The top ten feminists on film

From Maya in Zero Dark Thirty to Thelma and Louise to Amelie, there's reason to be hopeful about the way women are portrayed on screen.

 

Film can seem like a depressing place for feminists when everywhere you turn, there’s another rehashed fairytale, Legally Blonde remake, or catastrophic failing of the Bechdel Test. To bring a little positivity to the fore, we decided to put together a list of our favourite Vagenda-endorsed female characters. It may not entirely redress the balance, but it certainly shows that the depiction of women is slowly becoming a lot less uniform in Hollywood and beyond.

Katherine Watson, Mona Lisa Smile 

A perhaps controversially mawkish first choice in this 2003 film. Julia Roberts plays bohemian Art Lecturer Katherine Watson, who, on being appointed to Wellesley College, vows to transform the conservative college into a progressive feminist utopia, only to be disappointed when she discovers that the institution is little more than a finishing school for marriage. Somewhat unconventionally for the 1950s, she tries desperately to convince the girls that they could be the leaders of tomorrow (and not their wives), with mixed results.

Best line: "You stand in class and tell us to look beyond the image, but you don’t. To you a housewife is someone who sold her soul for a center hall colonial. She has not depth, no intellect, no interests. You’re the one who said I could do anything I wanted. This is what I want."

Thelma & Louise 

You don’t need us to tell you that this 1991 film starring Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis is a feminist classic. Having to decided to hit the road and escape the deadbeat men in their lives, Thelma and Louise’s trip turns into a flight when Louise shoots a rapist who threatens Thelma.  Despite the fact that their quest to reach the Mexican border is hampered by the police on their tail, their crime spree turns out to be unexpectedly liberating, but best of all is the hilarious but touching way the friendship between the two fugitives is celebrated in this witty twist on a traditional road movie.

Best line: "You shoot off a guy’s head with his pants down, believe me, Texas ain’t the place you want to get caught."

Doralee Rhodes, Nine to Five 

In this film that spawned the wedding dancefloor classic of the same name, Dolly Parton plays Doralee Rhodes, one of Frank Hart’s three assistants who, on tiring of his sleazy sexist behaviour, trap him in his house and gain control of the office. Easily able fake her boss’ signature, Rhodes and her two friends use his "absence" as an opportunity to introduce flexible working hours and maximise productivity at the company.

Best Line: "Look, I’ve got a gun out there in my purse. Up until now I’ve been forgivin’ and forgettin’ because of the way I was brought up, but I’ll tell you one thing. If you ever say another word about me or make another indecent proposal, I’m gonna get that gun of mine, and I’m gonna change you from a rooster to a hen with one shot! And don’t think I can’t do it."

Alice, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore 

When her husband dies in an accident, thirty five year old Alice Hyatt (played by Ellen Burstyn) takes her young son on a road trip to pursue her dream of being a singer. Finally finding work as a lounge singer in a bar in Phoenix, she meets Ben but, on sleeping with him discovers that he is not only married but also abusive to his wife. Finally accepting a job as a waitress from necessity, she meets David. Wounded from her last relationship and fiercely independent, Alice tries to discover whether relying on a man for happiness really is enough for her. Is Alice a liberated woman? Well, not entirely, but her evolution as a character from downtrodden housewife to independent woman is at times as upbeat as it is harrowing.

Best line: "Turn around, why? Look at my face, I don’t sing with my –"

Mildred Pierce 

After her husband leaves her, Mildred (Joan Crawford) sets out to prove that she can successfully survive on her own, opening a small restaurant despite the protestations of the spoilt, sociopathic daughter that she obsessively tried to please.When sleazy property owner Monte becomes involved in the business, however, things start to go quickly downhill. The 2011 min-series remake starring Kate Winslet is also excellent, but nothing beats this 1945 film noir with a central heroine as tough, and coolly determined as any on the screen.

Best Line: Get out before I throw all your things out into the street and you with them. Get out before I kill you.

Princess Merida, Brave 

The headstrong Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) almost makes up for all the Disney Princesses whose lives were dictated and dependent on their husbands by pursuing archery instead of love in this encouragingly feminist children’s film. She makes excellent arguments for concentrating on marriage only after one’s career, turns expectations of women in her own society on their head, and makes no apologies for her rebellious behaviour. Neither is she punished by the plotline or shown to be naive; instead, the story follows an effort to repair a bond between herself and her mother, which was damaged because of her mother’s insistence over traditional female roles.

Best Line: "I am Merida, and I will be shooting for my own hand."

Beatrix Kiddo or "The Bride", Kill Bill 

This two-part action movie, which follows Uma Thurman’s depiction of a woman’s revenge mission for her murderous ex and a quest to find her daughter, has left feminist communities divided. However, there’s no denying that The Bride’s character is satisfyingly challenging. Her character storyline has a proper narrative arc, emotions that don’t automatically render her ‘weak’, and she ultimately triumphs over a man previously respected as the best in his field. Beatrix, who used to do Bill’s dirty work, was almost slaughtered by him for her choice to bow out of the game and pursue motherhood - and through proving her superiority over Bill in the field that they once worked together in, her triumph is to live out that choice.

Best Line: "Before that strip turned blue...I was your woman. I was a killer who killed for you... But once that strip turned blue, I could no longer do these things anymore... I chose her."

Jane, It’s Complicated 

Jane has been unceremoniously dumped in the past by her cheating husband who remarries a much younger woman. Not long afterwards, however, her ex Jake begins to regret his decision - and in a 180-degree turn of events, Jane becomes "the other woman" to his new marriage. Meryl Streep portrays Jane as a capable but confused person coming to terms with a difficult divorce, who eventually realises that Jake is no good but has the maturity to end the relationship amicably and move on with her life. She shows her ex up as the smaller person, and does an excellent job of being that one thing Hollywood still balks at: an unashamedly sexually active woman over the age of 25.

Best Line: "I like a lot of semen, always have."

Maya, Zero Dark Thirty 

In what sometimes steers uncomfortably close to being a torture apologist film, Jessica Chastain’s Maya - the main CIA operative behind the tracking down and execution of Osama bin Laden - is a strong lead who brings humanity into a story that could have become cold-blooded and propagandist. Her intelligence, tenaciousness and leadership skills are shown to be responsible for finding her target. Meanwhile, her response to this victory - a lone moment of silent tears in a military aircraft - renders it decidedly bittersweet. Maya is an expert and a justified workaholic who stands out for her ability to see killing for what it is, rather than through the lens of patriotic rhetoric.

Best Line: "I’m going to smoke everyone involved in this op, and then I’m going to kill bin Laden."

Amelie

In many ways, Amelie is the "manic pixie dream girl" who actually gets the leading role. Instead of existing to help a young man along his way to self-discovery, she enriches her life with quirky acts of kindness which eventually lead to the fairytale-esque finding of her perfect other half. It might end up with the beginning of a romance, but Amelie is no love story; instead, it’s an uplifting story that portrays its main character as multifaceted, often ingenious, and consistently underestimated by others.

Best Line: "I am nobody’s little weasel."

 

Princess Merida pursues archery instead of love in "Brave".

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage