As the year comes to an end, what I’m most thankful for are strong female leads! In the last decade, we have learned a lot about what it’s like for women in the entertainment industry. Following the arrest of Harvey Weinstein, more women have spoken up about their experiences, creating a community and the Me Too Movement.
Now, more than ever, it is important to see women represented on the screen as confident, fully-dimensional characters. While the film industry has had no shortage of female leads in the past, never have they been as diverse or relatable as the women portrayed over the last five years. I’m happy to say many of these inspiring fictional characters are portrayed by equally empowering women. Though we are lacking in diverse female leads outside of television, there has been a spike in the last few years.
As a result, many of the women on this list, as well as others, are receiving the recognition they deserve. The five women on this list have starred as strong female leads in the last five years, as well as worked in other fields in the industry. These women have found success writing, rapping, acting, and producing, while also finding time for activism. In an industry that has historically objectified, degraded, and silenced woman we must acknowledge the remarkable actresses that have gone above and beyond it all. These outstanding women are barreling down the path to success and they are not slowing down for anybody.
Strong Female Leads That Pass The Bechdel Test
This list will only contain films that pass the Bechdel Test. For those of you who don’t know, the Bechdel Test consists of three rules, (1) the film must contain two women (2) who talk to each other about (3) anything besides a man. You would think these would be a pretty easy rule to pass, and yet it is surprising how few films actually passed the test before 2015.
Many consider the Bechdel Test the bare minimum required to portray an autonomous female character. That is why, for the purpose of this list, we will only be discussing films that feature strong female leads who pass this test.
5. Jessica Williams
The incredible actress and comedian, Jessica Williams, was born and raised in Los Angeles. At 22, Williams became the youngest correspondent on The Daily Show, as well as the first Black women hired by the show. Though she is most known for co-hosting the podcast 2 Dope Queens with Phoebe Robinson. Williams was also a strong female lead in People Places Things (2015), where she met and became friends with writer and director James C. Strouse.
Enthralled by Williams’ talented and captivating presence, Strouse was inspired to write The Incredible Jessica James (2017), of which Williams was the executive producer. Incredible is right! Williams’ raw and unabashed talent demands the spotlight, and she does not disappoint. Even J.K. Rowling was inspired to write a character for Williams in her newest installment to the Harry Potter universe, Fantastic Beasts: The Crime of Grindelwald (2018).
“Jo flew down to make sure I was okay with how my character appeared. She wanted to give me autonomy as a woman and also as a Black woman. That’s incredible on such a massive production. She wanted my character to look the way that I felt like this character should look.”– Jessica Williams, in an interview with The Cut
Since both hosts of 2 Dope Queens, Williams and Robinson have recently become extremely busy with filming and new projects, and they, unfortunately, had to cancel their HBO special. Williams had a full year in 2019; staring in the coming-of-age comedy directed by Olivia Wilde, Booksmart (2018), and Corporate Animals (2019) with Demi Moore and Ed Helms.
The Incredible Jessica James (2017)
William’s character, Jessica James, is a force of women empowerment and one of the strongest female leads. Direct, honest and unapologetic, the thespian playwright is coming to terms with a break-up while receiving rejection letters for her plays. The confident independent woman gives back what she receives, however.
She is open about her rejection and immediate perception of people, leaning into her flaws. This makes her strong female lead relatable to a lot of viewers. The plot is incredibly positive, uplifting and validating (especially for aspiring writers working minimum wage jobs). Something you don’t see in a lot of films these days.
Born Nora Lum, Awkwafina began her career in the entertainment industry as a New York City rapper. She is best known for her song “My Vag,” a response to Mickey Avalon’s “My Dick,” after the release of her music video. The rapper-turned-actress also has an affinity for comedy. She joined Girl Code, for season 3 and has her own talk show on Verizon Go90, “Tawk.” The entertainer has a strong Asian heritage, having relatives who immigrated from China and North Korea. She has stated she is proud to represent the Asian community, but fights against that being her only defining characteristic.
“I’m Asian, obviously, but if you can’t see that what I’ve done so far really doesn’t have a lot to do with that, so much as other stuff, then that’s what I kind of have an issue with.”-Awkwafina, in an interview with NBC
The young rapper has since catapulted into Hollywood stardom. First, staring in a supporting role in Neighbor’s 2: Sorority Rising (2016), alongside Beanie Feldstein, of Booksmart. Then, in 2018, staring as one of the strong female leads in the Ocean’s franchise new Ocean’s 8. Her supporting role in Crazy Rich Asians (2018) garnered her three nominations and an award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinema. 2018 also marked the release of her new E.P. “In Fina We Trust”. And, if you’re visiting New York City, be sure to check out her comical local’s travel guide, Awkwafina’s NYC.
The Farewell (2019)
A24’s new production The Farewell (2019), directed by Lulu Wang, stars Awkwafina in the strong female lead role. The film premiered in August and has awarded her role a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy. Awkwafina’s character, Billi, straddles two cultural identities, struggling to choose a moral path. She and her family travel to Changchun, China to spend time with her terminally ill grandmother.
However, the twist being they are keeping the grandmother’s diagnosis from her. The emotionally tumultuous dark comedy examines whether it is kinder to lie to a person about their impending death or let them suffer the consequences of knowing the truth. Billi wrestles with the opposing beliefs of Chinese culture versus her modern views of truth and individualism. This conflict is typical for bicultural individuals and is not often discussed in such a deep manner in films.
