Top 5 Female Protagonists in Films

I’m back with another film-related article (yes, they’re becoming my ‘thing’). However, in the spirit of International Women’s Day on Sunday, March 8th, today I will be covering some legendary female characters that have left a lasting impact on the silver screen. My list was based on personal experience and performance, so if your favorite movie isn’t on here, please don’t take it personally!


1.) Katherine Johnson in Hidden Figures

In the film Hidden Figures, the year is 1961, and Katherine Johnson works as a “human computer” in Langley Research Center. That is, she can solve complex math equations in mere minutes, without any use of technology on hand. However, she works in a segregated unit called the West Area Computers alongside other African American women. The unit is segregated based on sex and race, and the film does an outstanding job of pointing out the racism of the time period. 

The reason this movie kicks off my list is because of the scene, famously labeled now as the “Bathroom Scene” ( if you’ve seen this movie, you’ll know which scene I’m referring to). In this particular scene, Johnson’s boss, Harrison, is scolding her for ‘disappearing’ a few times a day for long periods of time when she should be working. Johnson responds angrily by stating that there “aren’t any colored restrooms for me here in this building” and goes on to explain the obvious racism she faces while working there, that the rest of the office is completely blind to. In this scene, her performance transcends the screen, and I think it’s safe to say every audience member felt the anger in what she was saying, and it was truly a powerful moment for films.

Dino Reichmuth Dino Reichmuth / Unsplash

2.) Elle Woods in Legally Blonde

Legally Blonde is another film that left a lasting impact past its original release date. Here, Elle Woods is a sorority college woman who falls in love with a guy named Warner. One night, he takes her to a fancy restaurant, and right when she thinks he’s going to propose, he drops a truth bomb on her, explaining how he’s dumping her because he plans on going to law school. When Elle explains she wanted to go with him, he states that she isn’t “serious” enough for it, and thus kicks off the film’s plot for Elle to make it into law school.

Though this film is a comedy, I think Reese Witherspoon’s performance as Elle Woods was exceptional because while Elle could be viewed as a typical ‘dumb blonde’, by the end of the film she establishes herself as a strong, determined woman who will go the distance to achieve her goals. Additionally, while Elle is studying for the big exam, her sorority sisters, who don’t understand the importance of the exam, still support her and celebrate with her when she gets accepted into Harvard Law. For me, it was nice to see sisters supporting her goals, even if they didn’t understand her motives, and to see women supporting each other in different circumstances.


3.) Ellen Ripley in Alien

I know I’ve already written an article on analyzing Alien, but when compiling this list, I couldn’t leave Sigourney Weaver’s performance out. In the film, the crew of the spaceship Nostromo picks up a distress signal from a nearby planet and decides to investigate. When they do, the crew is slowly picked off by a hidden force, leaving Ripley alone to face the Alien herself. 

Weaver’s performance in Alien established her as one of my favorite characters in the film. Ripley goes from being a side character on the ship to become a strong, determined and quick-witted woman who defeats the Alien by sending him to float out in space. Additionally, this was one of Weaver’s first defining roles in cinema, so she did phenomenal as a “breaking” actress.


4.) ‘Diana’ in Wonder Woman

Though I am a huge Marvel fan, when I saw Wonder Woman for the first time, I felt a sense of pride in being a woman and having someone to look up to. Gal Gadot’s performance in Wonder Woman inspired young women around the world, and sent a message saying, “You don’t need superhuman abilities to be cool.” Her character development also played a large part in her influence, as she starts off as a naive warrior, over the course of the movie, she becomes an experienced superhero, which can be a beacon of hope for growth. 

Kellyn Simpkin-Strong Girl Back One Arm Kellyn Simpkin / Her Campus

5.) Hermoine Granger in the Harry Potter series

Although this is from a series and not from a standalone movie, Hermoine Granger quickly became one of the poster faces of the “strong, young female” category, for her bookish, witty character. In the film, Hermoine is dedicated to her studies, but when she isn’t studying or practicing spells, she helps Ron and Harry out with battling the dangers of the wizarding world, and she does it with her wits. Similar to Alien, Hermoine’s character was a huge breakthrough role for Emma Watson, and from her character in the movie, countless young girls had an intelligent, funny, and courageous role model to look up to in films. 


Though there are many other strong female lead roles I didn’t list here, without these characters, female representation in cinema wouldn’t be nearly as strong as it is today. In today’s films, there is a push for a more diverse field of women in movies, and I hope with time we can thank some of these earlier films for paving the way for fellow actresses alike. For International Women’s Day, who knows, maybe you can find a new favorite film that highlights women in every situation, whether it's from fighting villains or standing up for the morally right side of history.