The Evolution of Iconic Roles: Tracing the Careers of Hollywood’s Most Influential Actresses


Hollywood has grown to become the world’s film capital. Before the rise of social media and the popularity of reality television, people turned to Hollywood movies for entertainment. As a result, hundreds of thousands of white and non-white men and women have graced its movies as lead or background performers.

Over the years, many actresses have become famous and earned top ratings. Some all-time Hollywood actresses include Angelina Jolie, Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Scarlett Johansson, etc. These female actors have starred in numerous roles and risen to the top of their careers. Aside from featuring in most successful movies, people and media rate these actresses based on their quirky personalities, superb styles, humbleness, aura, positivity, red-carpet appearances, community service, and talk shows.

Although the Golden Age of Hollywood is famous for its glamour and classic movies, the film industry is marred with severe gender inequality. The period between 1910 and 2010, also known as Golden Age, was not the best for women because their number was significantly low. Today, female representation in this industry has changed even though the figure is not at its best.

This article explores the progress that women have made and their role in top-grossing films and in shaping the culture.

The Role of Women in Hollywood

The film industry has several genres, including adventure, action, horror, thriller, comedy, biography, drama, crime, fantasy, documentary family, romance, mystery, history, film-noir, sci-fi, war, musical, music, sport, Western and short. From 1910 until now, the roles that women have played are below 50%.

As a matter of fact, the female protagonists in most films in 2022 were just 33%, and 80% of the movie had more male characters. These statistics show that there has been inequality in America’s entertainment hub since the 1900s. In fact, since Hollywood’s installation, people have faced discrimination in the form of age, race, gender, pay, etc.

Gender Inequality in Hollywood

Gender inequality in the film industry has been a long-established issue. It’s an issue that affects how women are perceived compared to men in the same industry. Here is how gender inequality is manifested in Hollywood.

·         Pay Gap

There is a considerable wage gap between male and female actors. For instance, the New York Film Academy survey conducted in 2014 revealed that the top ten actors collectively earned $419 million while the top 10 actresses made $226 million collectively. The 2017 Forbes article reported that Mark Wahlberg was the highest-paid actor who took home $68 million, while Emma Stone, the highest-paid actress, earned $26 million. As a result, she was the 15th out of the 30 highest-paid actors that year. Melissa McCarthy was the 4th highest actress and tied with Chris Evans, the 21st highest-paid actor. Both earned $18 million despite their rankings.

Gaps in the allocation of major roles were also reported in the 2017 report. For instance, of the top 100 movies, only 7.3% were female directors, while 92.7% were males. Such differences increase the gender gap in earnings because there are more male directors than female directors.

·         Opportunities

Gender affects the opportunities that women get in Hollywood. For instance, films with female directors tend to have more female screenwriters and characters on screen and vice versa. Usually, there are fewer female employees in the larger department, like visual effects. Music, camera, and electrical tasks are primarily assigned to male employees.

The 2020 Golden Globe Awards had no female directors, while the Oscars had no female in the best director category. Part of the reason is that the gender of the person behind the scene determines the level of equality on screen. Because of that, there are more women characters in a movie with at least one female writer and director.

Another reason men have a wider choice of employment opportunities in Hollywood is that they can work regularly and extended hours. They can also work on nearly all genres, while women participate more in romance. In such a genre, the female-speaking characters wear sexually revealing clothes more than their male counterparts. This happens because women are considered to have pretty faces and nice bodies; however, they’re more than that.

Therefore, the film industry should expand women’s roles in their movies. This will reduce their underrepresentation in producer and studio executive ranks. After all, the world population is 49% women, and stereotyping female characters means losing out on nearly 50% of the world’s brain power.

Top 20 Most Popular Actresses

Marilyn Monroe

The list of Hollywood actresses is long, but their ratings change like seasons. Most popular female actors have starred in several biggest movies. Apart from playing numerous roles in these films, they have maintained a top position in their class throughout their careers.

Some legends that have never gone down include Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren, and Meryl Streep. The 2010s female celebs include Emma Stone and Margot Robbie. Their names appear in the most popular female actors’ lists because of their most successful movies, red-carpet appearances, personalities, superb styles, and much more.

