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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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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