Around the time I began to seriously study film, I was starting to identify as a feminist. Movies allow the underrepresented—such as women—to speak and have their stories told. Many foreign films use the medium to show the troubles women have faced throughout their country’s history. Female characters are also often tied closely with periods of change, such as the fall of a regime or the rise of liberal attitudes. While not every female character serves a progressive cause, some of my favorite female characters do inspire change. With this thought in mind, I began to wonder who were the fictional women who most shaped me as a person and as a writer. After careful consideration, these are the seven most influential ladies I’ve encountered in my 22 years—heroes, villains, and everyday people worth celebrating:
This was the first movie I was obsessed with as a child, I think I connected to Belle very easily. Like Belle, I was a strange kid, one who preferred intellectual pursuits to socializing. Occasionally, I felt weird for not fitting in, something Belle struggles with since no one else in her village enjoys reading with her same enthusiasm.
Belle really fascinated me in how she handled challenges. Belle is never really a damsel figure in the story. Sure, she’s imprisoned by the Beast, but she still manages to take some control of her situation. Because of her talents for observation and insight, Belle sees the troubled person beneath the Beast’s fangs and fur. Some viewers may read Belle’s emerging compassion for the Beast as Stockholm Syndrome, but it’s not really she who changes. Belle changes the Beast. As a strong, intelligent woman, Belle is my favorite Disney princess.
2. CHIHIRO OGINO, SPIRITED AWAY (SEN TO CHIHIRO NO KAMIKAKUSHI) (2001)
When I discovered Spirited Away, I was transitioning to a new stage in life, just like Chihiro. Chihiro was moving to a new town and I was dealing with the harsh reality that is middle school. Chihiro mostly works as a character because she is realistic from the start. She acts as a child would normally: whining and crying when things are hard, but also showing the determination to prove she’s capable of doing things on her own. Her adventure in the spirit world forces her to grow up quickly in order to save her parents, but she learns to accept it.
Overall, I think Chihiro helped me get through middle school, while also introducing me to foreign cinema. Sure, it was hard for me to grow as quickly as she did (I didn’t have a Noh mask spirit trying to eat me), but there was a glacial change I think she and the movie inspired in me.
3. ELLE WOODS, LEGALLY BLONDE (2001)
I don’t think I understood how amazing Elle Woods was until years later, but even from my initial viewing, I came to adore the character. Elle Woods was every bit as goofy and weird as someone from her background was normally portrayed on film. She was a fish out of water, one who normally should have everything handed to her and shouldn’t face any real troubles in her life. However, she was being challenged by going to Harvard Law, and all because she chose to be challenged.
Elle got into Harvard for a boy, but then realized she could do and be better than him. She took the pressure and the task that was law school and learned to adapt. She became more studious and learned to be a good lawyer, but she never had to compromise her own identity in the process. She learned to work the system and be successful, all while looking fabulous in a pink suit. I wanted to believe I could be like that and manage to survive. I was unordinary in middle school and got made fun of a lot. It was a challenge, but it was something that made me appreciate Elle Woods as a character.
4. REGINA GEORGE, MEAN GIRLS (2004)
Regina fascinates me because of the role she played in the school ecosystem. I saw this movie as I was entering high school, and began to realize how much of Regina’s character I saw in my school. Regina was a bitch, but she was simultaneously loved and feared for that. Some people are awful human beings, but those same people can get everything they want. Regina had it all: rich parents, girls who obeyed her, a hot body, a handsome boyfriend, and the ability to win Spring Fling Queen every year.
When things start to fall apart, she moves into hyper mode and quickly plots a riot at her school. It’s frightening, but compelling. She’s someone who figured out how to make things go her way. She’s in no way a good person, but she’s an example of how ambition, looks, money, and fear can sway the masses and turn the tide for their own use. I had trouble accepting this, but came to look at is as just how the world worked.
5. KELLY, THE NAKED KISS (1964)
Kelly is a character I immediately latched onto when I first saw The Naked Kiss in college. Equal parts beautiful and tough, Kelly is a prostitute who gives up the trade and settles down in a small town as a nurse. Despite her attempts to start anew, she begins to realize the corruption that lies beneath the surface of the idyllic town, causing her to strike out against pimps and other criminals like a total badass.
The film brings up a lot of issues about womanhood and sexuality, and in a time when attitudes towards sex were starting to change. For me, it was important to watch this movie because Kelly did some things that might not be considered socially acceptable, but she’s still a very moral person. The Naked Kiss was the first movie I saw that tried to humanize a sex worker in the non-comedic or romantic sense like Pretty Woman or Milk Money, showing how difficult and unpleasant it can be to be a prostitute. Part of how well that is delivered is because of Towers’ performance as Kelly.
6. AGRADO, ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER (TODO SOBRE MI MADRE) (1999)
In this film, a woman named Manuela loses her only son in an accident and returns to Barcelona to find his father, meeting old friends and making new ones along the way. The friend who most stood out to me was Agrado, a prostitute and a transvestite.
Agrado is equal parts comic relief and emotional support. She often lightens the mood whenever things get tense and she’s there to talk to friends when they need it. Most of the good characters immediately accept her for who she is, but of course, there are people who treat her like a prostitute even after she quits and judge her for having a penis. Nonetheless, she’s completely confident in who she is.
Her sexual identity is never made to be the only aspect of her character. It’s simply part of who she is. I envy her self confidence and wish that more people could feel as little worry about their identity.
7. CELINE, RICHARD LINKLATER’S BEFORE TRILOGY (BEFORE SUNRISE, 1995; BEFORE SUNSET, 2004; BEFORE MIDNIGHT, 2013)
Céline is a French woman grows from wide-eyed college student to jaded environmentalist to beleaguered mother over the course of the trilogy. She faces a lot of the issues a person faces as they enter adulthood, something I was also going through watching these movies in my last year of college. Hers is the common crisis of attempting to start a life of your own while realizing just how little you are certain of and wondering if you can make it on your own.
Céline goes through all the usual stages of life, but throughout the journey, she has someone to talk to about it. She is someone with big dreams and expectations who feels like a failure when she didn’t immediately feel maternal instinct towards her daughters. Of the women on this list, Céline is probably the closest to a real person, echoing a lot of issues an adult in the 90’s and early 2000’s faced.