Home / Trends & Insights  / What He Said: A heBOOMer’s View of Females in Films

What He Said: A heBOOMer’s View of Females in Films

The Five Strongest Women in the History of U.S. Cinema

You may ask, “What is he doing on here — writing for sheBOOM? And about strong women in movies??”

Well, let me go way back to my childhood. I grew up with a great dad and mom, and I spent many a cold, rainy, or snowy winter weekend afternoon watching old movies with my mom. Her love for movies shaped my admiration of them and of the glorious, larger-than-life, genuine characters that graced the tremendously acted and written movies of the golden era.
I grew up with no brothers and three tremendously smart and wonderful sisters who also loved old movies and their storylines. Each year my family would have an Academy Awards party.
Throw it together, and add in a splash of sheBOOM, and I felt the need to acknowledge the five strongest women in movies. Not easily done. And in the spirit of sheBOOM, I added a criteria screener that their strength was not a derivative of a man in their life (so, Princess Leia, sorry) and had to be real women, not sexy caricatures.

My picks for the top five strongest women in movies:

  1. Ma Goad, played by Jane Darwell, under the category of “Saving her Family.” Darwell won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1940 for her role as the family matriarch in The Grapes of Wrath. In the worst depths of the Dustbowl Depression era, and through the loss of family members, their home, a son to prison and more, Ma Goad, with an upbeat spirit and winsome-but-powerful soul somehow held the family together through it all with the most loving — but firmest — grip.  
  2. Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid  Bergman, under the category of “Saving Democracy.” Bergman plays the heroine who chooses to stand by her (previously believed deceased) husband who is an anti-Nazi freedom fighter, over her love for Humphrey Bogart’s character, with whom she had fallen in love in Paris when she though her husband was dead. Threatening to shoot Bogart’s character to obtain the papers to enable her husband to leave Casablanca, and then not leaving her husband and his cause when she could have (with Bogart’s character), Ilsa Lund defined “strength” in new ways and stood by her small-but-crucial role in saving democracy.
  3. Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, under the category of “Saving Humanity from Aliens.” One of the first of her kind in movies (and I am focusing primarily on her role in Alien vs the sequels), Ripley was a normal, highly respected crew member of a deep space ship whose journey back to earth is interrupted by a signal from a seemingly abandoned planet. When the previously never-before-encountered alien makes its way on the ship and kills the crew, Ripley is left to just her guile, ingenuity and toughness to ultimately defeat this devastatingly vicious creature.
  4. Sarah Connor, played by Linda Hamilton, under the category of “Saving Humanity from Machines.” In the context of the first two Terminator movies, Connor is the protagonist, single 20-something woman-turned-thirty-something single Mom. She is faced with staving off Terminators from the future (determined to kill her, the father of her child, and then her son), who understand she will be the mother of the leader of the human resistance against machines, once machines have gained self-awareness and seek to destroy their enemy, humans. Soulful and vulnerable, but physically and mentally as tough as they will ever come, Connor set an impossibly high bar for any woman who would play such a role in the future.
  5. Scarlett O’Hara, played by Vivien Leigh, under the category of “Saving Herself.” Everyone knows Scarlett’s lead role as the southern belle heroine who outlasts and outsmarts the northern Union soldiers, and who seemingly needs men throughout the movie – but, it turns out, what she wanted and what she needed were different things. She was stronger than them all and needed only herself and “land,” her family plantation, in the end.
If you agree or disagree, let me know! And enjoy the Oscars on February 26th!
Jim D’Arcangelo is the concept creator of sheBOOM and is currently on the sheBOOM advisory board.