11 TV & Movie Characters That Shaped Millennial Feminism

Photo: Getty Images.
My most distinct childhood memory is being sprawled across the sofa on a rainy Tuesday, off from school with the flu but still sporting my trusty tie-dye leggings, fixated at the grainy VHS TV. It was 1999, and I was definitely celebrating the day’s lack of gym and math class with the rewatching of my favorite Disney princess, a kick-ass gal named Mulan with a sassy miniature dragon and a sword that just wouldn’t quit.
As I grew up and grappled with my teenage years, upgrading my tie-dye to Clueless-esque mini-skirts, followed by cargo pants, and then a short venture into the emo fringe, I came to find more female movie characters that instilled in me the same feeling I had watching Mulan dropkick a Hun for the first time.
From high school vampire slayers to cartoon superheroes and FBI agents, the 90s and early 2000s gifted us with a diverse range of badass sistas who, despite the occasional corny one-liner, flung us head-first into narratives that subverted the passive female stereotype and endorsed headstrong women with a surprising amount of skill in combat. Growing up alongside their sisterhoods, their diversity, and their resilience against the patriarchy, millennials could envision a new brand of feminism.
Defined as a movement that champions body positivity and reproductive choice and defies the conventions of gender performance, millennial feminism has been the most intersectional form of feminism in history, with woke guys and gals not only challenging gender inequality but also other facets of oppression such as race, class and sexual orientation. As a generation defined by technology and social media, millennial feminism has also campaigned through an entirely different platform than in the past, uniting our voices through diverse online communities.
To honor this fresh chapter of female empowerment, we look to the on-screen characters that gave representation to millions of girls and women throughout their young lives and helped shape the face of millennial feminism.
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Photo: Courtesy of Fox.
Lisa Simpson, The Simpsons (1989-present)

Arguably one of the most popular cartoon characters in history, Lisa Simpson (voiced by Yeardley Smith) created a feminist legacy, serving as a role model for girls unsure about their place in the world. She taught us to believe in ourselves, to place our intellect over our appearance, and to preach equality, empathy and activism.
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Photo: Courtesy of Fox.
Dana Scully, The X-Files (1993-present)

A medical doctor and FBI agent, Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) gave millennial women a well-rounded female character that acted independently, questioned male authority, and refused to crack under pressure. She was smart as hell, without falling into the stereotype of being a dork or a bitch.
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Photo: Columbia Pictures/Getty Images.
Sarah Bailey, The Craft (1996)

Giving a voice to all girls who felt like outsiders, and forging a story that gave them validation, Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney) in The Craft embraced being different. She used her witchcraft skills to cultivate a sisterhood and defy the ‘nasty women’ trope so often associated with witches and feminine magic.
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Photo: MTV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.
Daria Morgendorffer, Daria (1997-2001)

Audaciously sarcastic and unapologetically acerbic, Daria (voiced by Tracy Grandstaff) was starkly individual and multi-dimensional, living her life to the beat of her own combat boots. She became an icon for take-no-shit feminism, once famously stating, “People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute”.
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Photo: Getty Images.
Buffy Summers, Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)

Transcending the gender politics of the era, Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) was a timeless vampire-slaying female superhero whose experiences became a metaphor for those of the modern woman, from examining one-night stands from hell to more serious subjects like death, loss, and survival.
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Photo: Courtesy of Disney.
Mulan, Mulan (1998)

Mulan (voiced by Ming-Na-Wen) is sometimes scrappy and clumsy and even sets her matchmaker on fire, but by no means does this make her any less of a badass woman. She defies traditional gender roles by impersonating a male soldier, developing skills in combat, and saving China from the Huns.
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Photo: Cartoon Network/Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.
The Powerpuff Girls (1998-2005)

Though technically three characters, The Powerpuff Girls (voiced by Tara Strong as Bubbles, Elizabeth Daily as Buttercup, and Cathy Cavadini as Blossom) came as a package. Dominating daytime television with a fierce feminine prowess, they championed intelligence and justice. As well as the power of flight, super-speed and super-strength, they also preached woke feminist thought and the importance of equality between genders, as seen in the 2001 episode "Equal Fights".
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Photo: Tracy Bennett/MGM/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.
Elle Woods, Legally Blonde (2001)

After chasing an ex-boyfriend all the way to to Harvard Law, Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) nurtures her intelligence and resilience in the face of betrayal, ostracism, and sexual harassment. And even though she’s a pink- and privilege-clad gal straight out of Bel Air, she never cowers when faced with a challenge and always exercises her privilege to help others.
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Photo: Moviestore Collection/REX/Shutterstock.
Lara Croft, Tomb Raider (2001)

Despite the hyper-sexualization of the original video games and a sneaky side-boob from Angelina Jolie in the movie, Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie) existed within a narrative that refused to be defined by male approval. Witty, independent, and ruthless, she was the action hero that allowed women to be physically strong as well as sexy.
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Photo: Christine Parry/Bend It/Film Council/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.
Jess Bhamra, Bend It Like Beckham (2002)

Coming from a traditional Sikh family but possessing a passion for football, Jess Bhamra (Parminder Nagra) was caught between cultures. She was one of the first on-screen characters that put the contemporary struggles of South Asian women in the spotlight, questioning gender performance and confronting racism and discrimination in the U.K..
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Photo: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images.
Beatrix Kiddo, Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2 (2003 – 2004)

A revenge story in which a female character is neither manipulative nor hysterical, Beatrix Kiddo AKA Black Mamba (Uma Thurman) uses tactics and physical skills to go after those who have wronged her, all in the name of protecting her child from a life of violence. She never downplays her strengths and is always relentless in the face of both mental strain and physical trauma, a warrior that gave mothers everywhere a reason to fight.