The year in female protagonists

December 14, 2015

Laura Durkay singles out some great high points of the year in movies and TV.

2015 MAY come to be known as the year the U.S. film industry's gender imbalance got so terrible that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began investigating Hollywood for gender discrimination in hiring. A number of recent high-profile interviews and articles have highlighted the complex web of often-invisible barriers women--and in a distinct but parallel pattern, people of color--face in building careers in the film industry, whether they're A-list stars or crew members.

But despite the continued bleak picture for women behind the camera, 2015 was, by recent standards, a shockingly good year for women on screen. From one-armed warriors to Black trans women at the center of their own story, 2015 gave us an array of complex female characters on big screens and small, often in genres where they're most underrepresented.

While by no means an exhaustive list, here are some of the female protagonists who deserve your attention in 2015.


Jay Height, It Follows
One of the year's scariest and most inventive horror movies is also an extended metaphor for sexual assault and its aftermath. Tipping its hat to slasher genre conventions while cleverly subverting them, It Follows delivers two things many horror movies fail at: a team of teenage friends centered around Jay (Maika Monroe) who stick together, care about each other, and mostly live to see the end of the movie, and a novel and truly terrifying monster.

Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road

Like 2014's The Babadook, which draped a monster sock puppet over a story about mental illness, grief and the uncertainty and terror of motherhood, It Follows works brilliantly as both a movie and a metaphor. Forgoing jump-scares in all but a few key moments, It Follows leans so heavily and so successfully on another kind of scare--the anticipation and dread of waiting for the monster to appear--that it becomes the movie's main conceit. A dramatic score and the decaying industrial backdrop of Detroit complete the aesthetic to make this one of the best horror movies in recent memory.

Imperator Furiosa, Mad Max: Fury Road
Max Rockatansky may have his name on the franchise, but the plot of this post-apocalyptic masterpiece is set in motion by Furiosa (Charlize Theron), the one-armed, truck-driving, sharpshooting force of nature who singlehandedly makes you realize how cheated you've been by the all the bicep-deficient, impractically-clothed, token-lady-on-the-team characters who've become the norm for women in action films.

Simultaneously an action bonanza that runs over your expectations for big-budget set pieces and sets them on fire; an art film with cinematography that looks like a Romantic painting on acid; a story about women escaping sex slavery and leading a revolution against a warmongering, resource-hoarding, slave-owning tyrant; and a master class in non-dialogue-driven storytelling, Fury Road is a film that seems dropped into modern Hollywood from an alternate universe where summer tentpole movies and franchise reboots don't have to suck.

If you somehow missed the blockbuster that will be shaming every other blockbuster for years to come, find a Blu-Ray player and the biggest screen you have access to and watch this tour de force once for the explosions, and then five or 10 or 20 times more for the hundreds of visual details and subtleties of performance you'll be too full of adrenaline to notice the first time around.

Sin-Dee and Alexandra, Tangerine
A story about two Black transgender women who work as street prostitutes in Los Angeles could easily have gone in a number of terrible directions, from racial stereotype to rescue narrative. But Tangerine, one of the most talked-about films at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, stays grounded due to fantastic (and often hilarious) lead performances by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, and director Sean Baker's straightforward approach to depicting his characters' unglamorous lives and flawed relationships.

Shot entirely on an iPhone 5S, the film fires you into a layer of low-income Los Angeles rarely depicted on screen. Almost every character with a speaking role is working class or employed in the informal economy.

They walk and take public transportation to get places, and hang out in donut shops, cheap motels and the back rooms of taquerias. The hot, flat, gritty aesthetic of the iPhone footage is perfectly matched to the world Tangerine depicts--often harsh, but not without beauty.

Kate Macer, Sicario
After watching Sicario, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's unrelentingly bleak take on the drug war, all the way through to its shocker ending, you may find yourself debating who the true protagonist of the movie is. But we see most of the action through the eyes of steely FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), and her limited information about the events unfolding around her is part of what makes the film so terrifying.

Sicario is a film in which nothing is as it seems, and true to form, Kate is introduced to us as a standard Strong Female Character, dressed in SWAT gear and winning shootouts with unsavory criminals. But the film proceeds to twist that trope until it breaks, giving Kate an atypical, sometimes uncomfortable, and ultimately much more interesting journey.

Emily Blunt's virtuoso performance should put to rest any concerns that her role should have been rewritten for a man.

Edith Cushing, Crimson Peak
Director Guillermo del Toro says Crimson Peak is a "gothic romance" and not a horror movie. Its writer protagonist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) describes her own work as "not so much a ghost story as a story with a ghost in it," which is just as accurate as a description of the film.

