10 Movies with Career-Driven Female Leads
We’ve all seen a few too many movies that have, ultimately, just flat female characters. They don’t do much. Maybe the play the love interest. Maybe they just let the male lead do the heavy lifting.
Either way, it’s refreshing to see a leading lady who is accomplished or focusing on her career in a film.
After watching Captain Marvel for the 5th time since I’ve bought it, I decided to find similar themed movies.
Most movies I encounter revolve primarily as having a leading lady as a love interest. Most of these movies hold true to that fact but the love interest tends to play second fiddle.
Note: Granted, this is not an extensive list. I’d love to hear about other examples I might have missed or, better yet, never seen!
The Devil Wears Prada
Who: Andy(Anne Hathaway), Miranda(Meryl Streep), Emily(Emily Blunt)
Why: Everyone in this movie is super talented. Straight off the bat. Better yet the plot revolves around Anne Hathaway advancing her career from the get go. Not necessarily in fashion but in the business world at least. She’s constantly proving herself to Meryl Streep’s very high, if not impossible at times, standard. Not only reach it but learn from it and exceed in it. She doesn’t stay stuck in Streep’s world, but is able to learn from Streep and the fashion industry for making better use of her talents elsewhere.
We also have to focus on Streep’s Miranda. She is ruthless and can lead and direct her industry in her sleep. She is focused on being successful and knows how to make that happen for herself and her company. She owns that she is knowledgeable and ambitious. The one human quality we see in her character is when Hathaway catches Streep crying at her home. Her personal relationship is not as successful as her business and that becomes a hardship on Streep. Streep can’t develop the same sense of ambition and knowledge in her personal life and that makes her control her work life even more.
Set It Up
Who: Harper(Zoe Deutch), Kirsten(Lucy Lui)
Why: Both of these leading ladies develop a bit of the love bug in this Netflix RomCom.
Lui is already in a man’s world in the stereotypical aspect that she’s a sports journalist. She works to the bone so she doesn’t have to revolve around her personal life, as we later see in the end of the movie. She is capable and pushes to prove herself every chance she gets. Even when she develops her relationship, she is always trying to be better than what she thinks are weaknesses.
Deutch, Lui’s assistant, is just as ambitious but not nearly as tough when we start this movie. She knows what she wants to do and knows she can do it but keeps on giving herself excuses not to reach them. Deutch finally reaches the climax of the movie as an aspiring journalist like her boss. She just has to realize the effort and the grit you have to put into your career to get what you want on top of the other work you have to do in life.
Who: Carol(Brie Larson), Maria(LaShana Lynch)
Why: Brie Larson and LaShana Lynch are one of the ultimate female power couples. Regardless if you believe the Lesbian theory behind these two’s characters, Larson and Lynch show an ambitious pair of pilots when female pilots were not encouraged in the Air Force. They portray a pair of women who forged a path for women in a male dominated field. They knew what they wanted to do and helped each other reach those goals of becoming pilots, no matter how that manifested.
I also loved how these actresses portrayed an encouraging bond outside of their career. These characters were supportive of each other in various situations throughout this story-line. It was refreshing to see this in a modern movie compared to rivalry and pettiness.
A perfect example: When Lynch is explaining to Larson about her flying on the day of the crash. She isn’t jealous or vengeful that Larson was chosen to fly the plane; she was happy for the situation it would provide for her character’s friend. She was supportive of her shot to gain ground and do something helpful with her piloting skills. Just as Larson’s character proves Lynch’s character is capable of later on in the film.
Who: Jo(Winona Ryder/Saoirse Ronan), Amy(KIrsten Dunst/Samantha Mathis, Florence Pugh)
Why: If you haven’t read the book or seen the 1994 version of this movie, check it out before the new version comes out. I’ve provided both representations of this film but will reference the 1994 version characters.
Since this movie is set post Civil War, I think it’s very forward thinking of Alcott to provide references to these characters. Ryder and Dunst/Mathis portray two of the four sisters that ultimately want to reach their own success outside of marriage. Marriage really doesn’t come into either of these leading ladies character’s lives until they have reached those dreams either.
Ryder wants to be a writer and Dunst/Mathis aspires to paint. Neither have an easy time aspiring to these dreams but they reach them in their own way. Neither can go very far with the education, or lack thereof, but each take opportunities that they are offered. I think that is able to speak volumes that they were able to go experience new things when opportunities were not always available. Even when they are portrayed as younger children, they are able to venture into their own aspirations in ways that were stimulating and available to them.
Mary Queen of Scots
Who: Mary(Saoirse Ronan), Elizabeth(Margot Robbie)
Why: If you haven’t seen this movie, please go see it. It’s quite accurate and portrays both Queens as ambitious and as the great leaders they are portraying.
Ronan is able to show Queen Mary’s intellect in many different ways. Some of the most notable are: her knowledge of military tactics, her tolerance of the differences amongst her people, and leading Scotland despite turmoil between her and Queen Elizabeth.