Here is the list of the top 20 actresses in Hollywood, the roles they portrayed in various movies, and their passion and activities outside acting:

Anne Hathaway: The actress appears in the 2010s highest-paid Hollywood celebs and most famous actresses list. Anne Hathaway was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 12, 1982, and began acting as a teenager. The actress was included in an Academy Awards and won several awards. Initially, Hathaway played the role of a princess but gradually diversified as her career progressed. She is loved and praised for her role in movies such as The Intern, The Dark Knight Rises, The Princess Diaries, The Intern, and Colossal. She is famous for campaigning for gender equality and also supports LGBTQA+.

Anya Taylor-Joy: The Argentine-British actress was born in Miami, Florida, on April 26, 1996. At 16, Taylor-Joy left school to pursue an acting career and train in ballet dancing. Her role in The Witch helped her gain international fame. Also, her modeling career has allowed her to venture into acting, where she plays crucial roles in TV series and films. You can find Anya Taylor-Joy in movies such as The Menu, The Northman, The Witch, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, and The Queen’s Gambit: Miniseries.

Angeline Jolie: The highly noted Hollywood celeb was born in Los Angeles, California, on June 4, 1975, and won Oscar in 2000. She has appeared in movies such as Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Salt, Girl, Interrupted, Changeling, etc. Apart from being a fashion icon, Jolie is famous for her special representative role in UNHCR and influential humanitarian activities. She is a mother of six, out of which she has adopted three, and her philanthropic efforts and powerful performances are applauded globally.

Drew Barrymore: The actress is John Drew Barrymore – a prominent actor- daughter. She was born in Culver City on February 22, 1975, and got acquainted with the film industry as a baby. Drew Barrymore has grown to become a successful actress, director, and producer. As a teenager, the actress struggled with drug abuse but managed to resurrect her acting career after rehab. Some popular movies Barrymore has featured are Poison Ivy, Fever Pitch, Never Been Kissed, Charlie’s Angels, and 50 First Dates.

Elizabeth Olsen: The actress was born in Los Angeles, California, on February 16, 1989. As an enthusiastic child, Elizabeth Olsen became a child actress and received singing and ballet lessons at the same time. She trained at New York University Tisch School of the Arts, which successfully helped her establish herself as a top actress. For instance, Olsen became famous after appearing as Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, in the iconic movies Avengers: Endgame and Wanda Vision. Her other films include Wind River, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Captain America: Civil War, and Ingrid Goes West.

Emily Blunt: The Hollywood actress was born in London, England, on February 23, 1983. Apart from appearing in the list of the ‘Most Desired and ‘Sexiest’ women globally, the British-born Hollywood female actor is a badass, a total bomb, and an A-lister. For instance, Blunt appeared in The Devil Wears Prada, where her excellent performance captured the love and attention of her audience. Interestingly, she appeared on the scene with famous old Hollywood actresses Meryl Streep as well as the superb Anne Hathaway. But viewers love her for her excellent dialogues, delivery, bitch-y expression, and scene-stealing appearance. Emily Blunt is a mother to two daughters and a loving wife to John Krasinski. Apart from The Devil Wears Prada, Blunt has appeared in renowned movies such as Edge of Tomorrow, Into The Woods, A Quiet Place, Sicario, etc.

Emma Watson: The model, actress, and activist was born in Paris, France, on April 15, 1990. Emma Watson began acting as a child when she portrayed Hermoine Granger in the Harry Potter film series. Despite her busy acting career, the English actress completed her college education and graduated from Brown University. She is passionate about women’s empowerment and works with any organization with the goal of pushing women in tech as well as other areas of endeavor. Emma Watson played an iconic role in Harry Potter, Little Women, Noah, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Beauty and The Beast.

Jennifer Lawrence: The immensely talented female actor was born in Indian Hills, Kentucky, on August 15, 1990. She gained popularity as a teenage actor when she made her debut on TV. Lawrence is tremendously recognized for her role in a TV series, The Bill Engvall Show, and a movie, The Poker House. This successful actress played an iconic role in films such as Don’t Look Up, Monk, The Hunger Games, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – part 2, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and much more. She also won Oscar for Silver Lining Playbooks. Currently, Jennifer Lawrence supports various charitable causes.

