Before Wonder Woman: Badass women of the screen

By Saffy Safin

FIRST, a definition of terms. To be badass is to be tough, formidable, strong. There have been many badass women characters on film and TV. Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind is badass: rebuilding the family estate after the Civil War using feminine wiles and determination. Dana Katherine Scully in The X-Files is badass: holding her partner Mulder to the highest standard of proof, no matter fascinating it would be if mutants with stretchable limbs who awoke from hibernation every 30 years to eat human livers were real. Disagreeing with Fox Mulder is virtually a superpower. Hell, Miss Jane Marple is badass: solving crimes while barely looking up from her knitting.

In this rundown, we are dealing with a specific set of badass women: the ones who can beat the crap out of men and monsters. Asskickers, with physical strength, mental toughness, and the ability to withstand pain and dish it out in larger portions. The occasion is the record-breaking run of Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, the film that shows that it is possible for a movie directed by a woman, starring a woman (Gal Gadot), about a woman who will not be ordered around by men, to make a jillion dollars. To the somewhat generic villains she crushed onscreen, add the man-led megaflops The Mummy and Transformers: The Last Knight, which looked wimpy in her wake.

In the decades before Hollywood finally brought Wonder Woman to the big screen, there have been many female protagonists astonishing and inspiring us on film and TV. Many, but not enough — for every badass woman, there are about 20 whose lives revolve around pleasing some man. Hollywood follows the money, and after Wonder Woman’s triumph, maybe they’ll finally understand that badass women equals box office bonanza. The more badass women there are on film and TV, the more women will realize how much power they have. Let’s hope they realize it soon, because they have a world to fix.

1. Ellen Louise Ripley in Alien and Aliens

In Ridley Scott’s claustrophobic space horror masterwork Alien, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, my imaginary mom) is the warrant officer of the salvage ship Nostromo, which is attacked by a vicious acid-spewing xenomorph. Ripley survives the carnage (with the ship’s ginger cat Jonesy) by keeping her composure under horrible stress. She returns seven years later — or 57 years, which is how much earth-time passed while she was in space — in James Cameron’s Aliens, where she really and truly kicks ass.

With her flight license revoked because no one believes her story about aliens, Ripley gets a job operating a power loader — a kind of forklift exoskeleton. When that power loader appears towards the end of the film, you will leap out of your seat and cheer.

The Weyland-Yutani Corporation (which figures in both Alien and Blade Runner series) loses contact with their colony on the same planet where the Nostromo encountered the alien. As the only human survivor of an alien encounter, Ripley is hired as consultant to a group of marines sent to investigate the planet. She boards the spaceship Sulaco (You have to love a movie franchise that keeps alluding to Joseph Conrad), where she is disparaged by the marines as a civilian, possibly nuts. The marines include a few women, and the toughest of them is Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein). To survive in the marines she is even more intimidating than the men, who include Hudson (the late Bill Paxton, whom we miss more than we know).

Hudson: Hey Vasquez, ever been mistaken for a man?

Vasquez: No, have you?

Real equality means accepting that women can be just as assholey as men. Ripley is traumatized, pushy, anxious, and doesn’t even try to be likeable.

When the crew of Sulaco reaches the planet, Ripley is proven right about the aliens, and all the military training and weaponry will not save the marines. Ripley can. She finds a little girl named Newt (Carrie Henn) who has managed to survive the alien attacks, and Ripley’s innate badassness is magnified by her maternal feelings for the kid. What follows is heart-pounding action leading up to that showdown with the Alien Mother. Ripley appeared in two more Alien sequels, but they do not come near the first two movies. The most recent Alien movies, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, also have female protagonists, one of whom performs an operation on herself to excise an alien fetus, and then staples her midsection shut. They may not be Ripley, but they make the case for women taking charge.

