The female trailblazers who’ve reshaped pop culture

With Becky Lynch featuring as the first-ever female WWE 2K cover star, we celebrate today's pioneering women in entertainment

From the increasing number of substantial female roles in film and television to the influence of female showrunners, directors and leaders in the business, the entertainment world seems to finally be making big leaps in equal representation.

There’s still a long way to go, though. According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, only 40% of the top-grossing 100 films of 2018 had female leads or co-leads and for women of colour that number dropped down to 11%. Behind the camera the numbers are even lower, only 4% of those highest-grossing movies were directed by women. That’s just in film, but the story in television, gaming and eSports is largely the same.

But there are plenty of pioneering women helping to close the gender gap and paving the way for others to follow in their footsteps. From Netflix’s groundbreakingly diverse Orange Is The New Black to the female-firsts of Becky Lynch as a WWE 2K20 cover star and Jodie Whittaker as the first female Doctor, here’s our selection of pop culture’s most inspiring contemporary women.

Patty Jenkins and Wonder Woman

Created in 1941, Wonder Woman stood side-by-side with Batman and Superman in the pages of DC Comics and was championed by feminist icon Gloria Steinem. However, it took over 70 years for her to become a big screen success, and, fittingly, it took a woman behind the camera to make it happen.

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With 2017’s Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins became the first woman to direct an American studio superhero movie. And its runaway success also made it the highest-grossing film directed by a woman ever. Considering very few female superhero movies have been successful (can we just forget 2004’s Catwoman?), the success of this female director and female lead combo was an amazing milestone for both the genre and the wider film industry.

So what worked this time? Key to making the film such a hit was the careful treatment of the character. For years, the representation of female superheroes as scantily clad sex symbols has been criticised, but Jenkins managed to stay true to the source material while bringing Wonder Woman’s character up to date (no easy feat for a film set against a backdrop of Ancient Greek mythology and World War One).

Diana (played by the outstanding Gal Gadot) is a headstrong character whose unique perspective, having grown up in an isolated community of female warriors, gives her the perfect platform to challenge social constructs. For example, in a notable dress shopping scene, Diana can’t understand why a woman would wear a long dress that prevents her from fighting and rips through the fabric with a powerful kick. This playfully suggests that female superhero outfits are in fact superior to the restrictive fashion garments of the time.

The Phoebe Waller-Bridge phenomenon

Phoebe Waller-Bridge is on more than just a roll – she’s taking the world of TV and film by storm. From TV comedy Fleabag, to the equal parts tense and hilarious BBC drama, Killing Eve, her script-writing talents have not gone unnoticed. She’s now been personally brought in by Daniel Craig to inject some humour into the 25th Bond film, No Time to Die, and she’s rumoured to be taking the reins of the next one too.

Not only is Waller-Bridge hugely talented, she also champions equal and authentic representation of women in film and television. Both Killing Eve and Fleabag are led by complex female characters and Waller-Bridge has spoken about the need for industry changes in the wake of the #MeToo movement. For Bond, Waller-Bridge believes it’s the way the film treats its female characters, not the womanising spy, that makes the difference. Most importantly, she says the characters need to feel like real women who the actors are excited to play.

Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar success

When Kathryn Bigelow won Best Director for The Hurt Locker at the 2010 Oscars, it was a significant moment for both the Academy and for women in the film industry. Incredibly, she was the first woman to ever win the award, and, nine years later, she is still the only woman to have received it. And it wasn’t just the Oscar win that marked a milestone moment, The Hurt Locker also made her the first woman to win the BAFTA Award for Best Direction, the Critics’ Choice Movie Award for Best Director and the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing. Considering that Bigelow largely works in male-dominated genres – action and horror – her success is all the more impressive.

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As well as being a long-overdue moment in award history, some might argue that the recognition for Bigelow herself was a long time coming. Directing films since 1981, she has a wealth of hit titles to her name, including ahead-of-its-time vampire flick, Near Dark, exhilarating action-thriller, Point Break, and cult sci-fi Strange Days.

WWE’s Becky Lynch and Stephanie McMahon

The launch of video game WWE 2K20 signals a groundbreaking moment in the world of wrestling. The cover for the long-running series will, for the first time, feature a female wrestler. Becky Lynch, the current Raw Women’s Champion, will be front and centre on all promotional material, alongside Roman Reigns. “My career has been about breaking barriers and doing what nobody else has done before,” Lynch said. “Being the first female Superstar on the cover of a WWE 2K video game is no exception.”

In a franchise first, WWE 2K20 will follow the careers of the professional wrestling stable, The Four Horsewomen, in 2K Showcase: The Women’s Evolution. Former four-time Women’s Tag Team Champions, The Four Horsewomen team is made up of Becky Lynch, Bayley, Charlotte Flair and Sasha Banks. In another series first, 2K20 will also give players the opportunity to choose a female character in MyCareer mode.

