Mad Max: Fury Road has taken the world by storm like the fiery tornadoes that it contains. Noted for its intense action, emotionally potent story, and just being a good time overall, it currently holds a 98% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 9.1/10, making it one of the most critically acclaimed films on the site.
Of special interest with this Ozsploitation film turned renewed phenomenon is Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, a strong woman who takes no shit, kicks ass, but, perhaps most importantly of all, has a legitimate sense of agency.
The Female Action Hero, across art is one of the best things you can have. A good male action hero is a dime a dozen, but when you can have a convincing female action hero, one who is well thought out and kicks ass, that’s something special.
Here are 12 particularly kick ass females across Books, Movies, TV and Animation.
12. Joan of Arc – Passion of Joan of Arc (1928 Film)
Joan of Arc is one of the original female heroines. Her story is classic: A young girl lives in an oppressed kingdom, she gets a divine revelation and decides to join the war effort against her countries invaders/oppressors, she dresses as a man and leads armies to war. As a real person, unfortunately, things don’t always work out and she was ultimately captured, put on trial, and executed by burning at the stake
The Passion of Joan of Arc by Carl Theodor Dreyer tells a fictionalized version of the trial and execution of Joan of Arc. Made in 1928, this heartbreaking portrayal of integrity in the face of injustice features a searing performance by Renee Jeanne Falconetti, who through the earnestness of her expressions and her powerfully expressive face, manages to convey one of the most powerful and subtle performances ever captured on film. Even though Joan ultimately is executed, she wins through her immense integrity
It is notable that Imperator Furiosa’s costume and make up bears a strong resemblance to Falconetti’s Joan.
11. Motoko Kusanagi – Ghost in the Shell (1995 Film)
Ghost in the Shell, though a product of the cyberpunk movement of the 80’s and 90’s asks an increasingly important question: What does it mean to be human when robotics and the internet have reached a point that matches humans in complexity and action? Set in a future where most human’s are connected to a gigantic computer network, this film follows Major Motoko Kusanagi as she tries to catch an elusive hacker “The Puppet Master” and gets drawn into a web of intrigue and conspiracy.
Major Motoko Kusanagi remains one of the most popular anime characters ever made. She remains detached, calm, and collected. Not only is she intelligent and posesses strong skills of deduction, as a cyborg she has super human abilities that also make her a force to be reckoned with in combat, and more than that, she faces the question of humanity honestly, made all the more poignant by the fact that she is almost completely a robot.
10. Vin – The Mistborn Trilogy
What happens when the savior of the world fails in his mission?
This is the question Mistborn poses. Taking place on a planet that perpetually rains ash, the world has, for 1000 years been ruled by the dictator/god The Lord Ruler. His rule of the Final Empire is total, the noble class flourishing and the lower class known as Skaa eking by with next to nothing.
That is until Kelsier, a rebel and a fabled Mistborn, one who is able to use allomancy (ingesting metals to gain superpowers) decides to take him down. Along the way he recruits Vin, a street urchin to help him take down the final empire.
Brandon Sanderson has a strong knack for female characters, and Vin is one of his best creations. She, like Kelsier is a mistborn, and over the course of the trilogy becomes a literal force of destruction. Her character, going from young teen with trust issues to unstoppable badass is one of the most satisfying in modern day literature, made all the better by the focus of the story on her role as a soldier/superhero, rather than any other overarching trait.
9. Buffy Summers – Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy Summers is the product of Joss Whedon’s desire to portray a horror film where the disposable waitress at the diner in the beginning of the movie is actually the hero. This idea then evolved into “My So Called Life with Monsters”
First as a movie, then more famously portrayed by Sarah Michelle Gellar for 7 seasons on the eponymous TV show. Buffy is awesome because she realistically portrays the burden of being the chosen one, while also being a teenage girl, and despite the stress of high school, boys, and friendship, she also manages to display profound inner strength while defeating all the demons, vampires, and evil things that lurk at the hellmouth around Sunnydale.
8. Beatrix Kiddo – Kill Bill (film)
The Bride is on a mission: To wreak her horrible bloody vengeance on her employer after she was shot and put in a coma on her wedding day for trying to leave the business. Along the way she gets a badass sword, loses all feeling, and goes on a bloody rampage.
The Bride is compelling not only because she is able to kill 88 people in one single sustained bout of utter carnage (though that certainly helps), she is compelling because, in part, by how Quentin Tarantino wrote her, but also because her fears and anger are so believable in the context of a lycra wearing, katana wielding assassin who knows karate. She is lonely, angry, and out for blood, and has a believable arc to boot.
