The Five Most Badass Female Leads in Movie History

     December 12, 2011


With Rooney Mara (Youth in Revolt) set to star as rebellious hacker Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo next week, we thought we’d take a look back at past female badasses in cinematic history. Noomi Rapace nailed the role in the original Swedish version, so Mara will have a lot to live up to. Not only will she be compared to the performance of her predecessor, but also to the relatively few female heroines that came before her. Will Mara equal or surpass Rapace? Can she hang with the baddest ladies in movie history? Will she impress us enough to fight her way to the top? Hit the jump to check out our selection of the five most badass female leads of all time.

First, let’s set up some ground rules on what makes a badass. Firstly, our heroine must be capable of handling herself, be it against man, machine or otherwise. As you’ll soon see, our list encompasses a broad range of women with particular sets of skills. Secondly, the actor must portray the role in a way that is both memorable and original. We’ve taken a number of archetypes and determined which actor set the high water mark. Lastly, aesthetics count. You don’t have to be a runway model, but if you’re going to put on your badass shoes, you have to look good doing it. Now that that’s taken care of, on with the countdown!

#5: Sharon Stone as Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct


While this movie will forever be remembered for Stone’s interrogation scene, it was only a small part of her overall performance. Stone used her sexual attraction to wrap her male co-stars around her little finger as crime novelist and femme fatale, Catherine Tramell. Even though Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) had her figured out, he still fell into her trap and nearly ended up on the wrong end of an ice pick. While Stone may not be heroic, she proves that sometimes you don’t need big guns and kung fu lessons to be a badass. Check out the trailer for Basic Instinct here:

Honorable mention for “Black Widow” goes to Kim Basinger as Lynn Bracken in L.A. Confidential.

#4: Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs


Foster might not strike you as a badass first off, but her Oscar-winning performance as FBI cadet Clarice Starling is one of the mentally toughest roles in cinema history. Not only does she match wits with the genius cannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), she tracks down the serial killer, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) and puts him away for good. When things looked bleakest for Starling, as Buffalo Bill stalks her in a pitch black basement using night-vision goggles, her relative calm under pressure saved the day. (It also helped that “Bill” forgot to cock his gun ahead of time.) Check out the final stand-off in the following clip:

Honorable mention for “The Enforcer” goes to Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson in Fargo.

#3: Beatrix Kiddo/The Bride from Kill Bill: Volume 1 and 2


Kill Bill: Volume 1 opens with the Sun Tzu quote, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” Perhaps, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” is even more appropriate. The folks of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1 and 2 found out how true that statement is after leaving Uma Thurman’s character for dead on numerous occasions, only to have her hunt them down with extreme prejudice. The Bride’s vengeance is so great that it took two blood-soaked movies to tell her tale. Witness her in action against the “Crazy 88.” (“This is what you get for fuckin’ around with Yakuzas!”)

Honorable mention for “Assassin” goes to Saoirse Ronan for Hanna.

#2: Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day


I’m sure many of you are already fuming that Sarah Connor isn’t at the top of this list and you may well have a point. Although Hamilton’s character has a nice arc from the time-traveler-bangin’ waitress in the original Terminator to the hard-core survivalist and neo-anarchist of Terminator 2, the mechs more than overshadow her role. That’s not to say she’s not in the elite of the badass, whether the discussion concerns men or women. Unfortunately, later installments in the series have sort of derailed and gotten away from the Sarah Connor character almost entirely. Perhaps a Justin Lin-directed reboot could pull her back in. Check out a clip from T2: Judgment Day below:

Honorable mention for “Rebel” goes to Natalie Portman as Evey in V for Vendetta.