3. Ellen Page
Canadian actress Ellen Page is sick and tired of Hollywood. In 2017, Page spoke out against the sexual harassment she experienced onset of X-Men: The Last Stand. A young actress at the time, Page recalls how she was forcibly “outed” by Bret Ratner in a crude and disrespectful way. Lucky for us that didn’t keep her off the big screen. Her breakthrough role as a pregnant high schooler, in the Oscar-winning film Juno (2007) made her the youngest Oscar nominee for Best Actress. By the age of 20, Page had won 26 awards.
The early success in her career granted her many more strong female leads, such as the young women finding herself through roller derby in Whip It (2009), directed by Drew Barrymore. A year after Page came out at the Human Rights Campaign’s Thrive Conference, she accepted the role of Stacie Andree, an openly gay lead character in Freeheld (2015). The film follows police officer Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) fighting for pension benefits for her partner while battling lung cancer.
The young activist used her popularity from Juno to draw attention to the genocide in Myanmar, by dictator Senior Gen, in 2008. Recently, the newly married actress has been working in documentaries. She has produced episodes of Gaycation, which she also stars in. Both seasons of the Vice documentary were nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in Outstanding Unstructured Reality Program. Just this year, Page also starred and co-directed the documentary film, There’s Something In The Water (2019). The film featured Black and Indigenous Nova Scotian women fighting against the environmental degradation of their communities.
Page’s contemporary role in in Tullulah opposes gender norms. The film portrays three unconventional versions of female figures, the young woman, the mother, and the wife. Page plays Lu, an unemployed young woman living out of her car. Lu is repulsed by ordinary life and runs away from all its responsibilities, both physically and emotionally.
However, she finds herself unexpectedly kidnapping a toddler that is being grossly neglected by her eccentric mother. Unable to care for the child herself, Lu imposes upon an ex-boyfriend’s mother coming to terms with her divorce, Allison Janney. The strong female leads in this film are examples of women crushed by the responsibilities society assigns them. They begin coming to terms with the fact that they are not capable of meeting the standards of these roles.
2. Constance Wu
As the first Asian American nominated for Best Actress in 40 years, Wu advocates for Asian representation in the media and brings more diversity into the film industry. The confident, quick-witted activist has also spoken openly against Hollywood’s sexual misconduct allegations. Lena Dunham commends Wu for speaking up during a time when many women feared losing work for doing so. The young actress also joined Hilary Clinton on her 2016 Presidential campaign.
Wu’s gift for acting finally gained the recognition it deserved when she was cast as Jessica Huang, in Fresh Off The Boat. Her performance on the show won her Asian American Award for Female Breakout Artist of the Year and ten nominations; four of which were consecutive Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Actress In A Comedy. However, the rising star stays humble working for many charities including The Big Hundred which promotes civic engagement.
“In our current political climate, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. Engaging in small and meaningful acts of empathy and compassion is a way to combat that overwhelming feeling and transform it into approachable activism.”Constance Wu, in an interview with Teen Vogue
Prior to her celebrity, Wu also stared as a strong female lead in The Feels (2017). The comedy-drama takes place on a bachelorette weekend getaway. Wu’s character, Andi, discovers her wife-to-be has been keeping a secret from her. Her most recent project, Hustlers (2019), premiered this September. The crime drama was written and directed by Lorene Sfaria and stars Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Lizzo, and Cardi B as stripers who notoriously stole from their patrons. The film received raving reviews, with critics calling it “Goodfellas in a G-string.”
Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
In Crazy Rich Asians, Wu plays an academic Chinese-American woman traveling to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s parents. The city girl is taken aback by the family’s traditions, especially when she discovers they are one of the richest families in the region. The movie is a refreshing new take on The Prince and Me (2004), the teen drama answering every girl’s dream: what if my boyfriend was a prince?
The conflict stems from a young girl not knowing the proper customs of the higher class alongside the well-to-do family that fears she is only there for their money. Wu’s character, Rachel Chu, has a hard time keeping up with the family’s traditions. She must either decide to change who she is or leave her boyfriend. Rachel’s conflicting identity forms the motif of the film and proposes modernizing tradition and empowering women.
1. Saoirse Ronan
As a young, blossoming, activist, 25-year-old Irish-American Saoirse Ronan has been all over the big screen working with strong female leads. Ronan’s roles range from a teenage assassin in Violet & Daisy (2011) to the cousin of Queen Elizabeth I in Mary Queen of Scots (2018).
At fifteen, the young actress won Critics’ Choice Movie Award for Best Young Actor for her role as Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones (2009). She is also a three-time Oscar nominee for her performances in Atonement (2008), Brooklyn (2015), and Lady Bird (2018). Ronan acts as the ambassador for the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. She also advocates for the removal of Ireland’s Eighth Amendment banning abortion.
Lady Bird (2018)
Directed by Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird maps the erratic emotional path of a high school girl discovering who she is and who she wants to associate herself with. The strong female lead is a realistic example of the ever-changing-colors of a teen girl trying to fit in.
As an eccentric and outgoing character, Lady Bird is open to trying new experiences and new looks. The movie also illustrates a rough and unstable mother-daughter relationship, showing us the toll it takes on both parties. Ronan’s work awarded her a number of film critic awards, including a Golden Globe for Best Actress.
Women To Watch!
You’ll be hearing a lot more about these women in the future. I would highly recommend any of the films, shows, albums, or podcasts mentioned above. This is the entertainment of the future: bulldozing gender norms and having more intersectionality between sexuality, race, and the entertainment industry. Lately, there has been in a lull in innovative stories, a lot more remakes and reinterpretations of older films. However, by including more cultures and experiences in media we are introducing new stories. The incredible women staring as these strong female leads are spearheading the movement of total equality represented in media.