Instrumental in these WWE firsts is Stephanie McMahon, the company’s chief brand officer. She is striving to make WWE representative of all cultures and people and is particularly championing women. “WWE is ultimately a reflection of the world and we need to be representative of all cultures, all people. We just want to give our women equal opportunity” she said. In 2018 McMahon also launched the first-ever all women’s pay-per-view, WWE Evolution.

Jodie Whittaker as the first female Doctor

Doctor Who fans will know that The Doctor’s regenerations are a dangerous business, and ever since Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor said that he could have come back with two heads, fans have been wondering about the limits of Time Lord biology. But while it was always unlikely The Doctor was going to come back as a giant two-headed slug, the 12 regenerations of a young-to-middle-aged white man (when he could easily come back as any race, age or gender) were getting a little unbelievable – or at least as unbelievable as you can get in a show about aliens travelling through time and space.

So the announcement of Jodie Whittaker as the first female doctor was a really big deal in the Doctor Who universe. Her debut as the Doctor drew in 8.2 million viewers – the show’s biggest series launch audience in more than a decade.

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Whittaker, who dubbed the opportunity to play an iconic version of the iconic character both “liberating” and “terrifying”, was heavily involved in the creation of her Doctor’s costume. She went for a simple, neutral look that could be worn by any shape, age or gender – a welcome decision for any fans wanting to cosplay as the 13th Doctor at Comic Con.

Jade Raymond at Stadia Games and Entertainment

Taking the gaming world by storm is Jade Raymond, the Canadian video game producer who now heads up the gaming side of Google’s soon-to-be-launched streaming platform, Stadia. Stadia Games and Entertainment is the in-house studio which will make original games for the platform.

Over the course of her impressive career, Raymond has served as executive producer and co-creator of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise and then as the general manager of Ubisoft Toronto. Raymond also worked at Electronic Arts, where one of her notable responsibilities was managing the company’s Star Wars portfolio.

In 2018, Raymond won the Develop Vanguard Award for her “trailblazing endeavours across her 20-year career”. In the same year, she also received the Pioneer Award from the Fun and Serious Games Festival, recognising her “contributions to the industry as a producer of games that are considered a turning point in the industry”.

Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine

Reese Witherspoon may have found fame as an underestimated sorority-girl-turned-lawyer in Legally Blonde, but her real legacy will be her commitment to female voices in media. In 2016 she set up the production company, Hello Sunshine, which champions “female authorship and agency”, carefully selecting powerful stories written by women and featuring well-written female characters to recreate onscreen.

Witherspoon also runs Reese’s Book Club as part of the company, a social network of bookworms with whom she shares her favourite female-authored reads and gets inspiration for the next Hello Sunshine adaptations.

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The production company is behind the hit Hulu show, Big Little Lies, based on Liane Moriarty’s book of the same name, and is in the process of adapting Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere for the screen. Witherspoon’s first company, Pacific Standard, now a subsidiary for Hello Sunshine, is behind the hit 2014 films Gone Girl and Wild.

Jenji Kohan and Orange Is The New Black

Jenji Kohan is the writer behind the screen adaptation of Piper Kerman’s memoir, Orange Is The New Black, a Netflix series which Time Magazine dubbed “the most important television show of the decade”. The show is celebrated for its focus on topical political issues in the US surrounding the criminal justice system and immigration, seen through the eyes of a diverse cast of incarcerated female characters.

What was an entertaining and poignant look at life as a female inmate became a groundbreaking piece of work when Kohan widened the lens of the show to shift the focus away from the relative privilege of Piper Chapman. Suddenly a whole host of underrepresented and oppressed women took centre stage in a revolutionary moment in television history. This not only provided a rare platform to explore issues of racism, homophobia and poverty in the US justice system, it also created an unprecedented number of diverse roles for female actors. Stars to emerge from the show include Laverne Cox as Sophia Bursett, a transgender woman suffering horrific abuse at Litchfield prison, and Natasha Lyonne as the lovable Nicky Nichols. Lyonne went on to write and star in the critically acclaimed Russian Doll and Cox became the first openly transgender woman to appear on the cover of British Vogue.

Meanwhile, the focus on Poussey Washington’s storyline and tragic death led to the foundation of the Poussey Washington fund in both the show and in real life. The real charity supports eight non-profit organisations which focus on social issues surrounding the criminal justice system and immigrants’ rights, including the Women’s Prison Association and the National Council for the Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Woman and Girls.

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media

As well as starring as Thelma to Susan Sarandon’s Louise, Geena Davis has long been an advocate for women in Hollywood. In 2004, Davis launched the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which works to increase the presence of female characters in media and entertainment. Concerned that there simply weren’t enough well-written female characters for her young daughter to watch, and of the mind that she herself was lucky to bag some of the few good roles, Davis was inspired to tackle the issue of gender representation.

With the tagline, “if she can see it, she can be it”, the institute specifically champions young female actors and characters in film and TV. The institute has also amassed the largest body of research on gender prevalence in family entertainment, looking at subjects such as how female representation on screen affects the thoughts and behaviour of young girls.

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