Growing up, I was lucky to witness wildly different, but equally engaging action heroines. I obsessed over the religious and loyal Kira Nerys, played with panache by Nana Visitor from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; the stoic Gina Torres in the purely bonkers Cleopatra 2525; the cool, self-assured Lucy Liu in the revamped Charlie’s Angels; and of course, the titular Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After my adolescence, the age of cinematic female badasses ebbed and flowed, but right now, the action heroine is having a bit of a resurgence, offering a more complex crop than ever before. With Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron adds to an ongoing canon of bruised and bruising women cutting their way to cinematic glory. The women on this list aren’t necessarily my favorites, but, in their own way, each has pushed the cultural conversation forward, continue to inspire adoration (and in some cases, arguments), or were crucial to the standing of the actresses who played them. There are several others I’d like to mention, including Jennifer Lawrence’s work in The Hunger Games and Daisy Ridley’s emergence in Star Wars, but those listed below I feel speak most to the action heroine’s evolution.
1. Sigourney Weaver, Aliens (1986)
No conversation about action heroines is complete with mentioning Sigourney Weaver’s Lieutenant Ellen Ripley. While Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien wallowed in existential dread and body horror, its 1986 sequel pushed its iconic final girl—the resourceful Ripley—into bold new territory. It’s impossible to overestimate Ripley’s influence. Every action heroine that has come since owes her a debt. She’s spawned countless imitators and inspired generations of filmmakers with her keen wit and sharp survival instincts. One of the reasons Ripley has endured—and what has made her stand out from the women who’ve come after—is her surprising normalcy. Ripley isn’t a hero with impossible strength or an expertly trained assassin—she’s a relatively normal woman thrust into an abnormal situation. If anything, we need more action heroes like Ripley, whose strength comes not from the training of her past or chosen-one status, but an internal drive that neither destructive aliens nor hypercontrolling corporations can easily extinguish.
2. Linda Hamilton, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Looking at the landscape of action heroines, their physicality is often similar—they’re lithe, model-esque even. Sometimes that makes sense. When you’re preternaturally gifted or a demigoddess, musculature is beside the point. But at the same time, this lack of body diversity nods to the issues that plague women when it comes to representation—namely, that they have to be desirable in a very specific way. As Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Linda Hamilton is ripped. Her body communicates the physical labor and toil necessary for the survival of both her and her somewhat annoying son, which lends her character a distinct, steely quality.
3. Pam Grier, Foxy Brown (1974)
Pam Grier’s work in blaxploitation films came before many of the other women on this list. And while there have been women of color who have found their groove as action heroines since—most notably the Afro-Latina actress Zoe Saldana—Grier’s impact lingers. She was alluring, tough, and whip-smart. The women in blaxploitation films were required to be sexy and stripped down in ways that may raise the ire of some modern viewers, but that doesn’t mean Grier should be discounted. Just check out this clip from Foxy Brown. She pulls a gun out of her Afro! That’s not the kind of dame that should be messed with. Taraji P. Henson as the titular assassin in Proud Mary, Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and the women of Black Panther demonstrate that the progress that has long benefited white women in Hollywood may finally be happening for black and brown women a bit more often. I’d like to think Grier would be proud of being a forerunner of this lineage.
4. Scarlett Johansson, Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014) and the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe
No character represents the contradictory place of women within the superhero genre better than Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, a.k.a. Natasha Romanoff. Her hair changes as often as her characterization does. She seems less like a cross between a super-spy and a femme fatale than a plot device (save for her friendship with Chris Evans’s Captain America). But that doesn’t mean she isn’t fun to watch—Johansson ascended to bona fide action star status for good reason. She brings a history to her characters in her physicality, even if the scripts she’s handed remain lacking. She can be wryly humorous in ways that add texture to a role that could be a bit weightless if not for these touches. She was especially engaging in Captain America: Winter Soldier, but despite the fandom around the character, Johansson’s (somewhat dented) marketability, and the great stories in Black Widow’s canon, it’s unlikely she’ll get a movie of her own—which says a lot about what it takes for female superheroes to get the opportunity to be headliners.
5. Milla Jovovich, The Fifth Element (1997)
There’s something to be said about an actress who knows her angles. Modeled turned actress Milla Jovovich definitely does, and proves as much in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. The 1997 space opera is a gorgeous visual feast full of humor, weird plot turns, and amazing costuming by Jean Paul Gaultier. But it’s Jovovich I often remember first when I think of the film. Her character shouldn’t work. She’s a chosen one with great power who speaks nonsensically, wears very little, and has boundless energy. But Jovovich makes her a thrill to watch. It’s no wonder she’s carved a steady career as an action star in the Resident Evil franchise—although nothing has quite matched The Fifth Element.