2. The Bride/Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill 1 & 2

The Bride (Uma Thurman) wakes up in a hospital and over four glorious hours wreaks vengeance on the people who put her there. Who needs a dense plot when there is so much spectacle to behold? The Bride battles women who are as badass as she is (among them Vivica A. Fox as Vernita Green, and Daryl Hannah as Elle Driver) and the result is pure cinema. Just thinking about those fights makes me want to watch Kill Bill again. When The Bride and O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) circle each other with raised swords and the clapping intro to “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” begins, all my hairs stand on end.

Strong women are a fixture in Quentin Tarantino’s movies: there’s Jackie Brown starring Pam Grier, Death Proof with Zoe Bell, and in The Hateful Eight some very tough guys gather to bring Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to justice. Even while handcuffed, bound, and subjected to physical and verbal abuse, Daisy is the scariest person in the room.

3. Buffy Anne Summers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy the Vampire Slayer took the classic movie victim type — the cute blonde cheerleader — and made her the warrior chosen to protect the world from vampires, demons, and supernatural threats. For seven seasons Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) kicked demon ass and saved the world from a series of apocalypses, to the detriment of her family life, her academic standing, and even her personal growth (Can’t make plans if your priority is slayage). Fine, the last two seasons were more concerned with the rediscovered humanity of Spike the vampire, and even if we are Team Spike we acknowledge that the series sort of abandoned its core nerds (Willow, Xander, Giles) in its embrace of the cool undead with Billy Idol hair. But BtVS grappled with the real-world problems of adolescence and early adulthood by dramatizing them as actual battles with monsters. It turned the metaphorical into the literal and back to the metaphorical, and used the English language in ways that would not be matched until Deadwood (which sounds like a vampire-killing stake anyway).

Amazing as Buffy was, she was not the only badass in the series. Her geeky best friend Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) became a witch so powerful that even the slayer couldn’t subdue her when she went on a rampage. Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), the popular girl whose weapon was the withering putdown, came into her own as a badass in the spinoff series, Angel. There was Anya (Emma Caulfield), the ex-vengeance demon who took things too literally; Drusilla (Juliet Landau), the insane vampire who could see the truth before everyone did; and Glory (Clare Kramer), the most powerful enemy Buffy ever faced. There were the other slayers (activated during Buffy’s near-death experiences): Kendra Young (Bianca Lawson), and Faith Lehane (Eliza Dushku), the anti-Buffy whose defection to the dark side should’ve been its own TV series.

Buffy’s final nemesis The First was a letdown, but the way she defeated it was awesome: by activating every young girl with the potential to become a slayer. Yes, she made herself redundant. It’s what true heroes do.

BtVS launched the career of Joss Whedon, who would go on to make the short-lived but beloved Firefly. That space western had its own badass, River (Summer Glau), who would finally got to kick ass, balletically, in the film Serenity. Whedon went on to write and direct The Avengers, which leads to the next badass:

4. Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow in Iron Man 2, The Avengers, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Captain America: Infinity War

The spy/assassin Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) was introduced to the audience in Iron Man 2, where she showed off some impressive fighting moves, but it was her next appearance in The Avengers that established her badassness. She takes a phone call while she’s tied to a chair under interrogation by a Russian mobster. She puts the caller on hold, frees herself, beats the crap out of the mobster and his goons, then resumes the call as she’s walking to her ride. Natasha does not have superpowers like her Avengers colleagues, but she has the intelligence to match her combat skills. While the men fight amongst themselves, then fight the Chitauri, she figures out why Loki has allowed himself to be imprisoned, and she closes the portal through which the Chitauri invade Manhattan. While the men batter each other, the woman gets to the crux of the matter. By the way, the second-in-command on the heli-carrier is another badass, Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders).

Scarlett Johansson has also kicked ass in Luc Besson’s Lucy, and in the unfortunate Ghost in the Shell, which tried to pass her off as Asian. The reason Marvel has not seen fit to give Black Widow a movie of her own remains a mystery. Other current badass women in the Marvel universe: Gamora and Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy, Scarlet Witch in The Avengers, The Wasp in Ant-Man, Agent Carter in Captain America and in her own TV show, various Agents of SHIELD, Colleen Wing who really should’ve been the star of Iron Fist, and Tilda Swinton’s controversial Ancient One in Doctor Strange. Coming up: Cate Blanchett’s Hela in Thor, and the Dora Milaje of Wakanda in The Black Panther.

