We’ve had some really cool ladies from the small screen steal our hearts and motivate us to become a more badass version of ourselves this year. Just as well, there are more than a few female characters from feature films that came out this year (and some that will be coming out) that are pretty inspiring too. From superheroines to super villains, pistol-wielding prairie wives to brave teenagers, blue tang fish to mermaids, this list has a few great leading ladies that will remind you how much cinema has to benefit from well-written female lead characters of any age and background. Some of these leading ladies will really pull at your heartstrings (avoid Florence Foster Jenkins if you don’t want to be totally wrecked) and others will impress you with their grit, intelligence, unbreakability, and power. As always, beware of the spoilers that lie ahead, there’s a lot of them!
Check out the 15 Most Inspiring Female Movie Characters Of 2016 So Far.
15. The Ghostbusters – Ghostbusters
The genderbending remake of the 1984 cult classic Ghostbusters had its share of serious controversy during its marketing campaign earlier this year, with critics across social media voicing their distaste for the all-female cast. That didn’t stop the film from coming into fruition of course, and the it ended up with pretty positive reviews overall.
We all know the theme and storyline of Ghostbusters — a group of tough, goofy, and smart ghost hunters employ their services and ghost containment technology to the citizens of New York. The remake’s cast of badass women, played by Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, and Kate McKinnon, was inspiring to see. Rarely do we have the opportunity to see a feature film with a lead cast of women that aren’t pigeonholed into roles that involve being sidekicks, eye candy, or generally boring. The four Ghostbusters are front and center, and all of them have relatable and interesting traits, with McKinnon’s Jillian Holtzman nearly stealing the show all on her own. The group’s friendship is also inspiring — they save each other’s butts and work together in the best way possible to save the city. Who wouldn’t be inspired by them?
A sequel may or may not be in the cards for the team, but they more than held their own this summer.
14. Harley Quinn – Suicide Squad
Harley Quinn’s character in this year’s Suicide Squad (and her character in general, across comics and films and whatnot) is an intriguing one. She is the best-selling female character in comics, after all. With a huge fan base that thinks she’s simply the best, Harley is a very specific mix of clinically insane, dangerous, tough, funny, and adorable. While her abusive relationship with the Joker isn’t something to envy, there’s a ton of qualities to Harley that make her inspiring.
In her past, Harley was a decorated professional gymnast and a psychiatric student. She’s immune to most toxins, she’s a comedian in her own right with a long history of witty (and sometimes ditzy) one-liners, and she can go toe-to-toe with just about anybody. But best of all, Harley’s existence and rise to popularity has paved a very special and much-needed path for women of any size, sexual orientation, or mental stability to embrace comic books that have previously been somewhat disappointing and exclusive to many women.
Margot Robbie’s performance in the role was definitely one of Suicide Squad‘s most highly regarded elements, and we can’t wait to see more of her in the future.
13. Wonder Woman – Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice
Gal Gadot’s role as Wonder Woman in this year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice wasn’t entirely substantial. She only has approximately seven minutes of screen time in the film. However, her introductory appearance in BvS may be the beginning of full-on Wonder Woman mania — and we’re totally okay with that.
Wonder Woman as a character (across comics, animated series, and films) represents a powerful feminist symbol. She’s beloved by men and women alike, but her existence in the comic book world inspired little girls that read them. Wonder Woman has the moral compass of an amazing leader — she is lawful, good, and demands respect where it is due. The Amazon Princess is a powerful, strong-willed, and diplomatic woman who wants peace to prevail. She doesn’t initiate fights or escalates conflicts. Best of all, Wonder Woman represents the endurance of women, in that she is a formidable and respectable combination of nurturing and ferociousness. Young leaders look up to her, and it looks like she isn’t going anywhere anytime soon after her scene-stealing seven minutes of screen time in Batman vs Superman. A Wonder Woman solo film is finally being slated for 2017, after years of fans demanding to see Diana Prince’s moment in the spotlight.
12. Michelle – 10 Cloverfield Lane
10 Cloverfield Lane is a psychological thriller directed by Dan Trachtenberg, starring John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World fame. Winstead portrays Michelle, a young woman who has recently left her lover after a fight. While driving away in the dead of night, Michelle is hit by a truck. When she wakes up, she is injured and chained up on a mattress in what looks like an underground cellar.
Michelle was whip smart from the very beginning of her terrifying time in Howard’s (Goodman) post-apocalyptic bunker. When she first wakes up, she uses what few tools around her and some serious quick thinking in order to escape. While unsuccessful, she still proves to be a critically thinking, intelligent, and genuinely brave character all the way to the very last scene of the movie. Inspiring, indeed. Let’s hope none of us get stuck in her situation if the apocalypse happens, but hopefully we’ll share her courage.
