17 TV Shows and Movies About Real Women in Power

17 TV Shows and Movies About Real Women in Power

Image for article titled 17 TV Shows and Movies About Real Women in Power

Screenshot: The Queen/HBO Max

This post began life as a roundup of films built on female power–a good tie-in to the forthcoming release of the Viola Davis-starring historical epic The Woman King, about the all-female fighters of the Kingdom of Dahomey (modern-day Benin) in the 19th century, no? With the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, history has overthrown that idea. It’s impossible to consider the relationship between women and power without taking into account the end of the longest period of rule by any woman in the history of humanity.

To some, she was a beloved grandmother figure; to others, a steadfast ruler who lead with the softest touch imaginable. Others couldn’t keep her from the shadowy specter that was British colonialism. None of these interpretations are complete, and none of them cancel each other. It is difficult to determine what power means, whether it is through inheritance, politics, or any other means. This is probably why so many movies have been made about it.

Take The Woman King, which is not about an actual monarch but follows a powerful female leader and is set in Dahomey, a country that was later colonized by France. A group of highly skilled women warriors protecting their lands from outside invaders is the stuff of killer narratives–but some quarters have quibbled that the movie elides Dahomey’s own history of enslavement and conquest.

It’s all led me to wonder if we’re ever been, or ever will be, very good at evaluating our real-life female leaders, who may be judged, lauded, and vilified in unfair ways. In modern times, movies and TV have done a decent job of giving us memorable and sometimes provocative considerations about historical women in power.

The Favourite (2018)

The image of power in this Oscar, uh, favorite resides less in Olivia Colman’s portrayal of the hilariously batty Queen Anne, but in that of her court.

Where to stream: 6635 Digital rental
1849516246184951624618495162462019The Favourite 200920082008The image of Queen Anne’s is more in the portrayal of her court.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Queen Christina (1933)

There are two modes of female power on display here. Greta Garbo is an iconic cinematic icon who avoided the usual movie star schmoozing or promotional tours in favor showing up and giving memorable performances and returning to her art collection. There’s also Queen Christina, who Garbo portrays here, the ruler of Sweden for a roughly 20-year period beginning in 1632 and who, like Garbo, enjoys a well-earned reputation for gender ambiguity and queerness, some of which is on display in this pre-code film that sees her entertaining several suitors, both male and female. The film cleverly portrays the reactions of the Swedish people to their ruler. Some think she’s weak-willed and others think she’s too domineering. Too horny for certain; too frosty for others. Double standards are always.

Where to stream: Digital rental

The Girl King (2015)

This 2015 Finnish film offers a slightly more modern take on Sweden’s Queen (more accurately, King) Christina, with more of an emphasis on the monarch’s nontraditional relationship with gender roles and sexuality.

Where to stream: Prime Video, Hulu, Tubi, Kanopy

5 / 19

Atlantic Crossing (2020 Miniseries)

Atlantic Crossing (2020 Miniseries)

It’s sometimes called “soft power,” particularly when wielded by women: the ability to achieve political aims through convincing rather than by coercion. Here’s the true story of Crown Princess Martha (Sofia Helin) She fled her country after the Nazi takeover and made her way to America with her family. After fleeing the Nazi takeover of her country, Martha formed an intense friendship with Franklin Roosevelt (Kyle MacLachlan). She lobbied the divided United States to aid and support Norway. Informally, she visited the U.S. to raise interest in the anti-Nazi cause as well as her own country’s interests.

Where to stream: PBS

Marie Antoinette (2006)

Sofia Coppola’s frothy take on the life of the notorious French queen (Kirsten Dunst) finds empathy in the story of one of modern history’s most vilified women, without going so far as to make her heroic. Coppola manages to project the idea of a modern teenager back in time, forcing us to question how prepared anyone could be to leave their family and take over a high profile role in another country at the age of 14–especially when the man with top billing (Jason Schwartzman’s King Louis) is so feckless. Although she was obviously entitled and pampered, it is hard to not wonder if history has been too quick to blame all the failures of pre-Revolutionary France upon one young woman.

Where to stream: Digital rental

7 / 19

Princess Ka’iulani (2009)

Princess Ka’iulani (2009)

I’ll be frank is saying that Princess Ka’iulani isn’t a great film, but it’s an entirely watchable one that speaks to a moment in Hawaiian history that’s not terribly distant, but still little discussed in the continental U.S. Ka’iulani (Q’orianka Kilcher) was the heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Hawai`i, but lost any hope at ever claiming it following the arrest of Queen Liliuokalani and the overthrow of the monarchy by a consortium of mostly mainland American businessmen (the islands’ monarchs believed, quite mistakenly, that they could play ball with western interests). The film examines Ka’iulani’s exile and how she was treated in England by racism before and after the coup. Being a crown princess in her country does not spare her from the hostility or condescension of her hosts. She successfully lobbying for an end to the annexation in America before a change in administrations makes some of her work obsolete.

Where to stream: Kanopy

Cleopatra (1963)

Our ambivalent response to female power goes back millennia; Cleopatra is the last, rather than the first, female Egyptian ruler who history has looked askance at. Romans wrote the story about the last monarch of Egypt’s country, describing her as a harlot who was held in power solely on her sexual prowess. She lost her throne and her life to one of the more misogynistic ancient civilisations (compared to Egypt). The queen was far more savvier than she seemed, even though her smart strategic alliances didn’t work out as planned. The movie comes much closer to a modern conception of Cleopatra’s power, even if still falling back on plenty of 1960s ideas of her seductive powers.

