I love movies. Obviously. But they’re far from perfect.
One of the most annoyingly frequent things I encounter in films is a terrible representation of women. Women in film almost always exist only in relation to the main male character: his lover, wife, sister, daughter or mother.
Slowly and painfully, we see signs of this improving (though the numbers of female-to-male roles remains dismal). At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Sofia Coppola became the second woman in its history to win the Best Director Award, Nicole Kidman was honored with a special award for appearing in four of the films opening at the festival, and there were other female-won awards such as a tie for Best Screenplay.
While improvement may be coming, however, it isn’t happening as quickly as it should. But let’s save that topic for another day. Today we take a look through a variety of films that have given us excellent leading women, covering dramas and horror and science fiction and action.
- True Grit (2010)
Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges
The Western is a genre dominated by men. From its very inception it solidified gender roles. Men – dashing fearless heroes. Women – helpless damsels. These roles were established early on and have shown few signs of changing, even to this day.
Due to this, it is especially noteworthy when the rare instance of a Western with interesting female roles comes along. Few films shook up this formula as successfully as True Grit, both the original and the remake. For the sake of this article, let’s focus on the remake.
The story centers on a 14-year-old girl whose father has been murdered. When inquiring about the progress of the investigation, she learns the suspect has fled into native territory where the law has no jurisdiction, so she hires a deputy US Marshall, with whom she insists on traveling.
The movie prominently features a female in a leading role, but what makes the movie feminist? Watch the film. As it proceeds, ask yourself who the “true grit” is actually referring to.
- The Hours (2002)
Directed by: Stephen Daldry
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep
Outside of romantic comedies and the atrociously named “chick flicks” (which typically do little to improve the portrayal of women in film), how often do you see a truly good movie that puts a woman in the lead role? Not many. How many go the extra mile and include women as the two lead roles? Even fewer. Let’s really push it. How many have all three lead roles played by women?
Basically, this one.
Not only are all three lead roles performed by women (Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore, a heart-stoppingly incredible trio), it’s also notable that at the time of filming, these women were around the age where Hollywood typically discards its actresses. Not only does The Hours have this all going for it; it also is simply an amazing film.
It follows three different timelines in which a woman’s life is in some way affected by the novel Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. This includes a story set in 2001, another in the 1950s, and finally Virginia Woolf herself, in a performance that won an unrecognizable Nicole Kidman the Oscar for Best Actress.
- Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Directed by: George Miller
Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron
Despite the fact that I’ve already written about this film, I still cannot believe it qualifies as a feminist film. Last time I fixated primarily on how this could pull double duty as a popcorn blockbuster and an art film. Now let’s talk about how it can be a ridiculous masculine fantasy and simultaneously set a new high bar for the portrayal of women in an action film.
Action movies tend to have two possible portrayals for women. One is eye candy (as seen in James Bond films and Fast and Furious) or they’ll try for “strong” female characters by making them into arrogant, self-righteous punching machines (Marvel Cinematic Universe, several Mission: Impossible movies). Let’s be honest; neither of these work.
Mad Max: Fury Road fixes this by showing us realistic women in the midst of a post-apocalyptic society. They are neither stronger nor weaker than the male characters. They are not sex objects (and the one character who treats them as such is clearly made out to be an evil, wicked man), but are useful, have distinct personalities, and contribute to the plot and action sequences.
A few highlights: Charlize Theron as the one-armed Furiosa holds her own in a fight against Tom Hardy’s Max as he’s weighed down by a chain and car door. Equal strengths, equal weaknesses. Later we get a scene wherein Max has three shots to hit a target. After missing the first two, he passes to Furiosa, who successfully makes the shot. At the film’s halfway point, they encounter a pack of allies, snipers who ride motorcycles throughout the dunes. When their masks are taken off, they’re revealed to be all women, mostly senior citizens. In a lovely contrast, the scene immediately following shows Max knitting while the women tinker with their motorcycles, which is not at all played for laughs. Actually, pretty sure I’ve seen this exact scenario play out in my parent’s garage before …
Final point of interest: the primary cast of Mad Max: Fury Road is made up of nine characters. Only three of these are men, and between them they have shockingly little screen time. Pretty sure Max himself only contributes to the actual plot once: “We turn around.” Otherwise you could drop his character and the film remains the same. Drop Furiosa and you have no film.
