Throughout film and television history, the entertainment format has been dominated by male-centric protagonists, but that has slowly been changing in the past several decades.
In the early days of cinema, handsome men with deep voices were the archetype of what a protagonist was, i.e. Rick in Casablanca or Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. To this day this is still the trend that Hollywood has not been very keen to break from, but they have begun to.
While there are still protagonists that are modern-day standards for masculinity in Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth for their portrayals as Captain America and Thor, respectively, protagonists are beginning to change from this stereotype. More and more now, women are becoming the heroes.
It all started forty years ago, when a young man with a vision wanted to create a story about a farm boy saving a princess from the evil overlords of the land. That man was George Lucas and that vision became Star Wars.
The princess, who is essentially the MacGuffin of the film, is a legend and is immortalized as one of the earliest mainstream female protagonists in film. Portrayed by the incomparable Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia changed film forever. What was so groundbreaking for the character of Leia at the time was that she wasn’t just a male character who was wearing a dress. She was effeminate and wildly strong.
Her first line when Luke, in stormtrooper armor, tells you everything you need to know about Leia. She says sarcastically, “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”
That line epitomizes who the character of Leia is and that trend carried on into the subsequent films and the myriad of books, video games, and comics that have expanded the mythology of Star Wars. She is strong, brilliant, and never masculinized, which ended up paving the way for many more iconic characters throughout the years.
In fact, one of those other iconic characters was first introduced to audiences two years later in 1979 in the sci-fi/horror masterpiece Alien and its sequel, Aliens, in Ellen Ripley, portrayed by Sigourney Weaver. Ripley challenged what gender roles were meant in horror and science fiction films at a time where those roles were not fully developed yet.
She began as the final girl trope in horror and she was woman who disagreed with the male captain in sci-fi films. By the end of Alien though, she broke those roles in two. She was right for disagreeing with the captain and she saved herself from the xenomorph, unlike every other final girl being saved from the horror villain.
These early female heroes aren’t just found in American films, but are ever-present in Japanese anime, specifically in the work Hayao Miyazaki. Whether it be Nausicaa of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind or San of Princess Mononoke, anime is filled with female heroes that simply embody a textbook definition of what a protagonist.
But these are all characters from at least twenty years, so what about those in recent years? Well, different forms of media with strong women as leads are more popular than they have ever been. Shows like Game of Thrones and Jessica Jones, while not perfect in their treatment of women, have several incredibly well-developed female characters whether it’s Maisie Williams’ Arya Stark, Krysten Ritter’s eponymous Jessica Jones, or Emilia Clarke’s Khaleesi, Daenerys Targaryen.
Probably the biggest indicator of how the treatment of female protagonists and the changing perception of them as a whole is the box office of 2017. The top three films of the year were Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast, and Wonder Woman, each of which had a female lead that was three-dimensional and was more than just eye candy. Rey, Belle, and Diana are the inevitable outcome of the trend that was started four decades ago and this is something that deserves to be lauded and will in turn inspire more and more women and men to create stories like these.