Throughout history, the film industry has installed several stereotypes, cliches, and gender roles that remain fixed in the audience’s minds thanks to the thousands of productions that premiere year after year. Among the most common ones is the “boy-saves-girl” dynamic, where a male character performs some kind of feat, no matter how difficult, in order to save a female character, who plays the role of the damsel in distress. For a very long time, the hero roles in movies were reserved exclusively for men, while women were typecast as other characters, from caregivers to romantic interests. As a matter of fact, many of us grew up watching Disney princess movies, witnessing time and time again how princes would show up to save the day, even if the woman lead had all she needed to save herself.
Needless to say, these gender roles are nothing but a cinematic representation that is not mirrored in real life. But fortunately, film and television have come a long way over the years, challenging stereotypes and incorporating complex women characters that are far more representative of women around the world. Of course, there is still plenty of work to be done in terms of female representation in film, but it’s safe to say that there is significant progress being made.
Over time, we’ve started to see the rise of Disney princesses who became the heroines of their own stories, and many, many women characters who, as opposed to what the industry has been pushing for years, end up saving the day, and getting different male characters out of trouble. This “girl-saves-boy” dynamic has been replicated in a number of films over the years. Here are some of the best ones.
2016 marked the premiere of Captain America: Civil War, an MCU movie that serves as a sequel to Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The film once again features the troupe of superheroes known as the Avengers who, this time, find themselves in trouble: collateral damage from their actions has spiraled out of control, sparking public discontent. When the U.S. Secretary of State informs them that a panel will be appointed to monitor the team, they are split into two sides: Tony Stark leads the group in favor of the measure, and Steve Rogers, the one against it.
This pits the Avengers against each other in an epic battle where each side aims to defeat the opposing one. Natasha Romanoff, who initially took Tony’s side, almost succeeds in capturing Steve and Bucky Barnes, but prioritizing her friendship with Captain America, she decides to let him go, sparing him from his fate if he were to be captured.
It’s safe to say that Hermione is one of the greatest heroines of the Harry Potter film series. Throughout the saga, she saved Harry and Ron on many, many occasions with her extensive knowledge and enormous bravery. One of her bravest deeds took place in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third installment of the saga. In it, Harry is reunited with his godfather Sirius Black, who was sent to Azkaban for crimes he did not commit.
Following a series of misfortunes, he is sentenced to receive the Dementor’s Kiss, and it is up to Harry to save him. Fortunately, Hermione knows how to do it: with the help of the time-turner she has been using all year to attend way too many classes, they go back in time to change the past and help Sirius escape before going back to their own timeline. And once again, this young witch saves the day.
Ariel is one of the first princesses in Disney’s history. The animated version of The Little Mermaid directed by John Musker and Ron Clements was released back in 1989, with Jodi Benson voicing the title character, and it was adapted into a live-action film this same year, with Rob Marshall directing and Halle Bailey in the title role. This whimsical young mermaid may lack many things, but her courage is admirable. Ariel is not afraid of the unknown, and she is capable of going to great lengths to help those she loves.
In fact, this is how she winds up crossing paths with Eric, the human who steals her heart: when a storm wrecks the ship the man is on and throws him unconscious into the sea, the mermaid rushes to his rescue and drags him back to shore, without even thinking about the dangers of meeting another human being.
2012 witnessed the release of The Hunger Games, the first installment of a film series adapting Suzanne Collins’ work to the silver screen. This dystopian action movie is the one that brought Jennifer Lawrence to stardom as Katniss Everdeen, a teenager from District 12 who volunteers for a televised survival event known as the Hunger Games to spare her younger sister from certain death.
Katniss is, hands down, one of the most interesting heroines in cinema, and a perfect example of the “girl-saves-boy” dynamic: throughout the competition, she repeatedly saves Peeta, her fellow district member who always seems to be getting into trouble. Sure, he also helps Katniss a few times, and his support is crucial during the competition. But still, it’s safe to say that, without Katniss, Peeta’s journey in the Hunger Games would have been entirely different.
