My Top Twelve Ladies of the Wasteland!
There are a lot of post-apocalyptic movies and novels out there where women are used as set-dressing (doing domestic tasks in a shelter or in cages as victims), are fridged* as a way to inspire the hero’s journey, or are simply non-existent. As such, here is the opposite! This is not an exhaustive list of women of the wastes– just my personal favourites. I am not considering anything solidly dystopian (like Hunger Games) or any zombie-apocalypse books/movies in this list – those are genres unto themselves!
Susannah Dean – The Waste Lands
(Stephen King, 1991 – The Dark Tower: Book 3)
Susannah is one of the main characters in King’s The Dark Tower series, an African American woman who is paralyzed from the waist down. She doesn’t let her disability get in her way, though she is not afraid to ask for help from her companions when traversing terrain not suited to her wheelchair.
Of all of King’s characters, Susannah has always stood out to me as a memorable character. In fact, I haven’t read The Waste Lands in almost fifteen years but Susannah instantly came to mind for this list. Not only is she a woman surrounded by dudes, but she is a person with a disability who was strong, self-reliant, and sexually unapologetic. I’ve only read the entire Dark Tower series once (my bad, my bad), but I’ve read The Waste Lands at least three times (though, as I said, not for at least a decade). It’s hard to give a synopsis when it’s book #3, but I’ll say that you should READ THE DARK TOWER. Don’t watch the Idris Elba movie. Please, please don’t.
2. Furiosa (Charlise Theron) – Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Fury Road is the movie I demanded to watch when I was in labour. Seriously – when I had my daughter (no pain meds!) all I wanted to see was tough women kicking ass, and this movie has a ton of them. Furiosa is at the forefront of course. A guarded, single-minded woman with a disability (a missing arm), who is not afraid to (convincingly) fight Tom Hardy’s Max to defend the women she has sworn to protect. Yet every woman in the movie is strong in their own way. Not only that, but it’s a kick-ass movie with tons of action, amazing stunts, and (in my mind) it outshines the original. I have a theory that Furiosa is who “the wife” becomes after she leaves her husband and kid in The Road (I’m kidding).
3. Fallout – the video game series
I am a huge fan of Fallout. I’ve tried Fallout 1 and 2, but I’m really bad at finding my way around without a hand-holding map, so I don’t get very far. But I’ve played Fallout 3, New Vegas, and Fallout 4 for hundreds of hours. I have Fallout 76 as well (but I didn’t find it as compelling).
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Fallout in pretty much any post-apocalyptic list, so I’m
going to list off my four favourite ladies from the three games:
Your player character. Given the deluge of male-driven video games (especially in the early 2000s), I have only ever opted to play Fallout as woman, so I count “her” as one! # Blackwidowperk
Fallout 3 – Sydney. You only encounter her if you travel deep into the Capitol or undertake the “Stealing Independence” quest, but she is a mercenary relic hunter. Petite yet tough, her no-nonsense attitude makes her a fun temporary companion.
Fallout New Vegas – Lily. Cass and Veronica are both really fun female companions (and Rex the dog is always with me), but I prefer Lily. This could be because I’m never without the Gobi Campaign Sniper Rifle, so I like long-distance attacks (meaning she doesn’t steal my kills), but mainly it's because I find her dialogue and backstory compelling. Plus, that hat.
Fallout 4 – Piper. Due to reasons I won’t get into, Hancock always ends up being my companion (as well as Dogmeat, of course), but if I had to choose between Piper and Cait, I like Piper’s sarcasm, nerdiness, and integrity best. That trenchcoat!
4. Solara (Mila Kunis) - Book of Eli (2010)
This movie is full of fun post-apocalyptic tropes: cannibals, insane town leaders, raiders, and lone wanderers. I instantly fell in love with the setting and characters when I saw the movie a decade ago. While the story features Denzel Washington’s Eli as the protagonist, Mila Kunis’ Solara has a compelling story of her own as a young woman who isn’t afraid to strike out on her own. The best thing about her is how naïve she is at the start and how she grows to self-sufficiency over the story.
