Some of the common mafia film tropes include dominating male characters, romanticization of the life of crime, subservient women, and wise guy narratives. Women are rarely shown as formidable or as more than sidepieces to be tossed around. They are either dull housewives, heartbroken mothers, broken widows, trophy wives, or miserable mistresses. However, despite being outnumbered by men throughout this subgenre, certain ladies have played key roles in mafia films, rising to become memorable characters. Despite its low reviews and flaws, the 2023 action-comedy Mafia Mamma is one of such films that hilariously defies the conventional mafia movie tropes.
While some women in this list bravely embraced the role of molls in organized crime, others are stereotypical portrayals of women who, nonetheless, distinguished themselves by giving voice to these women’s challenges and wants, as Carmela Soprano, Mia Wallace, and others did. They demonstrated that women are not mere symbols with negligible impact in the genre; rather, their roles have the power to drive the plot forward. Each of these women brings her own distinct qualities and complexities to these stories, enriching the genre with their presence.
10Grace Faraday — Gangster Squad (2013)
In this crime drama, Emma Stone takes on the role of the girlfriend of a mobster (Sean Penn) who betrays him after falling in love with Sergeant Wooters played by Ryan Goslin. While Grace isn’t much of tough character, she possesses a certain level of cunning that helps her navigate the dangerous world she’s a part of. Since Gangster Squad is a story about the fight between the police and a deadly mob, Grace simply serves as a link between the two worlds.
Although Grace Faraday in the film had little character development, she played a pivotal role as a catalyst for conflict. During her limited time on screen, Stone’s performance of Grace was alluring and charming too.
9Ginger McKenna — Casino (1995)
Directed by Martin Scorsese, this 1995 gangster film presents one of the best women characters in mobster films Ginger, played Sharon Stone. Through her exceptional acting, Sharon Stone recreates the tragic story of Gerri McGee Rosenthal, the inspiration behind Ginger, earning her an Academy Award nomination for best Actress. This high price call-girl’s descent into drug addiction sheds light on the unfortunate fate that befalls some women entangled with these men.
Ginger’s character in Casino defies the stereotype of the heartbroken wife typically seen in gangster films. She is manipulative, vain, irresponsible, and rebellious, showcasing that women in this world can be street-smart hustlers just like their male counterparts. However, her downfall is primarily driven by her drug addiction, infidelity, and questionable choices. The complex nature and actions of this alluring, but irredeemable character contributed to the overall impact of the film.
8Mia Wallace — Pulp Fiction (1994)
Uma Thurman’s as Mia Wallace is regarded as one of her most iconic roles. As the femme fatale in Pulp Fiction, she effortlessly radiates a captivating mix of confidence, elegance, charm, wit, and vulnerability. Without her story, this crime drama directed by Quentin Tarantino wouldn’t have achieved the same profound impact it has.
As the wife of the powerful gangster Ving Rhames, Mia Wallace battles with the challenges of being part of organized crime and the accompanying battle against drug addiction. From her unforgettable dance sequence to the impactful dinner scene with her husband’s hitman, Mia Wallace consistently proves her pivotal role in driving the storyline forward.
7Elvira Hancock — Scarface (1983)
With her deadpan expression and impeccable fashion sense, Elvira manages to keep not just Tony spellbound but also the audience. While her story is filled with sorrow, her character gives voice to the hardships endured by women involved in organized crime. Before slowly giving into her drug addiction, Elvira was just as interesting a character as Tony was.
Her beauty and glamour was a nice part of the film that lightened the constant show of brutality in the rest of Scarface. Elvira’s character adds emotional depth and contributes to the exploration of the corrupting effect of power. Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance effectively captures Elvira’s emotional journey, her internal struggle between her desires and the reality of her situation. Pfeiffer’s portrayal of this ice queen is nothing short of epic.
6Karen Hill — Goodfellas (1990)
Unlike most women characters in mafia films, Karen Hill undergoes significant transformation throughout this film. At the beginning she is portrayed as an innocent bystander but as the story progresses the viewers witness her active involvement in criminal activities. Karen Hill may be one of the few depictions of powerful female characters in mafia films.