11. Jane – Jane Got A Gun
Even if you’re not the type to enjoy a western, Jane Got A Gun may change your mind. This American action western film stars Natalie Portman as the titular Jane, a young woman who lives in a house with her husband Ham (Noah Emmerich) and their daughter Katie in the post-Civil War Wild West. Ham arrives home one day badly injured from a gun fight, and Jane knows the gang who did the damage. She enlists the help of an old lover, Dan (Joel Edgerton) to protect her injured husband and their child. But not everything is what it seems — we see all of the characters’ pasts linked together and the film ends in a crescendo of a blazing gun fight.
Jane was an inspiring character because she wasn’t necessarily fearless, but she was brave. She had been beaten down by her past as a war widow and forced prostitute and became someone that was unbroken, courageous, and strong. The film received decidedly mixed reviews from critics upon its release, but most claim that Jane Got a Gun is one of those satisfying, although not entirely unique, Wild West films that are enjoyable and inspiring.
10. Louisa from Me Before You
This year’s romantic drama Me Before You was based on a 2012 novel by Jojo Moyes. While it’s a significant departure from the action-packed films that have proceeded it on this list, it is a convicting and heartwarming (and heartbreaking) tale that’s well worth your time. Emilia Clarke, the talented actress behind Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones portrays the lead character, Louisa Clark.
Louisa is a spunky, funny girl who loses her job at a cafe and must find another means of employment. She gets a job as a caregiver for Will Traynor (Sam Claflin), a rich, young ex-playboy who is living his life in severe depression following a motorcyle accident that left him completely paralyzed. Initially annoyed by Louisa’s optimism, they eventually fall in love. However, Will decides to stick to a decision he made many months ago: he will be taken to Switzerland on his own account for an assisted suicide. Louisa does everything she can to show Will that life is worth living despite our hardships and pain.
Louisa is an inspiring character because despite her own demons, she remains enthusiastic about life and wants to share that with Will. We could all learn a little bit from Louisa’s positivity and endurance.
9. Florence from Florence Foster Jenkins
Meryl Streep could replace Ben Affleck as Batman in the upcoming Justice League movie and earn an award for it. She is one of those actresses that can completely reinvent herself for any role. She definitely proved that yet again with this year’s release of Florence Foster Jenkins, a period comedy film based on the life of a real-life New York heiress of the same name from the early 20th century. Florence Foster Jenkins is a naive woman who dreams of becoming an opera singer despite being pretty awful at every aspect of singing. Streep portrays the titular character in a film that, despite its occasionally saccharine nature, is an inspiring and tear-jerking drama.
Despite being somewhat ditzy and lacking conventional talent, Jenkins isn’t afraid to be herself and follow her dreams, even with her imperfections. To quote her, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.“
8. Dory from Finding Dory
It’s a little weird to put a fish on this list, but this fish had quite an inspiring story. Finding Dory‘s titular character (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) is a little Blue Tang whose signature trait is her chronic short-term memory loss, and she first appeared in the 2003 film Finding Nemo.
In Finding Dory, Dory remembers in a flashback that she had a family that lived at the Jewel of Morro Bay. She decides to go on her family-seeking adventure despite her disability with the help of a few friends. Nemo is nearly killed on the adventure, and his father chastises Dory for her disability and putting his son in danger. Dory is then captured by the Marine Life Institute and put in an aquarium, where she meets several other sea creatures with their own brand of disabilities — an octopus with past trauma, a beluga whale who thinks he has lost the ability to echolocate, and a shark with poor eyesight. In the end, Dory is reunited with her family happily, but it was her sheer perseverance that made it happen.
7. Sophie from the BFG
The BFG (short for Big Friendly Giant) is a fantasy live action film based on the 1982 children’s book of the same name by the acclaimed British novelist Ronald Dahl. This live-action adaptation follows the story of a little orphan named Sophie (played by Ruby Barnhill) who becomes friends with a gentle (and of course, friendly) giant who scoops her up and takes her to his fantasy world inhabited by giants. There, they encounter and seek to stop a gang of cruel people-eating giants that are trying to take over the world of humans.
Sophie is an inspiring character because despite being orphaned as a baby and having to deal with childhood insomnia, she manages to save the world of humans through her childlike wit and imaginative problem solving. She doesn’t let her tragic past keep her from going on this epic adventure, and her bravery as such a young child is inspiring. The film may have bombed in spectacular fashion for no just reason, but Sophie was certainly not to blame.
6. Amanda Waller from Suicide Squad
Is Amanda Waller from this year’s Suicide Squad a villain, an antihero, or severely flawed protagonist? Lots of fans of the film and DC Comics have various opinions about Amanda Waller’s character, but one thing is factual — she is a ruthless government official willing to do whatever it takes to preserve national security.
Eventually it is revealed that the squad’s mark is Waller herself, who is trying to cover up her role in Enchantress’ world-threatening attack. At the end of the film, Waller meets with Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) to fork over the information she has on known metahumans in exchange for protection against backlash for the events she was responsible for.
Waller is by no means perfect, or even a good person, but she is driven. She’s willing to do whatever it takes to succeed in what she sees as a moral duty to protect the citizens of this country, but she simultaneously has no qualms sacrificing the citizens of Midway City in order to save her own skin. She might have a bit of a savior complex, but she is the chaotic kind of inspiration for anyone out there that is afraid to take risks.
