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.

ahisgett - Flickr
Show Hide image

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis