2015 was a big year for women in pop culture. Adele broke all of pop music’s records. Funny ladies flooded the small screen with a fresh perspective, from Jane the Virgin to Broad City to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Half of this year’s 20 top-grossing films had female protagonists.
And those are all of the moments that didn’t quite make the list. Here are the 11 most empowering moments for women in popular culture this year.
Write to Eliana Dockterman at email@example.com.
Viola Davis' Emmys Speech
Star Wars: The Feminism Awakens
Without spoiling the movie, it’s fair to say that Star Wars’ hero is a woman who can take care of herself. Director J.J. Abrams employs a delightful running gag in which male characters prepare to save Daisy Ridley’s Rey only to find that they are in fact the ones that need her help. Indeed, the biggest movies of 2015 has four women—Ridley, Carrie Fisher, Lupita Nyong’o and Gwendoline Christie—starring in major roles, which is surprisingly rare for a big budget film. Just 12% of protagonists and 30% of all speaking characters were women in last year’s top 100 grossing films.
Better still, the movie passes the Bechdel Test, a simple tool used to measure whether two female characters talk to one another about something other than a man. Though cartoonist and Fun Home writer Alison Bechdel, who created the test in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, has said herself it’s a low bar, it’s still surprisingly rare for a movie to achieve this goal. Just 55.4% of 2014’s films passed, according to data publishing site Silk. Perhaps Star Wars’ huge box office will convince other franchises to follow suit.
Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
A female soldier rescues a group of women from sex slavery to bring them to an all-female mecca. It may not sound like a typical summer action flick, but Mad Max: Fury Road surprised everyone with its feminist message. Critics, audiences and even awards groups praised the film’s hero—Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, not Tom Hardy’s Max—and the fact that Vagina Monologues writer Eve Ensler was on set as a consultant. Now the movie is getting Oscar buzz. If Fury Road didn’t prove that women can rule the box office and awards season, it’s unclear what will.
All Things Amy Schumer
What didn’t Amy Schumer do this year? First there was a spectacular season of Inside Amy Schumer that climaxed with a parody of 12 Angry Men in which a jury of men spent a full half hour deciding whether or not the comedian is hot enough to be on TV, skewering every body shaming comment that’s been lobbed at Schumer. She followed it up with box office hit Trainwreck and announced an upcoming collaboration between her and Jennifer Lawrence. (Yes, dreams do come true.) And, as if that weren’t enough, her comedy special hit HBO this fall. Throughout the year, Schumer used every opportunity to crack jokes about periods, turn the table on the male gaze and use humor to hammer her feminist message into her audiences’ heads.
Women Take on the Hollywood Pay Gap
Back in February, Patricia Arquette demanded that women receive equal pay during her rousing Best Supporting Actress acceptance speech at the Oscars. Some criticized her subsequent backstage speech for failing to recognize LGBTQ people and people of color, but her message coaxed Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez out of their seats for what became an epic gif. Women in Hollywood—from Sandra Bullock to Rooney Mara—continue to speak out. And it’s not just actors: Female directors have protested their lack of opportunities and smaller paychecks, most recently on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. The ACLU is even taking action, targeting sexism with the help of the government.
The most public call to arms came from Jennifer Lawrence, who recently wrote about her experience negotiating her paycheck on American Hustle. “I didn’t want to seem ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled,’ the Hunger Games star wrote in a Lenny Letter (a feminist newsletter from Girls creators Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner). “Could there still be a lingering habit of trying to express our opinions in a certain way that doesn’t ‘offend’ or ‘scare’ men?” Following the letter, Lawrence’s frequent co-star Bradley Cooper pledged to team up with female actors to jointly negotiate salaries in the future.
Female Superheroes Take Flight
With a new male-centric superhero movie premiering just about every four months, women have largely been relegated to the roles of sidekicks and damsels in distress. But this year, both Marvel and DC finally each put out a female superhero TV show: CBS’ Supergirl for DC and Netflix’s Jessica Jones for Marvel. The two could not be more different in tone—Supergirl is plucky and upbeat, Jessica Jones dark and gritty. And thank goodness for that. There are all sorts of male superheroes, it’s time there be just as many superpowered women with varying problems and personalities. Taylor Swift even got in on the fun with her Bad Blood video, uniting her posse for an all-female kickass music video.
The reason Empire became the biggest show to hit television in years: Taraji P. Henson’s portrayal of Cookie Lyon. Upstaging every other character in the melodrama, Cookie rocked the boldest fashions, turned her wittiest insults into catchphrases and—most importantly—proved herself the best at running the family and Empire Records. The character immediately became an icon, and Henson even earned an Emmy nomination for the role.
Inside Out Stars a Girl, Not a Princess
It’s rare for a children’s movie to star a girl, rarer still for that girl not to be a princess. Just one of every four characters in family films is a woman, according to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media. And yet Pixar broke the record for best opening of an original film (not based on a book, TV show, etc.) with a movie about a girl’s emotions and thoughts in an industry that has repeatedly demonstrated to young girls that it doesn’t care what’s inside their heads.
UnREAL and Difficult Women
Move over, Walter White: The female anti-hero has arrived. The surprise hit Lifetime series unREAL follows two women, master manipulators, running a Bachelor-like reality dating show. The first episode features the main character, Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), convincing contestants to stab each other in the back while she wears a “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt. It’s a complicated setup that allows these characters to play both despicable and sympathetic at the same time—a role usually reserved for men.
Women's Pleasure Gets the Hollywood Treatment
When most movies are objectifying women (see: heelgate), a few of this year’s films turned the tables and focused in on what women want…in bed. Whatever you think of the BDSM portrayed in Fifty Shades of Grey, it was one of 2015’s biggest hits, raking in more than $500 million worldwide. What’s more, it was directed by a self-proclaimed feminist who approached the film as the story of a woman figuring out her erotic wants and needs.
If the messaging of Fifty Shades is complicated, Magic Mike XXL was abundantly straightforward: We are men here to please you in any way we can—serenades, gyrations or even just being a good listener. And then there was Trainwreck, in which Amy Schumer took on the role of the Lothario-turned-romantic usually reserved for millennial males—even feigning sleep to get out of reciprocating certain sexual acts.
Heels can be cute but also painful. Women should have the option not to wear them, something that was made clear three times in 2015. In May, when the Cannes Film Festival turned away women wearing flats from a premiere, Twitter erupted in outrage. Sicario star Emily Blunt encouraged women to don flats in protest. Then in June, Barbie got adjustable ankles, allowing her feet to fit into heels or flats—to the relief of women everywhere.
But high heel awareness reached its peak in July when poor Bryce Dallas Howard was forced to run in heels alongside Chris Pratt throughout Jurassic World, inciting ire of any woman who has tried to walk, let alone run, in a forest in heels. There were critical tweets from celebs including Buffy creator Joss Whedon and parodies that put the dinos in stilettos. The actress finally said in an interview that the heels would not be returning in the 2018 sequel.