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Celebrating women in cinema: 10 famous feminists from the big screen

Get inspired this International Women's Day with our list of actress advocates of gender equality.

Celebrating women in cinema: 10 famous feminists from the big screen

In our recent article that put the spotlight on female directors to remember, we drew attention to Natalie Portman’s stunt at the 2018 Golden Globes Awards. Upon announcing the nominees for ‘Best Director’, Portman described the category as ‘all-male’, fixating on the lack of female representation and acknowledgement. But the ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Black Swan’ actress is not the only female face from the big screen to lead the fight for gender equality. Inspired by this year’s International Women’s Day theme of #BalanceForBetter, take a look at these 10 famous actresses doing their bit for female empowerment.

Emma Watson

Emma Watson

Famous for her role in the ‘Harry Potter’ franchise (2001-2011), Watson is also one of today’s leading advocates of feminism. She was appointed as a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and started the campaign #HeForShe, which appeals to men to join the fight for gender equality. She regularly speaks out against the misinformed association of fighting for women’s rights and man-hating, which is why the campaign aims to united both sexes and work together to achieve equality.

Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie

While starring in countless movies like ‘Tomb Raider (2002; 2003)’, ‘Mr and Mrs Smith’ (2005) and ‘Maleficent’ (2014) and directing and producing a handful of films too, Jolie has been dedicated to various humanitarian projects. She is a UNHCR envoy, and taught in London on topics of ‘Women, Peace and Security’ in 2017. The actress activist also openly discussed the surgical removal of her ovaries, wanting to inspire conversation about ovarian cancer.

Ellen Page

Ellen Page

After her breakthrough role in ‘Juno’ (2007), Page went on the star in ‘Inception’ (2010), ‘X Men; Days of Future Past’ (2016) and ‘Whip It’ (2009). She speaks out on politics and big issues, while fiercely embracing feminism - similarly pointing out that it is not a ‘bad’ word as many popular female celebrities fear. Page reflects that these negative connotations of the word ‘feminist’ or ‘feminism’ is the shadow of a patriarchal society. Her pleas to alter misconceptions have dubbed her a ‘modern-day feminist’.

Jameela Jamil

Jameela Jamil

Well known for her role as ‘Tahani’ in ‘The Good Place’, Jamil is an advocate for positive body images, slandering the unfair body standards and ‘perfect’ images in the media that lead to unrealistic and damaging aspirations. She uses social media to reach out to her followers and encourage them to reconsider the way ‘beauty’ is perceived, comparing the way males (particularly George Clooney) are allowed to mature into a ‘silver fox’ whereas females are praised if they look young or ‘ageless’. Her strong and vocal opinions are important - particularly for younger generations and those measuring/questioning their perception of self.

Viola Davis

Viola Davis

The first black actor to have won the Triple Crown of Acting (Academy, Emmy and Tony awards), Viola Davis behind the scenes is equally as impressive - engaging in many projects to help eradicate childhood hunger in the US as well as campaigns to help those affected by poverty. Apart from starring in the likes of ‘Widows’, which has been described as ‘feminist’ in its considered character work and depiction of female emotions, Davis has spoken out on the need for more equality between men and women in Hollywood. She has also focused on the need for more equality between diverse ethnicities among women in the industry too.

Jessica Chastain

Jessica Chastain

In careful selection of her roles, Chastain has become somewhat of a role model for feminism, choosing characters that are independent and have their own point of view. Her role as ‘Maya’ in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ (2012) was not one that was sexualised, as many female characters often are, but instead displayed female single-mindedness, confidence, leadership and power. Chastain importantly focuses on the need for female roles in films to not merely be props to male stories, but also embark on their own journeys throughout the plot.

Mindy Kaling

Mindy Kaling

Breaking through barriers, Kaling is paving the way for more female comedians in a heavily white-male-dominated genre, and creates roles that embrace femininity whilst being unapologetic, successful, independent and romantic at the same time. She feels its important to show the world you can be feminine and a strong woman simultaneously, and don’t have to choose one or the other. She famously declared “I love women who don’t ask ‘Is that Ok?’ after everything they say. I love when women are courage in the face of unthinkable circumstances”.

Amandla Stenberg

The ‘Hunger Games’ actress is one of the new waves of feminists in Hollywood. At only 18 years old, Stenberg is more astute than most. She has called out the appropriation of black culture among white pop-stars - evident in hairstyles worn by Christina Aguilera, Katy Perry and Madonna - that ignores the struggle that produced them. In a video she made for class entitled ‘Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows’, Stenberg asks “What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?” Stenberg works hard to address the under representation of black women in feminist cultures, but rather than shaming others, deliberately seeks to open up the conversation and target people the right way.

Laverne Cox

Laverne Cox

Similarly to Stenberg, Laverne Cox also wants to open up feminism to more women. As a black trans woman, the ‘Orange is The New Black’ actress spoke out about including trans voices in the discussion and that media representation is the key. “We have to empower trans people by lifting up their experiences and their stories”.  In a recent debate about trans women and feminism, Cox asserted that there is no universal answer to woman-ness, and identities must come together to bring equality, avoid social isolation and dissolve outdated societal gender roles.

Reese Witherspoon

Famous for lead roles in ‘Legally Blonde’ (2001), ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ (2002), ‘Walk The Line’, (2005) and ‘Cruel Intentions’ (1999), Reese Witherspoon is one of the most well-known names of Hollywood. She also intends to drive forward female empowerment through being such a recognisable name. In 2015, she spoke about female ambition, and how she is on a mission to move the needle by creating work for female directors and female-led films. Her production company has since developed the likes of ‘Big Little Lies’(2017-), ‘Wild’ (2014) and ‘Gone Girl’ (2014).

While Hollywood has been at the forefront of the fight for equality for women and there's arguably increasing representation of strong females in films, these actresses show how balance must be achieved across industries and nations. Despite recent efforts, there is still work to be done to guarantee total gender equality and fully exploit the potential of women around the world.

Written by
Aminah Barnes
7th March 2019