25 Most Inspiring Leading Ladies in Movie History
Proof that women can (and should) be taking the lead.
For years, Hollywood put women on the back burner, relegating them to love interest roles in stories centered on men. But, particularly in the last couple of decades, women have been taking the lead. Female protagonists are carrying entire films on their shoulders, inspiring viewers with their wit, talent, and strength. These powerful, intelligent, and unique characters—each brought to life by peerless actresses—prove that women can (and should) be at the forefront. From Scarlett O'Hara to Katniss Everdeen, here are the most inspiring leading ladies in cinematic history, presented in chronological order.
Scarlett O’ Hara, Gone With the Wind (1939)
Scarlett O’ Hara (Vivien Leigh), the protagonist of the timeless 1939 film Gone With the Wind, is both the epitome of a Southern belle and a larger-than-life, incredibly strong-willed woman. Throughout the movie, Scarlett emerges as a true leader who isn't afraid to gun for what she wants—a stalwart who stays courageous despite all the challenges thrown her way. There’s a reason why this movie is hailed a classic, and it’s all because of its female lead. “The film was and I think continues to be a pop cultural phenomenon,” Richard Jewell, a professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Art, told the Los Angeles Times in 2014.
Holly Golightly, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Though centering a film on a call girl might have been a bit bold for the time, Audrey Hepburn showed that such a character could be played with the utmost elegance and class. In 1961's Breakfast at Tiffany's, Hepburn's Holly Golightly is a woman who wants more out of life than the hand she's been dealt—and though she may appear aloof, she is clearly smart, calculating, and dazzling.
With her signature black dress, gloves, pearls, sunglasses, and mini tiara, Holly is a vision of an American Princess, one who's since been cemented in the pop cultural zeitgeist. As Turner Classic Movie's host Tiffany Vazquez told Vanity Fair in 2016, “People reference [Breakfast at Tiffany's] all the time, and it’s one of those things where you don’t have to explain what the reference is.” If that's not inspirational icon status, what is?
Maria Von Trapp, The Sound of Music (1965)
Never afraid to speak her mind, Julie Andrews' optimistic and cheerful Maria solves problems with a level of finesse most can only dream of. She’s both loving and lovable, and never intimidated by her male counterparts, even her boss, the controlling Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer). “That terrific belief in innocence which fills Julie's face is completely universal—people from all over the world can’t help but be drawn to her,” Plummer told The Hollywood Reporter in 2016. And he's right: Maria is sweet but smart, making her someone to look up to not just for the Von Trapp kids, but for audiences worldwide, as well.
Princess Leia, The Star Wars Series (1977–2019)
She may have hailed from a long time ago and a galaxy far, far away, but Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia is still one of the most inspirational leading ladies of all time. Who can forget the time that she stood up to Darth Vader in her first few minutes on screen? Or rescued herself by strangling the evil Jabba the Hutt to death? Or ended up leading The Resistance an entire generation after her previous exploits? No two ways about it: Leia has led by example from Day 1.
Celie Harris Johnson, The Color Purple (1985)
Set in white, male-dominated rural Georgia in the 1930s, The Color Purple sees Whoopi Goldberg's Celie face unspeakable abuse and oppression. But she also manages to undergo a tremendous amount of growth in the film, finding her voice and facilitating a way out of her horrible circumstances.
As O! Magazine writer Melissa Kimble noted in 2018, when Celie says, "I'm poor, black, I may even be ugly, but dear God, I’m here! I’m here," it's "a victorious statement" from a woman who "had spent most of her life feeling unworthy and invisible. It reminded me that even with our flaws and imperfections, we still deserve to show up in our own lives." Celie is proof that no matter how awful your situation is, you can overcome it—and there's nothing more inspiring than that.
Frances “Baby” Houseman, Dirty Dancing (1987)
In Dirty Dancing, college-bound "Baby" (Jennifer Grey) goes from an over-achieving doe-eyed daddy’s girl to a brave young woman. The film, which was hailed by The Guardian as a "feminist masterpiece," sees Baby strive to help the people around her, from her suave dance partner Johnny (Patrick Swayze) to her distraught co-worker Penny (Cynthia Rhodes). In the process, she finds a passion in herself that she never knew she had.
