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."


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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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide