Fantastic Female Movie Characters

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Award-winning journalist and novelist L.J. Sellers interviews Professor Kathleen Rowe Karlyn, a film studies expert, who shares her top ten female film characters.

As the author of The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter, Kathleen is drawn to “independent woman who hold their ground.” This list she says, “represents the range of ways strong and interesting women can appear in film and on TV.”

1. Charlotte Vale, played by Bette Davis in Now Voyager (1945). “Davis plays a character of great dignity and strength who demonstrates a woman’s capacity for self-realization. Her character overcomes great challenges, and her transformation is inspiring. This a classic in the genre of women’s weepies.”

Courtesy Metro Goldwyn Mayer

2. The titular characters Thelma and Louise (1991), played by Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon. “This film is historically important. It’s shocking how much controversy there was when it first came out. I teach this film all the time, and even my male students are blown away by it. It’s a love story between women. It’s about girlfriends who put each other first and take care of business.”  

3. Jean Harrington, played by Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941). “Stanwyck played wonderful characters in all genres but I’m especially fond of romantic comedy and this is my favorite one. It’s literary, sophisticated, and funny. Stanwyck is smart, cool and sexy, and runs circles around Henry Fonda. She’s also vulnerable, but gets what she wants in the end.”

4. Mother and daughter characters, Rose and Loretta Castorini, played by Olympia Dukakis and Cher in Moonstruck (1987). This is one of the few films that show a strong mother­–daughter relationship. It has an intelligent script and a superb score that pulls together the operatic passions of romance and sex with a wry comedy. It has a wonderful sense of female power and solidarity, but also has loving men who adore these women.”

5. Antonia (1995) played by Willeke van Ammelrooy in Antonia’s Line. “I adore this movie. Antonia is a formidable figure of strength, a matriarch of heroic proportions. The film is about building a community based on feminist values and strong women. It’s inspiring, epic, wise, and brave—a utopian film about the power of women’s connections across time.”

6. Agrada, played by Antonia San Juan in All About My Mother. “Agrada is a transgendered woman who adores the pleasures of being a woman but does not give up aspects of her masculinity.  She is the soul of generosity and sophistication in a film that is filled with extraordinary female characters. Agrada embodies the pleasures of femininity in its construction. It’s about how we make ourselves in the image of our own fantasies.”

7. Vanessa Lutz, played by Reese Witherspoon in Freeway (1996). “Freeway is a pulp version of Little Red Riding Hood. It’s a bad B movie, but it took my breath away the first time I saw it. Reese Witherspoon plays the biggest badass little girl you have ever seen. She is one of the fiercest female characters I’ve ever seen on film. It’s my favorite action movie for girls.”

8. Nora, played by Brooke Adams, in Gas, Food Lodging (1992). Brooke Adams plays a single mother doing her best to raise two impossible teenage girls while also taking care of herself. This film is a beautifully realized portrait of a working class mother trying to do the right thing. It’s the daughter’s film, but it has one of the best mothers on screen—stoic, philosophical, poignant, and funny.

9. Hwei-Lan Gao played by Joan Chen in Saving Face (2004). “This wonderful romantic comedy is set in a Chinese American community in New York. Chen and her adult daughter break serious cultural taboos about sexuality and gender. Both of these women are unruly to the max. The daughter is gay, and the mother is a widow who gets knocked up, and I love it because these are things you don’t normally see in the movies.”    

10. Roseanne (1988-1997), played by Roseanne Barr in the TV series of the same name. “She’s not a movie star, but she’s a giant in popular culture, and I built the first phase of my academic career around her. She’s the ultimate unruly woman who breaks all the rules and remakes herself at will. Her legacy is enormous.”

L.J. Sellers, award-winning journalist and bestselling mystery/suspense novelist


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