Baby is fearless in her attempt to stand up for what's right—even going against her own father (Jerry Orbach) at one point—transforming into a self-assured woman of integrity and grace by the end of that fateful summer at Kellerman Resort. The film's most famous line really does ring true: "Nobody puts Baby in a corner" because she's sure to fight her way out of it.
Vivian Ward, Pretty Woman (1990)
The 1990 classic Pretty Woman centers on Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts), a sassy, self-aware business woman—even if that business is sleeping with wealthy businessmen. Vivian is no pushover, and even in the presence of her hefty-pocketed client-turned-lover (Richard Gere), she holds tightly to her ideals. One of the earliest scenes we see of Vivian is an establishment of her own rules, stating, "We say who, we say when, we say how much." In the end, she wants what we all do: love, respect, and “the fairy tale.” Strong in her convictions and the desire to provide for herself—while never settling for less than she deserves—she’s down-to-earth, relatable, and, above all, inspiring.
Clarice Starling, The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Jodie Foster’s award-winning turn as Clarice Starling in the classic thriller Silence of the Lambs is the definition of cool and confident. FBI trainee Clarice has the ability to disarm even the most truly insane of people—like violent psychopath Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), whom she is tasked with interviewing. Even when she's seeking out a cold-blooded serial killer, she rarely shows her nerves. In her 1992 Best Actress Oscar acceptance speech, Foster thanked the Academy for “embracing such an incredibly strong and beautiful feminist hero.” We couldn't have said it better ourselves.
Thelma Dickinson and Louise Sawyer, Thelma & Louise (1991)
The Oscar-winning Thelma & Louise blessed moviegoers with not one but two unforgettable leading ladies: Geena Davis as Thelma, and Susan Sarandon as Louise. At the outset, in a turquoise Ford Thunderbird, the dynamic duo embarks on a weekend getaway—only to end up on a patriarchy-dismantling cross-country road trip. Though promoted as a buddy comedy, Thelma & Louise handled some truly groundbreaking subject matter: After all, the impetus for their road trip is that Louise shot her attempted rapist in self-defense, and they go on the run, rather than sticking around and explaining themselves to cops (who wouldn't believe them anyway).
Thelma & Louise even inspired Davis to crusade for more equal gender representation on screen, telling The Salt Lake Tribune in 2011 that the movie, "really impacted how I saw films, and female roles. It made me realize we give women so few opportunities." Davis also recalled how much the characters stuck with female audience members, who had never seen women like Thelma and Louise before. "I had women stop me and tell me their reaction—they'd be holding onto my lapels, getting me to listen to what they were saying." It wouldn't be an understatement to say these two leading ladies started a revolution.
Jackie Brown, Jackie Brown (1997)
In the early 1970s, Pam Grier made a name for herself playing the titular character in two blaxploitation films, Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). Fast-forward two decades, and you'll find her most iconic role—as the eponymous leading lady in 1997's Jackie Brown, an homage to her '70s-era classics. As with all Quentin Tarantino flicks, the plot, of course, has many moving parts. But it can essentially be boiled down to this: Jackie quits her humdrum job, fleeces five men out of half a million dollars, and jets off to a life of leisure in Madrid. Can you say… icon?
"She’s Tarantino’s most human character—a flawed, fallible, deeply real woman who reads as more relatable than any other Tarantino creation," Kate Erbland of Indiewire wrote of the legendary Jackie Brown. "[She's] a true exercise in equanimity, a fully-realized feminist creation."
Mulan, Mulan (1998)
Based on an ancient Chinese legend about a daughter who takes her father's place in the army, this fictional leading lady is the true embodiment of honor, love, and loyalty, proving that a woman can fight and execute just as well any man. Mulan (voiced by Ming-Na Wen) holds her own against her male soldier counterparts, succeeding as a warrior and defying gender stereotypes. Not to mention, she single-handedly saves all of China with her quick-thinking and combat skills in that final showdown. And there's nothing more inspiring or awe-inducing than that.
