11 Strong Movie Heroines That Broke the Mold for What On-Screen Women Can Be

11 Strong Movie Heroines That Broke the Mold for What On-Screen Women Can Be

While the nominees for this year's Oscars were decidedly less than diverse, a silver lining can be found in considering the powerhouse roles of the Best Actress nominees. Julianne Moore's moving portrayal of a professor's rapid descent into Alzheimer's disease, Reese Witherspoon's intrepid depiction of a young woman's 1,000-mile trek through the wilderness and Marion Cotillard's powerful take on a hardworking factory worker struggling to save her job have all been praised, rightly so, for their groundbreaking depictions of female strength and complexity.

But these nominees couldn't have portrayed such interesting and complex women without the groundwork lain by many actresses before them. Here are 11 of our favorite trailblazing heroines, who paved the way by breaking the Hollywood mold for the way we think about female characters onscreen.

1. Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada

Source: 20th Century Fox via The Movie Theme Song
Source: 20th Century Fox via The Movie Theme Song

We're all aware of the ridiculous double standard that lauds strong-willed bosses when they're men but calls women in the same roles "bitches." Streep's portrayal of the ultimate boss bitch, Miranda Priestly, humanized this stereotype in an arguably unprecedented way. 

Streep's editor-in-chief of the fictional Runway Magazine refuses to apologize for her vision and power, but also often pays painful personal costs for doing so. This nuanced portrayal earned Streep one of her many Oscar nominations, and undoubtedly inspired many to question the impossible standards we continue to place on women even after they've overcome substantial barriers to attain success.

2. Ellen Page in Juno

Source: Fox Searchlight via Half-Decent
Source: Fox Searchlight via Half-Decent

Juno McGuff, portrayed by Ellen Page, is far from perfect. Not only does she accidentally become pregnant (the central plot point of the film), but she also enters a less-than-appropriate relationship with her unborn child's potential adoptive father and sasses every authority figure in her life. 

She's also hilarious, intelligent and emotionally complex in a way that highlights how shallow and limiting the dominant portrayals of young women — too often cast as mere sexual stereotypes or accessories to male protagonists' self-discovery — really are. Juno's journey through teen pregnancy is both memorable and deeply human, and we could use more young characters like her. 

3. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise

Thelma and LouiseSource: MGM/MovieMix
Thelma and Louise  MGM/MovieMix

Davis and Sarandon's performances as best friends whose girls' weekend quickly devolves into running from the law (after defending themselves against an attempted rape) are undeniably iconic. The women not only fend for themselves in very difficult circumstances, but they do so with seriously badass gusto. These characters' ability to turn the gendered injustice of victim-blaming into a journey of self-discovery is something that can help women around the world, and across generations, derive the strength to stand up for themselves.

4. Emma Watson in Harry Potter

Source: Warner Bros. via Fanpop
Source: Warner Bros. via Fanpop

Plenty of Harry Potter fans recognize that the the true star of the series may not, in fact, be its namesake, but rather his brilliant sidekick Hermione Granger. Hermione loves learning and prioritizes it above all else — an all-too rare quality for a female character. Hermione is inarguably the brains of most missions portrayed in the films and books alike, and the fact that she is friends with two boys who are able to recognize and value her for just that is a remarkable model for young viewers everywhere. Watson's portrayal of Granger is every bit as delightful as it is unabashedly nerdy and, ultimately, empowering for young women everywhere.

5. Paraminder Nagra in Bend It Like Beckham

Bend It Like BeckhamSource: British Sky Productions/Dogo Movies
Bend It Like Beckham  British Sky Productions/Dogo Movies

Jesminder Bhamra, played by Nagra, has a calling: She wants to devote her life to playing soccer, and she's  talented enough to do so. But her conservative Indian family forbids her to pursue her dreams, based on gender-biased traditions. Jess must wrestle with the respect and love she feels for her family and her own passion — and she does so with a complexity and humanity that female characters are rarely allowed. This tale of self-discovery and, ultimately, self-respect, is a largely unparalleled, female-focused coming-of-age story, and Jesminder is a role model young female viewers would do well to emulate. 

6. Gabourey Sidibe in Precious

Source: Lionsgate via Black Cinema House
Source: Lionsgate via Black Cinema House

Women of color are notoriously underrepresented in film. Even when they are accounted for, their experiences are generally rooted in offensive stereotypes rather than authentic experiences. Sidibe's portrayal of Precious, however, is a notable exception to this rule. 

Precious' attempts to overcome her circumstances — including barriers like illiteracy, abuse and poverty — serve as a beacon of hope for countless individuals who contend with similar problems, but rarely see their reality reflected in our culture more broadly. This ultimately hopeful and inspiring portrayal is remarkable and proves that everybody's experiences deserve representation. 

7. Angelina Jolie in Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Mr. and Mrs. SmithSource: 20th Century Fox/MoviePilot
Mr. and Mrs. Smith  20th Century Fox/MoviePilot

Attention must be paid not only to characters that exemplify women's intelligence and emotional complexity but also to those destroying stereotypes about physical strength. Action movies have historically been coded as male, yet many actresses have worked to combat this idea — including Angelina Jolie. Jolie's portrayal of Jane Smith is an example of an unabashedly aggressive woman who remains well-rounded. Smith kicks ass, but she still grapples with balancing her career with her relationship. This isn't the typical nod to gender roles and the struggle for women to "have it all" — Smith simply proves women can be strong without entirely losing their humanity.

8. Emma Stone in Easy A

Easy ASource: Sony/HDwallpapers
Easy A  Sony/HDwallpapers

It's hard to think of a more powerful example of a war against adolescent slut-shaming than that of Olive Penderghast in Easy A. Stone's character calls out the sexist double standard of being labeled the school slut (the central conflict of the film). But she also uses it as an opportunity to empower herself on a journey of self-discovery. The portrayal gives countless young women who deal with slut-shaming in their own lives a fantastic role model to emulate. 

9. Sanaa Lathan in Love and Basketball

Love and BasketballSource: New Line Cinema/Silver Mulsion
Love and Basketball  New Line Cinema/Silver Mulsion

Love and Basketball tells the story of a young woman in pursuit of her dream to play professional basketball. Not only is this film remarkable for portraying a young woman of color pursuing a substantive goal for the purpose of self-fulfillment, but it also grapples with the type of balance familiar to any young woman embarking on her career: How does one negotiate personal, romantic relationships while pursuing other dreams? And how does a woman's struggle compare to that of young men? Lathan's portrayal of Monica offers viewers a humanized (and hopeful) exploration.

10. Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich

Erin BrockovichSource: Universal Pictures/NY Daily News
Erin Brockovich  Universal Pictures/NY Daily News

As an unemployed single mother-turned-justice crusader, Roberts conveys an incredible narrative about the quiet strength of "ordinary" women. Although she faces plenty of obstacles, Brokovich perseveres until justice is served. Her steady determination exemplifies an empowered woman who refuses to take "no" for an answer in the face of what's right. 

11. Viola Davis in The Help

The HelpSource: Dreamworks SKG/Carsey Wolf
The Help  Dreamworks SKG/Carsey Wolf

Although many critics have correctly pointed out that The Help's characterization of domestic workers in the 1960s South aligns with one of the few onscreen archetypes into which women of color are often forced, Davis undeniably brought a breadth of humanity to what could have otherwise been a flatly stereotypical character. Davis plays Aibileen, maid and caretaker to a white family. Aibileen bucks expectations that she will remain subservient and fights for justice throughout the film. What's more, she does so with as much compassion as strength.