According to an Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism annual survey, the percentage of female characters in the 100 top-grossing movies declined to a five-year low of 28.4 percent in 2012. The manner in which these women were represented also drew the attention of the survey. Of the 4,475 female characters with speaking parts, 31.6 percent appeared in “sexualized attire.” That share jumped to 39.9 percent for characters aged 21 through 39 and to 56.6 percent for characters aged 13 through 20.
Even more concerning is that fact that of films that have narrators, only 27.5 percent of those chroniclers were women. In years past, the percentage has been higher: 51.5 percent of narrators were female in 2010 and 41.7 percent in 2009. The role of narrator is particular important because he or she is considered to be the authoritative voice of the film; they set the tone for the films they recount, and they frame the events they describe.
The numbers are not yet out for 2013, but there are several women that have dominated the silver screen and become heroines, either in the traditional sense of the word or in respect to the quality of their work and the difficulty of the roles they took on. Here are five heroines who dominated the silver screen in 2013.
5. Pepper Pots – Iron Man 3
Yes, Iron Man 3 only has a 79 percent fresh rating on review site Rotten Tomatoes. “The trouble is that, as the plot quickens, any cleverness withdraws, to make way for the firecrackers of the climax,” wrote the New Yorkers’ Anthony Lane. “That is not Black’s forte, and his movie duly slumps into a mess.” But the film has a saving grace — and it is progressive portrayal of female characters. ”Director Shane Black and his co-writer, Drew Pearce, managed to turn women into the stealth stars of a superhero film by flipping the script on stereotypes about female characters and making them interesting, mature human beings who actually do things,” opined Laura Hudson of Wired.
Rebecca Hall, who played scientist Maya Hansen, told the publication that her character is the “driving force of the entire narrative.” Plus, Pepper Potts — who began the franchise as the assistant of Tony Stark, or Iron Man — ultimately became the hero of the third film by “taking out the bad guy in smash-em-up physical confrontation,” according to Hudson. By the end of Iron Man 3, she is the chief executive officer of Stark Industries. Like, Hansen, who was first introduced as a sexual conquest from Stark’s past, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper could been easily relegated to Bond-girl type role. However, it was Hansen’s intelligence that created the impetus for the entire film, wrote Hudson.
4. Dr. Eve Saks – Dallas Buyers Club
Jennifer Garner is a radiant actress of rare spirit and sensitivity. Deeply moving.
– Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
Dallas Buyers Club is the story of Ron Woodroof, who was diagnosed as H.I.V-positive in 1985 and given 30 days to live. Rather than accepting the death sentence, he crosses the border into Mexico in order to learn about alternative treatments, which he then smuggled into the United States — an act that challenged the medical and scientific community, including his physician, Dr. Eve Saks. Saks, played by Jennifer Garner, was a character created solely for the film. Describing her character to BuzzFeed, she said of Saks: “when she started treating people with HIV and AIDS, she became consumed. The way you would. It’s a never-ending puzzle in front of her. When we meet her at the beginning of the movie, she’s just a doctor — and at the end, she’s a healer.”
To prepare for her role as a doctor overseeing a clinical trial for the drug AZT, she told BuzzFeed she looked at “medical journals from ‘81/’82 through ‘88, which was so cool, it was such a great exercise to do. Just to watch the puzzle pieces either falling into place, moving around, or being tossed out.”
3. Patsey – 12 Years a Slave
Portrayed by Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o, Patsey may not be considered a heroine of film in the vein of Mattie Ross of True Grit, Lisbeth Salander of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, or The Bride from Kill Bill – but her importance in portraying the movie’s central message is essential. The film 12 Years a Slave engages with “the poisoned intimacy in the relations between blacks and whites in the South,” as the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson wrote in her explanation of why Patsey is the hero of the film. That intimacy is portrayed “with a novel bravery” despite the fact the novel on which the film was based is a hundred and sixty years old.
Patsey was a young slave that was the victim of “a licentious master and a jealous mistress,” as Solomon Northup wrote in his memoir, which inspired the film. But despite the fact she was raped by her master and whipped, a beating that left her body “liberally flayed,” she is portrayed not tragically but heroically. As Davidson described, her honor was left perfectly intact. In the most painful scene in the movie, in which she is stripped naked, tied to a tree, and whipped, she was not defeated.
“It is a mistaken opinion that prevails in some quarters that the slave does not understand the term — does not comprehend the idea of freedom,” Northup wrote to explain the aftermath of the violence. “Patsey’s life, especially after her whipping, was one long dream of liberty. Far away, to her fancy an immeasurable distance, she knew there was a land of freedom.” The performance of Nyong’o is likely to earn her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress according to the New York Times.
2. Dr. Ryan Stone – Gravity
For her performance as Dr. Ryan Stone, Sandra Bullock could win an Oscar. Citing Variety’s Tim Gray, the magazine’s film editor Ramin Setoodeh wrote that Bullock had to “act in circles to convince audiences” that she was a seasoned astronaut. “It was my job, with all these constraints, to figure out how to be this person,” wrote Setoodeh, quoting the actress. But “there’s no denying that Bullock, and not technical wizards, built that character,” the editor added.
The scope of her acting goes far beyond convincing viewers that she was a seasoned astronaut. As Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers describers her acting, it was “the performance of a lifetime.” While ostensibly a movie about space exploration, the true theme of the film is the intricacies of the human heart. Stone, a NASA engineer on her first trip into space, is charged with repairing the Hubble telescope, with Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) serving as her guide. The film has received laudatory review for its visual mastery, but the visionary triumph of Mexican-born director Alfonso Cuarón is only completed by Bullock’s acting. “She blends ferocity and feeling into a triumphant, award-caliber portrait of grace under pressure — [Cuarón] turns Gravity into a thing of transcendent beauty and terror. It’s more than a movie. It’s some kind of miracle,” wrote Travers.
It is Bullock’s blend of ferocity and feeling that makes Dr. Ryan Stone a heroine. Just as the early scenes of the film — the eerie silence of deep space — contrasts with the destruction that follows, Stone’s emotions alternate between restrained optimism and despair as she resigns herself to the abandonment of her mission and her life. Bullock’s portrayal of Stone builds a character that is both humble, inward-looking, and capable of analyzing situations. She is an atypical female protagonist. She is neither headstrong, nor a risk taker, nor unreflective — personality traits that often define film heroes. Stone undergoes a transformation throughout the film, growing from a woman consumed by grief to a survivor.
1. Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The popularity of the The Hunger Games franchise is undeniable; the film is on pace to earn $16.1 million over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. It is Katniss Everdeen — a heroine born of an authoritarian regime, a 16 year-old who replaced her younger sister as a Hunger Games draftee, and a unwilling warrior — that made the films so appealing.
“One reason Katniss may be speaking to so many is that she doesn’t just seem to be a new kind of female character but also represents an alternative to an enduring cultural type that the literary critic R. W .B. Lewis described as the American Adam,” wrote the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis after the first film was released. “Lewis saw this type as ‘an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources.’” She is a self-sufficient survivor.
Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS
Don’t Miss: 7 TV Character Kill-Offs That Shocked Us.