The Persistent Women of Cinema

They were warned. They were given an explanation. Nevertheless, they persisted.

If you’ve been paying attention to politics this week, you are undoubtedly aware of the #ShePersisted meme that’s been sweeping more progressive and mainstream corridors of the Internet. If you haven’t heard anything about this, just assume that we picked a random day to celebrate some of the badass, undeterred, relentless women of cinema. We’re good, either way. We don’t actually need an excuse to do this kind of list. And as you will see below, the team didn’t struggle to come up with a long list of awesome women who, collectively, take no shit.

Here they are, the persistent women of cinema.

Ellen Ripley

Neil Miller: This conversation could begin and end with the various characters portrayed by Sigourney Weaver. The greatest mistake any xenomorph ever made was existing within reach of Ripley’s vengeance. If there was a better version of the “She Persisted” mantra, it’s “Get away from her, you bitch.”

The Bride

Jacob Oller: Kill Bill’s Beatrix Kiddo (aka The Bride played by Uma Thurman) goes through at lot leading up to her quest for vengeance. Most people do in these situations, that’s how they get so vengeful in the first place. Shot on her wedding day and put into a four-year coma, Kiddo begins waging a war upon those that attacked her, those that stole her daughter, and anyone that would stand in her way. A desperate toe-waggling scene after years of bedridden muscle atrophy only becomes even more badass once you consider that it takes place in her now-dead rapist’s truck. Various female assassins fall to her mastery as she outlasts and defeats every stubborn male master she comes across, be they Hattori Hanzō (Sonny Chiba), Pai Mei (Gordon Liu), or even Bill (David Carradine). Kiddo is a relentless killer bent on personal satisfaction and intense maternal instincts once she discovers her daughter is still alive. She punches her way out of a coffin – you think any man could stop her?

Christina Delassalle

Sinéad McCausland: Les Diaboliques, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic thriller/horror film, sees two women escape from the oppression of the cruel husband and headmaster Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse). Both of the women are three-dimensional, complex figures who grapple with both internal and external repressive forces. Each of them persists against the abuse of power and roles placed on them by their male surroundings. There’s the unapologetic Nicole Horner (played by Simone Signoret), a character whose blacked-out sunglasses and long pocketed quotes superficially mirror her cunning nature and ability to deceive those around her. Horner rejects the world around her simply because it is not the world she wants to live in. Meanwhile, the frail and unassuming Christina Delassalle (Véra Clouzot) presents a less obvious strong and multidimensional character. Like Horner, Christina Delassalle does not accept the male-dominated world she lives in, yet unlike Horner, Delassalle’s voice is quieter and therefore less likely to be able to bring her power in a world that gives power to the loudest. Instead, Delassalle finds strength in her quietness. Her illness may make her seem weak and incapable next to the assertive Horner, but what’s important is that the actions of Delassalle prove otherwise. Delassalle owns the boarding school her husband is headmaster of, immediately placing the monetary power in her hands. What’s more, she rejects and escapes from her husband, while the entirety of Horner’s plan resides on the actions of Delassalle. Despite her illness and the oppression created by her surroundings, this character persists repeatedly against the forces out of her control. She is the one audiences see evolve throughout the film, and the one who has the most lasting presence once Les Diaboliques is over. Delassalle’s quiet strength and atypical, unique portrayal makes this a character worth returning to when looking for women who do not give up.