5. Leia Organa (Skywalker) in Star Wars

In George Lucas’s Star Wars: A New Hope and its sequels (Prequels? What prequels?), Luke Skywalker was the Jedi trainee who had to deal with his father issues, and Han Solo was the charming smuggler-pilot whose ship did the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs, but Leia (Carrie Fisher) was their boss. Though the Force was as strong in her as it was in her twin, she chose not to undergo Jedi training because she had a rebellion to run. As in real life, the woman addresses the practical issues and the men worry about the length of their light sabers.

Sure, Leia was enslaved by Jabba the Hutt and made to wear a metal bikini, but the first chance she got, she strangled him to death with her chain. She was fearless, commanding, always ready to wade into a firefight, and she didn’t take any guff from Han Solo, which is probably why they were apart in The Force Awakens. Happily, the Star Wars movies are continuing the tradition of badass women with Rey (Daisy Ridley) in TFA and Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) in Rogue One. Hopefully the next Star Wars heroines will not be defined by their father’s careers.

In the parade of obituaries that was 2016, it was the death of Carrie Fisher that knocked the wind out of us.

6. Trinity in The Matrix

When the Wachowski Brothers (now Sisters) movie The Matrix opened in 1999, we had no idea what to expect. Then the latex-clad Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) is cornered by Agents in a grotty hotel. Trinity leaps into the air, everything freezes, and the room spins around. Then stylishly, in ways that defy the laws of physics, she beats the crap out of the men sent to get her. That’s when we knew that we were in for something amazing.

A Philo 101 course in bullet-time, The Matrix not only gave rise to two increasingly convoluted sequels, but it defined the look of advertising in the early aughts. We will always love Keanu Reeves as Neo, and Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus got the sonorous lines, but Trinity was the badass in that joint.

Since coming out as transwomen, the Wachowskis have created the Netflix series Sense 8. Uneven, slightly bonkers, but always intriguing, the recently cancelled show featured the Korean actress Bae Doona regularly beating up guys thrice her size.

P.S. Do not remake The Matrix. Don’t even try.

7. Sarah Connor in Terminator 2

In the first Terminator by James Cameron, the machine overlords of the earth send an indestructible cyborg back in time to the 1980s to prevent a young woman named Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) from giving birth to the leader of the resistance. Sarah, an ordinary woman scared out of her wits, rises to meet her destiny. It is she who destroys the Terminator, and she who prepares her son for the rise of the machines. By the time she returns in Terminator 2, the sight of her toned and muscular arms sends droves of viewers to the gym. She could fire a sawed-off shotgun with one arm. She was magnificent. Other actresses have taken on the mantle of Sarah Connor, but Linda Hamilton set the standard of badassness.

The following women all deserve to be the subjects of doctoral dissertations, but we’re out of space so we just name them.

8. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in Mad Max: Fury Road

9. Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) in Kick-Ass

10. Rita Vratasky (Emily Blunt) in The Edge of Tomorrow

11. Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) in Haywire

12. Fox in Wanted, Salt in Salt, Mrs. Smith in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and every one of Angelina Jolie’s action heroines

13. Michelle Yeoh’s martial arts asskickers

14. Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) in -Alias

15. Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) in the Marvel TV series

16. Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) in Hanna

17. La Femme Nikita (Anne Parillaud, Peta Wilson, Maggie Q)

18. Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) in Game of Thrones

19. Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and The Return of the King

20. And don’t forget: Darna!

Also: Eleven in Stranger Things; Xena, Warrior Princess; Alice in Resident Evil; Serena in Underworld; the women of the DC Universe on TV; and Jamie Robinson in Voltes V.

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