5 Films with Female Protagonists from Before the 2000s

Whenever I finish my work and have time to relax, my go-to activity is driving to the nearby Cineplex and watching a movie. I’ve always been drawn to movies for their creativity in constructing fascinating characters and elaborate storylines. I admit, I did get the idea for this article when I heard about the whole Batwoman TV series coming to life, which stars Ruby Rose as the female crusader herself (PSA: I love Ruby Rose. She is just amazing at what she does and I’m an extremely big fan of her work). Anyhow, the news of this series helped me conjure up the idea of taking a trip down memory lane to look at movies over the years with female stars! Let us roll out the red carpet!

Dorothy: Wizard of Oz (1939)

Let’s start by putting on a pair of red, sparkly shoes. Dorothy was a sweet, little and somewhat naïve girl, but that just added to the character. In this movie, we see Dorothy whisked away by a tornado into a strange place, the rather enchanted Land of Oz. Here she encounters a bunch of wacky characters like the Cowardly Lion (my favorite), the Scarecrow and the Tin Man. She also encounters a witch. I admit, it has been forever since I watched this film so my memory is slightly foggy. However, this doesn’t deter me from remembering how it was one of my favorite musical films. It’s a really cheery movie that is great for any family movie night. It also displays a modest, sweet demeanor that was a common cliché with female characters in early times. One could say it was reflective of how females were supposed to act in this sweet and considerate manner during this time period.

Scarlett O’Hara: Gone with the Wind (1940)

Fun fact, Gone with the Wind is the highest-grossing film ever in Canada. It has held this record for almost 80 years, which is astonishing. This movie follows Scarlet during the U.S. Civil War/ Reconstruction. It was a hard time that affected many. Even though this film came one year after the Wizard of Oz, one could distinguish a difference in their respective female leads. This is certainly a romance movie as the pacing of the film is controlled by the events related to Scarlett’s attempts at wooing and successfully getting her love, Ashley Wilkes. Though it is simply more than that. It is a film that demonstrates Scarlett’s immense determination as she pushes through various obstacles, which help progress her character. She transforms from an inexperienced, unaware individual to one who could stand on her own two feet while keeping her head up high. Scarlett is indeed an intellectual character who sees success in running her father’s plantation, which should only reinforce how dope she is.

Sandy Olsson: Grease (1978)

The new exchange student for the upcoming school year, a blonde bombshell, the girlfriend of Danny Zuko and a really talented lady who is quite preppy and proper are all ways to describe Sandy. She is a model student who respects everyone she meets, is trusting and is all-around wholesome. If someone just like Sandy Olsson existed in real-life, I would most certainly want to befriend them and would certainly look up to them. However, she does go through a transition in which she becomes more outspoken and confident with herself. Just watching her presence on screen really resonated with me. This is another instance of how women in old movies were made to take on more conservative and reserved roles due to social norms, though she does end up getting past those norms, which bears parallels to Scarlett O’ Hara.

Mia Wallace: Pulp Fiction (1994)

Nothing gets me on the edge of my seat quite like an action movie. Pulp Fiction is a cult classic movie that really defined the 90’s movie scene, courtesy of the talented Quentin Tarantino himself. Enough about the movie, as we should just dive straight into Mia Wallace. She sure knew how to rock bangs. Sexy, confident, cynical and fashion-forward are all words we could use to describe Mia in Pulp Fiction. Who was she before the film’s events? All we really learned about her from the movie was how she was the wife of gangster Marsellus Wallace. There is a lot of mystery and uncertainty that surrounds her name. However, it did further Mia Wallace’s impression as a notable Femme Fatale within cinema history. Maybe the lack of information about her existence was intentional so that it could focus on the most crucial parts of herself, that really embodies a tenacious woman with a kind heart.

Every Disney Princess (1937-Present)

If you know about Disney, then there’s no need to explain this entry. Each princess possesses a phenomenal dynamic. They feel larger than life in relation to their particular fairy tale. Long story short, there is a wide group of these princesses and how iconic they are will forever be cemented in the films. There is a wide diversity of princesses as well, which is only becoming more inclusive as time passes. Remind me to binge some Disney movies when I get back home for Reading Week!

Reflecting on this list, it’s crucial to note the key archetypes of the portrayal of women within movies. It is evident that these films, at their respective times, helped give a slight glimpse into how women were expected to act and think. On one hand, we had the “goody-two-shoes” persona; they were the ones that fit right into the mold of a passive and courteous woman. They were supposed to act a certain way and be high maintenance. On the other hand, we have the “bad girl” or better classified as the “femme fatale.” Rather than embody this cute aura, they show a more sultry side and are more out-there. By out-there, I refer to how assertive and strong-minded these particular characters are. Indeed, these archetypes are based upon stereotypes and the majority of female protagonists (from back in the day) can be easily classified as cookie cutters falling into these two categories. 

The point that I am trying to reinforce is to understand how far we have come. We have a much wider and versatile range of personalities that female characters can take on. Those two archetypes stated above started as generic and bland due to the limited traits associated with females. However, the movies listed show a slight progression where women are not solely rebels nor angels in great spirit. Women are now portrayed with more varied combinations between these personalities such as the mastermind, the psychopath, the sole survivor and so forth. This clear change can be seen at the start of the 20th century. Nevertheless, it is good to see just how far we came from. What’s next though? For one, we could have more representation of female directors. I am aware of a few who do have the creative potential to make something beautiful, but their work is still underground. If these up and coming female directors were to hit it big, who knows how well their roles will be received. I only expect better things from here.