For better or worse, we explore our emotions through film. The way that certain movies can tap into our need for acceptance, our quests for adventure, and even our curiosity around danger is the reason why lines form outside theaters and an entire audience can have a similar reaction to a scene. Even if it’s fantasy, the things we see displayed on screen can feel real. And depending on the circumstances, some film characters can help us navigate the tenuous positions of being heroines in our own lives, too.
Take a strong female character, for instance. When we’re dealing with our own issues, watching a film starring one can be a welcome escape as well as a push in the right direction. That’s why we chose 17 films with strong female characters who rose to various occasions—like enrolling in Harvard Law School, turning down a loveless proposal, and moving to New York City—so that you might be inspired to do the same. It may not be the best idea to follow in their exact footsteps since we are talking about movies, but feel free to emulate their confidence when dealing with your own issues.
After all, you’re still in the midst of your compelling story.
Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice
The many screenplay adaptations of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice through the decades have made Elizabeth Bennet’s wit, charm, and tenacity come alive for generations of women, though we may be partial to Keira Knightley’s 2005 performance. Nevertheless, her interpretation of Elizabeth as a woman who will protect her family, speak her mind, and marry for love—despite all the societal pressures she faces—highlights this character’s subtle strengths.
When to Watch: If everyone around you is getting engaged or married.
Hermione Granger in Harry Potter
Harry and Ron had more than a classmate and best friend in Hermione (played by Emma Watson)—they had someone who would challenge their skills, question surrounding authority, and ultimately save them from danger, too. In Harry Potter, Hermione’s determination to be a stellar student should give real-life girls the go-ahead to be smart and strong, too.
When to Watch: If you’re learning a new skill.
Katherine Johnson in Hidden Figures
We think all three leading characters in Hidden Figures—who were inspired by the real-life Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson at NASA in the ’60s—are deserving of praise, but for the purposes of simplicity, we’ll focus on the main storyline of Katherine (played by Taraji P. Henson). Her ability to excel in an environment that was not welcoming to her, and advocate for herself and others in the process, is a stirring example of poise and perseverance.
When to Watch: If you need to stand up to a co-worker.
Leia Organa in Star Wars
When audiences first meet Princess Leia, she’s a tiny hologram asking Obi-Wan Kenobi for help as the resistance’s only hope in Star Wars. But the truth is, she can handle her own battles—and with plenty of perfectly delivered lines, too—while still fostering teamwork and unity among her peers. Carrie Fisher was only a teenager when she first played this role, but the strength she displayed through this character throughout the series is what makes her a legend.
When to Watch: If you’ve just taken on a leadership role.
Mulan in Mulan
There are catchy songs and heartwarming familial themes in this beloved Disney film, of course, but it’s also a movie about female empowerment. After Mulan poses as a male soldier to save her father from enlisting in the Chinese army, she prepares for an imminent war among peers who first see her as weak, and later, as an equal. Soon after, Mulan proves herself to be an indispensable and quick-thinking leader, and that doesn’t change when her true gender is revealed.
When to Watch: If you’re itching to start a new business.
Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs
Silence of the Lambs may be remembered for its calm, methodical villain Hannibal Lecter—as well as the serial killer he’s asked to help capture, Buffalo Bill—but Clarice Starling (played by Jodie Foster) deserves the spotlight, too. After all, she’s the FBI trainee who’s tasked with interviewing the incarcerated Hannibal in the first place, which leads her to try to solve who Buffalo Bill is and where his latest victim is hidden. She does most of this on her own, in surroundings that are, to put it lightly, far from hospitable.
When to Watch: If you’re determined to handle a new project on your own.
The Bride in Kill Bill
Uma Thurman plays the Bride in this Quentin Tarantino Kill Bill series, who vows revenge on a team of assassins—featuring Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, and Darryl Hannah—and their leader, Bill, after they try to kill her and her unborn baby. Like most Tarantino movies, this movie has a lot of violence, one-liners, and stylized scenes. But it would all lack dimension without the fierceness of the Bride, who sticks to her mission with absolute control.
When to Watch: If something didn’t turn out the way you planned.
Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games
When Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) yells the now-famous line of “I volunteer as tribute” to save her sister from fighting to the death in The Hunger Games, it turns out to be the start of her journey as a strong-willed and methodical survivor amid an ever-changing and ruthless competition. Everdeen now has to rely on her past skills as a hunter and form alliances with other participants, in order to survive—and it’s not always clear if she’s making the right decisions.
