The Evolution Of The Female Badass In 17 Heroines

Next week, one of the greatest screen heroines of all times returns. Terminator Genisys once again focuses on Sarah Connor, mother of savior John, and her anti-apocalypse battle against the machines. This time she is portrayed by Emilia Clarke, best known for playing Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones. (Connor was also played on television by Lena Headey, Game of Thrones' Cersei. Make of that what you will.)

The badass version of Sarah Connor really came to the fore in 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Suddenly a woman who was oblivious when the first movie began was transformed into a super-buff truth-teller, rivaling Arnold Schwarzenegger for physical fitness. The new movie starts Sarah's transformation even earlier in the convoluted Terminator timeline.

Sarah Connor belongs to a lineage of female action heroes across television and movies that includes predecessors like Ripley from the Alien movies and keeps growing each year. (Hello, Imperator Furiosa! Nice of you to join us!) While physical strength doesn't always result in a well-rounded female protagonist and sometimes their storylines don't do women the justice they deserve, these butt-kicking ladies stand out.
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Photo: Courtesy of American International Pictures.
Foxy Brown, Foxy Brown (1974)
Pam Grier, who played Foxy, was deemed the "biggest, baddest, and most beautiful of all female heroes in popular cinema" in the book Super Bitches and Action Babes: The Female Hero in Popular Cinema, 1970-2006. The titular character in this 1974 Blaxploitation film about a woman who goes after the mob is described in the trailer as a "chick with drive who don't take no jive."
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Photo: Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Ripley, the Alien franchise (1979-1997)
Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley from the Alien series is the heroine against which which all others are measured, a woman who survived and defeated the alien threat even when she was quite literally the only human left alive. (She keeps her cat!) Weaver, in a role famously meant for a man, played the heroine in four Alien films—and a fifth is in the works. In a 2009 piece for The Guardian Xan Brooks called Ripley the “first action heroine” and wrote that “Alien may just be the film that overhauled the old, unreconstructed horror genre and dared to put a woman centre-stage.”
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Photo: Courtesy of Orion Pictures.
Sarah Connor, The Terminator franchise (1984-2015)
As mentioned previously, Sarah Connor’s badassery didn’t fully develop until the second installment of her story, Terminator 2: Judgement Day. When the Terminator-saga begins, she is damsel in distress to Kyle Reese. In the second film, however, she has fully transformed into a muscled warrior, ready to fight her way out of the hospital where she’s been institutionalized for thinking the world is going to end—which it is. Duh. Linda Hamilton’s physical transformation was much talked about, but it was Sarah’s attitude—and her speech about the folly of men—that places her in the female heroine hall of fame.
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Photo: Courtesy of Touchstone Pictures.
Nikita, Nikita (1990)
What would a list of badass ladies be without a Luc Besson heroine? Anne Parillaud played the titular character in the 1990 film, which spawned an American remake and two television shows. Nikita is an assassin, trained as such following her own life of crime.
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Photo: Courtesy of Universal Television.
Xena, Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001)
We would be remiss not to include the woman whose television show has the subhead “warrior princess.” With Xena, played by Lucy Lawless, the badass heroine got an ancient makeover.
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Photo: Moviestore/REX Shutterstock.
Buffy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
The contradiction of Buffy is in her name. It’s “Buffy,” after all, a name that sounds harmless, but Buffy certainly isn't harmless when it comes to vampires and other demons. This is a girl that died multiple times over the course of the series' seven seasons, but still kept fighting, all the while keeping her wit as pointed as her stakes.
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Photo: Moviestore/REX Shutterstock.
Trinity, The Matrix trilogy (1999-2003)
At the beginning of The Matrix, men have a tendency to underestimate Trinity. “I just thought you were a guy,” Neo says when he first encounters Carrie-Anne Moss’s character. “Most guys do,” she replies. But Trinity's legacy isn't entirely a positive one. In 2014 Tasha Robinson wrote about "Trinity Syndrome" at The Dissolve. The term describes "the hugely capable woman who never once becomes as independent, significant, and exciting as she is in her introductory scene."
