RANKED! The 20 Best Onscreen Female Characters of the Last 20 Years
There have always been great women in film and television, but the past 20 years have seen an explosion in amazing female characters who wow us with their wit, intelligence, and sheer power. Today we attempt the impossible task of ranking the top 20 heroines of the 21st century using a combination of metrics, including (but not limited to): uniqueness, badassness, cultural popularity, and verve. But in the end, it simply boils down to individuals who embody a forward-looking vision of the future. Women who are just too damn remarkable to go uncelebrated. Prepare to be in awe.
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20. Wonder Woman (2017)
Though her first appearance dates back to 1941, Wonder Woman never hit the big screen until 2017. In an era of male-dominated comic book cinema, DC comics proved that audiences worldwide wanted to see a strong woman kick some ass, thus paving the way for women to take front and center in the coming comic book movie renaissance 2.0.
19. Eleven (2016)
Stranger Things is the biggest pop culture phenomenon to ever hit Netflix. And at the center of the maelstrom is fan-favorite super kid, Eleven. If the show continues down its path, there'll be a whole lot more glorious bingeing for years to come.
18. Rey (2015)
After the epic disaster of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, everyone's favorite galaxy far, far away badly needed a reboot. And Rey, the fresh-faced, thieving, desert-dweller became the perfect foil for a new generation of fans. Hope was finally restored.
17. Captain Marvel (2019)
Carol Danvers was already a badass, but once she was imbued with the most powerful energy source in the universe, she became perfectly marvelous. Combine that with a healthy level of sarcasm and girl-next-door approachability, and you have yourself a fun and dynamic heroine standing at the forefront of a new era.
16. Hit-Girl (2010)
Hit-Girl is a hilarious and wonderfully exaggerated version of something real: a precocious and capable female who is the genuine article in a crowd of pretenders and wannabes. Her no-nonsense, fast-taking ways blew the lid off what a girl was "supposed" to be. And she's freaking hilarious.
15. Imperator Furiosa (2015)
Rare is the heroine with an unbreakable purpose. Furiosa is that, never wavering from her mission, despite the odds being stacked against her. She carried her burden (and the entire film) with poise, intelligence, and serious toughness.
14. Peggy Olson (2007)
Realism is often lacking from pop culture. Mad Men's Peggy Olson is an antidote to that. Grinding it out day after day like it's done, Olson manages to work her way up the office food chain at a time when gender roles were seriously conforming. Her triumph is hard-won and unspectacular, making it one of the more incredibly satisfying arcs in TV show history.
13. Juno (2007)
A complex and flawed youngster, as honorable and horny as the rest of us, Juno brought a new vision of teenage life to the silver screen. It's a vision in which mistakes and triumphs can be made in the same stroke, beyond pale shades of black and white, where a fully colorized portrait emerges of a headstrong girl grappling with one of life’s biggest decisions.
12. Leela (1999)
There's a reason every male creature in the universe has a thing for Leela. She's fierce, independent, and singularly capable, an ode to women of the year 3000.
11. Hushpuppy (2012)
In Beasts of the Southern Wild, the magical realism of Louisiana lore and the disappearing world of bayou island culture is superbly anchored by Hushpuppy, a young girl in search of her place in the world. She effortlessly leads us through darkness and light on a scale that ebbs and flows between deeply personal and cosmically eternal. The naivety and wisdom of youth here is revelatory.
10. Liz Lemon (2006)
Funny, intelligent, self-declared nerds finally got the love they deserve with the lovable Liz Lemon. When life gives you lemons, laugh your ass off.
9. Chihiro (2001)
Hayao Miyazaki is hands down the greatest director of animated films Japan has ever produced, and Spirited Away may be his magnum opus. Through a dark and twisted fantasy world, Chihiro handles what comes her way with a bravery and vulnerability that is awe inspiring.
8. Mattie Ross (2010)
The Coen brothers have no shortage of fantastically vivid, interesting women in their films. But their rendition of Mattie Ross in the revenge western, True Grit, is superb for many reasons. The horse-bartering scene alone is a master class on American semantics. And Hailee Steinfeld's straight-shooting portrayal captures the thin-ice tap dance a brilliant ingenue must perform to fulfill her goals in a man's world. Hers is a character who deserves to win and one you'll root for every singe time.
7. Lisbeth Salander (2009)
Women can be brilliant and capable. Lisbeth Salander illuminates these qualities in her quest for revenge with atomic radiance, and then some. The tragedy is that she must spend her considerable powers reducing a slew of vile men to dust, instead of growing her own magnificent garden. But in the age of Minbar-Shat, Salander remains an icon of female empowerment.
6. Zoe Washburne (2002)
Before there was Starbuck, there was Zoe. Whether by coincidence or design, Zoe Washburne has become the archetype of the 2020 woman. Strong, capable, and fiercely self-reliant, she's also the breadwinner in a relationship that has no qualms with that dynamic. It's prescient to say the least.
5. Trinity (1999)
The original badass, Trinity kicked off the cult megalith, The Matrix, with a stunning opening sequence that radicalized the geolocation of women in the landscape of action movies. Twenty years later, she's reprising her role and we can't wait.
4. Daenerys Targaryen (2011)
What would Game of Thrones be without Daenerys? Through an epic journey of ups and downs, audiences rooted for the dragon tamer through each phase of her evolution. Poetry in motion, Daenerys will forever be emblazoned into the canon of early 21st century culture.
3. Violet Crawley (2010)
The aging dowager Violet Crawley, a grouchy curmudgeon played to perfection by Maggie Smith, is probably the most quotable character of the 21st century. Though she technically existed 100 years ago, she is the timeless archetype of a no-nonsense leader who carries a moral compass that always points north.
2. Carmela Soprano (1999)
Carmela may not intend to be, but she's one of the most hilarious, brave, and relatable women on this list. The wife of Tony Soprano, she starts out living in a fantasy land of shoes and baked ziti, but soon evolves into a self-reliant, take-no-shit matriarch. Carmela epitomizes the changing of the guard from 20th century housewife to 21st century doyenne.
1. Ava (2014)
OK, so she's a robot. But everything about Ex Machina's Ava is mind-blowing and startlingly soulful. Her beauty, her cunning, her will to survive, and her ability to adapt and, ultimately, excel far beyond anything that has come before, makes Ava one of the most memorable and haunting characters of the digital age.