Where to stream: HBO Max, Fubo

Harriet (2019)

From a woman aided by the Underground Railroad system, Harriet Tubman quickly became one of its most effective conductors, and is now remembered as the most important single name in the entire operation, an unquestioned leader who approached the quest for freedom with a religious zeal (her religious convictions seemed, indeed, to have a lot to do with her fortitude). She was a leader in the suffragist movement and later fought in Civil War battle. She is the American Queen.

Where to stream: Digital rental

10 / 19

The Great (2020 – present)

The Great (2020 – present)

All historical fiction is, ultimately, about the time it’s made in as much as it is about the time it’s set, and that’s very explicitly the case with The Great, a sumptuous take on the rise and reign of Russian Empress Catherine the Great, but one that’s also very much a dark comedy. At least for the first season, the story revolves around Catherine’s darkly comic miseducation about leadership and power. Although she was born in Prussia, she gradually comes to love her adopted country so deeply that she realizes there is only one way to go: kill her husband Peter (Nicholas Hoult), a buffoonish and monstrous man in equal measure. There is no “soft power” in this country.

Where to stream: Hulu

11 / 19

The Spanish Princess (2019 – 2020)

The Spanish Princess (2019 – 2020)

An adaptation of the Phillips Gregory novel, The Spanish Princess (as with its predecessors, The White Queen and The White Princess) is occasionally a bit too soapy for its own good. It does capture the indomitable Queen Catherine of Aragon (Charlotte Hope) which was Henry VIII’s first wife. After the death of her first marriage in England, Catherine refuses to leave and recognizes that Henry is her only hope for her future.

Where to stream: Starz

Elizabeth (1998)

Christopher Eccleston holds his nose long enough to crown Cate Blanchett’s Queen Elizabeth I, a wildly unlikely heir to the throne of England who became one of that country’s exemplars of monarchy. It’s a film about choices. We first meet Elizabeth as a young woman without expectations of rule. But as she grows in power, we see that her options shrink rather than increase. Given the immense pressure she feels to choose a husband and the restrictions placed on her choices, she eventually chooses public celibacy as the “Virgin queen”, reflecting the impossible divide modern women often face between work and family.

Where to stream: Starz

13 / 19

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

History has never been shy about positioning Mary and Elizabeth I as lifelong rivals, reveling in the idea that a powerful female leader requires a female arch-rival. Even though the story is dramatic, there’s some truth to it. The two never met. Saoirse Ronan plays the title role. She became queen within days of her birth and was sealed in her fate from that moment on.

Where to stream: 6635Mrs. Brown (340)

Where to stream: Digital rental

Mrs. Brown (1997)

Queen Victoria (played here by Judi Dench) is known, in many ways, for her relationships: the “Widow of Windsor” spent what was seen as a deeply unseemly amount of time mourning her husband, Prince Albert, before taking on a new nickname, “Mrs. Brown” for her friendship (or more) with John Brown (Billy Connolly), a highly uncouth and completely unacceptable Scottish servant. Victoria’s family and advisors tried to rein in what they perceived as her impulsive attraction towards Brown at a late stage of her reign. But, as was so often the way in Victoria’s career and life, she persevered through sheer stubbornness. She was aware of her power and had no plans to end a relationship she loved.

Where to stream: Britbox, Hoopla, Pluto TV

Jodhaa Akbar (2008)

The always transcendent Aishwarya Rai plays the title role here, a real-life Mughal princess of the sixteenth century. Jodhaa is arranged to marry Akbar, an emperor to be trained to be utterly merciless. Jodhaa stands firm in her betrothal to Akbar and refuses to sleep with him until he’s well-known. Jodhaa is shown as a partner in power and a moderating force on a husband who has been taught throughout his life that ruthlessness can only be used to lead.

Where to stream: Netflix

16 / 19

Wolf Hall (2016 miniseries)

Wolf Hall (2016 miniseries)

Mark Rylance’s Thomas Cromwell is the main attraction in this BBC adaptation of the Hilary Mantel novels, but not long in the background is Claire Foy’s Anne Boleyn; it’s one of the finest portrayals of the much-maligned queen in TV or cinema, even if her screen time is limited at the outset. We see a complex woman, ambitious and privileged, but also aware that she is on a tightrope. Her power is a result of a highly fickle king and has unwritten and ultimately dangerous limitations.

Where to stream: PBS, Hoopla

The Queen (2006)

Is there more power in silence? This seems to have been Queen Elizabeth II’s central question. She rarely felt the need to express emotions other than benign amusement or the affections of a strict mother. This was both due to constitutional necessity and her own interpretation of the role as a modern British monarch. It worked until Princess Diana’s death, which was a crisis point not only for the queen but for the monarchy as a whole. The country was not willing to accept the Queen’s silence as a disrespect to the beloved former princess. This is a take on a common phenomenon that we see with female rulers and politicians: too much emotion and they are hysterical and not to trust. Too little? They are indifferent and cold.

Where to stream: HBO Max

18 / 19

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker (2020)

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker (2020)

Titles might convey power, but rarely have they stood without money to back them up. Octavia Butler portrays Madam C. J. Walker. She is a fictionalized version. She turned a hair-care recipe and made it into a cosmetics empire. She was also the first Black millionaire in America. She also made it a point of sharing the power she had, creating structures and organizations that would help and empower black businesswomen.

Where to stream: Netflix

Read More