- About Elly (2007)
Directed by: Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Golshifteh Farahani, Taraneh Alidoosti
When you think of women and the Middle East, what do you picture? Whatever image came to your mind, I think I can promise you that if you watch Asghar Farhadi’s excellent 2007 film, it will challenge whatever preconceived notions you have.
I don’t want to divulge too much of the plot, as it presents an impressively elaborate, complicated story and one highly susceptible to spoilers. However, allow me to say that while the first half can seem a little boring, trust me; it’s worth it.
What is primarily fascinating about this film, in my eyes, is that it puts a Middle Eastern woman in the lead, which admittedly took me completely by surprise upon first viewing. Upon digging into more cinema from this part of the world, I was stunned. Their films are much more progressive and balanced than I had ever thought possible. I encourage all of you to take a look into films from this area, even if you’re not drawn to subtitled or dubbed movies.
Wondering where to begin? This film is a great jumping off point, along with pretty much any other film by this director (A Separation is highly acclaimed and features a leading female character, as does his recent The Salesman). Want a film by a female director? Try 2012’s Wadjda, helmed by Haifaa al-Mansour.
- Mulan (1998)
Directed by: Barry Cook, Tony Bancroft
Starring: Ming-Na Wen, Eddie Murphy
The Disney Princess is a famous feature of all our childhoods. But while these characters can be beloved, many of us began to crave a more substantial role for a woman in a Disney cartoon.
Enter Mulan, a film that gives us a peasant girl who joins the army (disguised as a man) to prevent her elderly father from being drafted. Yes, she is initially bad at training, but this is because she’s never been in the army, rather than resorting to “Har har! A woman trying to solider!” After a time she settles into the lifestyle and becomes a useful addition amongst the troops.
Throughout the entire film I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. A classic Disney move had to be coming soon. Either she turns out to secretly have been a princess, or she drops everything to chase after some man she falls in love with, etc. But nope. Thankfully the film never condescends to that level. A true Disney classic. We need more like this. A lot more.
- The Circle (2000)
Directed by: Jafar Panahi
Starring: Nargess Mamizadeh, Maryiam Parvin Almani
So remember everything good I said regarding About Elly and how positively I viewed a great amount of cinema in the Middle East? Well, um, here’s the other end of the spectrum.
Prepare to get angry.
Jafar Panahi has long been a divisive filmmaker, with many of his films getting banned in his home country of Iran. The Circle is no exception. This time his focus was on presenting the difficulties faced by women in Iran. Rather than giving us just one story to follow, his film is crammed with a sequence of short passages highlighting different women in different social settings, each one focusing on a specific problem faced by women there. Adding to the emotional punch of the movie is the fact that almost no one was a professional actress, meaning the women you’re seeing probably live these injustices and are not protected thanks to riches or celebrity status.
A very, very bleak film, but nonetheless a very, very important one, and a realistic one. Just, you know, prepare to get angry. Very angry.
- Big Little Lies (2017)
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallee
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman
This one is something of a cheat, seeing as it is actually a miniseries. However, I could not bring myself to pass it by; it is just too good.
A huge percentage of women worldwide become mothers eventually. Obviously they represent countless varieties of personalities and backgrounds, so why is it movies usually just show us one template of character? (For the most egregiously annoying version of this template, see Judy Greer’s character in Jurassic World) This, however, is the problem that Big Little Lies fixes.
The plot is genius. It opens by showing us an ongoing murder investigation, but doesn’t tell us who the victim was, let alone who the murderer was. As police continue to interview witnesses, they never reveal the name of the victim. From this starting point, the series provides flashbacks to the events leading up to the murder, so not only are we given a crackling and suspenseful investigation, the tension is mounted to unbelievable levels as we begin to envision possible combinations of murderer/victim based on the interpersonal issues the characters are having.
The main characters involved in the events leading up to the eventual murder are mothers whose young children attend the same school, and most of the tensions between them involve a case of minor assault between their kids. From this, the snowball effect comes in to play, blowing things way out of proportion, as we’re also given insights into their respective home lives and the issues they have there.
The ensemble of mothers is incredible: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz and Laura Dern. If you’d told me last year that I would be bowled over by the collective acting prowess of this group, I never would’ve believed you. The girls from Legally Blonde, Divergent, Jurassic Park, and Toast the Knowing from Mad Max? Ha. (This makes Nicole Kidman’s third mention in this article. She may just be my new heroine.)
