14 Iconic Women Share Their Most Badass Moments

Get ready for inspiration in spades.
By InStyle Staff
Jul 14, 2020 @ 9:00 am

Melissa McCarthy wears a damn mask, because "a badass sucks it up." Ava Duvernay bought not one but three buildings to house her production company and empower other POC and women creators in film and TV. Laura Dern gave birth — twice. Courteney Cox got a motorcycle and then crashed it. No matter your flavor of badassery, there's an example here to follow. Read on for 14 short essays on the moments and memories that made these Hollywood women feel their bravest, boldest, and most proud.

Credit: Curtis, circa 1994. Courtesy Fox Films

JAMIE LEE CURTIS

Three days before my 35th birthday, I was in the Florida Keys shooting the movie True Lies. There’s an exhilarating sequence where my character is trapped in a runaway limousine on a bridge that has been destroyed and my husband [played by Arnold Schwarzenegger] is in a helicopter, pulling me up. My brave stuntwoman, Donna Keegan, did the majority of the work, but for that scene I was wired to the helicopter, and the stuntman double [for Schwarzenegger] was wired to the skid. I flew that way for 20 minutes to the shoot location, with James Cameron, the director, filming from the passenger seat. We did a couple of takes and flew back as the sun was setting. As I was hanging there, I thought I was the luckiest girl in the world.

Credit: Union with Holly Shakoor Fleischer and Kian Gass. Photo: Courtesy

GABRIELLE UNION

I created my own production company, I'll Have Another, in 2018 to tell stories representative of those often ignored and to give marginalized voices a seat at the table.

Credit: Pfeiffer on the day she launched Henry Rose in 2019. Photo: Courtesy

MICHELLE PFEIFFER

The most badass thing I've done, hands down, is the creation of [perfume brand] Henry Rose. I knew absolutely nothing about running a company or how to make a fragrance. But I approached it in the same way I started my acting career at the age of 20. With zero connections in the film industry, I thought, "I'll just figure it out." I followed leads, starting with the Yellow Pages — seriously. But this time I was in my late 40s. I met with anyone who would meet with me.

When we finally launched, it was the month I turned 60. I remember saying, "I have got to get this launched before I turn 60!" I barely made it by three weeks. I literally and figuratively followed my nose every step of the way. For roughly 15 years it was mostly a series of dead ends and people telling me that truly clean fragrance couldn't be done. Nothing before or since has been more exhausting, challenging, or humbling. However, along the way, whenever I was ready to give up (and sometimes briefly did), I would meet someone who blew wind in my sails. Every single day has been a steep learning curve, but I figured it out. I'm proud to say... I'm proud.

Credit: Courtesy

MELISSA MCCARTHY

Being a badass is wearing your mask even though it may be uncomfortable and hot and your glasses fog up. A badass sucks it up because it's not just about protecting yourself. It's about protecting everyone. We're all in this together.

Credit: Courtesy

JUDITH LIGHT

In June of 1995, soon after my friend, the writer Paul Monette, passed away, I did the California AIDS Ride to honor him. It was a seven-day bike ride from San Francisco to L.A. and involved sleeping in a tent. I am not an athlete. I had little practice time as I was in Canada shooting a film. When I finished filming, I did Spin classes. Eventually, my husband, Robert, took me for a 72-mile round-trip ride from L.A. to Malibu; to say it was excruciatingly difficult is an understatement! Then another day, just before we were about to fly to San Francisco, I fell off the bike and fractured my shoulder. There were many days during the ride when I had to walk the bike up the hills; they were too steep, and I had little energy to climb on the bike in the heat. Each day, if you didn't make it in before dark, the organizers would do a sweep with a van that would pick you up and take you back to camp. I was determined to finish the ride every day and never go back to camp in the van. I never did. I was spurred on by the knowledge that there were others dealing with the difficulties of the virus and their challenges far exceeded my exhaustion or sore bottom. Not being a terribly brave or adventurous person, I chose to do the ride to raise money to support friends and others I didn't know — brave souls in the LGBTQIA+ community — who inspired me with their courage and resilience. I was surrounded by many other individuals who felt the same way. It was a family, and everyone was there to support everyone else. It is one of the proudest experiences of my life.

Credit: Courtesy

AVA DUVERNAY

The most badass thing I've ever done is purchase a three-building campus [for my company, Array] to call my own where I can write, produce, edit, distribute, and exhibit my work and the work of other filmmakers of color and female directors.

Credit: Courtesy

HILARY SWANK

The hatred and divisiveness in the world right now is incredibly daunting — especially if you're a minority voice. Given the state of things, the only relevant and appropriate badass behavior I can think of is to continue to use my voice to do whatever I can to help diminish racial inequality and ethnic hatred. May we all be badasses in this light.