Erin Brockovich, Erin Brockovich (2000)
Julia Roberts plays a certified tour de force in this Oscar-nominated take on the true story of Erin Brockovich, a strong, smart, indefatigable woman who fought to bring down PG&E, a huge gas and electric company that had been poisoning the small town of Hinkley, California. Going from unemployed single mother to legal clerk, the real-life Brockovich compiled a case against PG&E that resulted in the biggest direct action lawsuit of its kind, with one of the largest toxic tort injury settlements of all time. Her fighting spirit and dedication to getting justice for the people of Hinkley, despite not having the education or background to do so, makes this real-life character—and her onscreen portrayal—nothing short of inspiring.
Hermione Granger, The Harry Potter Series (2001–2011)
J.K. Rowling’s whip-smart, dedicated, Muggle-born witch Hermione Granger goes down as arguably the most important character in the Harry Potter series. If it were not for her cleverness—combined with an unmatched sense of fairness, leadership, and integrity—the male characters of the series would never have made it as far in the battle against the forces of dark magic in their world. "Hermione made it okay for girls to be the smartest in the room—to be a leader, the one with the plan," Emma Watson, who played the beloved character, told The Hollywood Reporter in 2016. "She's not just a role for me, she's a symbol. I am deeply proud to have played her.”
Elle Woods, The Legally Blonde Series (2001-2020)
In Legally Blonde, perky, pink-loving law student Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) values and embraces both her femininity and her strength. And even though nearly two decades have passed since the first movie hit theaters in 2001, Elle remains relatable and relevant to this day. Witherspoon even commented on the continuing influence of the character during a 2018 interview with Today, saying, “She was a modern feminist. … I’ve had young women come up to me and say, ‘I went to law school because of Elle Woods.'” And even more young women will be inspired by Elle when a third installment of the Legally Blonde franchise hits theaters in 2020.
The Bride, The Kill Bill Series (2003–2004)
Uma Thurman's tough-as-nails character Beatrix "The Bride" Kiddo has one goal: exacting revenge on the man who shot her in the head. Over the course of the two Kill Bill films, she exhibits unrivaled tenacity and grit (and combat skills) that are nothing short of inspirational. Any situation The Bride finds herself in—including, at one point, being buried alive—she overcomes.
As Thurman herself said in a 2017 interview at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic, women have told her that “the film helped them in their lives—whether they were feeling oppressed or struggling or had a bad boyfriend or felt badly about themselves. … That film released in them some survival energy that was helpful.” Here’s to that!
Maggie Fitzgerald, Million Dollar Baby (2004)
If you look "determined" up in the dictionary, you'd find a picture of Million Dollar Baby's Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank). The Oscar-winning film brings viewers on a journey alongside its central hard-headed female boxer who wants to make a name for herself despite being a woman in a male-dominated sport. The movie is an emotional roller coaster, and throughout the highest highs and lowest lows, the tenacious Maggie is quite the inspiration.
Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice (2005)
Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet—played to perfection by Keira Knightley in the 2005 version of the film—remains compelling no matter how many hundreds of years ago she was written into existence. Unlike her sisters, she doesn't let the introduction of wealthy men like Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) automatically wow her. No, she makes them prove their worth. Thanks to her fierce sense of self, loyalty to her family, and wicked-smart retorts, this well-read lady defied what it meant to be a woman in the early 19th century. In a 1813 letter to her sister, Austen even said of her creation, “I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print.” And we wholeheartedly agree.
Effie White, Dreamgirls (2006)
This transformative role earned former American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress—and for good reason. Effie’s pure gumption, even when she is kicked out of the very singing group she helped create, shows an incomparable level of dedication. It's what ultimately sets her apart from the rest of the girl gang in this film, making us root for her all the way to glory and redemption. If you are not inspired after listening to "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" (after wiping your tears, of course), we don't know what to tell you.