The Women of 9 to 5

H. Perry Horton: They don’t come much more persistent than Judy Bernly, Violet Newstead, and Doralee Rhodes, the three heroines of 9 to 5 played by Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton, respectively. The first has her competency questioned because she’s a former homemaker who’s been out of the workforce a while, the second has her competency taken credit for, and the third is undervalued as a human being altogether because of her shapely figure – all by the same inferior superior, sneering misogynist Franklin Hart, Jr. (Dabney Coleman), who prevents each of woman from climbing the corporate ladder. But instead of taking “no” for an answer, the trio holds Hart hostage in his own home and covers for his absence at work, implementing social programs and other such benefits that don’t only aid themselves and other working women, but that better the lives of all employees and the productivity of the corporation. Are they extreme in their persistence to be given a fair opportunity to prove their worth? Perhaps, but persistence is not a meek attribute, it is bold and brassy and risky, to boot, and I’m willing to bet the tens of millions of women who have been passed over, overlooked, or marginalized in the workplace for the sake of less-qualified men would tell you Hart got a well-deserved dose of his own chauvinistic medicine. Their extremes, designed for comedic effect, are mirrors to the all-too real extremes sexist institutions have resorted to just to suppress the success of working women. In the case of 9 to 5, persistence isn’t just an admirable trait, it’s one which the entire film is built around.

Mulan

Erica Bahrenburg: The Disney princesses were everything that I wanted to grow up to be when I was kid. They’re beautiful, romantic, and animals come to them when they sing. But, what’s even better about these princess movies is that they grew up with me. As the films moved away from the helpless princesses just waiting for their prince, so did I. Perhaps the one that left the biggest impact on me was Mulan. In addition to having some of the greatest Disney songs ever written, Mulan herself is one of the fiercest and most inspiring characters ever written. She is constantly challenging the expectations and tropes that previous Disney movies enforced for their heroines. In fact, she is outwardly uncomfortable with them and proves that she is worth more than what society expects of her. Mulan never gives up or settles, even when people abandon her and look down on her. She proves that women should never be underestimated. It is her intelligence, strength, determination, and creativity are what save not only the people around her, but literally all of China. Mulan proves that women can be feminine and kick ass all at the same time. Social norms be damned. Women too can be as swift as the coursing river, have all the force of a great typhoon, be as strong as the raging fire, and be as mysterious as the dark side of the moon. And we do it in dresses.

Laura Dekker

Christopher Campbell: “I don’t like when people tell me what to do,” says Laura Dekker in the documentary Maidentrip, and she doesn’t stand for it. After she announced her plan to become the youngest person to sail around the world alone, a Dutch court tried to stop her on account of her welfare. Later, when she was to launch her adventure from Lisbon, the Portuguese government forbid it, and she set out from Gibraltar instead. Once her voyage began, she went up against nature, customs agents, the media, the film being made about her, and even herself – she was a teenager and still on the journey of finding out who she is. After about a year and a half at sea, with some stops, she had circumnavigated the globe and broken the record at 16 years, 123 days old.

Jackie Brown

Brad Gullickson: When Quentin Tarantino cast Pam Grier as Jackie Brown in his adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, we all imagined a Blaxploitation makeover that would involve the title character smashing through the front door in her car and blasting her sawed-off in the face of Ordell Robbie. Instead what we got was a thoughtful meditation on a mid-life awakening. Pam Grier as Jackie Brown is a thoughtful, strong, sexy, powerful human being with complete control on her surroundings and fellow miscreants. She might start off the film drifting down the people mover of LAX but once she makes the choice to correct her situation, Jackie Brown owns everybody in the screenplay. She’s not afraid to use a gun, and she completely understands the power of violence, but she also understands that confidence itself can be a weapon against terror. It’s no wonder that Robert Forster’s Max Cherry is utterly infatuated by her presence, but neither the film nor the character is concerned with a romantic climax. She may not act like Foxy Brown or Coffy or Friday Foster, but Jackie Brown understands like those characters, that action is as much of a mental state as a loaded chamber.

Mattie Ross

Ciara Wardlow: When True Grit (2010) was released I was thirteen, and thoroughly disgusted with more or less all portrayals of girls my age I saw in movies and television shows; they were infuriatingly shallow and painfully inane. As such, I was intrigued by the prospect of Mattie Ross, who, from the trailers alone promised at least the possibility of something different. I was not disappointed. Ross is stubborn, strongly opinionated, unapologetically intelligent, inquisitive, and blunt to the point of questionable tactfulness. In other words, absolutely fantastic. She doesn’t care one whit for being well-liked or “proper,” only respected – which would be a damned hard thing to manage in the Old West as an adolescent boy or a grown woman, not to mention as a fourteen-year-old girl. She gets “no” for an answer just about as often as she gets any answer at all, but time and time again she refuses to accept dismissal, and persists in any and all ways within her power. There’s a scene in the film in which Ross has to make a deal with a merchant, Colonel Stonehill. He clearly thinks he can pull one over on her, but she quickly turns the table on him, and his smug condescension transforms into irritation and, ultimately, panic. That exchange alone solidified Ross’s place in my adolescent heart, and I left the theater aspiring to have half her gumption some day. Hell, I still do now.

