The 100-Year Evolution of Movie Heroines
Trivia The 100-Year Evolution of Movie Heroines

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The 100-Year Evolution of Movie Heroines

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
It's time to look over the 100 year evolution of movie heroines.
Transcript
A lot can change in a century. Welcome to MsMojo and today we’ll be looking at the 100-year evolution of movie heroines.

For this list, we’re looking at the evolution of female movie characters through the decades. There are always exceptions, but these are the archetypal characters popular in their respective eras that showcase how the portrayal of women in film has changed.

The Starlet
1920s

The 1920s was the decade when Hollywood really took off, with all five of the “Big Five” studios existing by the mid-30s. With the creation of the cinematic “culture industries” came other types of manufacturing, including the star image. The star vehicle was invented during the silent era but endured for decades, begun by big names such as Greta Garbo, Mary Pickford, and Clara Bow, in movies like “Flesh and the Devil” and “Coquette.” Bow herself became the embodiment of the 1920s “flapper” and was the first “it girl.” But it was also an era of exploitation and sexism, with women rarely in control of how they appeared, were marketed, or portrayed.

Working Women
1930s

Women in the US gained the right to vote in 1920, and by the 1930s, Hollywood finally began to portray working women. And not just women, but women who had voices of their own thanks to the recent innovation of “talkies.” A film like “His Girl Friday” couldn’t have been made in previous decades; Rosalind Russell played Hildy Johnson, an ace reporter to Cary Grant’s newspaper editor Walter Burns. The two are divorced, and engage in fast-paced, verbal sparring in every single scene. Then there was “Dance, Girl, Dance”, about two women trying to make it in the cruel world of show business. It was made by one of Hollywood’s earliest female – and queer – directors, Dorothy Arzner.

The Femme Fatale
1940s

Today we may look down on women being reduced to a trope like this, but in the 1940s and previous decades, the femme fatale was still a popular and exciting character. Initially known also as a “vamp”, short for “vampire”, the femme fatale is a seductive woman whose power over a male character leads to his downfall. In the 40s, however, the femme fatale came into her own as a vital part of noir detective stories. At the same time, women were also playing different kinds of roles in contemporary war films; Ingrid Bergman’s Isla Lund embodied support for the men involved in the war effort in “Casablanca.”

The Hitchcock Blonde
1950s

One of the greatest directors of all time put a few common features into practically all of his films, and most famous of all was the Hitchcock Blonde. A poised and collected, platinum-blonde leading lady can be found in most of his biggest flicks, played by Kim Novak in “Vertigo”; Grace Kelly in “Rear Window”, “Dial ‘M’ for Murder” and “To Catch a Thief”; and most infamously Tippi Hedren in “The Birds” and “Marnie.” Despite the enduring idea of the “Hitchcock blonde”, it’s since been said that Hitchcock’s obsession with blondes grew more and more extreme over the years, culminating in him dictating Hedren’s personal and professional life.

Independent Women
1960s

The 1960s was a decade of huge social change, with anti-war protests, the Civil Rights movement, and hippie culture spreading across America. And things changed for women from all walks of life as second-wave feminism came along. In 1958, Rosalind Russell had starred in “Auntie Mame”, the story of an eccentric woman who gains custody of her nephew and teaches him about her progressive lifestyle and beliefs. In 1961, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” gave us Holly Golightly, a New York socialite who lives day to day, and throws extravagant parties. The titular heroine of 1964’s “Mary Poppins”, itself set during the suffrage movement, is another example of the archetype.

Power Players
1970s

Powerful and intelligent women came to the fore in the 70s. This was the decade that gave us Princess Leia who, while she did have to be rescued by Han and Luke in “A New Hope”, was far from just a damsel in distress, and became one of cinema’s cultural icon. Other women in powerful positions include Norma Rae Webster in 1979’s “Norma Rae”, based on a real-life labor union organizer, Crystal Lee Sutton - a feminist icon in her own right. The role won Sally Field an Oscar. Even Annie Hall was a character with loftier ambitions and higher intelligence than her cynical love-interest Alvy.

The Final Girl
1980s

With the booming popularity of horror movies came this reliable character: the final girl, the survivor who outlasts the killer and goes on to star in the sequels. This arguably began with Sally Hardesty escaping Leatherface in 1974 “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, and Laurie Strode surviving Michael Myers in 1978’s “Halloween”. Another candidate is Ellen Ripley, who in 1979 defeated the xenomorph in Ridley Scott’s “Alien”. The trope went on to become a mainstay of franchises such as “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, “Scream” and “Friday the 13th.” In other words, all of the biggest horror franchises in movie history. The term was coined in 1992, and has stuck with us ever since.

Outcast Teen
1990s

Who hasn’t felt like an outsider every once in a while? The 90s targeted and subverted high school cliques with movies like “Clueless” and “The Craft”. It was a trend that could already be seen in 1988’s “Heathers, which criticized the stereotypical “popular girls” in dark ways. “Clueless” took a lighter approach, parodying Cher Horowitz’s attempts to socially “adopt” the new girl at school. The effort leads her to question her priorities and become a bit of an outlier herself. “The Craft” gave outcast girls dark powers, while “10 Things I Hate About You” capped off the decade with a beloved, feminist retelling “The Taming of the Shrew”.

The Action Heroine
2000s

Women were front and centre for many big-budget action movies in the Naughties. While the origins of the female action hero can be traced to characters like “Terminator’s” Sarah Conner and “The Matrix’s”Trinity, “Charlie’s Angels” and “Kill Bill” are goldmines for this trope. Both series’ feature numerous highly skilled leads - private detectives in the “Charlie’s Angels” reboot, and assassins in “Kill Bill”. It was also the decade when Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft reached the screen in the original “Tomb Raider” movies, which were just as over-the-top as the video games. This continued early into the next decade, with characters like Katniss Everdeen taking over.

Superheroes
2010s

Superheroes were big business in the 2010s. The MCU became the highest-grossing movie franchise of all time, and the DCEU didn’t do too shabbily either. It only makes sense that the best decade for superheroes would also be the best decade for female superheroes. While for a few years Black Widow remained one of the few female heroes in superhero movies, anti-hero Harley Quinn was undeniably the best part of “Suicide Squad.” After that, Gal Gadot’s “Wonder Woman” was a critical and commercial success, and finally prompted Marvel to do their own female-led standalone in the form of “Captain Marvel”.
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