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.

JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.