5. Aunty Entity (Tina Turner) - Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
While the movie is a little bit dull in the second half, Tina Turner kills it as the leader of Bartertown. If you want a psychotic raider queen, she’s the one you think of right away. She is intelligent and downright glamourous, as well as being ruthless in her pursuits. Apparently my mother named me after her – not after this movie specifically, but apparently liked the name Tina. I’ll take it.
6. Captain Phasma - Phasma (Delilah Dawson, 2017)
Yes, that Captain Phasma. If you’ve wanted more of her after Star Wars VII and VIII (like I did), this novel is a fantastic backstory. Why is this included in my Post-Apocalyptic list? Because Phasma, according to the novel, hails from a post-apocalyptic world! Honestly, the book is KILLER - it barely feels like a Star Wars book as most of it takes place in a completely new setting (without Jedi). Phasma isn’t the narrator, which keeps her as mysterious and aloof as she is in the movies, but her journey from her home to the First Order helps cement her (limited) presence in the movies. You can find my review on my Book Review blog.
7. Edith “E” (Melanie Griffith) - Cherry 2000 (1987)
This movie is SUCH a hidden gem. There is a man. He is "in love" with his sex robot (a "Cherry 2000" model). The robot gets water-damage and breaks-down, but as she is an old model, he has to venture into the wasteland with a female guide (Edith) to find a replacement body for said robot. He ends up realizing that lady robots are no match for the real thing. Especially when the real thing is a sarcastic, gun-toting, self-sufficient woman who takes no crap from him. Not only is Edith awesome, but the entire story is so much fun in an absurd, bizarre way that only the 80s could think up.
8. Eve - WALL-E (2008)
What? Yes, WALL-E, the Disney movie about robots in love, is a post-apocalyptic movie. If you haven’t watched this gem of a film, I highly recommend it. Most of the movie takes place on earth that has been destroyed by pollution. The titular WALL-E spends his days cleaning up the wasteland until Eve shows up on a mission from a surviving human colony ship. He falls head over heels. But Eve is all business … at first. Despite these characters only being able to say their names and five other words between them ("directive?"), they are very fun to watch. Eve has an amazing plasma cannon too, so there’s that.
9. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) - The Terminator (1984), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
While most of the story doesn’t take place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, I still consider Terminator to be part of the genre. I don’t think I have to explain why Sarah Connor is an amazing female character. Her journey from a bit of a damsel to tough-as-nails revolutionary to senior-with-a-shotgun is so compelling. I love all three of the movies, though T2 was the one I consider a staple of my childhood. Sarah was a major role model to twelve-year-old me in the 90s.
10. Rebecca "Tank Girl" (Lori Petty) - Tank Girl (1995)
Have you not seen this movie? Really? It's flat-out crazy and so much fun! It follows a young woman, Tank Girl, on her journey through a drought-based apocalypse. She uses her sass and tank to help women and a group of kangaroo-human hybrids (yes, you read correctly) from evil corporate overlords. It's a supremely surreal movie with some serious feminist overtones. Directed by a woman too! It's a lot of fun!
11. Ann - Z for Zachariah (Robert C. O’Brien, 1974)
While this novel isn’t my favourite book, Ann is a great character. She’s the lone survivor of a nuclear war, subsisting alone on a small farm which managed to avoid radiation. While she is a little bit naïve at first, being sixteen, she makes realistic choices and uses her smarts to save herself from a predatory and controlling adult man who tries to take advantage of her in multiple ways. A little dated, it’s still a great YA book (before that category was even a thing).
12. Trash - “Exterminators of the Year 3000” (1983)
OK, so Trash is in truth a trash character with barely any screen time. But, she has one of the most truthful, poignant, and moving lines of any movie ever produced: "old astronauts never die." I'm kidding - I just wanted to mention Exterminators of the Year 3000 as it's such a blast of a movie.
Any I missed?
* “Fridging” is a term to describe when a female character is introduced at the start of a story only to be immediately killed off (or hurt/sexually assaulted) to inspire the hero’s story. She is not a person, but a vehicle to serve the male character’s arc. It’s not to say that a female love interest can’t die in a movie to inspire revenge, but in the last twenty years, it’s become a cliché and lazy way to motivate a plot.