6. Michelle Rodriguez, the Fast and Furious Franchise
The Fast and Furious franchise best demonstrates the sheer glory that can be found in an action film that embraces its silliness without pretense. There’s a reason these films have found success consistently. A big draw is Michelle Rodriguez as Letty, the franchise’s longest-running female character. Rodriguez brings a no-nonsense quality to the role that makes her a focal point even when there is ridiculous mayhem happening around her. She also has a quality that can’t be underestimated in roles like this: She knows how to give and take a punch, putting herself fully into the action in a way that adds to the rhythm of the scenes. Rodriguez’s standing as an action star also highlights the dearth of roles for Latinas that allow them to cut loose and have fun, particularly in action films.
7. The Women of Kill Bill Vols. 1 & 2 (2003 and 2004)
I have mixed feelings about Kill Bill, but it’s an entry that’s hard to ignore given the way it invigorated the careers of several cast members and put star Uma Thurman in a new light as the vengeful Beatrix Kiddo, a.k.a. the Bride, who targets the former allies responsible for the massacre that landed her in a coma. Thurman is fun to watch, but the real reason I’m listing Kill Bill is for the women around her, especially Vivica A. Fox and Lucy Liu, who were stone cold badasses in the film, each with their own distinctive style. Liu (giving me Lady Snowblood vibes) is a striking mix of cunning, determination, and maybe a bit of insecurity given her background, while Fox lends a fierceness and take-no-prisoners attitude that actually made me want her to best Thurman’s Beatrix.
8. Gina Carano, Haywire (2011)
It’s not Gina Carano’s screen presence that makes her character as memorable as the others on this list—it’s the former MMA fighter’s physicality. Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire doesn’t fully work, but there is something about Carano as the expertly trained and vengeance-minded operative Mallory Kane that intrigues. Rarely are action heroines allowed to show the physical effects of what happens from all those intense fights they’re mired in. This puts Haywire’s lead in the same lineage as Sarah Connor and, more recently, Theron’s turn in Atomic Blonde. In this genre, the aftermath of violence (physically and mentally) is as worthy of study as the action scenes themselves.
9. Angelina Jolie, Tomb Raider (2001) and Wanted (2008)
You can’t talk about action heroines of the modern age and not mention Angelina Jolie. The actress made an especially beguiling action heroine. Her presence was charismatic to the point of being vampiric. She was sexy, frightening, entrancing, and endlessly fun to watch. She also proved several times over that women could build their careers on being action stars. There have been many women to follow in her footsteps, from those on this list to Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: A Force Awakens and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games trilogy. As conversations around female actions stars ramp up in the wake of Atomic Blonde, I find myself missing Jolie’s work in the genre. Her films were never great, but they were intriguing star vehicles that let her flex her considerable charisma and physicality in ways I continue to long to see onscreen.
10. Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Charlize Theron’s work as Furiosa—a one-armed, fiercely skilled lieutenant that saves Immortan Joe’s wives from sexual slavery in this dystopian future—has become beloved for its mix of feminist ethos, intelligence, and brutality. And for good reason. For Furiosa there is no pretense, no weird beauty politics. Here’s a woman who protects those she cares for and knows how to get the job done. Theron aces the mix of savagery, protectiveness, and cunning that has granted the character a considerable fandom. More broadly, Theron’s performance as Furiosa feels like a revelation for the action genre, considering the character’s upfront feminism and complete disregard for the male gaze. She’s the physical manifestation of a particular strain of righteous female fury so incisive, I remain in awe of her work here.
11. Gal Gadot and the Women of Wonder Woman (2017)
It has been 76 years since William Moulton Marston set out to create Diana of Themyscira, known more commonly as Wonder Woman. Her first live-action leading role on the big screen highlights all the glorious contradictions and delights of the character—she’s a paragon of peace and beauty who can win nearly any battle she finds herself in. The film is more of a coming-of-age tale with superhero sensibilities than a straight-up action film, but nonetheless, it’s a pivotal entry in the action heroine’s history. Just like her comic counterpart, Gal Gadot carries herself with a quiet strength, curiosity, and compassion that is unlike any heroine we’ve seen in awhile. She isn’t just bolstered by movie-star charisma—she seems to have an internal light source of her own that brings warmth and buoyancy even to film’s darkest terrain. The first act of the film also features a variety of women, from the fearsome Antiope, played with gusto by Robin Wright, to the formidable Artemis, played by real-life boxer Ann Wolfe. Many of the Amazons training Wonder Woman in the film’s early scenes are over 40, and some are also women of color. I’d argue DC/Warner Bros would be wise to give them their own film. From this lens, Wonder Woman presents a number of roads for the action heroine to continue down. She can be naïve or seasoned, sharp-tongued or stoic. The possibilities are endless. Let’s hope filmmakers realize that.