Katniss Everdeen

Max Covill: Have you heard of the Mockingjay? Katniss Everdeen and her family come from a small coal-mining district. In fact, the entire nation that she lives in is separated in different districts with the wealthiest and most powerful in the capital. Katniss is told consistently that she will not be victorious, but she continues to fight back. After she survives The Hunger Games, the president makes it very apparent that she should no longer stand up against the capital or she will certainly face greater difficulties for her family and friends. Even with that warning, she continues to fight. Through her sheer will and determination, Katniss becomes more than human, she becomes a symbol of rebellion and righteousness throughout her nation. Even when circumstances couldn’t of been worse, she blazed a trail to freedom.

Diana Guzman

William Dass: Diana Guzman is a take-no-shit Latina from the projects. And she feels as real as a bare live wire. Her choice to channel her unregulated passion into boxing is a tip to the depth of her good character. But, that rawness isn’t why she’s a badass. It’s her persistence. She sticks to boxing despite rampant sexism thrown at her for daring to challenge gender norms. That’s badass. She knows she’s going to get hurt. That’s the deal. Take your lumps fighting for what you want because you’re gonna get them either way. She sizes up her challenges and engages with them fiercely. In every aspect of her life. She fights for her relationships and her future with the same strategy she uses in the ring: persistence in pursuit of a goal. And above all else, she stays in the fucking game. Because quitters don’t win.

Brooke Cardinas

Fernando Andrés: Greta Gerwig’s introduction in Mistress America as Brooke Cardinas is nothing short of pure adrenaline: we see her greeted by everyone at every bar she goes to, we see her dance, we see her take the microphone on stage. Life isn’t easy when you’re unemployed in New York City, but Brooke makes it look that way. As she shows her sister-in-law-to-be Tracy the inner workings of her life, we can’t help but lose ourselves in her energy and passion. Her character is frequently rejected throughout the film, but she takes it all in stride: when she is denied funds for her outrageous restaurant concept time, she goes on an impromptu road trip to confront the old friend who stole her idea for a clothing line. As in all of Baumbach’s films, the characters and situations in Mistress America are wild and relentless, but Brooke is shown to be different. She is who we all want to be, deep down, and that is doing what she wants without a care in the world what others may think.

Peggy Carter

Jamie Righetti: Sporting classic bombshell looks and packing one hell of a punch, Agent Peggy Carter stole the show in Captain America: The First Avenger, where she proved to be much more than just a love interest for Steve Rogers. Agent Carter was a valuable agent in the fight against Hydra, using the sexism of the era to her advantage by allowing enemies to undermine her cleverness and her lethalness to their own detriment. When Captain America was plunged into the ice, it was Agent Carter who stepped into his place to take on the relentless threat of evil, secretly saving the day behind the backs of her male colleagues who couldn’t see past her gender and appreciate her skills. But Agent Carter wasn’t deterred by this thankless task, giving women and girls everywhere a powerful new mantra: “I know my value. Anyone else’s opinion doesn’t matter.” So thank you, Agent Carter for helping us all find the unstoppable force inside of ourselves and the strength to persist anew.

