Who’s #1? AWFJ Wonder Women Countdown Of Best Fictional Female Characters

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To celebrate AWFJ’s tenth anniversary and mark the movie industry’s feminist developments since our inception, we present our Wonder Women Project, a list of cinema’s top 55 female fiction characters, each one a reminder to industry insiders and movie lovers that iconic females in film have had entertainment impact, social influence and long legs since the earliest days of cinema.
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Our members celebrate every imaginable liberated woman among their choices of our top 11 women characters, including a factory worker who demands her rights from her employer, a widow who founds her own successful company in the very unequal 1940s, a woman with no legal property rights who schemes to hold onto her family home, and two friends who take “Give me liberty or give me death” quite literally. And, of course, we reveal our No. 1 Wonder Woman, a favorite of everyone who meets her. Here is our final group of Wonder Women, numbers 11 through 1:

11. LOUISE SAWYER from Thelma and Louise (1991)

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 7.47.28 PMGrow up, find a man, get married. That’s still a widely accepted idea of what women want. That’s certainly what Louise Sawyer was hoping for, but eventually, even the most patient lose interest, and Louise’s decision to take off for a weekend away from her deadbeat boyfriend is the best thing to happen to her. Free from the expectations of society, Louise finds herself in the midst of life-changing adventure and for the first time, being truly comfortable and happy with herself. The newly independent woman who emerges is strong, self-sufficient and uncompromising. Louise’s adventure ends in bold style. As Louise sails to her untimely end, best friend in tow, I couldn’t help but wish that she had more time to enjoy her hard-earned freedom. If nothing else, Louise’s story is a warning: don’t wait for some man to decide how your life will play out. Take control and live it on your own terms. —Marina Antunes

10. MILDRED PIERCE from Mildred Pierce (1945)

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 7.31.38 PMCapable, classy and ambitious, Mildred Pierce was the flipside of Stella Dallas, who was introduced to filmgoers a few years earlier, but their common bond was an unwavering determination to provide the best life for their daughters. With Mildred, that goal was also her Achilles’ heel. A housewife when the story begins, Mildred has a so-so marriage. Her two daughters are her passion, and when she loses one, she pours everything she has into the other. She doesn’t realize that giving Veda her every wish is also turning the youngster into a spoiled brat. Divorce could be a disaster for women in the 1940s, but Mildred actually blossoms. She starts her own business, hones her self-confidence and makes a life for Veda. Sometimes, she even gets to have one of her own. In most ways, Mildred is a protofeminist, making her own decisions and standing on her own financially at a time when that was unusual. She likes men, but she can survive without one. Mildred’s blind spot serves only to make her more human. She’s alternately infuriating and endearing, and the fact that she has to make some changes makes it easy to root for her. —Betsy Pickle

9. NORMA RAE WEBSTER from Norma Rae (1979)

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 7.51.39 PMNorma Rae is an icon of feminist courage and collectivism. Based on the life of North Carolina textile worker and activist union organizer Crystal Lee Sutton, Norma Rae is an everywoman from any-factory-town USA, she’s a mother, wife and blue collar worker who stands up for what she believes to be right even when her convictions are inconvenient and her actions bring disruptive challenges to her personal life and livelihood. Norma Rae’s character arc is one of self-education and enlightenment. While acknowledging her vulnerabilities and emotional needs, she forges ahead to identify and embrace her core of strength and ability to motivate and empower others. Her demands for equal opportunity, fair wages and safe work conditions brought essential improvements for her co-workers, and still resonate today. Sally Field’s Oscar-winning performance still inspires, especially in the scenes where she stands on a factory work table with the UNION sign raised above her head and when she’s explaining her position to her kids and trying to balance her responsibilities and her feelings for her family and her union. Norma Rae is not your traditional “Cosmo girl,” but when it comes to having it her way with dignity, she has it all. —Jennifer Merin