#1: Ripley from Aliens


In my mind, this is no contest. Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of Ellen Ripley throughout the Alien series is not only a defining role, but an eternal one. It is the benchmark to which all other female badasses must compare themselves. Sure, Sarah Connor dismantles robots in the Terminator series. Yes, Angelina Jolie is probably the hottest badass in movies today (Wanted, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Tombraider, Salt). I even expect great things out of Mary Elizabeth Winstead after her performance in Scott Pilgrim vs the World and more recently as an incredibly capable scientist in The Thing prequel.

But Ripley has survived all sorts of incarnations of Aliens on four separate occasions. She stood up to a queen to save a little girl when all of the soldiers around her were pissing in their pants. Ripley survived (sort of) a prison overrun by the acid-blooded creatures and was even hardass enough to kill off her own hybrid spawn (in very gruesome ways). There may come a time when a performance by an actress supplants Weaver’s Ripley from atop the throne of badassdom, but it is not this day! We’ll have to wait to see Mara’s performance as Lisbeth Salander when The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo hits theaters on December 21st. Until then, enjoy some vintage Ripley:

And here’s a bonus Ripley video, because you know you want it:

*This editorial is part of an ad-buy on Collider for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

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  • sense 11

    Good List, The Bride & Ripley are the most badass in that group imho

  • Jon

    So a whore and a puppet makes the list but a bad ass woman by the name of Foxy Brown doesn’t. Pam Grier is the epitome of a bad ass female…

  • HelghastUser

    Excellent list! Even the honorable mentions. Yes, Pam Grier definitely deserves a nod as well. She definitely was doing her thing in her time…

  • zillabeast

    I’m glad you put Jodie Foster’s Starling on this list. Twenty years later, that movie is still magnificent.

  • Bonobo

    Michelle Yeoh in Supercop deserves a mention, as does Zoe Bell in Death Proof. A personal favorite of mine is Sarah in The Descent – talk about rising to the occasion! (even if it costs her her sanity…).

    But it really is a shamefully short list that springs to mind.

  • Sal

    Besides the fact that Angelina Jolie belongs to that list above. Noomi Rapace doesn’t.

  • Irons

    Michelle Yeoh belongs to the top of that list.

  • gerard kennelly

    did we forget somebody ?????

    Noomi Rapace

    hard as nails

  • OsGom

    Geena Davis is The Long Kiss Good Night. She was beyond badass in that role and played well against SLJ.

    Linda Fiorintino in The Last Seduction. Bridget Gregory tops Catherine Trammel as the Queen Bitch.

    Mystique from the Xmen totally kicked ass throughout the trilogy. Shame they just squandered her character in the last movie. Her and Cyke deserved much better.

  • Tarek

    Ripley and Sarah Connor are the real baddasses. the rest is just hysteric cheerleaders.

  • chris

    What no Mila Jovovich.

  • Paul

    What makes Ripley the most badass female character of all time is that she’s an actual character to boot! There’s a human being in that role & when she has to do badass things you can tell she’s cared but overcomes her fear to do what’s needed.

    That’s why these dumb knock off characters never work. I don’t care how many fucking Underworld movies Kate Beckinsdale does or how many fucking slow mo kung fu kicks Milla Jovovich does in the endless Resident Evil movies- those aren’t characters, they’re action figures.

    • Tarek

      This is exactly what made ​​us love the character of Ripley. She is not Wonder Woman. she’s just a “woman” who feels fear, is scared by the danger, but faced her fate with the courage of a woman anyway. A real woman.

  • Drew

    Good list, though I would have put Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson on here. She may not spill as much blood as some of the other characters, but to my mind her attitude earns her a place on this list. Such a badass.

  • /tv/

    Jovovich is one of the most successful female action stars of all time. Yet, she’s not on there… Odd

  • Jake

    I know she’s only a kid and so obviously not hot like other badass action girls, but Hit-Girl really should have been on here, seriously. She’s like the Bride if she was an 11 year old girl.

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  • Sam

    Ellen Ripley should not be on that list. Alice long out does her, Milla has five RE films and she kicks zombies asses, and could kick the shit out of ellen ripley!