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Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Yu Shu Lien and Jen Yu, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had not one female martial arts experts, but two: Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), the latter of whom is a young woman about to be married off. The New York Times review of the film explained that “Because the women are treated as generously as the men — and are more important to the narrative — Tiger is just the film for an audience transfixed by the weekly girl-power cool and soap-opera bloodshed of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.”
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Photo: Moviestore/REX Shutterstock.
Lara Croft, the Lara Croft franchise (2001-2003)
The theatrical debut of video game heroine Lara Croft wasn’t particularly well-regarded. That 19% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes speaks loudly. However, the combination of the character and her portrayer, Angelina Jolie, was resonant, even with those pin-up quality costumes.
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Photo: ABC Inc/Everett/REX Shutterstock.
Sydney Bristow, Alias (2001-2006)
Well before J.J. Abrams was in control of two of the most important fandoms in geekdom, he made two TV shows about awesome women. The first? Felicity, and while Keri Russell’s curly-haired heroine was great, she perhaps couldn’t be classified as a badass. But then Sydney Bristow came along. Jennifer Garner played the graduate student/double agent, dealing with her own tragedy and distant father.
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Photo: Courtesy of 20th Television.
Zoe Washburne, Firefly (2002-2003), Serenity (2005)
Let’s face it: Zoe maybe isn’t the flashiest female character on Firefly. She’s not a mysterious genius with fighting skills like River Tam, for instance. But as Mal's right-hand she's the gunslinger this space western deserves.
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Photo: Courtesy of Miramax Films.
The Bride, Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2 (2003, 2004)
Uma Thurman had previously starred as Tarantino’s muse in Pulp Fiction, but while Mia Wallace was iconic, she didn’t get as much screen time as she deserved. How to fix that? Give her a samurai sword and devote two whole movies to Thurman in the form of Kill Bill in which Thurman's character, The Bride, serves up a whole bunch of deadly payback for the murders at her wedding rehearsal.
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Photo: Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.
Black Widow, The Marvel Cinematic Universe (2010-2015)
Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow first appeared in Iron Man 2, but her profile has only grown as Marvel has inched its way to world—or at least Hollywood—domination. Natasha is a vital part of the Avengers team, making it a shame Marvel hasn't deemed her worthy of her own movie. On top of that, her most recent appearance, in Avengers: Age of Ultron, was fraught given criticism of her storyline and some gross comments from some of the male stars of the movies.
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Photo: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
Lisbeth Salander, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Many of the women on this list seek revenge, but Lisbeth’s is perhaps some of the most vicious to ever grace the screen. Like some of the other women on this list, her badass nature is evident in her style: the leather, the haircut, the piercings. While we cheer for hacker Lisbeth, she also keeps the audience, like others in her life, at an arm's length.
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Photo: Courtesy of Lionsgate.
Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games movies (2012-2015)
When the first Hunger Games movie emerged in 2012, the leading YA heroine was the depressingly passive Bella Swan from Twilight. Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen, however, is a different breed. Katniss is noble and resolute, and while her bow and arrow skills are unprecedented, her heroism is often defined by how unwilling she is to resort to violence in a world where violence is thrust upon her.
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Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
Rita Vrataski, Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Any character deemed "Full Metal Bitch" is worthy of inclusion on this list. In Edge of Tomorrow Emily Blunt stole the movie away from Tom Cruise as the war hero who trains him to fight, knowing that his ability to repeat the same day over and over is vital to her cause.
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Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
Imperator Furiosa, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Max, Schmax. Mad Max: Fury Road was all about the titular character tagging along Imperator Furiosa’s mission to smuggle a group of women out of Immortan Joe’s fortress. She leads the women relying on her to, yes, even more ferocious women. With Furiosa driving the War Rig, Fury Road won praise for its feminism. It also inspired a “hey girl” feminist meme and made Men’s Rights Activists angry.
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