Top Five Influential Female Characters in Film: Cult and Independent Cinema

As mentioned in my previous article, “Once Upon A Realisation”, I have a formidable film collection. Incidentally, this has inspired my decision to begin a series of articles, each focusing on five influential female characters in various roles and genres of film; this article will fixate on cult and independent cinema.

Before I begin, I would like to take a moment to state three things:

– Firstly, both this list and the others will all feature characters whom I have selected, in relation to my own preferences, morals and philosophies.

– Secondly, no-one, whether real or fictitious, is perfect. It is for this reason that I have chosen female characters whom I believe to be influential figures, as opposed to role models. When it comes to role models, we, as a species, often tend to place them on pedestals and idolise them, viewing them as majestic creatures who can do no wrong in our eyes, therefore blinding us to the fact that they are human beings with flaws, like the rest of us. To view someone as influential, is to experience the impact they make on you, whilst simultaneously recognising their imperfections.

– And thirdly, to state the obvious, this article contains spoilers.

With these three statements in mind, I invite you to get comfortable, read on and enjoy.

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The first character I want to talk about, is Lee Holloway from the film “Secretary” (2002). Lee is, by no means, what you would refer to as a typical leading lady. She is painfully shy, socially awkward, with a childlike demeanour and with a dowdy appearance. When we first meet her, she has just been discharged from an institution, after her self-harm habit had been discovered, so to begin with, she appears incredibly vulnerable, with no signs of any strength of character. She does, however, begin to exhibit strength in her determination to succeed in her typing class and to secure herself a job as a secretary, thus, enabling her to take the first steps towards independence and a chance at a “normal life”.

As is evident from when she enters into a BDSM relationship with her employer, Edward Grey, Lee proves to be an incredibly sexual and passionate person, as he provides her with opportunities to fully engage in her own personal and sexual awakening, in addition to her growth in confidence. For those who have watched this film, some might argue that Lee’s sense of empowerment cannot count as her own, as it was enabled by a man. I, however, feel differently.

Lee’s personal triumphs in overcoming her inner demons, letting go of her emotional burdens and becoming a more confident and sexually liberated individual, were achieved by a mixture of her own strengths and with the help of a kindred spirit. Despite their Dominant/Submissive antics, there is a real sense of equilibrium between the pair. They are incredibly alike, in the sense that they are very shy people, with unique ways of expressing their true feelings to one other; without being obvious about it, sharing the philosophy quoted in the film, that “If we can fully experience pain, we can live a more meaningful life”. Lee and Edward are, in my opinion, the epitome of the fact that you are only, truly a misfit, when you find another to be a misfit with.

Lee Holloway is an interesting and influential character, in the sense that she completely breaks the mould of the stereotypical sexy female protagonist. She transforms being shy and submissive, into a form of empowerment. While not attractive in the conventional sense, her baggy apparel, her clumsy tendencies and her socially awkward nature eventually become her assets, enabling her to use them to manipulate her relations with Edward and initiate encounters with him, by deliberating making typing errors, leading him to “punish her”. She is also unpredictably wiley, her actions perpetuating the theory that in order to get your sexual/romantic interest to notice and respond to you, one must display a further level of intensity with every drastic action you take.

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The next character on my list, is Alabama Whitman from “True Romance” (1993). Alabama has fantastic layers to her character. To begin with, she’s ‘sweet’, she’s ‘sexy’; these elements to her personality are the first in evidence to those who meet her, often masking how tough she can be when the situation warrants it, proving in the most intense manner possible, that she can give as good as she gets. This is plainly evident during the infamous scene where she takes a brutal beating in her and her husband Clarence’s hotel room, by Virgil, the underboss of the Detroit Mafia.

Alabama displays a combination of fierce loyalty and inner strength through her love for Clarence, by taking the beating and by refusing to give away his whereabouts. She also proves the popular saying right, to a tee, that “necessity is the mother of invention”, by eventually killing Virgil herself- first stabbing him in the foot with a corkscrew, blinding him with soap, hitting him over the head with the top of a toilet, setting him on fire with a lighter and an aerosol can, then to only keep stabbing him in the back with the corkscrew and shooting him repeatedly with his own gun.

Alabama is an influentatial female character, because her depiction creates a strong case of the old adage –“looks can be deceiving”.

As with Lee and Edward, there is again, that real sense of unity and partnership between Alabama and Clarence. They care for and protect each other in equal measure and throughout everything they have to endure and survive, their loyalty and love for each other never wavers. A breath of refreshing air, in a world of dysfunctional and deceitful depictions of couples, in cinema.