When to Watch: If you’re settling into new surroundings.
Elle Woods in Legally Blonde
When audiences first meet Elle Woods, played by Reese Witherspoon, she’s a spoiled sorority sister in Legally Blonde, who thinks that an engagement from her equally beautiful boyfriend is inevitable. But after he dumps her—and Elle decides to win him back by applying to Harvard Law School (what, like it’s hard?)—she realizes her own capabilities.
When to Watch: If you’re going through a tough breakup.
Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada
When the title of this character’s movie is The Devil Wears Prada—and Miranda Priestly, played by Meryl Streep, is the so-called devil—it can be a challenge to see her as anything other than a villain at first. But make no mistake, Priestly is the type of boss you’d want right out of college (or at any other time in your career). She’s risen to the top of a cutthroat industry, she expects the best from those around her, and she doesn’t coddle the new girl, Andy, into making her comfortable at her job.
It’s because of Priestly’s high expectations that Andy is able to succeed, and ultimately, create the confidence she needed to figure out what’s best for her.
When to Watch: If you’re looking to score a promotion.
Ellen Ripley in Aliens
The best thing about Ellen Ripley’s character (played by Sigourney Weaver) in the Aliens franchise is that she was never out for the audience’s approval. She does her job in clothes that suit it, and she doesn’t care if she’s seen as aggressive, rude, dirty, or makeup-free in the process. In the original film, Ellen is on a spaceship called Nostromo when she and her crew are awakened by a mysterious transmission. After landing, a creature is discovered on the ship and kills everyone aboard, except for her.
When to Watch: If you need to handle a problem on your own.
Kat Stratford in 10 Things I Hate About You
Kat Stratford, played by Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You, isn’t the typical high school student—her sister Bianca is, though, and that’s the problem. Bianca wants to go to parties and date the most popular guy in school, but their overprotective dad makes a rule that Bianca can’t do any of that until Kat joins in. Kat may be the original advocate for #JOMO, but she’s also unapologetically feminist, decidedly rebellious, and kinder than she appears, too.
When to Watch: If you’re trying to care less about what people think.
Foxy Brown in Foxy Brown
This ’70s film turned actress Pam Grier into a superhero who’s outspoken, sexy, and strong—all while delivering some great one-liners. She plays a woman, Foxy Brown, who’s avenging the death of her boyfriend, a narcotics agent, by infiltrating a prostitution ring. While not everything about this movie can be celebrated, we can applaud it for revolutionizing the genre by showcasing a black female superhero.
When to watch: If you need to defend someone's honor at all costs.
Cheryl Strayed in Wild
After her mother passes away and her marriage falls apart, Cheryl Strayed (who wrote the book this movie is based on) decides to cope with the pain by making an unlikely decision: She wants to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Cheryl has no hiking experience and can barely carry the weight of her overstuffed pack when she begins. But through the extreme physical demands of this goal, and the physical and mental toll it requires of her, she allows herself to heal from the past and focus on the present.
When to Watch: If you’re working hard to live in the moment.
Erin Brockovich in Erin Brockovich
Based on a true story that won Julia Roberts a Best Actress Oscar for her role, Erin Brockovich centers around a woman who discovers that the behemoth California company PG&E is likely poisoning the water supply in the small town of Hinkley—and trying to cover it up. Through the endless research and tricky politics surrounding the need to create a case against PG&E, all of which she does despite not having a law degree, Erin becomes a force the company cannot ignore. She’s strong but compassionate, careful yet fearless.
When to Watch: If you need the confidence to walk into an intimidating room.
Jess Bhamra in Bend It Like Beckham
In Bend It Like Beckham, Jess Bhamra is a young Indian woman living in London’s suburbs who has dreams of one day playing professional soccer like her idol, David Beckham. There are only two problems with that wish: There is no professional women’s league in Britain, and her parents disapprove of her playing soccer in the first place. So Jess decides to play anyway, going behind her parents’ backs and getting caught up in a forbidden romance in the process.
When to Watch: If you’re dealing with some family drama.
Jo March in Little Women
As with Pride and Prejudice, there are earlier adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women that have introduced audiences to Jo March. But we’re fans of Winona Ryder’s version, if only because she gives the free-spirited, creative, and adventurous sister a modern sense of trying to find herself. It’s impossible not to admire Jo’s determination to be a writer one day—often staying up after her sisters have gone to sleep—but that admiration deepens once she moves to New York City to make it happen.
When to Watch: If you’re looking to start over somewhere new.