#WomenInAction Month: The 10 Action Heroines Who Shaped My Childhood

By Bianca Garner

Being a kid in the ’90s there really wasn’t a lot of female-led action films like there are today. In a lot of ways I’m kind of jealous that girls (and boys) growing up today have the opportunity to watch female-led action films such as “Wonder Woman”, “Captain Marvel”, “Black Widow” and the new Star Wars trilogy. As a kid, the female action characters were very few and far between, which is probably why I favoured watching action films that weren’t aimed at children such as “The Terminator” and “Alien”. To see characters like Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley not only be the main characters but also kick-ass and drive the action and narrative forward just blew my mind.

I wasn’t really a ‘Girly Girl’ so I never really sought out Disney films, opting to watch films like “Cutthroat Island” and “Tank Girl”, films that bombed at the Box Office. For me, it didn’t matter that these films had flopped, all that mattered was the fact that these films were fun and featured witty, intelligent and strong female characters who didn’t put up with anything and did what they wanted. Even though I didn’t have the likes of Wonder Woman or Carol Danvers as a role model growing up, I am very grateful I had the likes of Helen, Lady Marion, Annie, Tank Girl, Thelma and Louise, Evelyn, Clarice, Ellen, Sarah and Morgan to be my role models and they all helped to shape the person I am today.

Number 10: Helen from “Waterworld”

Pretty much critically panned upon its release, “Waterworld” has a special soft spot in my heart. Like with “Cutthroat Island” I was completely oblivious to the fact that the film had so many issues in terms of its production and at the Box Office. As an six year old kid none of this information was of interest to me. Instead I was drawn to the film’s explosive action and impressive water stunts. I was also drawn to the character of Helen (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn).

Although Kevin Costner‘s character is the main driving force of the narrative, Helen plays a crucial role in the plot along with Tina Majorino‘s Enola. Helen has had to adjust to this hellish post apocalyptic world and isn’t afraid to fight back. Although Costner’s Mariner tries to put both Helen and Enola in their place, they still remain feisty and hold onto that rebellious, independent nature. Like with Ellen Ripley and Newt in “Aliens”, “Waterworld” also explores the powerful bond between a surrogate mother figure and her daughter, demonstrating the power of femininity over masculinity.

Number 9: Lady Marian from “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”

Yes another Kevin Costner film…As a kid, Kevin Costner films were everywhere. And, while this one is all about Robin Hood (played by Costner), there’s no denying that Lady Marian (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) is also a crucial character in the story. More often than not, Marian is reduced to being a damsel in distress for Robin to rescue from the devilish Sheriff of Nottingham (who is played here by the wonderful Alan Rickman). However, in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” Marian is given more of a backstory and development as well as being given more to do. Mastrantonio often has a little smirk on her face whenever she reacts to something Robin does, as if she knows he’s just a man-child playing up (like Wendy with Peter Pan).

Her scenes with Rickman are fantastic and you almost wish there had more scenes featuring them instead. What I love about this version of Marian is that she’s simply not a passive character who stands around waiting for man to swoop into her life. There’s an exchange of dialogue in the movie which always stood out to me, Robin says to her “It was good to see you Marian.” Only for her to reply, “It was good to be seen.” This reply seemed somewhat profound to me at the time, as if Marian was speaking on behalf of all the women from folklore and legend, and reminding us all that they too played a crucial role in these stories.

Number 8: Annie Porter from “Speed”

Another action film that I saw far too young, the 1994 film “Speed” was yet another film that I was obsessed with as a kid. Featuring “Waterworld’s” Dennis Hopper as the bad guy (yet again), “Speed” introduced me to the wonderful Keanu Reeves and the kick-ass Sandra Bullock who were in my opinion the best on-screen duo in 90s cinema. While Keanu may be our main man, it’s Sandra who is the real “everyday hero” who suddenly finds herself literally driving the action forward. Originally the role of Annie was offered to Halle Berry, and while there’s no doubt in my mind that Halle could have made the role her own, it’s pretty hard to imagine anyone else sharing the same level of chemistry that Keanu and Sandra share together.

As a character, Annie is pretty damn cool and very relatable. Her quirky, quick-witted sense of humour is what made me instantly love her, plus her bob haircut with a fringe was ultra cool (so much so that I wanted that haircut as a kid, although I did not rock it in the same way that Sandra did). The banter and dialogue exchanges between Keanu and Sandra are just perfect and this film reinforced the idea that women can be funny, smart and determined just like the men they starred alongside with. (P.S. Let’s just forget about “Speed 2” okay? Even Sandra couldn’t save that movie.)