Leigh Anne Tuohy, The Blind Side (2009)
Sandra Bullock’s portrayal of real-life, tough-talking Mississippi firecracker Leigh Anne Tuohy is a master class in inspiration. By the end of the film, Tuohy’s unmatched determination and kind heart in her decision to play surrogate mother to homeless teen Michael Oher (who would go on to play for the Baltimore Ravens), leaves audiences rooting for her the same way they would their favorite football team.
"While her sass is both endearing and highly entertaining, it is the way she masks Leigh Anne’s 'never let them see you cry' vulnerability, especially when it comes to Michael," wrote a Los Angeles Times review of Bullock's performance. "The quick retreats when she’s moved, shoulder thrown back, eyes staring straight ahead as she hands out the latest set of marching orders … leave you cheering for her too."
Aibileen Clark, The Help (2011)
Viola Davis brings a beloved book character to life in this big screen adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's novel of the same name. Brave enough to tell her story to a reporter on a mission (Emma Stone), Aibileen helps to expose the deep-rooted racial issues of 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. She withstands the prejudice and oppression of the time with a quiet resilience and reserved strength, determined to do right by her own family, the young white girl she raises, and her fellow maids who've suffered in silence too long. Despite the dangers threatening her as she reveals the truth about life as a black domestic worker, she prevails and stays true to who she is (and what she preaches): She is kind, she is smart, and she is important.
Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games Series (2012–2015)
Who can ever forget that moment, in the first entry of the Hunger Games series, when Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers herself in place of her sister in the treacherous Hunger Games? From there, over the course of four action-packed films, the fearless Katniss displays an unrelenting and unrivaled drive to protect her family and loved ones—even if it means risking her own life. In the end, she outsmarts and triumphs over all of her opponents, inspiring an entire generation of young women in the process (and making archery cool again).
Katherine Johnson, Hidden Figures (2016)
Taraji P. Henson expertly plays real-life NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, who helped calculate trajectories for Apollo 11's mission to the moon. Despite daily encounters with overt racism and sexism, Johnson demonstrates the level of hard work it took for a black woman to prove herself in a white, male-dominated time and industry. The movie finally gives credit where credit's due: to the woman whose smarts proved a vital force for takeoff, in more ways than one.
Rey, The Star Wars Series (2015–2019)
All you really need to know about Rey's feminist icon status is that her mere existence made countless man-children online very, very upset. But Rey (expertly played by Hollywood newcomer Daisy Ridley) is so much more than that. She's a tough-as-nails scavenger, a survivor hardened by life, and a top-class hero in her own right. Even against Star Wars vets like Han Solo (Harrison Ford), she holds her own, never backing down from a fight (or a monstrous space creature). In The Last Jedi, she even brings down the ostensible series baddie with a lightsaber slash for the ages. We can't wait to see what she does in the forthcoming Rise of Skywalker.
Moana, Moana (2016)
Moana follows its titular animated Polynesian princess (voiced by Auliʻi Cravalho) on an epic journey of self discovery that ends with a victory for herself and the island she's destined to lead, Montunui. Moana chooses to go against the status quo by exploring beyond where anyone else has ever been. Even when teamed up with demigod Maui (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), she proves herself more than capable. She’s spunky, adventurous, and outspoken, showing the people of Montunui (and young Disney viewers worldwide) that breaking out of your comfort zone is a good thing.
Wonder Woman, The DC Extended Universe (2016-2020)
The first major female superhero of the modern era didn't disappoint, thanks to Gal Gadot, who took on the role of a lifetime: a princess of the Amazon training to be an unconquerable warrior. Eventually, Wonder Woman (who first appeared in 2016's Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) discovers her full powers and takes down every man who gets in her way. And we'll get to see her do it again in her very own sequel, Wonder Woman 1984, which hits theaters in 2020.
“I think that it’s so important that we have also strong female figures to look up to, and Wonder Woman is an amazing one,” Gadot told Variety in 2017. Critics across the board agreed, which is probably why it's one of the Movies on Rotten Tomatoes with the Highest Ratings.
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