Features / International Women's Day

From Patti and Selma Bouvier to the mum from About a Boy, Liv Siddall on the unsung heroines of pop culture

Let it be known that whittling down a long list of unsung heroines was painfully difficult. Like ants, you may not see unsung heroines in plain sight but when you look closely, there are bloody thousands of them.

I’ll put my hands up and say this list is quite revealing of my own interests (watching TV, reading IMDB at 2am) but I would like anyone reading this to take some time to ponder over their own unsung heroines. Well-known names aside, what about that dinner lady at school who would always give you an extra Yorkshire pudding? The landlady in the pub who only hires women to work behind the bar and regularly turfs out mouthy suits by the scruff of their necks? Your sister’s best mate. Literally all mums.

Most of the unsung heroines in this list have a tendency to be bystanders, observers. The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern characters of life. Integral to the plot without taking centre stage. The person who is the subtle social lubricant on a group holiday. The person with whom you could exchange a knowing glance with across a room. An all-seeing eye, waiting wisely in the wings. Sometimes I think of the writer’s room during the making of TV shows and imagine how much fun they would all have had in the creation of the supporting roles, devoid of the pressure that comes with the necessary character development of the lead. Just inventing fantastic people for the fun of it.

So here you have it: a spotlight shone on eight unsung heroines, fictional and IRL. Don’t forget to check out the “honorable mentions” section at the end.

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Mags Thompson: The Woman Who Went to Every Single Wetherspoons

Unless you’re Wetherspoons founder Tim Martin (hi Tim, if you’re reading this), you may not have stepped inside more than, say, 20 different ‘Spoons. However many Wetherspoons establishments you have popped into for a quick beer and gourmet burger combo, it probably won’t be as many as Mags Thompson. Mags was just about to complete a mission to visit every single Wetherspoons in the UK (airports included) with her husband Ian, when he suddenly, sadly passed away.

According to the BBC, Mags and Tim’s adventure began in Reading station, which they were visiting because of Ian’s passion for railways. Mags became bored with viewing the station and decided to wander to the local Wetherspoons. Following her in, Ian’s passion for railways soon became a passion for Wetherspoons. They put together a list of all of the branches across the nation and began a new project, which would see them dedicate their lives to visiting every Wetherspoons in the country. A new level of thrill became apparent as new branches would continue to pop up, and older branches would close. After Ian passed away there were still uncharted ‘Spoons to visit on their list. Rather than give up, Mags decided to continue their quest in honour of her late partner.

Toni Collette as Fiona Brewer in About a Boy

Fiona Brewer is Marcus’ earthy, suicidal mother in the 2002 film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s book About a Boy. It is one of Toni Collette’s best performances: a lot of this down to the costume department and set designers on About a Boy who should have won Oscars for their work on Fiona’s character. She wears Samaritans T-shirts that say “Stamp Out Torture”, she likes to pair a Parka with a mirror-detailed shawl/tablecloth from the Far East, or a twin-peaked boiled wool hat that may or may not have been bought off a stall at WOMAD. The interior of her house complements her wardrobe choices.

She’s a heroine because her character is slightly irritating and you’d maybe avoid sitting near her at a dinner party (sorry) in case she lectured you about tofu or socio-political crises, but she manages to totally carry it off. She’s a kind, musical, independent woman who stands by her beliefs, fights for a free world, believes that she can successfully raise her son without a man around, and genuinely doesn’t care what people think of her. And she visibly (or audibly) turns her nose up at obnoxious displays of wealth, something we probably all wish we could do but never quite have the balls to.

Cecilia Giménez: The woman who botched the 19th Century Spanish fresco

In 2012, news broke of an elderly woman who repainted a damaged fresco by 19th Century painter Elías García Martínez, after independently deciding it needed a little tszujing-up. The potatoey, monkeyish face she painted over the original emotive face of Christ became an internet sensation because, quite frankly, it’s shit. The painting became so popular to tourists in the wake of her amateur refurb that the church upped its entry price, to which she responded by asking for a commission.

In 2012, The Telegraph called Cecilia “arguably the most well-known living artist in Spain”. In 2015, Cecilia gave her permission for the entire fiasco to be turned into an opera. “When you work in art, your name is everything. And now the name Cecilia Giménez is known,” she told The Guardian in 2015. “Before all this, my paintings used to sell for low prices, say €500 or €1,000 apiece. Now I’ve been able to sell a few of my pieces for more. I won’t tell you how much – but let’s just say that it was a good price for me.” YES CECILIA! Make that lemonade.

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Parminder Nagra as Jess Bhamra in Bend it Like Beckham

The moment when Jess Bhamra boshes a free kick over a wall of gesticulating family members, smashing the ball into the back of the net just as Pavarotti reaches the climax of Nessun Dorma, has to be one of the most goosebump-inducing moments in cinematic history.

