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Everyone loves a fearsome woman with a ‘kickass’ role in a film (yes, that’s me using an Americanism!). But who are the best? Well, we rummaged through our DVD collections – and even played a VHS or two – to find out once and for all.
Our criteria were tough – we wanted women who challenged representations of women; or who would scare you in a dark street; or who transcend the archetypal roles of witch, wife, waif and whore. Not all the women characters we love are exactly paragons of feminism – nor should they need to be – but we did feel it was important to sift out those pseudo-feminist characters that actually fulfil male power fantasies (Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, anyone?).
It was hard. We had to exclude women from TV shows. We tried to include women from diverse backgrounds, and we had to grudgingly admit that some of these women are written by men and, while problematic in various ways, nevertheless paved the way for many of the more positive role models that have appeared in film, TV and books since.
With all that said, some of these entries got picked not for any of the above credentials – but just because we saw them and thought, ‘Holy fuck, Tina Turner!’ I mean, who doesn’t love Tina Turner?
20. Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer)
Because Pfeiffer is simply fierce. Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman is clearly more feminist – and possibly queer – but the intensity of Pfeiffer’s portrayal inspired many – and made DIY catsuits all the rage. If it wasn’t for Pfeiffer, there’d be far fewer rubber queens out there too!
19. Aunty Entity (Tina Turner)
18. May Day (Grace Jones)
If only they hadn’t killed her! Does anyone truly believe May Day would care that Zorin abandoned her? I don’t buy it either.
17. Lola (Franka Potente)
Run, Lola, run! (With fierce hair.) In slick German thriller Run Lola Run, Lola must save her boyfriend in a twist on the usual thriller narrative. Lola’s boyfriend, Manni, becomes the ‘damsel in distress’, as it were, and Lola the knight who must beat the odds (and the clock) to save the day and win her prize.
16. Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts)
Erin Brockovich was a real woman, y’all. And she kicked arse. Roberts’ portrayal of Erin B was outstanding – proving beyond a doubt that Julia Roberts is a master of her craft.
15. Joan of Arc (Ingrid Bergman)
Joan of Arc is an inspiration to many. She is the archetypal kickass woman – a martyr, a hero, a saint. Swedish actor Ingrid Bergman portrayed the iconic Joan of Arc in the 1948 film. Joan of Arc is, for many, the epitome of the word ‘heroine’. She stands for defiance and conviction in the face of adversity. As Garbage’s Shirley Manson sings in the raging ‘Vow’, ‘You burn me out but I’m back at your door / Like Joan of Arc coming back for more.’
14. Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore)
I mean, our Jodie’s a lesbian, so we love her anyway – and her vulnerable, intelligent and driven portrayal of Clarice Starling was intense! But Julianne Moore was tougher and definitely had that added kickass factor as an older, veteran Clarice who took shit from no one. Luckily, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs sequel dispensed with the book’s ending – where Clarice and Lecter ended up together – allowing her to retain the indomitable strength of character she won us over with.
13. Lucy Lawless (Xena)
Okay, so Xena: Warrior Princess was a TV show, but there was a made-for-TV movie or something – and anyway, THIS IS MY DAMN LIST! Played by Olympian Lucy Lawless, Xena became a lesbian icon, and the show ends with her and Gabrielle (her implied lover and travelling companion) being reunited in the afterlife and living multiple future existences together as soulmates. Awww.
12. Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh)
Those moves would make you gag. Literally. Malaysian actress Yeoh spoke English before she learned Cantonese, so she had to learn the lines for this role phonetically. But who needs words when you can cut a man down with a few swipes of your sword?
11. Tank Girl (Lori Petty)
So the film of Tank Girl was an odd thing – part musical, part comic, part dystopian comedy. And when you read the original Tank Girl comics, you realise they were pretty much as uneven, scatterbrained and haphazard as the film adaptation. Yet both the film and the comics succeeded because of their punk energy – their rebelliousness and refusal to sit neatly into a little box was what people loved. But mostly we loved the wackiness of Tank Girl herself and the surreal situations she got herself into. Lori Petty captured the manic, youthful spirit of Tank Girl perfectly.
10. Moro (Gillian Anderson)
Yeah, I’m an anime geek. So sue me. But Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Moro, Princess Mononoke’s wolf-god ‘mother’, is just fabulous. That husky, wolfish voice. Those sharp fangs. That ferocious personality. She could just as well be my mother.
9. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis)
She screams a lot. But she has a real androgynous beauty and she beats Michael Myers. Jamie Lee Curtis, meanwhile, is a spectacular actor and one with bags of personality. Unlike many of the other scream queens, Curtis went on to have a long and varied career in films.
8. The Bride (Uma Thurman)
You just would not mess with Beatrix Kiddo. She can use a samurai sword, punch her way out of a coffin and kill you with just a few taps on your pressure points. She is the ultimate efficient killer.
7. Lee Geum-Ja (Lee Young-ae)
Lee Geum-Ja is more hardcore than The Bride in Park Chan-wok’s 2005 revenge film Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. She doesn’t just slash her enemies to pieces, she lets the parents of her child-killing foe exact their own revenge – however they want. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is a stylish and brutal film, and Lee Geum-Ja is a smart and resourceful heroine, who doesn’t flinch in seeking her retribution.
6. Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp)
The original hero to kill Freddie Krueger, Heather Langenkamp came back again in A Night on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and (as herself) in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Langenkamp has an honest resilience that endears the audience to her. She fulfils many of the standard criteria for the ‘last girl’ – being virtuous and chaste – but I always read her and Curtis’ chastity as lesbianism. It’s not out of the question to imagine they weren’t in bed with the boys because they were eventually going to end up with each other, is it? Okay. Maybe that’s just in my head, then.
5. Selena (Naomie Watts)
I love 28 Days Later. Naomie Watts isn’t your average ‘last girl’. She’s hard as nails, great with a butcher’s knife, and knows which pills to pop and when. In fact she sounds like the perfect woman to take on a night out round Shoreditch – she can replace hacking up zombies with cutting down Shoreditch twats.
4. Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz)
This feisty kid isn’t afraid to fight (and kill) grown adults. She’s possibly unhinged, but she has a sharp eye for faubulous colours. She also doesn’t care about killing villains in spectacularly bloody fashion.
3. Jackie Brown (Pam Grier)
The original queen of the blaxploitation flick reaches her apotheosis in Tarantino’s take on the crime novel Rum Punch. Jackie Brown uses her wits to get her hands on half a million dollars – escaping the feds and Samuel L. Jackson’s murderous Ordell Roby. But the final scene is the best – with Jackie lipsynching along to Bobby Wamack’s ‘Across 110th Street’ as her heart breaks a little, with joy and relief bubbling through, and the weight of all she has sacrificed to win bearing down on her.
2. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton)
In the first film, Sarah Connor is a waitress who gets dragged along for the ride as Kyle Reece (Michael Biehn) tries to save her from Arnuhld’s Terminator. By the sequel she’s tough as old boots, muscular and driven. Plus, Sarah Connor knows how to use a gun, and isn’t afraid to do so.
1. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver)
The ultimate kickass woman in film. Although male writers have struggled to keep gender out of it (she’s in pants for the denouement of Alien, she’s given licence to kill in Aliens because she is a defensive mother, she is almost raped in Alien 3, and she cries when seeing her own clones in Alien Resurrection because it’s ‘a chick thing’), Sigourney Weaver is iconic throughout the series. Her portrayal of a woman who isn’t afraid of men, and is barely afraid of acid-dripping xenomorphs either, has been copied often and never, ever bested. Sigourney, you are a legend. You win. Period.