Erin Brockovich. Elle Woods. Leigh Ann Tuohy. Leading ladies that we all adore and all wish we could be a little more like. So often the gender inequality in film is subtle enough that it goes fairly unnoticed. But it’s an undeniable truth that movies which feature a strong, independent female lead (who isn’t just used solely as a foil or love interest for the male lead) aren’t exactly in abundance. When we do get treated to movies of the like, we cherish them, we watch them over and over again, and we tend to never forget the indelible characters which no doubt have shaped our own decisions as women. These girls aren’t perfect by any standards—but the reason we look up to them as our role models is because rather than give up or (more often the case) rely on a man to solve their problems, they choose to pull from their inner strength and in the end they come out on top of the world because they did things their way. Without further ado, let’s list the 20 greatest movies with fearless female leads!
20. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) – Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn)
Everybody knows the iconic image of the ever-graceful Hepburn standing in front of the Tiffany’s store on 5th Avenue, quietly indulging in a croissant, dressed in a floor length gown with black gloves, glam jewelry, big sunglasses, and a tiara to crown her messy yet elegant bun. Holly Golightly is the epitome of New York chic, roaming around in her cute apartment (which, admittedly, her many male suitors pay for), wearing gorgeous outfits and throwing lavish parties—yes, she may have a habit of latching on the nearest rich fella she sees, but Holly is a free spirit. In a manner quite different from the culture at the time, she is an independent woman who doesn’t need to bind herself to a man to have a purpose in life.
19. Flashdance (1983) – Alex Owens (Jennifer Beals)
While the strength of this film lies (as the title would suggest) in its incredible dancing and choreography, Alex and her exotic dancer friends help prove that women can be sexual and confident without selling their bodies to men. She’s a welder by day, a dancer by night, and remains fiercely independent as she tries to achieve her dream of joining a professional ballet school.
18. Basic Instinct (1992) – Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone)
Catherine is in many ways the anti-hero—she’s confident and extremely sexual, yet just dangerous enough to leave the audience wondering if she’s truly capable of the heinous crimes for which she is suspect. Women dominate the men in this film, and it is a satisfying, albeit a bit graphic, endeavor.
17. Clueless (1995) – Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone)
“As if!” How could this ever cheerful, bubbly, ditzy valley girl with a heart of gold not make the list? Cher may be materialistic to excess and lack intelligence, but she makes up for it by being selfless, kind, and a positive role model to her friends and her school. And it does help that she’s a fashion guru with an automated closet that is the stuff of dreams.
16. Across The Universe (2007)
There are several leading ladies in this musical drama (set to an all-Beatles soundtrack!). It was the late ’60s after all, and women’s empowerment was at an all time high—Lucy, Sadie, Prudence and all the girls in this film are as fearless as they are good singers. Lucy joins the anti-war protest movement, Prudence embraces her sexuality at a time when the LGBTQ+ community was barely on the radar, and Sadie—well, you’ll just have to witness her greatness for yourself!
15. Nothing But The Truth (2008) – Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale)
This movie is the female version of All The President’s Men in a way, except much more suspenseful. Kate Beckinsale delivers a memorable performance as a journalist who, while working on a story, uncovers a massive conspiracy that leads high up the political chain. Rather than give herself up, she stands steadfastly to her convictions, through investigations, threats, jail, and even prison—remaining strong through it all. She’s a model for all female journalists.
14. Kill Bill (2003) – The Bride (Uma Thurman)
For the record, there are several Tarantino classics which feature a strong female lead (Pulp Fiction, True Romance, From Dusk Till Dawn), but Kill Bill has to take the cake. Uma Thurman is, for lack of a better word, totally badass. She takes down anyone in her path—and she’s not even the only kickass female in the movie (lest we forget Lucy Liu’s breakout performance as well).
13. Legally Blonde (2001) – Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon)
She’s blonde, she likes wearing pink, she has a chihuahua named Bruiser—oh yeah, and she’s a Harvard law student who can shake it with the big dogs. Elle Woods may seem inane to her peers, but that’s all the more reason for their shock when she breaks all their expectations every single time—fabulously, of course.
