Everyone loves a hero story. Having the opportunity to watch people do extraordinary things is one of the greatest draws of moviegoing, and with the mundanity of everyday life, being able to witness others do things like save lives and stop tragedies is an important type of movie magic. Oftentimes, films portraying heroes are based on real-life, making them all the more poignant, yet too many of them seem totally alike. Since the word "hero" doesn't necessarily denote "man," it doesn't really make sense that the vast majority of hero-centric movies are about men. And yet that's exactly the case, as shown by October's Only the Brave, this summer's Dunkirk, 2016's Patriots Day, and so many more. Seriously, where are the stories about female heroes? Brave, inspiring ladies deserve their time in the spotlight just as much as their male counterparts.
With so many recent films about groups of men doing valiant acts, it's hard to ignore the lack of movies about real-life, female heroes. In 2016, a number of films depicting one or more real-life heroes who either helped save people's lives or made history in some way came out, including 13 Hours, Free State of Jones, The Finest Hours, Deepwater Horizon, Hidden Figures, and Sully. Of those six films, only Hidden Figures portrays women as the heroes of the story. Also in 2016, Snowden came out, and while it addresses Edward Snowden's controversial nature, he's still depicted as a hero. The movie even includes scenes showing the whistleblower's time spent in the military, to ensure that his heroism and patriotism are conveyed.
Men who have served in the military and have given their lives to fight for their country's freedoms undoubtedly deserve to have their stories told, but that doesn't mean there can't also be movies about women engaging in brave, life-saving acts as well. And while it's true that some of the most memorable hero stories, movies like Pearl Harbor and Saving Private Ryan, focus on men because women weren't allowed to participate in battlefield roles at the time, that's not an excuse for the general lack of female-led hero stories. History is rich with stories about female heroes, but they've been constantly left out of the picture.
The 2006 film World Trade Center, for instance, focuses on men who were first responders on 9/11, like Port Authority Police officers John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, when in reality, women were heroes too. According to an NYU news story, three women, Port Authority PD Captain Kathy Mazza, EMT Yamel Merino, and NYPD officer Moira Smith, died at Ground Zero, and many others assisted in the rescuing survivors.
In fact, Smith is still remembered today for helping people on 9/11, as she stood with a flashlight in the South Tower, guiding people to safety. Smith's presence stood out as a memorable beacon on that day, and NYU reports that in one man's remembrance of Smith's actions, he says, "The mass of people exiting the building felt the calm assurance that they were being directed by someone in authority who was in control of the situation." Smith's bravery is exactly the type that movies about heroes often represent, and her tale deserves as much attention as that of her male peers.
Plenty of other stories about women saving lives in addition to Smith's exist, and they would also make for great movies. For example, a recent article in the New York Times revealed that in California, incarcerated women fight wildfires by choice. This brings to mind Only the Brave, which portrays a crew of male firefighters known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots who were tragically killed in a fire in 2013. Part of the film tells the redemptive story about a man with a criminal background who is given a chance by the crew's superintendent. As such, a story about a group of incarcerated women who make just two dollars an hour fighting fires, yet continue risking their lives, would undoubtedly qualify as movie-material, too. So where's that movie, Hollywood?
Meanwhile, even though women were banned from participating in combat roles until 2013, the Daily Beast reported in 2014 that nearly 200 female service members were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, serving as drivers, medics, interpreters, and more. In 2011, a group of women trained to become the first Cultural Support Team, which assisted special operations teams by communicating with Afghan women and children. The CST faced similarly dangerous situations as the men of the special operations missions, from which women at the time were excluded. One woman, Ashley White-Stumpf, passed away, and her death is examined in the book Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield, which Reese Witherspoon's production company, Pacific Standard, bought the rights to in 2015, though no news about production has come out since then.
If Witherspoon were to make a movie about Stumpf's heroic life and tragic death, it would be a much-needed addition to the extensive repertoire of male-hero focused films. Plenty of female civilians have also proven themselves heroes after risking their own lives for others, and their stories could be told, as well. For example, in World War II, a Polish woman named Irena Sendlerowa saved 2,500 Jewish babies and children from the Nazi death camps, according to The Guardian. Yet as the paper points out, her story is much less known than her male peers, like Oskar Schindler.
Then there are the events of 2012, when a group of female nurses proved themselves heroes during Hurricane Sandy by saving the lives of 20 babies from the NICU, as ABC News reports. With the current popularity of both medical and survival dramas, this story could easily be made into a movie, if only someone would take on the opportunity.
A few recent movies have highlighted female heroes, to be fair. A 2016 Holocaust-set film, The Zookeeper's Wife, centers on Antonina Zabinska (Jessica Chastain), who, along with her husband, helped shepherd hundreds of people to safety. This feminist focus was intended by the author of the book, Diane Ackerman, on which the film was based. "Her story’s been lost in the seams of history, as women’s stories very often are, but she was profoundly heroic," Ackerman told People of Zabinska. Meanwhile, the 2017 film Megan Leavey, made by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, focuses on a female Marine who teamed up with a military dog while deployed in Iraq, saving many lives.
The fact that both The Zookeeper's Wife and Megan Leavey (as well as one of the most famous female hero stories of the last several years, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty) were directed by women is no surprise. Neither is the fact that that Witherspoon is the producer spearheading a war story about a woman killed in combat, or that the authors of the books both Hidden Figures and The Zookeeper's Wife are based on are female. The more women involved in filmmaking and storytelling, the more real-life female heroes get the recognition they deserve.
Women need their own hero stories, but it's crucial that the ones that exist actually focus on the women, not their male counterparts. One of the few movies about women in the military that exists today, the 1996 film Courage Under Fire, debates whether or not Meg Ryan's character, the commander of a Medevac helicopter, should be the first woman to receive a Medal of Honor, focusing more on the men around her than than, well, her. It's a perfect example of how a film that could focus solely on a woman's heroic acts became a film about a man determining her legacy. And while Courage Under Fire is a fictional story, a similar debate occurred in real life when Mary Edwards Walker became the first and only woman to win the award in 1865 after she served as an Army surgeon during the Civil War. In truth, Courage Under Fire isn't even close to Mary Edwards Walker's story, but that's exactly the point — where is the film about Walker's heroism?
There are so many stories to choose from, and so many potential female-led hero movies to make. Having more female filmmakers would likely change the great gender imbalance in films about heroes, but unfortunately, women made up a smaller percentage of directors in 2016 than they did in 1998, THR reports. The number of real stories of women acting bravely and heroically have not decreased, though, and there will likely only be more as more women join the U.S. military in combative roles. These stories, whether about women saving lives in war or as civilians, deserve to be portrayed in films just as much as the stories about male heroes do. Ladies kick butt, and they always have — if only Hollywood would recognize that on film.