8. NORA CHARLES from the Thin Man series (1934-1947)

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 7.59.02 PMMovies love to tell us stories about falling in love: the rush of emotion, the fear of intimacy, the exquisite romantic thrill. And it is not hard to find a movie about the agony of love, the anguish of betrayal, the pain of loss. But it is very rare to see a movie about being in love and almost impossible to find a single film, much less a series, where the lead characters are a married couple who not only love each other and support each other, but get a genuine kick out of each other. They make marriage seem sexy and fun. Only one couple in movie history fits that category: the witty, glamorous, but down-to-earth Nick and Nora Charles in the Thin Man series of six films about a debonair detective and his society wife. Myrna Loy played Nora opposite her 14-time co-star William Powell, and there has never been a better on-screen match for impeccable comic timing and romantic chemistry. Nora is a game girl, whatever is up, whether it is matching Nick by downing a half-dozen martinis or hosting an elegant party for lowlifes and crooks. “Oh, Nicky. I love you because you know such lovely people,” she says, and she means it. She is confident in herself and their marriage. When she sees him hugging the girl he is helping, she is not at all jealous–they make faces at each other over the girl’s shoulder, communicating to each other and us their instinctive understanding. Their relationship is never in question. —Nell Minow

7. CLARICE STARLING from The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

starlingClarice Starling is the highest-ranking heroine on the AFI’s “100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains” list, and also a character who changed the way women could be movie heroes by embracing her strengths as a woman rather than being a female version of a tough guy. At the film’s beginning, Clarice is a student at the FBI academy sent to interview Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant psychiatrist and serial killer, in a mental hospital prison. Suppressing her fear, she does her work with enough charm that Lecter takes a liking to her. The FBI seeks to exploit their bond of mutual respect to help catch another serial killer, although they have little real expectations for this pretty young woman. Yet despite her youth and inexperience, Clarice holds her own against Lecter. While she makes mistakes, she learns from them. While she has doubts, she persists. No matter what puzzle Lecter gives her, Clarice solves it. No matter what frightening thing Lecter says, she keeps coming back to do her job. With determination, brains and guts, Clarice is a Wonder Woman who uses her strengths and her own humanity and vulnerabilities to get the job done. —Cate Marquis

6. MARY POPPINS from Mary Poppins (1964)

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 8.07.10 PMP.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins is perhaps the most famous British nanny in history: “Out of the sky she had come, back to the sky she had gone.” Borne on the East Wind by her parrot-headed umbrella, she arrives in London at 17 Cherry Tree Lane to bring the troubled Banks family closer together by guiding them through a series of strange, yet exciting adventures and teaching them about the deeper meaning of life. With her snub nose and prim, pursed mouth, no-nonsense Mary Poppins is not only magical but also controlling (“spit-spot”). One of her first lessons involves the paradox of expectations: While her carpet bag appears empty, it is, in fact, bottomless, proving that when you expect great things, you get nothing, but when you expect nothing, you get everything. While strictly disciplined, her flair for fun reveals a subtle layer of wicked naughtiness. Relying on her infallible intuition, she inspires the Banks children to follow their dreams. Finally, she reinforces the essential concept of the inevitability and abruptness of change. When Michael Banks pleads, “You’ll never leave us, will you?” Mary Poppins crisply replies, “I’ll stay until the wind changes.” —Susan Granger

5. SCARLETT O’HARA from Gone with the Wind (1939)

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 8.16.45 PMHas there ever been a more infuriatingly willful, selfish, yet admirably capable and shrewd movie heroine (or, perhaps, antiheroine) than author Margaret Mitchell’s defiantly headstrong plantation belle? Scarlett exhibits a dearth of empathy as she uses any resource at her disposal to ensure she and her beloved Tara rise again and prosper in the postbellum South: Refusing to adhere to societal conventions while employing her feminine wiles to get her way; looking after her good-hearted sister-in-law Melanie while desperately pursuing Melanie’s husband, Ashley; shooting a Yankee thief dead and raiding his wallet; stealing her sister’s businessman beau to pay off her overdue taxes; marrying her opportunistic soulmate and true love Rhett Butler. One of the most coveted film roles ever would not have been half as enduring were it not for the fiery presence of English-actress Vivien Leigh, who rightfully won an Oscar for her epic performance. She even lends a certain modern edge to Scarlett’s feminine fortitude that continues to resonate to this day. —Susan Wloszczyna