7. San – Princess Mononoke
Hayao Miyazaki is, if not the most, then one of the most highly acclaimed animators from japan of all time. He regularly treats his topics with lyrical flourishes, while retaining a heaviness and truth, in addition the beautiful animation.
In the context of this list San, of Princess Mononoke represents a marriage of Japanese (and to an extent world) folk lore with a modern perspective on industrialization and the place nature has in the face of technology. A girl raised by Wolves, she is very much a loner who is dragged into, and then eventually becomes deeply involved in a conflict with the neighboring Irontown and their mission to kill the God of the forest in pursuit of greedy ends. Although she resents humanity at first, she ultimately comes to care enough for the main character enough to help him.
Though she does fall into the stereotype of the “Jungle Girl” she still manages to be a compelling character who isn’t nearly as flat as a stereotype.
6. Lola – Run Lola Run
This character is one of the most famous foreign action stars in the popular film canon.
Lola Rennt (Run Lola Run) put director Tom Tykwer on the map for his portrayal of Lola, a woman who will do anything to save her boyfriend. Taking a novel approach to storytelling, which is now a commonplace trope (alternate timelines), Lola in the film is at once a feminine figure, but also a reversal of the feminine stereotypes by making her boyfriend the damsel in distress and her the dashing hero. Through three alternate timelines we see the ultimate subversion of the modern action hero.
5. Kara “Starbuck” Thrace – Battlestar Galactica
In 2003, Ronald D. Moore reinvented the space opera fantasy genre with his reimagining of the 70’s kitsch classic Battlestar Galactica. Focusing on a realistic depiction of life after the apocalypse, it featured one of the strongest cast of female characters in television. Everyone from Sharon Valerii, the mercurial Human Cylon known only as “Six”, to the president of the colonies Laura Roslin, there was no shortage of awesome female characters.
However, the most popular by far is Kara Thrace, otherwise known by her call sign Starbuck. Hot-headed, prone to violent outbursts and emotionally distant, she is one of the best pilots in the show and consistently proves a match for everyone she encounters. Her dogged determination makes some of the subplots involving her the most compelling on the show, including sometimes doing the impossible.
4. Ellen Ripley – Alien (film)
Ellen Ripley is one of the first examples of a kickass heroine in action movies. Featured in 1979’s Alien, and to varying degrees of skill and strength in the sequels, Ripley is a scientist aboard the Nostromo, a commercial mining space-ship that comes into contact with the xenomorphs, the famous predatorial aliens of the Alien franchise.
On this list she is one among many, but her progression, at least for the first three alien films is one of what Joseph Campbell called “The Hero’s Journey” starting in Alien and reaching some measure of closure in Alien 3, and then being brought back, to many’s dismay, in Alien Resurrection.
3. Sarah Connor – The Terminator Series
The story is well known. In the future an evil AI known as Skynet will destroy humanity and a rebellion will rise, led by John Connor. Skynet knows and so they send back a “Terminator” to kill his mother: Sarah
Sarah Connor stands along with Ripley in the “Action Heroine” canon as one of the first wave. And their storylines follow a similar trajectory. They both run from the monsters in the first movie (The Terminator in Terminator, Xenomorphs in Alien) and are closer to horror film heroines than badasses. Then in the second films, after their trials by fire they have become certifiable take-no-shit badasses, calloused by their lives and with considerable skills.
It is, also perhaps a coincidence that Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (The sequels where they become action heroines) were both written and directed by James Cameron.
2. Xena – Xena Warrior Princess
Xena is considered a feminist icon. A warrior who fights for redemption, hers is one of the most popular shows of the 90’s and made Lucy Lawless a star.
In the show she has a dark past with a great deal of evil, immoral, or terrible things that lead her to renouncing her lifestyle, until events lead to her taking up the mantle of warrior princess again and deciding to pursue the path to redemption. Along with her companion Gabrielle she travels the land to help people and redeem her soul.
Of special note is her relationship with Gabrielle, which some have seen as a lesbian relationship, although largely left ambiguous in the series, her sexuality isn’t the focus of the show. Instead her being a warrior princess is what ultimately matters and is what ultimately makes her so memorable.
1. Hermione Granger – Harry Potter
Hermione is probably the most famous modern day heroine on this list, and what makes her so valuable on this list, and in some ways, even more awesome, is that her primary skill is her intellect.
That isn’t to say these heroines are dull, but Hermione is a character whose ability to defeat her enemies and be amazing is motivated by her extremely keen mind, her insight into situations, her creativity and integrity. The ability to stand up the prejudice she faces by characters for her parentage is much like Joan of Arc, but its her ability to also take matters into her own hands and do it well that ultimately make her such a winner.