Number 7: Tank Girl from “Tank Girl”

Like “Cutthroat Island”, the 1995 film “Tank Girl” from director Rachel Talalay was an absolute bomb. The only action film on this list that happens to be directed by a woman, “Tank Girl” may have not wowed critics or got bums on seats, but it did mark the way for other female directed comic book adaptation films such as “Wonder Woman” and “Birds of Prey”. The wonderful Lori Petty (best known for playing Kit Keller in “A League of Their Own”), plays the titular character of Tank Girl. It’s hard to describe the film to someone who is unfamiliar with it, but picture “Mad Max” but slightly more comical and less serious. “Tank Girl” may be set in a post apocalyptic world, but it’s kinda fun.

The year is 2033, and after a decade-long global drought in the wake of a comet striking the Earth, the little remaining water is controlled by Kesslee (Malcolm McDowell) and his Water & Power (W&P) corporation, which subdues the population by monopolising the water supply. After the sadistic Kesslee kills Tank Girl’s boyfriend and attacks their commune, Tank Girl decides to get her revenge. She teams up with Jet Girl  (the equally wonderful Naomi Watts), a talented but introverted jet mechanic. Like Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, Tank Girl also breaks the 4th wall and speaks directly to the audience. She curses like a sailor, has amazing style and generally just kicks ass. What’s not to love? 

Number 6: Thelma and Louise from “Thelma and Louise”

Okay, so technically this is two women for the price of one, but you can’t have Thelma (Geena Davis) without Louise (Susan Sarandon). The 1991 film “Thelma and Louise” is described as a female buddy movie, which feels a little wrong to me…why can’t it simply be a buddy movie, why do we need to add the “female” part to that sub-genre? In a way I think that kind of diminishes the film? We don’t say that “Lethal Weapon” is a male buddy cop movie, do we? But hey, that’s a topic for another day.

What makes “Thelma and Louise” still so revolutionary is the fact that it is a buddy movie that happens to feature two women as its leading characters, something that remains rare even to this day. Unlike some of the other women on this list, these are two very ordinary women who exist in the ‘real world’; they’re not from a post apocalyptic world like Helen and Tank Girl, they are swashbuckling pirates, or FBI agents. Thelma is a housewife, and her BFF Louise is a waitress. All these two friends want to do is simply have a weekend away, but the patriarchal society in which they exist in seems to have other plans. Even though, I found the film a little dull as a kid (the lack of explosions and sharp-witted villains kinda put me off), watching this film as an adult and being fully aware of how the world works and treats women, I feel somewhat grateful that I managed to watch “Thelma and Louise” as a kid because in a way, their story prepared me for life.

Number 5: Evelyn O’Conell from “The Mummy”

Not all remakes are bad. In fact, some are pretty decent. The 1999 remake of “The Mummy” (directed by Stephen Sommers) is the perfect example of a remake done well. Like so many of the films on this list, I was pretty terrified by elements of this film. The creepy reanimated corpse of Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) gave me nightmares for weeks. Unlike the charming suave Sheriff of Nottingham, Imhotep was truly monstrous, a decaying man who seemed hell-bent on forcing the adorably sweet Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) to become his “bride”. There was something very sinister about the idea of being doomed to a forced marriage that just left me in a state of numbness. Brendan Fraser‘s Rick O’Connell may have been a bit of an obnoxious, smart-ass but at least he had a heart beat.

Like with so many of the action films I loved, I couldn’t help but feel annoyed that the man would always win the girl. Evelyn seemed so intelligent and independent, did she really need to “settle down and get married”? Couldn’t she simply ride off into the sunset and set up her own bookshop or library somewhere in Egypt? I found Weisz to be absolutely fantastic in this role, and thought she looked far prettier in her librarian getup. She made being a librarian cool, and I must admit I had a little bit of a crush on her as a kid!

Number 4: Clarice Starling from “The Silence of the Lambs”

What were my parents thinking allowing me to watch “The Silence of the Lambs”? First off, there’s some very adult and disturbing things happening in that film? I mean, the main villain Buffalo Bill is a serial killer who skins women in order to make a “suit”…Okay, I didn’t realise this was what he was doing, I simply thought he was keeping them in a well for company. Secondly, there’s a man (Hannibal Lecter, played by the wonderful Anthony Hopkins) who literally eats people and escapes prison by wearing someone else’s face. Thirdly, there some very strong language and I had no idea why Clarice (Jodie Foster) seemed so shaken when Miggs said he could smell her (c-word) and I had no clue what he had flicked on her. The whole film seemed to go above my head, and when Lecter called Clarice up at the end of the film to say he was having an old friend for dinner, I couldn’t help but think to myself “Oh, well that’s nice of him”…I was ten years old at the time! Oh, to be that innocent again!

Anyway, Clarice is one of the coolest heroes of cinema. She’s intelligent, highly-skilled at her job, and determined. One scene that stuck in my mind was the shot of her in the elevator being surrounded by men who were all taller than her. It connected with me because that’s how I felt in the world, being a very small girl surrounded by people much taller than myself. Even though she’s clearly afar id of Lecter (rightfully so, he eats people for God’s sake), she still goes to the prison in order to question him. This taught me a valuable lesson of confronting those you fear and accepting epic challenges even if you’re only 1.6m tall (coincidentally both myself and Foster are the same height!).