When it comes to strong women in cinema, it’s inevitable to mention Imperator Furiosa, the character played by Charlize Theron in the 2015 film Mad Max: Fury Road. Furiosa is a war captain who works under Immortan Joe, but decides to turn against him and embark on a journey to save the man’s five wives, sparking an unforeseen conflict.
On the run, she crosses paths with Max Rockatansky, and although they don’t get along well at first, they end up forming an alliance to fight Joe’s forces and take these women to safety. In one of the toughest fights against Joe and his men, Furiosa saves Max from certain death as he is about to fall out of the vehicle she is driving, and all without even letting go of the steering wheel.
The 2015 film Jurassic World kicked off a new trilogy in the Jurassic Park universe, which had gone many years without a new installment. In this production, starring Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard, the audience once again meets the dinosaurs of Isla Nublar, albeit several years after the events of the previous films. Now, the island is home to Jurassic World, a park that has been operating successfully for some time.
However, things take a turn for the worse when a lethal transgenic dinosaur escapes and endangers everybody. When everything seems lost, and the dinosaur is about to kill ethologist Owen Grady and Claire’s nephews, the park manager comes up with an idea that is as dangerous as it is effective: releasing the Tyrannosaurus rex and guiding it to confront the other dinosaur — all while in heels — which ends up saving the day.
Aliens is a 1986 film by James Cameron that served as a sequel to Alien, which hit theaters seven years earlier. In it, Sigourney Weaver reprises her role as Ellen Ripley, one of the greatest heroines in the history of cinema. After being the sole survivor of an attack by alien forces on her spaceship, Ripley spends 57 years floating unconscious in space until she is rescued.
However, her time on Earth is short-lived, as she is sent to investigate aboard a new spaceship after communication with a human colony on an exomoon is lost. On this mission, Ripley once again finds herself confronted by aliens, and turns out to be the only person capable of destroying them, saving her crew along the way.
We are used to superheroes saving their loved ones and the rest of the world, but in Iron Man 3, the tables are turned. In this 2013 film directed by Shane Black, Tony Stark must face Aldrich Killian, a disabled scientist who has been obsessed for years with the Extremis treatment, through which he sought to overcome his disability. However, the Extremis is flawed in a way that causes many of those who are subjected to it to explode.
In order to get Stark to help him solve the problem, Killian kidnaps Pepper Potts and subjects her to the treatment, and although she survives, she falls to her apparent death as Tony tries to save her. Losing his sweetheart causes him to lose his temper and confront Killian, but the latter is too powerful and corners him. Fortunately, Pepper did not die, and with the powers granted to her by Extremis, she saves her husband, slaying the scientist along the way.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a 2011 mystery thriller film directed by David Fincher and inspired by the 2005 novel by Stieg Larsson. In it, Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara play Mikael and Lisbeth, a journalist and a computer hacker, respectively, who join forces to solve the disappearance of Henrik Vanger’s niece, a case that took place four decades ago.
In the midst of their investigation, the two face many dangerous situations, such as when Mikael is kidnapped by one of the suspects and taken to a torture chamber, where he would have faced certain death had it not been for Lisbeth, who spotted her partner in danger through a surveillance camera and didn’t hesitate to help him.
Rounding out this list is Avatar, the 2009 science fiction film directed and written by James Cameron. In this production, which kicked off a popular film series, the audience first meets Pandora and its inhabitants, the Na’vi. To get their hands on a valuable mineral from this habitable moon, a group of humans develops a program in which they connect the minds of humans with Na’vi hybrids in order to freely investigate Pandora.
Paraplegic Marine Jake Sully is one of the men who join the program, and thanks to his Avatar he regains mobility, but finds himself in danger as soon as he sets foot on Pandora. Fortunately for him, he is rescued by a female Na’vi named Neytiri who, despite not fully trusting him, follows her instincts and takes him to her clan.