Women in Crime Films, and Why Female Leadership Should Be Celebrated

What does it mean to be a criminal? To run a heist? To shoot a gun? They’re not inherently gendered actions. Yet, criminal activities are traditionally associated with masculinity, and crime films usually star men. In decades past, women were on the sidelines, simply following orders from the men in charge. However, recently some leading women have shown up to change that.

Women are now taking over those traditional male roles in crime films as a recent subgenre has placed them in leadership roles, handling guns and planning heists and revenge themselves. Film studios haven’t made movies like this before, and it’s not surprising that themes of female ambition and leadership have crossed over into crime dramas, considering the recent push of women in powerful positions. These films further gender equality in a shocking fashion that adds new blood to the crime genre. Female leadership, after all, has its place in all aspects of the world, from politics to crime. Ambition in crime films is celebrated because few people could—or would—create a plan to perform such terrible acts; it’s admirable, in an awful way. These films are setting a higher bar for their audience. Female leadership and ambition should be celebrated for how creative and beautiful they can be, even in the wake of violence.

Jennifer Garner received praise for her 2018 role in the otherwise negatively reviewed Peppermint, in which she plays vigilante Riley North, plotting against the drug cartel leader who had her husband and daughter killed. Riley performs both terrible and wonderful actions in her quest for vengeance, even becoming a leader and a mother figure to others hurt by the cartel. That sacred state of motherhood is possibly why she is treated with more sympathy than expected by other characters; Riley is committing crimes for her own vengeance, something she would have never thought she could do before her family was killed. Riley learns how to use dangerous weapons, and no male friend or relative dives in to steal her glory. She is allowed to carry out the kills that rightfully belong to her, and it is a beautiful portrait of female-led vengeance and crime. Peppermint is a refreshing take on a subgenre that, at this point, still had room to grow. Riley is done being underestimated, and is ready to step up— this time, with violence.

Jennifer Garner holding a gun in 'Peppermint
Image courtesy of STX Films

Ocean’s 8, on the other hand, substantially lightens the tone for the characters and crime committed, as eight women use a diverse set of skills to pull off a jewel heist at the Met Gala. Leader Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) mentions that the reason for the heist is so girls who want to become criminals see that they can succeed. However, it should be noted that Ocean’s 8 may have gone too far in this direction— it makes crime look fun. Sure, the women have their own reasons for joining Debbie’s group, but the main reason is that robbing the Met Gala sounds like a good time. Their ambition is to prove they can pull off the heist, though the film frames it in a lighthearted, positive manner. The plans for the caper are on a broad scale, showing that women can handle something so serious and grand. This 2018 film also follows in the footsteps of three male-dominated prequels, making it even more important that this sequel exists. Ultimately, Ocean’s 8 shows that women in disparate fields can come together and pull off something extraordinary.

Sarah Paulson, Sandra Bullock, and Rihanna in 'Ocean's 8'.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Studios

2018’s Widows features four women undertaking their husbands’ previously failed heist to avenge them and get a crime boss off their backs. A hungrier, more desperate group of women is at work here, and director Steve McQueen allows these women their own complexity and character growth. Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) is unquestionably the leader, and undergoes the most obvious character development as she heals from her past grief. Veronica’s plan is nearly foiled by men, though she is able to take advantage of the situation and come out on top, bringing the rest of her team with her. Every member of the team is ambitious, striving to create better lives for themselves through criminal efforts. Ultimately, the women’s goal for the heist is to get the job done, and they achieve it, succeeding where their husbands failed. 

Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki in 'Widows'

The 2019 crime drama Hustlers showcases a pair of women who are ambitious enough to take whatever they can by whatever means necessary. The film follows Destiny (Constance Wu) and Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), strippers who create a series of hustles to squeeze money out of the rich men who work on Wall Street. Destiny and Ramona hustle for the sake of their families, making a living, and their own friendship. Neither was born into lives of crime, and they are good people torn down by unfortunate circumstances. Both women are ambitious enough, however, to seize their opportunity and wring it for all it’s worth. When Ramona gets cocky and changes the hustle, her relationship with Destiny starts to topple, bringing everything else down with it. Hustlers showcases female leaders succeeding in their criminal enterprise, even if only for a while.

Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu in 'Hustlers
Image courtesy of STX Films

Peppermint and Ocean’s 8, while both featuring women succeeding in their lives of crime, take radically different tactics in doing so. Peppermint, a gritty vigilante film, requires Riley to work on her own as the leader of her own enterprise, yearning for the one thing she can never have again— her family. Ocean’s 8 has a much lighter tone, with elements of true camaraderie and friendship as Debbie’s team of talented women take on different roles to succeed in pulling off their fun heist. Widows and Hustlers, meanwhile, fall more into line with Peppermint, as these women end up working in dangerous criminal enterprises because it is a step towards getting what they want. The illegality of crime doesn’t deter them, and they discover that, in the moment, they can become leaders. All of these women see their moment and chase it down, taking opportunities for themselves.

These prominent criminal activities, so long in the hands of men, are given new life with women at the helm, and expand the future of the crime genre. Widows and Hustlers bring a deeply human element to the trend, one that feels needed. They are darker, more realistic films that move the subgenre along. These women take matters into their own hands and generally succeed in where they want to go, even if they all started from a different place. When the rest of the world is conspiring against them, they keep pushing forward.

Women leading crime films is a trend that deserves to continue to grow. It allows the creation of more complex roles for women in film, as well as greater diversity. The current films in this subgenre have all done something different with the trend, and that allows the concept to breathe and change, based on the individual scenarios written for each. These films give full character arcs to women, which is writing and representation that is necessary. Though women ascend into powerful positions every day, in many ways women are still viewed as second-class citizens in the U.S. and throughout the world. People receive plenty of cues about how to think about society and gender roles from the media they consume, and giving women character arcs and development in films shows that they too have rich inner lives and ambitions that are worthy of exploration. Female leadership and ambition can be both beautiful and deadly, while still being necessary within and outside of the crime genre. Society, consider yourself doubly warned.