There are ghosts in Crimson Peak, to be sure, and an elaborately rotting manor house full of family secrets, and plenty of blood gets spilled in the third act. Shy, bookish Edith turns out to be more than a match for her antagonist, her unhinged sister-in-law Lucille Sharpe, played by Jessica Chastain with total commitment.

The acting and writing are deliberately a touch melodramatic, which may not be to every audience member's taste, but the breathtaking visuals and delightfully scenery-chewing performances from the three leads invite unabashed wallowing in the film's aesthetic, which is beautifully constructed.

Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
The final installment of the dystopian YA franchise featuring teen revolutionary Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is not the series' strongest. It's when the narrative feels most constrained by Suzanne Collins's pacifist leanings and her general pessimism about the capacity of ordinary people to run society without demagogues and figureheads. And the sappy coda to the romantic storyline may make some viewers groan.

But it's worth stepping back to appreciate the franchise as whole. In addition to making Jennifer Lawrence into an A-list star, the four movies combined have grossed over $1.4 billion in the U.S., and will likely surpass $3 billion worldwide. Averaged out across the franchise, they have been more financially successful than the Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Transformers, Indiana Jones, Twilight and Marvel Cinematic Universe films.

While the "Katniss Effect" may not be as immediately noticeable as filmmakers telling stories with female protagonists would like it to be, there is no doubt that the franchise has proven an action movie with a teen girl hero can turn a profit.

The films would certainly have made plenty of money had they been less well crafted, but they have consistently featured amazing production design, top-notch special effects and quality performances from respected actors. (Philip Seymour Hoffman's half-finished performance in the final film is well disguised, but noticeable.)

But it's the story of solidarity and revolt against inequality and state violence that makes them resonate. How many blockbusters or young adult novels can claim to have inspired graffiti in St. Louis and protest salutes in Thailand?

Carol Aird and Therese Belivet, Carol
This gorgeous, deeply romantic and ultimately hopeful story of forbidden love between two women in early 1950s New York City rests on a pair of stellar performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.

Blanchett plays the title character, a married, wealthy woman in the middle of negotiating custody of her young daughter with her soon-to-be-ex-husband when she falls for the much younger Therese, a department store clerk and would-be photographer. While the differences of age, class and sexual experience between them could make the relationship seem unequal, the shared risk of their secret love affair, and the struggle both women undergo to pursue it, binds them together.

The cautious advances and highly coded flirtation the time period demands require extraordinary acting skill to pull off, and both Blanchett and Mara excel at loading meaning into a glance or a smile or a subtle touch. While the social cost of their relationship is high, this is ultimately a film about choosing to be true to yourself despite the risk.


Liv Moore, iZombie
Zombie protagonist gets job in morgue so she can eat brains; starts seeing the last memories of the murder victims she snacks on and finding their killers; and pretends to be psychic to cover up the brain-eating habit--while also dealing with a brain-selling zombie antagonist, the amoral CEO of an energy drink company partially responsible for the zombie outbreak; and the collateral damage of taking on the personalities, obsessions and addictions of the people whose gray matter she ingests.

The setup of the CW's iZombie may sound absurd, but viewers looking for the next Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Veronica Mars have found their home. The show combines smart, snappy dialogue (and puns, so many puns) with well-drawn characters and compelling relationships, all wrapped in a world where the supernatural is just another day on the job for Liv.

Like Buffy, the show excels at using the genre elements and season-long story arcs to drive relationships and conflict between the characters, and Liv's weekly personality shifts as she absorbs everything from teenage angst to PTSD give lead actress Rose McIver an endless array of acting challenges.

Jessica Jones, Marvel's Jessica Jones
It didn't seem possible that Netflix and Marvel could top the wonderfully dark and gorgeously produced first season of Daredevil, but they've knocked it out of the park once again with Jessica Jones. Krysten Ritter's Jones is surly, damaged and hard-drinking, an ex-superhero moonlighting as a private investigator, with a past so awful you can imagine her dismissing Matt Murdock's origin story with a single, sardonic eye roll.

If Daredevil is, at its heart, a show about doing violence, Jessica Jones is about surviving it, and how you behave once someone in your life has done something horrible to you.

The show's main storyline deals with abuse, stalking, sexual assault and post-traumatic stress, and does not make for light viewing, but the material is handled superbly and Ritter's ability to swing effortlessly between rage, vulnerability and deadpan contempt is mesmerizing to watch.

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