Things take time. Good coffee takes time to percolate. Fine wine takes time to mature. A good blog post can never be rushed. Although the genesis of women’s liberation can be traced back some twenty years in time, it wasn’t until the 80s that we really got to see women not just portrayed heroically, but ferociously. Not to take away anything from Lynda Carter, or Ursula Andress, or any of a number of strong female stars from the 60s or 70s. Undoubtedly this was the era that blazed a path for prominent female characterizations. But the 80s took things a step further. It wasn’t enough to simply be tough. This was the time of Star Wars (the strategic defense initiative), advancing technology, soaring crime rates – you had to be on par with your enemy, or be dead.
In selecting the criteria for this Top Five list, there’s was only one reasonable principle to adhere to: no “heroines.” Heroine implies a specific qualification of hero. No one on this list is heroic… for a girl. This is a honed collection of some of the most enduring characters of the decade. And although they transcend their gender, it just happens to be the one bond they share. At the end of the day, bad ass is still bad ass. These girls just happen to be extra bad ass.
5.) Aunty Entity – It’s a stretch to use the term “heroine” to describe Tina Turner’s character from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Even anti-heroine seems restrained. If it weren’t for her sparing Max’s life after the film’s climatic showdown, Entity would remain irredeemable, and be remembered solely as the villain. Thanks, however, to her admitted admiration of Max’s valor, we forgive her earlier ruthlessness and tactical conspiring. But not “We Don’t Need Another Hero.” There’s no forgiving that.
4.) She-Ra – There were a lot of dumb people doing dumb things in the 80s (shoulder pads; seriously?), but the guys at Filmation weren’t some of them. What better way to secure financial backing than create cartoon series’ to promote toy lines. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe proved this strategy with its runaway success. Filmation, the show’s producer, backed up its winning formula in 1985 with She-Ra: Princess of Power. As He-Man’s twin sister, She-Ra shared virtually all the same powers as her brother, which is largely what set her apart from other animated female warriors. She-Ra pummeled her opponents with the same brute force as He-Man. While she often displayed intelligence, she was not merely resigned to cerebral negotiation of combat. For a children’s cartoon, this was bold. She-Ra: Princess of Power’s run was short-lived – the show had only two season – but left a strong enough impact that 20 years later all 93 episodes from the series were released on DVD.
3.) Zula – No one would argue 1984’s Conan the Destroyer is a much campier affair than the original Conan the Barbarian (1982). Although softer in tone, Conan the Destroyer doesn’t lack in action, and much of that action’s ferocity is thanks to tribal warrior, Zula. With the exception of an aversion to rats, Zula presents an early prototype of the relentless female fighter. She approached every aspect of characterization with the same aggressive disposition. No more evident is this then when Princess Jehnna asks Zula how she would acquire a male partner. “Grab him, and take him,” is her response. It’s humorous but apropos, as was the casting of Grace Jones in the role. The lithe and agile Jones presented a stark contrast from the muscle-bound spectacle of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and this worked to her advantage, giving Zula a swift and serpentine lethality.
2.) Sarah Connor – There have been a total of four Terminator films. The first two are considered watershed treasures within cinema history. The latter two are typically derided. An argument could be made for the absence of writer and director James Cameron, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the series lost its main character. Contrary to the suggestive titles, the first two films are not about the Terminator. The character whose arc the audience is supposed to identify with is Sarah Connor. And it’s an impressive arc. It requires both The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) to reach its completion, and is one of the richest ever captured on the big screen. Linda Hamilton receives universal acclaim for her physical transformation in T2, but her character’s evolution in the first Terminator is commendable, yet often overlooked. The Terminator is darker in tone, and Hamilton displays the occasional “Final Girl” attribute here and there, but in the moments leading up to their ultimate confrontation, she begins to demonstrate a cold brutality that virtually matches her cyborg component. This would go on to be an essential plot point of the second movie. Unfortunately once it was resolved, the series lost its importance.
1.) Ellen Ripley – In space, no one can here you scream. But if anyone could, you’d want it to be Ellen Ripley. Resourcefulness kept Sigourney Weaver‘s Xenomorph-plauged character alive in Alien (1979). Being a stone cold, unflinching, vengeful bad ass did in 1986’s Aliens. It’s hard to imagine anyone besides Weaver navigating the role’s delicate balance between sensibility and all out militarism. Matching her hatred for the Xenomorphs, and a lack of faith in the people around her, Ripley displays a penchant for successfully piloting every obstacle by keeping a cooler head. And when cooler heads cannot prevail, Ripley goes for the flamethrower. The magic touch here, though, is still Weaver, who unlike virtually all other female protagonists, is removed from the archetype feminine fearfulness. Distinct from “final girls,” who exist to showcase a level of terror that is considered inappropriate in a male lead, we never once see Ripley fall into hysterics. It’s not part of her makeup, and that’s what makes Ellen Ripley the ultimate sci-fi action hero.