Robbie does many similar things. She doesn’t have the same strength, in my opinion, as Ronan, but she showcases Elizabeth’s power in other ways. I like how she was able to portray Elizabeth’s diplomacy and how she had to lead in a room full of men for most of her life.
Both actresses give a strong performance for these formidable characters in history. Both their representations and the historic figures are great figures to shadow.
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days
Who: Andie(Kate Hudson)
This movie might catch some of y’alls attention due to a strong relationship in the plot. I think Kate Hudson does a great career focused woman portrayal in this movie because she doesn’t truly lose herself in this relationship.
She might fall for the guy but she does it more by being herself than anything else. She still goes to a Knick’s game. She still hangs with her friends. She still does her job, and does it well. So well, she quits for better opportunities.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter about the relationship. It’s a happy ending for sure, but Hudson still makes the ambitious choice to leave and pursue a better career for herself, because she’s realized her worth outside of the relationship that builds between her and Matthew McConaughey.
How to Train your Dragon series
Who: Astrid(America Ferrera), Valka(Cate Blanchett)
I love this movie series. Not only is it great animation, but the females in these movies are so independent.
Take Astrid: she’s a warrior first. She’s always been portrayed as the one to beat for the squad. And rather than wimp out, Hiccup has to outsmart her rather than outperform her. She’s consistently a threat on the battlefield and is confident about that fact. She wants to prove herself and make her mark on the village. She softens a bit throughout the series but still remains ambitious in her abilities.
Valka, Hiccup’s mom, is another strong female character. As she’s introduced in the second film, the audience can see that she has created a path for herself. She has left her home to do so and become the best she can be away from everything she has known. Being this focused on her cause has allowed her to be an expert in a field that was unknown for many years. Her sense of pioneering into an unknown field is shown throughout history(Hidden Figures anyone?) but seeing this in a somewhat unknown era makes this a great addition to this list.
Who: Chantry(Zoe Kazan)
Why: While my main man, Daniel Radcliffe, does a great job in this movie, Zoe Kazan has her own stellar performance.
Kazan is already seen as having an uprising career when she reveals her character has turned down a promotion at her work in the beginning of the film. While her boyfriend, Rafe Spall, on screen is chasing his own professional dreams, in international copyright law (snooze), Kazan keeps her character rooted in Toronto. She lets her relationship with her then boyfriend dictate her own career goals.
It’s refreshing when Kazan shoves it all away and pursues her own dreams at the end of the movie. Radcliffe is the one who has to tag along for the ride and follow her around the world for once.
There are many leading ladies in this film that are supporting Kazan’s character as well. In their own quirky way, Radcliffe and Kazan are able to spin a somewhat traditional love story into a role reversal for the sexes.
The Princess and the Frog
Who: Tiana(Anika Noni Rose)
Why: Not once in this entire movie, is Tiana not working in some way or another. This tends to be true for most of the Disney movies that are coming to mind.
I know Disney movies sometimes get a bad rep for being too involved in the True Love trope but they also provide characters who show a sense of ambition. The don’t always have a goal of falling in love. They have a goal of owning a restaurant. They want to walk on land and experience human life. They want to go to a ball. The end result is love, but that isn’t the initial goal.
I picked Tiana especially because she is one of the hardest working princesses that I’ve seen. She doesn’t let her circumstances dictate her future and goes after what she wants.
I also like the relationship she develops with Lottie because it’s of respect and encouragement despite other dividing factors of the location and the time period. This is a minor plot line but she’s always there for when Tiana and supports the dreams of her friend.
Who: Annie(Kristen Wig), Helen(Rose Byrne), Megan(Melissa McCarthy)
Why: I chose Bridesmaids because, despite Wig’s failure, she still develops into a strong entrepreneur. She tries reaching out and creating a business for herself. She still showcases her character’s talents throughout the movie, even if they are not always for the masses.
I think her ability to fail and her ability to grow, however disastrously, Wig is still able to show us a part of being career minded: being able to pick yourself up after you fall. Might take a while, as it did in Wig’s character’s case, but she still got back up.
Byrne and McCarthy are also mentioned due to their development as well.
McCarthy isn’t there for pure comedy. Her character has worked hard on her career and makes it known that she has had hardships for working hard. She knows her weaknesses but she is able to make up for them in other areas of her life.
Byrne is a great example of trying your hand at new passions to build a business. Byrne’s character has many connection and tries to make an impact for Maya Rudolf’s characters wedding. Catering and planning many of the events takes talent and ambition in their own way.
All these movies have strong, ambitious women at their center-point. Each character has their own dreams but they try to support and encourage others while reaching their own dreams.
What other movies do you enjoy that have inspirational female career minded leads? If I haven’t listed them, let me know! I might not have watched it or missed it in my mentions. I can’t wait to hear your additions!