12. Dirty Dancing (1987) – Francis “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey)
“Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” She may seem timid and conservative, but Baby proves that even the good girls can get a little dirty (then again, for Swayze, wouldn’t we all?).
11. 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) – Kat Stratford (Julia Stiles)
Kat is a feminist’s dream, wrapped up in a sarcastic sushi roll of awesome. She doesn’t conform to anyone’s standards, going from being the most popular girl in school to being a social recluse—and in the end, she proves that time-old rule that you don’t have to be anything other than yourself to be accepted.
10. The Sound Of Music (1965) – Maria Von Trapp (Julie Andrews)
“I have confidence in me!” sings Maria as she bravely marches to the Von Trapp family mansion where she is to become Fraulein to a staggering seven children. But it’s how she stands up to the intimidating Captain Von Trapp and makes him realize how poor a father he has been, that truly makes her an inspiration.
9. Pretty Woman (1990) – Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts)
Yes, she’s a hooker, but she’s also smart, funny, sassy and manages to court the love of an extremely wealthy lawyer and make him change his erroneous ways. He may be her knight in shining armor in the end, but as Roberts cleverly replies, “she rescues him right back.”
8. Silence Of The Lambs (1991) – Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster)
This film is not for the faint of heart, but Jodie Foster shines as FBI agent Clarice Starling, brought in to work with the notorious Dr. Hannibal Lecter to help solve a gruesome crime. Worth watching if you can handle the scary and grotesque.
7. Pretty In Pink (1986) – Andie Walsh (Molly Ringwald)
“I just wanna let them know that they didn’t break me.” Andie doesn’t fall into any of the classic stereotypes of an ’80s teen flick. She’s not popular or blonde, an athlete or a dancer. She’s a smart kid from the poorer side of town who designs all her own outfits, doesn’t let any richie bully her, and even snags the heart of one handsome and popular Blaine in one of the most adorably romantic end scenes of any rom-com. John Hughes was a champion of strong female leads but none were quite as special as Andie.
6. The Blind Side (2009) – Leigh Ann Tuohy (Sandra Bullock)
Leigh Ann might be a petite southern housewife, but make no mistake—she is tough as nails and never gives up on anyone she loves, making her not only admirable but easy to love as well. This role won Sandra Bullock an Oscar for best actress.
5. Chicago (2002)
Women’s prison narratives might be popular nowadays thanks to Orange Is The New Black, but we can’t forget the original—a group of female prisoners who share one thing in common: they all murdered their husbands. Devilish, sexy, and fiercely independent, these ladies prove that men are not irreplaceable (or untouchable).
4. Heathers (1988) – Veronica (Winona Ryder)
This darkly humorous cult classic turns the teen movie genre on its head. Veronica is the heroine because she doesn’t settle for the guy in the end (handsome as Christian Slater might be), but chooses to save the school, stop the glorification of teen suicide, and not conform to any social norms.
3. The Avengers (2012) / Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson)
Scarlett Johansson was the perfect pick to play by far one of the greatest female superheroes of all time. Black Widow is just perfection, there’s no other way to describe it.
2. Out Of Africa (1985) – Karen (Meryl Streep)
Many of you may have never heard of this 1985 film which earned Meryl Streep one of her (many) Oscar nominations, but it’s one that’s not to be missed. Yes, it is a love story to a certain degree, but what is more fascinating is the other storyline that exists—a woman who goes from being a spoiled society wife to a heroic icon who attempts to save the lives of all the South African workers on her vast lands despite all the hurdles she faces along the way. Truly an epic story of courage, love, and compassion, and you will never be the same after watching it.
1. Erin Brockovich (2000) – Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts)
The fact that this movie is based on a true story, and that Erin Brockovich is a real person, just makes this film all the more gratifying. Julia Roberts is on fire as the single mom and paralegal who ends up almost singlehandedly taking down a corrupt California power company that was polluting city waters. It’s an Oscar-winning performance but more than that, Erin Brockovich represents the idea that women can do anything they set their minds to, even if it is in a field traditionally dominated by men.
If there’s ever been a better time to binge-watch movie after movie, now is it!