Céline

Andrew Karpan: The nature of popular cinema is to put people in their places. George Bailey learns he must issue mortgages, Katniss learns it is her calling to fight in a large dome of sorts. Great cinema, in kind, tasks itself with resistance to these ends and the best characters are those who resist persistently. In that category falls Céline of Richard Linklater’s Before… universe, played with requisite enthusiasm and pain by the great Julie Delpy. The series’ first two movies feature Céline and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) each playing variants of idealist and realist with all the aplomb of certainty. In Before Midnight, Céline confronts the specificity of destiny, represented in the dichotomy between today’s progressive single mother or life in the shadows of yesterday’s maritally subjugated wife. Delpy’s performance rejects both, her hostility is kneejerk toward what offends her and she insists that that hostility is a world she can live inside. In the movie’s final scene of fantasy, she doesn’t concede. She makes it a game and insist that we play along.

Elle Woods

Meg Shields: I once watched Legally Blonde on a trans-continental flight, and wept openly as Elle Woods gave a metaphorical (and well-manicured) middle finger to a world eager to dismiss her as too girly to be capable. Elle faces an infuriating opponent: the premise that to be taken seriously, women have to stifle their femininity. When her fuckboy ex dumps her because he “needs to marry a Jackie, not a Marylin,” Elle decides to prove him wrong and win him back by becoming a law student. To the amazement of everyone except Elle, she is accepted into Harvard Law (“what? like it’s hard?”), but her goal of proving herself to a mediocre dude is quickly eclipsed by her fervent and unstoppable commitment to herself. Despite its best efforts to underestimate her, Elle remains steadfast in the face of cynical upper crust academic elitism. She achieves a near-perfect score on her LSAT, solves a murder case, and earns her Juris Doctor not in spite of but because of her ruthless commitment to who she is: a bubbly, materialistic, femme dynamo.

Anna

Rob Hunter: Anna is a young woman whose life has seen many hardships starting at a young age. Abused and orphaned, she befriends another girl far worse off than her, and for the next several years she acts as her friend’s rock and emotional support. It all comes to an end one night though after a bloody slaughter leads to Anna’s abduction. From that point on she’s tested beyond all belief – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually – by people whose motivations and interests are by turns mysterious, cruel, and perverse. There’s an easy out for Anna, a quick way to end the pain, but she resists with a strength most of us would find impossible to exert. Most, if not all, of the other characters mentioned in this post persist against the establishment, an authority, or circumstances that offer a dangerous challenge, but for Anna the resilience she shows is against an intense marathon of suffering that has few equals.

Marge Gunderson

Chris Coffel: Over the years Frances McDormand has played a number of strong, persistent female characters but none more so than the lovable hero of Fargo, Marge Gunderson. It takes thirty minutes until Marge actually shows up in Fargo but once she does it’s clear that she’s the star of the film, which in and of itself is an impressive feat giving the star power of the film’s cast.

Marge is the chief of police in Brainerd, a small town located in central Minnesota. It’s safe to assume Brainerd doesn’t see a whole lot of action so when Marge receives an early morning phone call regarding three dead bodies discovered along the highway it would come as no surprise if she struggled to piece the story together. Fortunately she has no issues whatsoever and proves she’s just as intelligent as any big city cop by quickly relaying to her fellow officers what happened the night before. She continues to put that intelligence on display throughout the film by eventually solving the murder mystery and apprehending the one surviving killer.

Cops solve murders all the time, but it’s the circumstances she deals with and the demeanor with which she handles it all that makes Marge so special. Marge has a personality that is known as “Minnesota nice.” She’s always well-mannered and courteous even while investigating a murder. This is on full display once she has Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) in the backseat of her cruiser and is recapping the events of the movie. She sounds like a concerned mother. She’s not upset with Gaear but she’s disappointed.

On top of it all Marge is very much pregnant, 7-months pregnant in fact. That’s an added complication that a male chief of police never has to worry about. Marge doesn’t allow the pregnancy to slow her down one bit, however. Yeah, she has some morning sickness here and there but at the end of the day it doesn’t stop her from doing her job.

When it’s all said and done Marge is more proud of her husband Norm’s accomplishments – he’s recently had one his drawings chosen to appear on US postage stamp – than she is of her own, which is just another added layer to the type of character she is. Marge is a great cop, a caring wife, a proud mother-to-be and an all-around great person.

Who would be on your list?