Credit: Wright with kids from the Congo Peace School. Photo: Courtesy

ROBIN WRIGHT

In 2016 I took a big risk in the retail industry and co-founded [with designer Karen Fowler] Pour Les Femmes, a social-enterprise sleepwear company that gives back to women in conflict regions around the world. Through a partnership with the civil society group Action Kivu, a U.S. nonprofit, we've been able to contribute to the construction of the Congo Peace School in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; it will eventually serve 480 vulnerable children and orphans. We've also collaborated with Give Work, a workshop in Goma, in the country's eastern region, that employs 200 talented embroiderers and tailors. Our collection includes pieces that feature traditional Congolese details, a reminder to our consumers that they're helping to support these women and their communities.

Credit: Erivo performing at the Oscars earlier this year. Photo: Craig Sjodin/Getty

CYNTHIA ERIVO

I flew thousands of miles away from home to New York for a musical, The Color Purple, alone, with a couple of suitcases and very little in my bank account. It changed my life and continues to do so. I took a huge risk for a dream. I was petrified and unsure of how the show would go, and it paid off tenfold!

Credit: Sharif Hamza/Trunk Archive

REGINA KING

In 2005 we were in Maui for a dear friend's wedding. We had one day that didn't consist of wedding activities, so we decided to take a trip to swim at Puohokamoa Falls. It rained on the way there, but the sun was out by the time we reached the falls. There weren't a lot of people in the water, which we thought was strange for the weekend. Then my son, Ian, who was 9, noticed some people climbing rocks that led to the top of the waterfall. They jumped from the top, which was totally badass and a little scary. From down below it looked to be about 30 or 40 feet. Ian immediately said, "Let's do it, Mom!" I could practically hear my mom and stepdad, who were swimming too, thinking, "You betta not do it!" But after my son's pleading and watching what looked like a 6-year-old jump, I said, "Fuck it — why not?!"

As Ian and I climbed the rocks, we slipped and looked at each other like, "Maybe this wasn't a good idea." I was suddenly terrified and worried that I had put our lives in jeopardy but didn't want him to be scared. Also, climbing back down the slippery rocks didn't feel much safer.

So I did what any parent would do: I said a quick prayer and assured him that everything would be OK. We made it to the top, which felt even higher than it looked from below. My heart was pounding before we jumped, but it was exhilarating. Afterward, the first thing Ian said was, "I want to do it again but make it cool." If we wanted to go back home and brag about jumping off a cliff, we had to do it again with confidence. We had to do it with flair. So we did!

Credit: Dockery on the set of "Godless." Photo: Craig Sjodin/Getty

MICHELLE DOCKERY

Playing Alice Fletcher in Godless! Alice was an independent and aloof outcast in the Wild West who headed up a horse ranch with her mother-in-law and young son. Riding horses in New Mexico and spending time at cowboy camp [for the role] felt pretty badass.

Credit: Courtesy Honda

COURTENEY COX

Thirty years ago I did a Honda commercial. I loved motorcycles, especially the Rebel 250. As a part of my deal, they gave me a Shadow 650. I was a real badass as I rode it around Hollywood... until I got to La Cienega and Sunset Boulevard. And if you're not familiar with this intersection, it's a steep one. I was stopped at the red light on the hill. The bike was so heavy, I couldn't hold it up any longer, and I fell over. I went from badass to dumbass real quick.

Credit: Courtesy

LAURA DERN

In our family, badassness was always measured by art. A brave, boundaryless painter, actor, writer, director, architect... that was who was bold to me.

We may be brave as artists, but as a family we are not so badass when it comes to pain and can barely handle getting blood drawn, passing out even. But when my female body taught me that I can have a baby — despite the endless anticipation that it will hurt — it was honestly the coolest, most beautiful, empowering, and holy experience of my life. A human being! Two, in fact. I'm blessed that some kind of banshee took over and made me fearless while giving birth.

Motherhood is a beyond-remarkable badass act. It comes in so many varieties and is not defined by how our children make their way to us. That's the destined part.

The bravery of so many is also inspiring, including — my god — healthcare workers and providers, as well as those who use their voice in peaceful protest against injustice. Immeasurable in our book. The most badass of all.

Credit: Courtesy

PATRICIA CLARKSON

In 2019 I was chosen to helm the Krewe of Muses' Mardi Gras parade as the Queen of Muses. Horrific rainstorms had been pouring down all day and threatened to cancel the event. Since the weather can change on a dime in New Orleans, we were at the ready, waiting with bated breath. As the clouds magically parted just in the nick of time, I led over 1,100 joyous women and approximately 30 floats through the streets of my hometown. The best part was that all the women in that organization were the true badasses — they pride themselves on philanthropic works and represent the best of our city. At the end of the day, guess who performed? Pat Benatar. Come on, let's talk badass.