Loraine Bracco’s portrayal of this formidable mafia queen emphasizes that women are not exempt from the perils of organized crime. However, despite the dangers Karen Hill is exposed to, she remains a strong and resolute character throughout the film. This depiction in Goodfellas highlights Martin Scorsese’s keen awareness and empathy towards the women in his narratives.
5Carmela Soprano — The Sopranos (1999)
The Sopranos is widely regarded as a classic series, not just for its masterfully crafted mafia storyline but also because of its compelling character development. The show goes beyond glorifying criminal activities and delves into the emotional complexities and inner demons that accompany such a lifestyle. Tony Soprano isn’t the sole bearer of this burden; his wife Carmela vividly portrays the brutality and trauma that arise from being married to a mobster.
While Carmela may be perceived as a sad housewife, her character in The Sopranos gives a voice to the narratives of neglected and heartbroken mob wives. Edie Falco delivers a superb performance in portraying Carmela’s struggles and the challenging realization of seeing a loved one for who they truly are. Her constant moral dilemma as the wife of a Mafia member provides a realistic portrayal of women entangled in the world of organized crime.
4Virginia Hill — Bugsy (1991)
Amidst the captivating array of characters in the film is Virginia Hill, a movie star who becomes entangled with the notorious Los Angeles gangster, Bugsy. Annette Bening’s exceptional portrayal of this strong-willed female mobster is so compelling that many consider it Oscar-worthy. Being the girlfriend of one of the most influential American mobsters, and potentially even being linked to his demise, is no small feat. Nevertheless, Virginia manages to assert herself as a lady boss, navigating the complexities of her situation with resilience and determination.
AlthoughBugsy may not provide a wholly accurate depiction of Bugsy Siegel’s life, the film does capture the significance of Virginia Hill in his story and the influence she exerted on his criminal endeavors and personal affairs. Bening’s electrifying chemistry with Warren Beatty contributes to the intensity of their relationship on-screen.
3Connie Corleone — The Godfather (1972-1990)
In the mafia movie franchise, The Godfather, it’s not just the male members of the powerful family who take center stage; Connie Corleone, the daughter of Vito Corleone, emerges as an equally significant character, adding depth to the narrative. Talia Shire’s outstanding portrayal brings this character to life, allowing for the exploration of themes such as sacrifice, loyalty, abuse, and the destructive nature of the mafia lifestyle.
Initially depicted as a bratty and naive young woman overshadowed by her overprotective brothers, Connie undergoes a remarkable transformation throughout the story. She evolves into a clever and astute individual who knows how to play the game. As she matures, Connie becomes a formidable woman, displaying unwavering loyalty to her family until the very end. While she may not be part of the mob business, she is nonetheless affected deeply by the consequences of her family’s actions.
2Jean — I’m Your Woman (2020)
Directed by Julia Hart, I’m Your Woman revolves around the story of Jean (Rachel Brosnahan), a woman who gets entangled in to a dangerous world after her husband becomes involved in criminal activities. Jean may have first been portrayed as a damsel in need of saving but when she realizes the dangers that await her daughter in the treacherous world of crime, she begins to make tough decisions.
Brosnahan effectively portrays the vulnerability, strength and growth that Jean undergoes throughout the film. Her resilience and determination as she adapts to her new circumstances shows that a woman and a mother can certainly be a formidable leader of a gang.
1Peggy Sheeran — The Irishman (2019)
Lucia Gallina and Anna Paquin play the younger and adult versions of Peggy Sheeran, the daughter of Frank Sheeran in The Irishman. Although her role was quite a minor one, it had a great impact on the movies and sparked a lot of conversations due to her limited dialogue. Peggy’s character conveyed the internal conflict and turmoil experienced by a child who has a father deeply involved in organized crime.
This quiet and observant girl becomes increasingly distant from her father as the story progresses, underscoring the film’s resounding message that violence never pays. Frank and Peggy’s estranged relationship is a minor but important sub-plot that adds to the depth of the story. With her poignant portrayal, Peggy Sheeran emerges one of the most memorable women characters in mafia films.