There’s a reason Netflix has a sub-category for films featuring strong female leads (“women who rule the screen”)—who wouldn’t want to see a great actress dig into a meaty role instead of simply playing the loving wife or doting mother? To celebrate International Women’s Day, Vogue shortlists 10 films that ace the Bechdel Test thanks to the brave, powerful, and complicated female characters at their centre.
1 / 10
Sigourney Weaver in Alien
It’s been 42 years since the release of Ridley Scott’s genre-defining sci-fi blockbuster that launched Sigourney Weaver’s career. The part was originally written for a man, but Scott’s decision to cast Weaver turned Ellen Ripley into a cultural touchstone—a rare female action hero in a sea of homogenous muscly men. Weaver reprised the role in Aliens (1986), Alien³ (1992) and Alien: Resurrection (1997), and ever since, the image of her in a boilersuit clutching a pulse rifle has become legend.
2 / 10
Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman
Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s sensitive portrayal of a transgender woman living in Santiago, earned him his country’s first Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2018. It stars Daniela Vega as Marina, a young waitress and singer coming to terms with the loss of her lover and trying to deal with his hostile family. The film delves into issues of transphobia, prejudice, and the nature of womanhood, but also functions as a poignant love story. Filmed in long fluid takes, it has a bold colour palette and a touch of magical realism, thanks to the work of cinematographer Benjamín Echazarreta. Vega, meanwhile, is a vision of strength and resilience—a woman who refuses to be silenced no matter the cost.
3 / 10
Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
There are several contenders for best fight scene in contemporary cinema (Russell Crowe in Gladiator, Matt Damon in The Bourne Ultimatum, Uma Thurman versus Lucy Liu in Kill Bill), but the face-off between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon certainly comes close. Meticulously choreographed with aerial stunts and innovative camerawork, it showcases the considerable talents of its two female leads who play warriors on a quest to find a legendary sword in Qing Dynasty China. Yeoh soars above the rest as the composed and clinical Yu Shu Lien.
4 / 10
Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Sarah Connor’s transformation from timid college student to hardened fighter is reason enough to watch James Cameron’s explosive Terminator franchise. Linda Hamilton made the role her own, swapping her pastel shirts and big Eighties hair for a sleek ponytail, black tank top, and sunglasses. Game of Thrones alumni Lena Headey and Emilia Clarke have both played Connor, in the 2008 television series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and 2015’s Terminator Genisys respectively, but few can measure up to Hamilton.
5 / 10
Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road
Imperator Furiosa has plenty to be angry about: an energy crisis that’s turned her home into a barren wasteland, a tribe of war boys out to kill her, and a tyrannical ruler who has enslaved women to bear his children. When she rescues his wives and drives off into the desert it sparks a high-octane chase featuring masked bikers, sandstorms, and a truck fronted by a flame-throwing electric guitarist. George Miller’s post-apocalyptic road movie puts women front and centre. The titular Max, played by a monosyllabic Tom Hardy, is overshadowed by Charlize Theron who is fierce and determined as Furiosa, hellbent on saving the day and sowing the seeds for a matriarchal future.
6 / 10
Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz in The Favourite
Olivia Colman may have won an Oscar in 2019 for Best Actress with her hilarious and heartbreaking portrayal of Queen Anne, but Yorgos Lanthimos’ offbeat royal drama actually has three leads: Rachel Weisz is power-hungry Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, and Emma Stone plays scheming newcomer Abigail Masham. Complex, ambitious, and smart, they are all capable of navigating politics, wielding shotguns, and outmanoeuvring one another. In a feminist twist, it’s the men in the film who are painted fops in powdered wigs. When Nicholas Hoult’s politician Harley yells at Lady Sarah, she smiles and says, “Your mascara is running. If you’d like to go fix yourself, we can continue this later”.
7 / 10
Bette Davis in All About Eve
“Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” So says Margo Channing, the perennial drama queen and Broadway actress extraordinaire played by Bette Davis in All About Eve. Every night with Margo is a whirlwind—an ageing star who is never without a dry Martini or a clever jibe, she is at turns warm and generous while also being deeply insecure, jealous, and paranoid about those who might steal the spotlight from her. Enter Eve, a wide-eyed ingénue played by Anne Baxter who becomes her assistant and slowly encroaches on her career, with disastrous consequences. Davis worked in Hollywood for more than 50 years, garnering 11 Oscar nominations and winning two, but Margo Channing remains the role of a lifetime.
8 / 10
Mya Taylor in Tangerine
Sean Baker’s bittersweet Sundance hit made headlines for being shot on an iPhone, but it’s anything but gimmicky. The film follows two transgender sex workers, played by Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, who travel across Los Angeles to track down a cheating boyfriend. Darting into doughnut shops, dive bars, and burger joints, Baker captures the city’s fascinating underbelly, but it’s the two lead performances that stand out. Upon the film’s release in 2015, Taylor, a revelation as aspiring singer Alexandra, became the first openly transgender actress to win both an Independent Spirit Award and a Gotham Award.
9 / 10
Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe in Hidden Figures
The forgotten story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson—three pioneering scientists who helped NASA win the space race—was the subject of Theodore Melfi’s 2016 drama. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe play the impressive trio with wit and verve, as they contend with racial segregation, workplace sexism, and prejudiced colleagues. The result is an inspiring tale about overcoming adversity that highlights the importance of re-examining recent history to find those who might have been written out of it.
10 / 10
Noomi Rapace in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Noomi Rapace was the original Lisbeth Salander, the hacker and surveillance agent subsequently reinvented by Rooney Mara in 2011 and Claire Foy in 2018. The 2009 Swedish thriller is an unflinching adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s novel, that sees Salander go to great lengths to solve a mystery regarding the disappearance of a young girl. Pierced and tattooed with jet-black hair and kohl-rimmed eyes, she refuses to be an object of the male gaze. She does nothing by halves and no one stands in her way for long: whether she’s blackmailing sexual abusers or emptying the bank accounts of corrupt tycoons, in all her iterations the character has become a divisive, and somewhat reluctant, feminist icon.