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I now bring your attention to Lula Fortune, in “Wild At Heart” (1990). While all the characters on this list are personal favourites of mine, I feel I must make a point of stating that Lula is one of my absolute, all-time favourite characters, in general. Her two defining qualities are her incredibly sexual nature and her inquisitive, mysterious mind, often brought to attention by Sailor, her lover, as he states at one time: “the way your head works, is God’s own private mystery.” Lula has a tendency to allow her mind to go to strange places, making connections to things in a way only she can understand.

In a manner not dissimilar to Alabama, her extrovert sexual appeal and mannerisms, often hide the fact that she has a keen sense of wisdom and intuition when it comes to people, being able to decipher the darkness and evil in those who display a charming and charismatic façade to the public (particularly when concerning the character of Bobby Peru). Likewise, she has the ability to see the good in others, despite their previous actions in their dark pasts, which is where her love for Sailor stems from and why she values him, so much.

Lula is a genuinely kind person in an incredibly chaotic and hellish world. She is often the voice of calm, care and stability, making her a deeply sympathetic character and seen as a rock for Sailor, while at the same time (again), being one in a complete partnership with him.

However, Lula can be naïve about some things, the most prominent example being her mother, Marietta. When it comes to her mother, Lula’s intuition fails her, as she doesn’t realise how closely linked she is to real danger until the very end, in the sense that her own mother is incredibly dangerous. She is, in fact, the main source of all of Lula and Sailor’s misfortunes, as they try to be together. Marietta is responsible for the many men hired to kill Sailor; she is also instrumental in the death of her own husband Lula’s father, unbeknownst to her.

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The penultimate character on my list, is Amélie Poulain, the titular character of “Amélie” or, “Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain”(2001). What I have always loved about Amélie, is that, like Lee Holloway, she perpetuates the fact that heroines come in all varieties and one does not have to be an extroverted, outspoken and overly confident person, in order to be an influential individual.

Amélie is a painfully shy character. Fundamentally though, she is a dreamer and incredibly compassionate, with the ability to see the beauty in people, in ways that others or even they themselves, are unable. She is very selfless and genuinely happy and content with performing good deeds in small, but significant ways, her sole intention being bringing happiness to others and helping to improve their perspectives and lives; this makes her a wonderful figure to watch.

However, her focus on everyone else around her often stands in the way of her attention to the parts of her own life that need addressing. Her shyness and tendencies to live in her own dream-world, have created a wall around her, making her unapproachable in certain situations and afraid of intimate human contact, making her attempts to connect with her love interest, Nino, so challenging. She feels her only assets are her talent for devising complex schemes and her enigmatic mannerisms.

She does, however, manage to gain the ability to help herself as well as others, upon facing her fears and realising the importance of romance, love and, essentially, intimate company in her life and that isolating herself to the extent that she always had, may not be the healthiest way to continue.

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And so, we come to the final character, Veronica Sawyer, in “Heathers” (1988). Veronica is very intelligent, with a dry wit and a cynical approach to the expected lifestyle of her generation, never feeling as if she has ever fit into the typical High School plan, regardless of being a part of the most popular clique at Westerburg High – the Heathers. What sets her apart, is that she regrets her involvement with them, as is evident when she declares “my life’s not perfect; I don’t really like my friends . . . . it’s like, they’re people I work with and our job is being popular and shit.”

When it comes to the murders disguised as suicides, despite the fact that she and J.D. are in it together, Veronica acts as the voice of reason and sanity. In spite of wanting certain people out of her life, she never actually wanted to kill any of them. Veronica chooses to back out of both J.D.’s killing spree and her relationship with him, her reasons being for not wanting to develop a taste for murder, for realising the extent of his instability, and for wanting to regain control over herself.

A quality I admire in her character, is that she could have weakened and gone back to J.D. in the end; she could have succumbed to his charms and his desperate need for love. But continuing to fully acknowledge his psychotic nature, she sticks to her morals, does not prevent him from putting himself out of his misery and gains the upper hand, through discovering an inner, untapped power of her own and a new-found independence. And to top it all off, she makes the decision to step into the role of Queen Bee at Westerburg, with the intention of using her position of power, coupled with her kind and compassionate nature for a good cause.

So, there you have it. Personally, I have always favoured the multi-layered and unpredictable heroines. I feel this way, because, to reiterate my earlier point, people are not simply good, or bad.

Whether they overcome them or not, people have flaws and one does not have to be flawless, in order to make an impact on others. To quote J.D. in “Heathers”: “The extreme always tends to make an impression”.

Written by Aifric O’Neill

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