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Female Leads In Movies

By Madeleine Gibbons-Shapiro, Staff Writer

photo by Sam Villanueva

In recent blockbuster films, there has been a notable increase in the number of strong female leads. From Daisy Ridley as Rey in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” to Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games” series, to Kelly MacDonald as Merida in “Brave,” women have been portrayed as powerful, independent, and complex heroines who are not defined by their boyfriends or their looks. This shift in Hollywood is evidence of the growing feminist movement in America, a positive and long-needed change. The move towards a more equal representation of men and women as leads in movies is a reflection of the progress towards gender equality we have already made, as seen in the growing number of female politicians, business leaders, scientists, athletes, and movie stars over the past decades, yet there is still a vast gap that has yet to close.

In the critically-acclaimed movie, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” protagonist Rey breaks the stereotype of female characters in action movies. For years, in all movies, but especially action movies, men have taken the role of engaging in combat and defeating the bad guys. Now, as seen by Rey’s toughness and courage, women are portrayed as heroic instead of delicate and weak. In multiple scenes of the movie, Rey overrides what her fellow male characters have to say and takes things into her own hands. She is able to drive the Millennium Falcon to save herself, BB-8, and Finn from First Order forces, and beats the evil mastermind Kylo Ren in an epic lightsaber battle. Rey’s strength and ability to take control of a situation without the assistance of a male counterpart shows how even record-breaking movie franchises like Star Wars can now feature female leads who are independent.

Similarly, in “The Hunger Games,” Katniss Everdeen uses her signature bow and arrow along with her cunning wit, resilience, and dedication to her family to win the 74th Annual Hunger Games and start a national revolution against the genocidal Capitol government. While she does have an on-screen love interest, fellow tribute Peeta Mellark, she does not depend on him and is clearly able to fight her own battles. The fact that Katniss is able to lead a rebellion more or less single-handedly instead of cowering in the face of the enemy shows just how far female film characters have come.

Disney’s “Brave” tells the story of a princess like no other; Merida makes it clear that she won’t conform to a stereotype when she exhibits her desire to choose her own fate. She refuses to agree to a traditional arranged marriage, causing a succession of dramatic events involving her bow and arrow, her mother turning into a bear, and a witch. Merida is arguably the most progressive, feminist Disney princess of all time– she shows her emotions not through uncontrollable lust for a man but through the relationship between her and her mother. Merida portrays women as fearless, self-reliant, and courageous, and her role as a strong princess appeals to children of younger generations as well as older ones.

Women have been crammed into diminishing constraints since the beginning of time. The recent change in Hollywood moves away from showing women as weak and over-emotional, and towards a portrayal of women as complex, deep characters with not only a capability for emotion, but also a capability of strength and heroism. This shift spans across the film interest of people from all generations: from children who watch “Brave” to adults who marvel over “Star Wars”. The gradual emergence of strong female leads is certainly proof of the break of a barrier, but it also begs the question: What took so long?