Julia Roberts: The actress was born in Smyrna, George, on October 28, 1967. Her lead role in Pretty Woman, a 1990 American romantic comedy, helped her to rise to recognition. Further, with her excellent performance in 2000, Erin Brockovich won the Academy Award for best actress. She was featured in movies such as Pretty Woman, Erin Brockovich, Notting Hill, Mystic Pizza, and My Best Friend’s Wedding. Besides acting, the American actress runs the production company, Red Om Films, served as Lancôme’s global ambassador since 2009, and People Magazine has named her five times the most beautiful woman in the world.

Kate Winslet: The actress was born on October 5, 1975, in Reading, Berkshire. The British actress was raised in a family of actors. Because of that inspiration, she made her first screen appearance at 15 when she played a role in Dark Season, a British TV series. She has played different roles in movies such as Titanic, Avatar: The Way of Water, Eleven Days in May, Ammonite, The Dressmaker, and more. Kate Winslet supports several charities and causes.

Lupita Nyong’o: The actress was born in Mexico City, Mexico, on March 1, 1983. The Kenyan-Mexican actress had a breakthrough when she played the role of Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. Her role in this film helped her gain recognition and win an Oscar award. Nyong’o has played different roles in great movies such as Queen of Katwe, Black Panther, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, The Jungle Book, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, etc. Other than acting, Lupita Nyong’o supports anti-poaching campaigns and serves as Michael Kors’ ambassador for the “Watch Hunger Stop” campaign.

Marilyn Monroe: The legendary model, actress, singer, and comedian was born on June 1, 1926, in Los Angeles, California. The American actress rose to fame in the 50s and 60s because of her extensive sex symbol in movies. However, from the beginning of her career, Marilyn Monroe experienced controversies, hardships, and struggles in her personal and professional life. Her top five movies are The Misfits, The Seven Year Itch, Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Some Like It Hot.

Meryl Streep: The most famous Hollywood female actor, was born in Summit, New Jersey, on June 22, 1949. Indeed Meryl Streep is one of the best actresses who has built an unwavering reputation by playing various roles and challenging characters in dramatic films. Throughout her over a half-a-century acting career, the American most acclaimed actress of all time has been nominated 21 times in the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories. Out of these nominations, she won 3 times. Meryl Streep played a role in movies such as The Devil Wears Prada, Sophie’s Choice, The Hours, The House of the Spirits, and Before and After, among others.

Reese Witherspoon: The acclaimed actress was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on March 22, 1976. She rose to fame and recognition when she acted in the Legally Blonde film. Witherspoon also worked in several TV shows and movies, as well as topped the list of the highest-paid Hollywood female actors. She acted in iconic movies like Sweet Home Alabama, This Means War, Home Again, Your Place or Mine, and Legally Blonde. Besides acting, the world’s most bankable female star owns a production company.

Sandra Bullock: The world’s highest-paid actress was born on July 26, 1964, in Arlington County, Virginia. Sandra Bullock has bagged several accolades, the prestigious Academy Award included. The American actress became more famous in the 90s after her debut in the late 80s. Bullock owns a production company known as Fortis Film. She has produced and appeared in multiple movies, including Miss Congeniality, Bird Box, The Proposal, Two Weeks’ Notice, Ocean’s Eight, etc. She owned Bess Bistro, a restaurant located on West 6th Street, Austin, Texas, that closed on September 20, 2015, and an upscale restaurant and floral shop, Walton’s Fancy and Staple. Bullock also supports American Red Cross.

Scarlett Johansson: This award-winning, gorgeous, and highest-paid actress was born in Manhattan, New York, on November 22, 1984. Johansson began acting at the age of eight and has bagged various roles since then. She has worked on TV, released her album, and played iconic roles in Hollywood movies. Some include Lucy, Don Jon, The Avengers, He’s Just Not That Into You, Iron Man 2, etc.

Shailene Woodley: The Hollywood celeb was born in Miami, Florida, on April 26, 1996. At age four, Woodley became a child model and TV star at eight years old. Starting her acting career that early helped her rise to fame and gain recognition. At the start, she was featured in The Descendants, The Spectacular Now, and the Divergent film series. This award-winning actress continued to love her work and participated in an HBO series, Big Little Lies and The Fault in Our Stars, a sensational movie. Besides acting, Shailene Woodley is also an environmentalist and activist.

