The Evolution of the Female Action Hero

From Ripley to Wonder Woman, these characters are fighting for the future


Jen Prandato for TIMEPhoto illustrations by Jen Prandato for TIME


The action genre has long been dominated by Bonds, Bournes and Batmen. This summer is different. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Charlize Theron’s Lorraine Broughton both broke through. Wonder Woman became the first female superhero to headline her own major motion picture in over a decade. (Not to mention make a boat-load of cash.)

And, building on her Mad Max: Fury Road credentials, Theron is poised to take the female-led action film places it’s never been before with the violent, stylish Atomic Blonde.

Both films are important in the evolution of the female hero on screen, which we look at here. Over the past fifty years, these kinds of roles—the Ellen Ripleys, the Sarah Connors, the Black Widows—have grown, though slowly and without full representation of race, sexual orientation and class.

One thing is certain, after this summer’s successes, more films with strong female leads are on the way.

Jack Hill’s Foxy Brown (1974) cast Pam Grier as the revenge-seeking hero of an unapologetic black epic. The film’s portrayal of sex, drugs, crime and poverty also spoke to themes of the women’s and black power movements. She becomes the model for women in blaxploitation movies to come.

Then came Leia. Technically, she was a princess. But when the boys of Star Wars showed up to save the supposed damsel in distress in A New Hope (1977), Carrie Fisher rolled her eyes, grabbed a blaster and took over the escape mission. Leia walked the line between sexy and powerful: The scene in which she strangles her captor Jabba while wearing a slinky gold bikini is an exercise in parsing. But she was the first truly empowered princess, serving as a precursor to future characters likes Elsa, Xena and Daenerys.

MORE: Carrie Fisher Played the First Truly Kickass Princess

As Ripley in Alien (1979), Sigourney Weaver arguably birthed the female action hero. Her character’s ferocity rejected tired stereotypes. Perhaps that’s because the role was originally written for a man, and director Scott Ridley has said little changed about the character after Weaver was cast.

Jen Prandato for TIME

The 1980s were bountiful with action movies—Rambo (1982), Lethal Weapon (1987), Die Hard (1988)—but bereft of female leads. In the Terminator franchise, Linda Hamilton began as love interest and sidekick, but evolved into a fighter when faced with a threat.The plot established what would become a well-worn path for female heroes: A defenseless woman forced to become strong in the face of danger, a lioness protecting her cub and a study in fragility when pushed to the limit. The Sarah Connor of Terminator 2 would let go of most of that, becoming a fervent, gun-touting, pull-up machine.

Jen Prandato for TIME

Directors like Luc Besson, Joss Whedon and Ridley Scott established themselves as boosters of strong female characters. Besson’s La Femme Nikita (1990), The Professional (1994) and The Fifth Element (1997) kicked off his long history of featuring women as the ultimate weapon. Joss Whedon first brought vampire slayer Buffy to the big screen (1992), though she would make a more indelible mark in the later TV series. Scott’s G.I. Jane (1992), played by Demi Moore, shared a shaved head and talent for wielding guns with Alien 3’s Ripley.

While these men ushered in impressive heroes, female directors were largely denied the opportunity to helm big budget films. That’s just begun to change: This June, Wonder Woman became the first film directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins) to make $100 million opening weekend.

Movies like Charlie’s Angels (2000), Resident Evil (2002), Catwoman (2004), Aeon Flux (2005) and Elektra (2005) fused girl power with sex appeal to varying degrees of success.

Meanwhile Angelina Jolie leveraged her role as the impossibly proportioned tomb raider, Lara Croft (2001), into a new phase of her career. After starring in Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005), Wanted (2008) and Salt (2010), Jolie became perhaps the first woman to achieve a run of successful action films. She joined the pantheon of action stars that includes Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis.

Every superhero ensemble seems to have at least one woman: Black Widow in The Avengers (2012), Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman (2016), Letty in Fast & Furious (2001). Too often these characters are there to have chemistry with the leading man or to round out the crew rather than move the plot forward.

But women have also started to headline these movies, like in Divergent (2014) and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). Movies like The Hunger Games (2012), Lucy (2014), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) have proven that women-led action flicks are bankable too.

Seventy-six years after her comic book debut, the most famous female superhero in the world, Wonder Woman, finally got her own movie. And it’s a smash. Scarlett Johansson cements her current title as go-to action hero by adding Ghost in the Shell to her resume. And Charlize Theron sets out to create an action hero who isn’t purely good in Atomic Blonde.

MORE: Why We Need Wonder Woman Now

All three heroes brawl for different reasons: One for a greater moral good, another because she’s programmed to do so and a third because maybe she enjoys her license to kill a little too much. Finally, we’re getting different types of female heroes.

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