The Bride from Kill Bill?

    A very interesting list by the way. I haven’t seen 3. Fave on the list would be Ripley

    • Avatar
      Kris Rickards Reply

      I think Ripley is probably the best / my personal favourite on the list, but Hunterwali’s legacy got her the number one spot.

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    Jupiter Reply

    If Tarantino owned a multiplex, I can see it screening all these across its numerous screens. Either that or he’d play this selection on a loop in some Texan fleapit, sitting at the back of the theatre with Robert Rodriguez smoking Marlbaro.

    • Avatar
      Kris Rickards Reply

      Wouldn’t you just love to be an audience member in that viewing? I’m pretty sure I’ve read that Coffy & Lady Snowblood are some of his top films.

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    Charlie Wilson Reply

    Sticking with the B-movie/Grindhouse vibe of some of the films above, the 80s slasher movies feature some good female protagonists such as Nightmare on Elm Street.

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      Kris Rickards Reply

      Horror seems to be a strong contender for a 50/50 split of male/female leads. Sometimes genre films are groundbreaking, influential and years ahead of the mainstream.

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    Dan Grant Reply

    Eclectic is the word! Terrific list. I haven’t seen half the list. Scratch that, I’ve only seen 4 films on this list. I’ll have to find some of these.

    With the addition of Wonder Woman to the DCEU, I’d add her to the list. I thought that was a terrific film. I’d probably have Ripley as my number one because I haven’t seen the number one on this list.

    • Avatar
      Kris Rickards Reply

      I haven’t had the opportunity to see Wonder Woman yet, but I am looking forward to it. The thing to consider with Hunterwali, is the sheer number of films she leads – not all are good.

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    Mark Fraser Reply

    As exceptionally good as this list is, I think Linda Fiorentino deserves a mention for The Last Seduction. Why she wasn’t in Men in Black II and III is another subject worth addressing at some point.

    Nicole Kidman in Dogville is another worthy contender.

    • Avatar
      Kris Rickards Reply

      The Last Seduction is a film I haven’t had the pleasure of watching. As for other contenders; I think given a couple of hours we could come up with a top 50 female protagonists, a top 50 female antagonists and a top 50 female anti-heroes.

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