5. Thomasin from The Witch
The Witch is a refreshing, visually compelling horror film with a slow-burning plot that keeps you on the edge of your seat. This historical period supernatural horror film was directed by Robert Eggers and stars Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin. The film follows a seventeenth century Puritan family that is terrorized by evil forces in the woodland area behind their New England farmhouse.
After her infant brother is kidnapped by a witch that lives in the woods under her care, Thomasin is facing possible expulsion from her family for the child’s disappearance. They blame Thomasin for their grief and accuse her of witchcraft, which isn’t without its truths.
While Thomasin is a murderous, black magic-practicing witch, there is something about her character that is inspiring in a way. She lives in squalor and endures the prospect of living the rest of her days as a typical Puritan woman — getting married, having children…and that’s about it. Escaping this reality at the time is nearly impossible, which is probably what made the idea of joining a witch’s coven so appealing. Despite being a young girl, she had a power inside of her that was terrifying and strong.
4. Moana from Moana
Moana hasn’t quite been released yet, but the title character’s significance during the film’s ad campaign is already inspiring a lot of us. Moana is a young woman (voiced by newcomer Auli-i Cravalho) from ancient Oceania in the South Pacific, who uses her master navigator skills to set sail on an epic adventure to find a fabled island. On the way, she meets her hero, the legendary demi-god Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) and brings him along on her trip.
Moana has been described as an “anti-princess”, and for good reason. In the same vein as fiery-haired archer Merida from Brave and ice queen Elsa from Frozen, Moana won’t be yet another stereotypical princess pining after a prince in any sense. In the trailer, Maui actually refers to Moana as a princess, and she sternly corrects him. And she’s right — she’s a heroine, and a sorely needed one. She’s a master navigating, monster-fighting, world-saving awesome girl that’s inspiring us already.
Polynesian visibility has been greatly lacking in Disney films, and young girls (and adults alike) are already excited about the representation Moana will give young Polynesian heroines in training. If nothing else, the movie looks absolutely gorgeous.
3. Nancy Adams from The Shallows
This summer’s survival horror thriller The Shallows is reminiscent of a way too up close and personal Jaws. In the film, Blake Lively portrays Nancy, a talented surfer who is stranded far from shore and facing a Great White Shark on the hunt. The introduction to the film isn’t too relieving either — it opens with a young boy who finds a GoPro washed up on shore with footage of a man being brutally killed by the monstrous beast.
But Lively’s Nancy is no damsel in distress. She survives her intense encounter with the deadly shark with nothing but quick thinking, knowledge of sharks, and some Queen Mera-like swimming skills. While The Shallows perpetuates misguided assumptions about sharks and how violent they actually are, the film swayed away from conventional female-led horror film tropes (like the aforementioned damsel in distress nonsense). Nancy survives in the end, and nobody was her hero but herself.
2. Sara from The Huntsman: Winters War
The Huntsman: Winter’s War is the dark fantasy action-adventure sequel/prequel to the 2012 film, Snow White and the Huntsman, based on characters from classic fairy tales like Snow White and The Snow Queen. Think Frozen, but with a lot more gruesome deaths, outlandish CGI, and Charlize Theron.
In the film, the sister of Theron’s Queen Ravenna abandons her kingdom and builds one of her own. She kidnaps children to train as huntsmen that will one day conquer the world for her. Sara (played by Jessica Chastain) is one of these huntsmen, along with returning character Eric (played by Chris Hemsworth). The two fall in love and plan to escape Freya’s kingdom together, but their plans are foiled when the two are separated by Freya and Sara is imprisoned. Upon escaping, Sara joins Eric’s party of dwarves to end Freya’s reign once and for all.
1. Shan from The Mermaid
The latest gem from director Stephen Chow, The Mermaid didn’t receive a whole lot of exposure outside of China. In its home country, however, the film managed to break some serious records. After just 12 days in theaters, the film became the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time. And for good reason — the film has everything. Fantasy, science fiction elements, romance, and Stephen Chow’s great personal brand of comedy all blend together in spectacular fashion in this fantasy film.
In The Mermaid, a businessman named Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) purchases a sea wildlife preserve and uses sonar technology to clear the area of any remaining sea life. Merpeople live in the gulf, and send a young mermaid named Shan (Lin Yun) to assassinate him for his continuing crimes that are destroying their way of life. However, Shan isn’t that great at assassinating.
It doesn’t feel like much of a stretch to say that Shan feels like a more realistic and infinitely funnier version of Ariel from The Little Mermaid. She learns how to walk on her fins and pretends to be interested romantically in Liu Xuan, but fails at her honeytrap plot due to her backfiring assassination attempts. Shan is a down to earth character that believes money isn’t important, and her character is simple, engaging, and most of all, downright funny.
Which female character from the big screen do you feel has been the most inspiring leading lady of 2016? Sound off in the comments.