4. ILSA LUND from Casablanca (1942)

ClickHandlerLund, played by the sophisticated beauty Ingrid Bergman, is the apex of one of the most tragic triangles in motion picture history. She takes a metaphorical bullet for the moral high-ground—and the anti-Nazi cause—by choosing stiff husband Laszlo (Paul Henreid) over the apparent man of her heart, Humphrey Bogart’s Rick. Hers seems to be an unhappy ending, and yet we never really know exactly how she feels as this complex character is constantly confronted with impossible choices against the backdrop of World War II. Her sense of mystery is simply wonderful. —Thelma Adams

3. THELMA DICKINSON from Thelma and Louise (1991)

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 7.41.20 PMLike many working-class women, Thelma Dickinson doesn’t have many options. Trapped in a dead-end marriage, she’s afraid to upset the mind-numbing routine of her daily life. When her pal Louise persuades her to take off for a two-day vacation, she worries about telling her emotionally abusive husband of their plans. “Thelma, is he your husband,” asks Louise, “or your father?” As the two friends embark on what will become an epic road trip, the shadow of this oppressive patriarchy hovers over them. After Louise saves Thelma from a near rape, another tragedy results, and they find themselves on the run from the law. Though this twist of fate leads Louise to despair, the once-timid Thelma gains a sense of empowerment from their outlaw status: “Something’s crossed over in me and I can’t go back. … I just couldn’t live.” Thelma, like Louise, is a Wonder Woman because she’s finally discovered a way to live life on her own terms. Their journey of self-discovery sets them free, and as the law closes in, frozen in time. “Let’s keep going,” Thelma tells Louise, who hits the accelerator, and they fly off, hands clasped triumphantly aloft, into eternal liberation. —Laura Emerick

2. RIPLEY from the Alien series (1979-1997)

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 8.25.13 PMIn space, the posters warned, no one can hear you scream. Once we all saw Alien, however, we knew—Ripley wasn’t the screaming type. Of course, Ripley also had a first name: Ellen. Not that anyone ever used it; Ellen Ripley wasn’t the first-name type either. As such, Ripley, introduced in 1979’s Alien and returning to a theater near you in the movie’s upcoming fourth sequel, carved out a pioneering (one might even say unique) niche in the annals of Hollywood sci-fi moviedom. She’s not the damsel in distress, the princess who needs rescuing. She’s not ornamental eye-candy or an airborne, kickass fembot. And though Ripley is most definitely kickass, it’s only in the line of duty. If Alien and its sequels were Westerns, Ripley would epitomize a feminist variation on that deathless phrase—a woman’s gotta do what a woman’s gotta do. In her seemingly endless battles with Alien’s title beast Ripley constantly risks her life to save others, no matter the cost. (And it’s a steep one: losing her own daughter.) No matter how tired or tried she is by her adventures, Ripley remains determined, indefatigable and utterly, undeniably human. —Carol Cling

1. MARGE GUNDERSON from Fargo (1996)

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Has a heroic woman ever been more accessible than Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson? Seven months pregnant, matter-of-fact about morning sickness and perpetual hunger (betcha Brainerd police never had a cop’s maternity uniform in the station uniform locker before) Marge seems sweetly simple with her backwater accent and genuinely felt take on Minnesota nice. But what a brain ticks behind those watchful eyes. A crack shot, her deductive powers are Holmesian, yet she’s unaffected enough to wear her hat’s ear flaps down. She’s surrounded by murderers, fraudsters and lying scum, yet kindness is in her DNA. Marge is a glass-half-full kinda gal, believing in the inherent good in people unless they demonstrate—to her weary disappointment—that they are deceitful or worse. Underestimating her is your problem. Being snippy with Marge is also your problem. Could Marge have been played by a man, with spouse “Norma” at home fixing plates of eggs and working on a stamp art project while her cop husband cracks a fraud case and multiple homicide? Well, ya got a point there, but it’s been done before. There’s never been a woman onscreen like Marge Gunderson. —Linda Barnard


AWFJ Wonder Women Countdown — Characters 22 through 12

AWFJ Wonder Women Countdown — Characters 33 through 23

AWFJ Wonder Women Countdown — Characters 43 through 34

AWFJ Wonder Women Countdown — Characters 55 through 44

AWFJ Wonder Women in Chronological Order

About AWFJ’s Wonder Women Project — Marilyn Ferdinand comments

AWFJ Wonder Women Are Coming — Marilyn Ferdinand reports

AWFJ’s Top 100 Film List (2007)

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).