The best books on women in American film: from silent troublemakers to final girls

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve been creating female-fronted Science Fiction stories since I was a child. My love for Star Wars motivated me to go to film school and then spend years working on the representation of women in Science Fiction movies, TV series, and video games. I’ve written about characters like Leia Organa and Hera Syndulla in Star Wars, Dana Scully in The X-Files, Sarah Connor in The Terminator, and Elisabeth Shaw in Prometheus. I have recently started sharing some of my research on Medium. Some of the books on this list have supported my research for over 15 years while I discovered others during my doctoral studies. 


I wrote...

The Science is Out There: Scully's Feminism in The X-Files

By Natacha Guyot,

Book cover of The Science is Out There: Scully's Feminism in The X-Files

What is my book about?

Medical doctor and federal agent Dana Scully has been a prominent figure in popular culture since The X-Files first aired in 1993. As a nuanced feminist representation of a woman scientist, Scully managed to overcome significant systemic violence perpetrated by different patriarchal systems, including the bio-terrorist shadow organization central to the show’s mythology. 

By investigating her primary role as a medical doctor, this book traces her development in a newly comprehensive way. Exploring the intersection of real-life science, trauma, and feminism in Scully’s journey matters given how popular culture participates to the representation of society. While fiction may seem incidental compared to actual scientific practice and policies, a franchise such as The X-Files influences how general audiences perceive women scientists.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood

Natacha Guyot Why did I love this book?

LaSalle’s book made me fall in love with Pre-Code Hollywood despite having been in film and media studies for 20 years.

His in-depth study of many famous actresses during this era such as Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, and Jean Harlow, shows how freer women could be on screen for their life choices. 

The later chapters address the lasting impact of the Code era on the representation of women and their agency, even on contemporary movies. As he discusses it, the Code caused the decline of “socially responsive women’s pictures.”

By Mick LaSalle,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Complicated Women as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Between 1929 and 1934, women in American cinema took lovers, had babies out of wedlock, got rid of cheating husbands, enjoyed their sexuality and led unapologetic careers. Before then, women on screen had come in two varieties - sweet ingenue or vamp. Then two stars came along and blasted away those stereotypes. Greta Garbo turned the femme fatale into a woman whose capacity for love and sacrifice made all other human emotions seem pale. Meanwhile, Norma Shearer succeeded in taking the ingenue to a place she'd never been: the bedroom. These complicated women paved the way for a deluge of…


Book cover of Women Scientists in Fifties Science Fiction Films

Natacha Guyot Why did I love this book?

To say I had high expectations of this book would be an understatement and it certainly delivered!

Although quite niche, this book gives us a detailed look into professional women and women scientists, among other roles, in 1950s Science Fiction B movies. 

Although we often believe that more recent films are more progressive, Noonan shows how even gender limitations in the 1950s still provided room for qualified women to shine in different scientific fields, both in traditional and pioneering roles. She also studies how women could have important roles at the periphery of science like computer operators or darkroom technicians.

By Bonnie Noonan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Women Scientists in Fifties Science Fiction Films as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book proposes that the social ideology of the 1950s, which was partly concerned with gender issues, saturated the ""B"" science fiction films of that era and inspired a new appreciation for the role of women in scientific advancements and other social achievements. Drawing on feminist literary and cultural theory, the author offers detailed, historically situated readings of 10 films and compares cinematic representations with real female professionals of the time.


Book cover of Women of Blaxploitation: How the Black Action Film Heroine Changed American Popular Culture

Natacha Guyot Why did I love this book?

This is the most comprehensive and thought-provoking book on women in Blaxploitation that I have read.

Sims provides a clear and structure analysis of how Blaxploitation came to be, how it tied into Black femininity and influenced the film industry. 

Sims analysis specific actresses who fronted Blaxploitation cinema such as Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson. She describes how American film needs more multifaceted African American characters following the decline of Blaxploitation and how the genre influenced mainstream action heroines like masculinized ones and mother warriors.

By Yvonne D. Sims,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Women of Blaxploitation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With the Civil Rights movement of the sixties fresh in their perspective, movie producers of the early 1970s began to make films aimed toward the underserved African American audience. Over the next five years or so, a number of cheaply made, so-called blaxploitation movies featured African American actresses in roles which broke traditional molds. Typically long on flash and violence but lacking in character depth and development, this genre nonetheless did a great deal toward redefining the perception of African American actresses, breaking traditional African American female stereotypes and laying the groundwork for later feminine action heroines. This critical study…


Book cover of Detecting Women: Gender and the Hollywood Detective Film

Natacha Guyot Why did I love this book?

This is a must-read if you are interested in women investigators in mainstream film, B movies, niche genres, or television.

Gates studies over 300 films and goes back to not only early cinema but even to 19th-century fiction that brought certain figures such as the sleuth, to the screen several decades later. 

By exploring the evolution of women detectives, Gates addresses various topics such as women in the workforce, intellectual women, age, race, and sexuality. This historical analysis played a key role in my research on Scully beyond the chapter on women criminalists such as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.

By Philippa Gates,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Detecting Women as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ambitious and comprehensive history of the female detective in Hollywood film from 1929 to 2009.


Book cover of Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film

Natacha Guyot Why did I love this book?

This book has been central to my research on women in Science Fiction although I am not a Horror fan.

Given how often women are thrown through gendered-based violence in different genres, Clover’s study brings many useful points for not only Horror itself, but also thrillers, action films, and Fantasy.

It investigates different facets of women’s representation and their fight against sexualized trials. My favorite chapters are those on the body in the slasher film, the discussion on women’s stories versus men’s stories, and the revenge narrative.

By Carol J. Clover,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Men, Women, and Chain Saws as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From its first publication in 1992, Men, Women, and Chain Saws has offered a groundbreaking perspective on the creativity and influence of horror cinema since the mid-1970s. Investigating the popularity of the low-budget tradition, Carol Clover looks in particular at slasher, occult, and rape-revenge films. Although such movies have been traditionally understood as offering only sadistic pleasures to their mostly male audiences, Clover demonstrates that they align spectators not with the male tormentor, but with the females tormented--notably the slasher movie's "final girls"--as they endure fear and degradation before rising to save themselves. The lesson was not lost on the…


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Thorn City

By Pamela Statz,

Book cover of Thorn City

Pamela Statz

New book alert!

What is my book about?

Dressed to kill and ready to make rent, best friends Lisa and Jamie work as “paid to party” girls at the Rose City Ripe for Disruption gala, a gathering of Portland's elite.

Their evening is derailed when Lisa stumbles across Ellen, a ruthless politician and Lisa’s estranged mother. And to make matters worse, Lisa’s boyfriend, Patrick, crashes the party to meet his new boss, Portland's food cart drug kingpin. Lisa makes a fateful choice that traps her, Jamie, and Patrick in Ellen’s web. In this gripping thriller, Lisa must reconcile a painful past and perilous present.

Thorn City

By Pamela Statz,

What is this book about?

Suspected murder, eclectic food trucks, and artisanal cocaine: just another day in Thorn City.

It’s the night of the Rose City Ripe for Disruption gala—a gathering of Portland’s elite. Dressed to kill in sparkling minidresses, best friends Lisa and Jamie attend as “paid to party” girls. They plan an evening of fake flirtations, karaoke playlists, and of course, grazing the catering.

Past and present collide when Lisa stumbles across Ellen, a ruthless politician who also happens to be Lisa’s estranged mother. Awkward . . . When Lisa was sixteen, Ellen had her kidnapped and taken to the Lost Lake Academy—a…


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