During the first season of Star Trek, the actress who played Lieutenant Uhura – Nichelle Nichols – seriously considered leaving the show. She’d portrayed far more interesting characters as a theatre actress, and she was unsatisfied in a role that mainly required her to answer the USS Enterprise’s space phone. But it was 1966, and her friend, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., implored her to stay; he told her it was important for the mainstream audience to see Nichols, an African American woman, as a valued member of the crew.
And Nichols did stay. She became an icon and a role model for everyone from astronauts to actresses to President Barack Obama (you can read our 2013 interview with Nichelle Nichols here).
That idea – that the images that we see on our screen are important – remains relevant today. “Representation matters” isn’t just a catchphrase for protest signs; when the most powerful man in the world brags about assaulting women, women need heroes, both fictional and otherwise.
In honour of International Women’s Day (Mar. 8), here are five contemporary female film and television characters who challenge stereotypes, inspire change, and (in some cases) literally kick ass.
Jessica Jones (portrayed by Krysten Ritter):
The titular character of Netflix’s Jessica Jones is a glorious, foul-mouthed anti-heroine. Jessica drinks too much; she lies; she’s full of self-loathing; she’s mutant-level strong and she will kick you off your ass if you hurt her friends. Survivors of sexual violence and stalking have found a hero in Jessica Jones and a women-centric story arc that turns the table on those who’ve done her wrong. Look for Jessica to resurface in a new season of Jessica Jones and the upcoming Netflix superhero series The Defenders, in which she’ll join forces with fellow Marvel Comics anti-heroes Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist.
Rey (portrayed by Daisy Ridley) in Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Although the original Star Wars Trilogy has plenty of female fans – and respect must be paid to the ass-kicking General Leia Organa, who led the rebels to multiple victories – few women (again, besides Leia) appeared in the late 70s/early 80s version of the Star Wars universe (and let's not talk about the prequels. Please). And then came 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and its star (sorry, BB-8), Rey. While Rey’s exact origins are still yet to be determined (Is she a Skywalker? A Kenobi? A clone?), what is clear is that Rey isn’t a damsel in distress. She can wield a blaster and a lightsaber with equal aplomb, fix anything, and pilot with the best of them. Rey’s story continues when Star Wars: The Last Jedi hits theatres in December 2017.
Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live: Melissa McCarthy doesn’t wear a cape when she portrays President Donald Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer on NBC staple Saturday Night Live, but she is a goddamned superhero. President Trump is reportedly quite bothered by McCarthy’s picture- and tone-perfect portrayal of his befuddled and truth-twisting spokesman. Shout-out to McCarthy for making us laugh at the truth (or is it the alt-truth?) during these wholly unfunny times.
The girls of Project MC2: Netflix’s original series for tweens – Project MC2 – features four preteen heroines who fight crime on behalf of a secret government organization using science, technology, engineering, math, and moxie. As Vancouver actress Johannah Newmarch (who portrays season 2 villain Carson Lazarus) told us last year, “We don’t have to be just one thing, so why can’t there be a show that celebrates fashion and playfulness and female sisterhood, as well as science saving the world?” Stream it on Netflix.
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman: We’re still a few months out from the world premiere of DC’s Wonder Woman film, which stars Gal Gadot as the powerful Amazonian princess who embodies strength, courage, and justice (and also has rad accessories like the Lasso of Truth and bullet-repelling bracelets), but we like what we saw of her in last year’s otherwise mediocre Batman v. Superman. While the Dark Knight and the Son of Krypton engaged in a ridiculous, self-indulgent grudge match, Wonder Woman stayed focused on the task at hand. Between that and the Wonder Woman trailer, we suspect that this might just be our favourite film of summer 2017.
• The based-on-a-true-story protagonists of Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures, portrayed by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae;
• Vancouver sci-fi icon Amanda Tapping as brilliant scientist Helen Magnus on Sanctuary AND as Colonel Sam Carter in multiple incarnations of Stargate: SG-1;
• The ass-kicking women of Netflix series Sense8;
• Jyn Erso (portrayed by Felicity Jones) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
• Tatiana Maslany as multiple ass-kickers in Orphan Black
• Rachel Nichols as future-cop Kiera Cameron on locally shot time-travel crime procedural Continuum;
• Melissa Benoist as the title character in The CW’s Supergirl;
• Kelly Overton as vampire hunter Vanessa “Van” Helsing in SyFy’s Van Helsing.