Number 3: Ellen Ripley from “Alien”, “Aliens”, “Alien 3” and “Aliens Resurrection”

I remember us watching the “Alien” films as a movie marathon with my stepdad. We spaced out the films over the course of several weekends (we also did this with the “Star Wars” films) and while the first two films were clearly the best out of the four, I still enjoyed the last two because Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) remained so bad-ass. In the first “Alien” film, for a long time Ripley seems like a side character, however, by the end of the film she’s the only one left fighting against the monster. Ripley is always the one you need to listen to, she’s the only person who actually speaks sense. You don’t ignore anything Ripley has to say…Her word is the truth.

In “Aliens”, I was struck by how heart-breaking it was to see Ripley finding out that her daughter had passed away during her 52 years in stasis. All Ripley had wanted was to be reunited with her daughter. While, the other women I had looked up to had been strong, independent women, they had been single and didn’t have the responsibility of being a mother. Here, was Ripley with that responsibility, and it wasn’t simply a fight for survival that had driven her throughout the first film. Her relationship with Newt is one of the most touching and heartfelt moments throughout the entire film series. We know it won’t last, but we can’t help but wish it will. While the other two films in the saga, aren’t the same quality as “Alien” and “Aliens” the character of Ripley still drives the narrative and action forward. It would be awesome to see a new Alien film with a much older Ripley, but perhaps it’s best we leave the series alone for now.

Number 2: Sarah Connor from “The Terminator” and “Terminator 2: Judgement Day”

In the future John Connor may be the one to lead the human resistance against the machines, but in the present it’s his mother, Sarah who is the real hero. Played by the wonderful Linda Hamilton, we watch over the course of two films the evolution of this total bad-ass Mom. The 1984 film “The Terminator” sees Sarah as a young, naive waitress who relies on the time-travelling soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to be the one to save her. In the first film, she’s your typical damsel in distress, but by the time we get to the sequel, Sarah has transformed into a hardened resistance fighter. So much so, that her young son John (Edward Furlong) has been placed in foster care and she’s been institutionalized. I always found this aspect of the “Terminator” films most disturbing, the idea of no-one taking women seriously, and simply locking away those women who misbehaved and didn’t play by society’s rules.

While “The Terminator” is a decent action flick (slightly dated by today’s standards and a bit cheesy), it’s really “Terminator 2” which shines, especially in terms of how it allows it’s main female character to develop and evolve. By the end of the sequel, Sarah has softened and regained her humanity, compassion and empathy.  In preparation for the role, Hamilton underwent an extensive thirteen-week training regimen with personal trainer Anthony Cortes, training for three hours each day, six days a week before filming began. She additionally lost 12 pounds (5.4 kg) on a low-fat diet which shows her level of dedication to the role. I may have been absolutely terrified of the Terminator, but it was Sarah Connor who was the real threat.

Number 1: Morgan Adams from “Cutthroat Island”

I will defend “Cutthroat Island” with every inch of my being, until my very last breath. I absolutely love this film. Yes, it’s not “Citizen Kane” and it’s a bit naff. But, Geena Davis makes one damn good pirate. Plagued with a very troubled and chaotic production, which involved multiple rewrites and recasts, “Cutthroat Island” was a critical and box-office disaster. None of this mattered to me as a kid. I recall watching this film and thinking it was the best thing since “Waterworld” (Look, my taste in films was pretty bad as a child). For those who haven’t seen “Cutthroat Island”, it follows a female pirate (yes, a female pirate! There were actual female pirates in real life too) called Morgan Adams (played by the awesome Davis). Morgan and her slave, William Shaw (Matthew Modine), are on a quest to recover the three portions of a treasure map. Unfortunately, the final portion is held by her murderous uncle, Dawg (Frank Langella). Her crew is skeptical of her leadership abilities, so she must complete her quest before they mutiny against her. 

As a character Morgan Adams is pretty damn awesome, she fights just as well as her male counterparts (perhaps even better). She’s fearless and courageous. She’s intelligent, quick witted and smart. She has the coolest wardrobe with some awesome outfits, that are practical and stylish. It seems unfair to dismiss this film and the character of Morgan Adams because it flopped at the box office. There’s so much more to this film then how much money it did or didn’t make, and the character of Morgan Adams was revolutionary. It would be great to see more pirate films that did have a female character as the lead, and maybe we deserve a sequel to “Cutthroat Island”. Please consider checking it out, it’s worth it for Geena Davis alone.


3 thoughts on “#WomenInAction Month: The 10 Action Heroines Who Shaped My Childhood

  1. What a great list! These women shaped me too and my childhood (I am a girl). I was probably too young to watch Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, but I watched it too many times in my childhood and loved Marian and her part. There is subtlety to her in the film which is hard to define. Thelma & Louise was also my favourite – independent and confident women – Ridley Scott is amazing.


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