- Daisies (1966)
Directed by: Vera Chytilova
Starring: Jitka Cerhova, Ivana Karbanova
In a recent, highly praised move, the Internet Move Database added what they called an F Rating to their site. This rating pertains to how much female input there was into a movie. It specifically looks at three categories: if a woman is presented as the main character; if it was written by a woman; and if it was directed by a woman. The very rare film that scored all three of these would get a Triple F rating. Some of these films obviously aren’t great, but it is a highly useful tool in finding films that have women as the driving creative force.
Here then is my favorite Triple F rated film of all time. Also one of the weirdest. But if you’re a true feminist, I feel I can trust you to stick with me on this one. Right? Right? I hope you’re agreeing with me right now.
Daisies tells a simple story. Two girls, each named Marie, decide to see how badly they can behave, while using their beauty and charm to make men overlook their bad behavior. While the plot is simple, this story is not told conventionally. Director and screenwriter Vera Chytilova has a distinct flair in her style, one that may initially be off-putting. For example, the opening scene features the two leads sitting and having a conversation, but each of their movements are punctuated by creaks reminiscent of toys or machines moving. Through this, Chytilova subtly highlights the rather robotic or lifeless role women can be expected to play in their life. Once the two Maries decide against living like this, the creaking sounds stop, as though they’ve finally come to life.
The film is full of imagery and meaning along these lines. If you’re inclined to, you can have endless fun watching it and trying to pick it apart for yourself.
- Alien (1979)
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt
Obviously this one gets a mention.
One of the things that makes me most pleased in films is when I realize the lead role could’ve been easily played by either a man or a woman and it wouldn’t have made any difference. This film does it better than any other.
Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon intentionally wrote the script without envisioning any specific genders or gender roles in the movie. For example, look at the character names. Captain Dallas. Warrant Officer Ripley. Officer Kane. Etc. Position and surname, nothing more, thus allowing room for the casting crew to pick whichever actors or actresses handled each part best.
If you ask me, this is how all movies should be written.
Of course, the final stroke of genius was the casting of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley. As legendary as some so-called “scream queens” are, there has never been a better performance in a horror film than Weaver’s turns as Ripley. She even scored an Oscar nomination for this film’s sequel! How often does that happen in science fiction and horror films?
- Sairat (2016)
Directed by: Nagraj Manjule
Starring: Rinku Rajguru, Akash Thosar
If I asked you which country you think would be responsible for the most radical, influential, and inspiring portrayal of a woman in a film, which country would you name? England would’ve been my guess. Turns out I was wrong. India. Yes, the land of Bollywood and caste systems.
Sairat is basically what Romeo & Juliet would’ve been if Romeo and Juliet had successfully escaped from their families without killing themselves (spoiler alert for R&J, sorry. But let’s face it, it’s like 400 years old. If you don’t already know the story you have no one to blame but yourself.) The begins with a young man from a poor family falling in love with a young girl from a rich family. Due to the impositions of the caste system, they are hastily forbidden to see one another again. Not content with this, they flee.
Familiar story. So how is it feminist?
While the boy gets to school on a bike or on foot, the girl brings a motorcycle. When deprived of all her family’s vehicles, she hops on a tractor and drives to her lover’s house to see him. When he hops on board, she remains at the wheel. When they’re later attacked by a gang trying to break them up, the boy goes down. She remains up, fighting back, eventually even grabbing a gun and firing at the attackers so the boy can run. After they’ve fled and are struggling to scrape together a living in a foreign town, the boy sweeps out their new home and sets about cooking while the girl goes out in search of a job.
This is just a highlight reel of the moments that immediately spring to the top of my head. This movie is jam-packed with subtle little moments like this, and that’s why it gets the top spot. As much as people may try to change the public consciousness by taking issues and shoving them down our throats, this often works in the exact opposite way to that intended, solidifying the prejudices people have in defense. But through subtle means, we can be indoctrinated. By films like Sairat presenting us with a relationship like this but making no big deal out of it, I genuinely feel it makes us more accepting of equality and non-traditional gender roles. And thus, out of any other film made, I believe Sairat has the most power. Please share this film with as many of your friends as possible. The more people see these movies, the more of them get made.
Plus, that song Zingaat at the midway point is so bloody catchy. It’s been stuck in my head for the last six months.
J.D. became a film buff at age four after viewing his first Buster Keaton movie. Since then he’s found a passion for everything from Shakespeare to Sharknado.