It should come as no surprise that Jess is in this list. She sticks to her guns and defies the path set out for her (marriage) in a bid to follow her dreams (to bend a ball like Beckham), while always trying desperately not to hurt her family and to do the right thing. There are so many moments during the film when you see Jess and want to shout “LEGEND!” like when she buys the cheap, shitty wedding shoes so she can spend the rest of the dough on some shiny football boots. Or when she has to take her football posters down from her room in preparation for her sister’s wedding and you realise she has actually mounted a large photo of David Beckham’s moon-like face on to stiff board above her bed as a mark of respect. That, my friend, is integrity.

Artist Margaret Kilgallen

You can see wiry, gamine Margaret Kilgallen with her hair clip, dusty jacket and ribbon tied around her neck in a couple of videos online about the art community in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 90s. Back then the skateboarding, surfing Margaret was in love with a fellow artist called Barry McGee. The pair of them can be seen wandering between sleeping or disused trains, searching for things to paint on.

Margaret was obsessed with drawing and painting: famously fascinated with anything that would “show the evidence of the human hand”. Her heroism stems from her attitude to life and her absolutely joyous work, which often celebrated underrepresented women (often seen smoking, drinking or brawling). They were depicted in block colours, surrounded by symbols and typography tied to American folklore. She dedicated her life to mark-making, community and craft. When a heavily pregnant Margaret was putting together her biggest art show to date, she found out she had cancer. Within a few weeks of giving birth to her daughter, Asha, Margaret died. It was a huge blow to the art world. You can read about Margaret and her story over here on The New Yorker.

The heroines of early to mid-noughties guitar-led power-pop music videos

As an impressionable teen, the guitar-led, punch-packing, early noughties pop-punk of Avril Lavigne, Stacey Orrico (honourable mention to JoJo, Kelly Clarkson and Hilary Duff) spoke directly to the melancholy tomboy hearts of teenagers worldwide.

Their impossibly high-budget music videos (particularly Sk8er Boi with its hundreds of extras and police helicopter) taught us important life lessons. Stacey Orrico’s video for Stuck set an important precedent that someone rich and sporty does not necessarily a good life partner make. Avril ending up with the Sk8er Boi suggested that one day personality would prevail over looks. More importantly, videos in this era showed it was okay to express yourself with your wardrobe, and that a lot can be said just by wearing one’s school tie on the weekends over a t-shirt, or experimenting with studded sweatbands on your wrist. Both Stacey and Avril (and shoutout to Kirsten Dunst’s character in the EPIC 2001 teen drama Crazy Beautiful) epitomised an era-defining tomboy femininity that many of us find ourselves trying to recreate today.

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Patricia Allison as Ola Nyman from Sex Education

Netflix’s new(ish) high school series Sex Education (if you haven’t seen it, get with the programme) totally lit up when Ola arrived on-screen. What a character. By day, she’s aspiring to get into Moordale: a fictional senior school that is like a co-ed St Trinians if they nicked the uniforms from Rydell High. Then, after school, she drives her sexy Dad around to his plumbing jobs, sometimes donning the boiler suit herself and getting to work on a burst pipe. When she turned up wearing a tux to pick up the show’s lead, Otis, for the school prom and later KILLED it on the dancefloor, alone, when he was too scared to dance, you just want to be her so badly it hurts.

Patti and Selma Bouvier

Odd that in The Simpsons, Marge’s misanthropic sisters Patti and Selma Bouvier are painted as somewhat undesirable. What’s not to love about two middle-aged twins who live together with an iguana called Jub-Jub in a block of flats called “Spinster City Apartments”? Sure they’ve got breath of a thousand fags and humour drier than Ghandi’s flip flops, but it’s wrong that we are encouraged to feel sympathy for the sisters, when actually we should be celebrating them. The husky pair have deep passions (watching MacGyver and smoking cigarettes), they don’t bother shaving their legs, they work for the money not The Man, and don’t conform to traditional aspirational pressures. They’re horny, hungry, give-a-shit rebels.

They’re also very loyal to one another. When Patti falls head over heels in love for the first time (with Principal Skinner) she turns his proposal down rather than face a life without Selma. Patti later comes out as a lesbian. Selma, meanwhile, has been married six times and counting.

If you were going to spend a weekend with any of the characters in Springfield, you’d be wise to choose Patti and Selma. Re-runs of MacGyver, trips to the casino, furiously masturbating and smoking cigarettes – maybe simultaneously. Heaven.

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Honorable Mentions

Shout out to Tia and Tamera from Sister Sister. Caroline Quentin in Jonathan Creek. The woman David Brent brings to the office Christmas party in the Christmas special. Malia Obama. Maud Lewis. The woman who offers a tearful Marianne some olives in Sense and Sensibility. Daria. Alison Janney’s character in Drop Dead Gorgeous. Tracy Beaker. Saphy in Ab Fab. Vivian Banks in The Fresh Prince. Miss Honey in Matilda.

Illustrations by Sara Andreasson.