Viola Davis: The actress and producer was born in Saint Mathews, South Caroline, on August 11, 1965. In 2020, Davis was named by The New York Times as the ninth greatest female actor of the 21st century. In 2012 and 2017, Time listed her among the 100 most influential people in the world. Viola Davis has worked tirelessly throughout her acting career, which enabled her to steal the show. She played different roles in great movies such as Doubt, Widows, Fences, The Suicide Squad, The Woman King, etc. When she is not on the screen, Davis supports organizations working towards eradicating childhood hunger. She has partnered with Vaseline, where she helps promote the Vaseline Healing Project.

Zendaya Maree Stoermer Coleman: The famous actress and singer was born in Oakland, California, on September 1, 1996. She began her career in the entertainment industry as a runway model and trained in various dances. During her singing career, Coleman has released one studio album and several singles. Her role in a Disney Channel sitcom, Shake It Up, helped her gain immense global recognition and praise. She also supports the Black Lives Matter movement and identifies herself as a proud feminist. The actress has been featured in movies such as The Greatest Showman, Euphoria, Dune, Dune: Part Two, and more.

Zoe Saldana: The actress was born in Passaic, New Jersey, on June 19, 1978. She became famous after starring in gigantic blockbusters and global hits like Avatar, Avengers: Endgame, Avengers: Infinity War, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Star Trek. However, viewers were not impressed by her wearing skin-darkening makeup in the biopic Nina where she portrayed Nina Simone, a jazz musician. In fact, the incident caused a huge debate regarding color bias in the Hollywood industry and society.

Other greatest screen legends include Katharine Hepburn, Betty White, Alexandra Daddario, Frances McDormand, Jamie Curtis Lee, Shirley Temple, and Jennifer Aniston.

How the Hollywood Actresses are Shaping Culture

As mentioned above, there has been a huge gender gap in the film industry. In fact, it was until recently that the representation of female protagonists in iconic movies ticked up slightly. As of 2020, the leading number of women in Hollywood rose to 31%. The percentage shows that there are more male actors, directors, and producers than females.

For a long time, movie producers have considered the effect of leading women in shaping the culture. Thankfully, they have provided the answer in the 2021 highest-grossing female-led movies such as The Protégé, Gunpowder Milkshake, and Black Widow.

Seeing women play such prominent roles is helping women in various including:

·         Inspires Women from Marginalized Communities

Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) women want to become just like the actresses they watch in Hollywood movies. Actually, they want their own experiences to reflect the achievements that these female actors have made.

Although these characters are not real, the screen appearance motivates viewers to change their circumstances. They’re indeed their heroine, which greatly helps to eliminate the feeling of being marginalized by gender identity, sexuality, race, class, or religion.

·         Break the Stereotypes and Take the Leading Roles

The world gets inspired when Hollywood gives female actors leading roles in iconic movies. Indeed their appearance in such films encourages women to become leading figures in real life, societies, and neighborhoods. It pushes them to break the stereotypes and take up a leading role just like their male counterparts.

The mentality shift, particularly in disadvantaged communities, helps more women and girls to come out on top. It inspires them to fight for leadership roles in their communities, thus becoming leading women.

·         Exposes and Fights Inequality in Society

The golden age of Hollywood was a difficult period for women actors in the film industry. During this period, male actors were well paid, appreciated, and had numerous opportunities, unlike women. The earlier movies that featured women also exposed the stereotype by depicting women, particularly from the BIPOC community, as marginalized, abused, oppressed, and submissive.

However, by 2022, things started to change, although gender parity hasn’t been achieved yet. Movies depicting women as conquering, powerful, and self-sufficient have helped expose and fight societal inequality. The films have transformed women’s minds and hearts by showing them that it’s possible and they should strive to do it. After all, pictures are powerful and have changed modern women from viewing themselves as victims to being victors.

Even though the cultural landscape has changed, there is still room for improvement. There is a need for more women to lead in political positions, industries, tech, and societies because not every woman or girl will end up in Hollywood.

Purity Muriuki
I'm a passionate full-time blogger. I love writing about startups, technology, health, lifestyle, fitness, electronics, social media marketing and much more. Continue reading my articles for more insight.


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