Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

A Top Ten of Feminist-Minded Films

Written by Sara Freeman
Active Image
The essence of feminism in film has existed since cinema began in the late 1800s. Much like the egalitarian live  theater scene, the production of silent film was gender neutral and women often worked a wide variety of jobs on set, including writing, editing, and directing films. This influx of feminine creativity, coupled with the suffrage movement, resulted in a fantastic cornucopia of tough, striking female characterizations, many of which defied social standards with their gender bender vibes.
 
The essence of feminism in film has existed since cinema began in the late 1800s. Much like the egalitarian  live  theater scene, the production of silent film was gender neutral and women often worked a wide variety of jobs on set, including writing, editing, and directing films. This influx of feminine creativity, coupled with the suffrage movement, resulted in a fantastic cornucopia of tough, striking female characterizations, many of which defied social standards with their gender bender vibes.

It must have been exciting to see so many diverse dames, like Theda Bara, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Clara Bow, Louise Brook, and Marion Davies, ruling the roost with their awe-inspiring personas. I’m inclined to say that post-sound cinema has rarely experienced such titillating feminist thrills, but that’s not true at all. If I said that, then I couldn’t gush over Bette Davis, Chantal Akerman, Sigourney Weaver, or Adrienne Shelly, among many others.

Each cinematic decade, much like the various periods of the feminist movement itself, has meant something different for feminism on film. However, finding a perfect feminist film is like trying to find a perfect feminist or a perfect human being: impossible. A few films have come damn close to achieving the title, but different audience members always have different interpretations.

As a feminist film theorist and avid moviegoer, my main, geeky goal in life is to see as many female-driven films as possible from every decade, country, and genre imaginable. I’m sure this list won’t please everybody, and you may disagree with my choices, but I tried to be as diplomatic as possible and to keep the list diverse. I certainly haven’t seen every single women’s picture though. The films on this list may not all be widely acclaimed or even directly feminist films, but what some of them may lack in aesthetic pleasures or political correctness is made up tenfold by their feminine bravura and radiant characters. From 1910 to the present, these are the absolute best, most emblematic women’s pictures I’ve ever seen.

1910s
Main Choice:

The Hazards of Helen
(1914-1917, Miscellaneous): Starring Helen Holmes.

Main character Helen’s boss says to her in an episode of this film series,“Women cannot use their heads in case of an emergency…” That’s what you think, Bub! Helen Holmes was one of cinema’s first female action stars and directors. This series/serial, which is considered the longest in history (at almost twenty-four hours), chronicles the many (119!) adventures of Helen, a railroad employee.

Helen was the Wonder Woman of her day—she frequently saved damsels in distress, jumped off tall buildings onto moving trains, and used her smarts and wit to outfox the bad guys. Helen Holmes (followed by Helen Gibson) largely performed her own stunts and rarely displayed fear in the face of danger. Though only a handful of the episodes are still available, The Hazards of Helen is a rare, fun treasure that’s great for a Saturday morning treat. We wouldn’t have Buffy or Beatrix Kiddo if it weren’t for Helen and her feminine bravado.

Alternate:

Falling Leaves
(1912, Alice Guy): Starring Magda Foy and Marian Swayne. (Small note: Alice Guy was probably the world’s first female filmmaker. Along with her husband, Herbert Blaché, Guy created the Solax Company, which was one of the very first pre-Hollywood film studios.)

1920s  
Main Choice:

Way Down East
(1920, D.W. Griffith): Starring Lillian Gish, Lowell Sherman, and Richard Barthelmess.

Thanks to the suffrage movement, the roaring ’20s provided audiences with an abundance of great female cinema. Way Down East is no exception. D.W. Griffith directed this loose adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s book, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Lillian Gish stars as the prototypical woman’s picture heroine. Though people tend to get sidetracked by Griffith’s deplorable The Birth of a Nation, his other films routinely offer extremely humanistic viewpoints and characterizations.

Way Down East
might lean towards the conservative side of life in terms of narrative, but Griffith understood the honor of femininity and always did his best to respect female characters, especially those played by the tough as nails Lillian Gish. This worldly melodrama also acts as a starting point for exploring certain feminine themes, such as motherhood and sacrifice. Plus, there’s an epic and entirely real ice chase!

Alternates:

The Red Kimona
(1925, Dorothy Davenport Reid and Walter Lang): Starring Priscilla Bonner.
Sadie Thompson (1928, Raoul Walsh): Starring Gloria Swanson and Lionel Barrymore.
The Passion of Joan of Arc or La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928, Carl Theodor  Dreyer): Starring Maria Falconetti in probably the best acting performance of all time.
Pandora’s Box or Die Büchse der Pandora (1929, G.W. Pabst): Starring Louise Brooks and Francis Lederer.

1930s
Main Choice:

Blonde Venus
(1932, Josef von Sternberg): Starring Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall, and Cary Grant.
Marlene Dietrich is the essence of cinema itself. Her epic, bejeweled presence is larger than life, and Josef von Sternberg, her frequent collaborator and longtime lover, directed her (best) pictures accordingly. Before 1933, when the tyrannical Hays Code came into fruition and enforced censorship rules, Hollywood sang symphonies to sexual freedom and independence. There is more innuendo in this period of cinema than there are dick and fart jokes in Kevin Smith movies. Like satin sheets or diamond encrusted hand mirrors, Dietrich represents a timeless elegance that somehow fits in perfectly with pre-Code Hollywood cinema.

Blonde Venus
falls right smack dab in the middle of this dazzling epoch, which lasted roughly between 1929 and 1933. Dietrich plays a lounge singer-turned-housewife-turned-lounge singer named Helen Faraday. When her scientist husband (Herbert Marshall) contracts radiation poisoning through an experiment, Dietrich goes back to the stage to earn enough money for his recovery while he stays at home with their loving young son.

Plans change when Cary Grant sees her on the stage performing the steamy “Hot Voodoo” number wherein he then offers to help her out in exchange for something a little more involved than singing. Her tuxedo seals the deal. What follows is a terrific social melodrama that probably would have devolved into a putdown of femininity if it hadn’t involved the trademark S&M character antics of Dietrich and von Sternberg.

Though the story line does not overtly do this, the film flips society’s preconceived notions of a “good woman” on its head by allowing Dietrich to maintain her pride and honor despite being bogged down by the literal “man.” When she flees both husband and lover to run away with her son, she is never ridiculed for her desperate actions. Dietrich could convey emotional operas with just a slight arch of the eyebrow, though she was constantly covered and surrounded in artifice. Her sexual ambiguity and powerful cinematic presence guide, at least in the von Sternberg films, female audiences into feeling spiritually fulfilled and satisfied.

Alternates:
Baby Face (1933, Alfred E. Green): Starring Barbara Stanwyck and George Brent.
Christopher Strong (1933, Dorothy Arzner): Starring Katharine Hepburn, Billie Burke, and Colin Clive.
Sylvia Scarlett (1935, George Cukor): Starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant.
Stella Dallas (1937, King Vidor): Starring Barbara Stanwyck and Anne Shirley.
Jezebel (1938, William Wyler): Starring Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent, and Fay Bainter.

1940s
Main Choice:

Dance, Girl, Dance
(1940, Dorothy Arzner): Starring Maureen O’Hara, Lucille Ball, and Ralph Bellamy.

It’s common knowledge that WWII provided a lot of progression for women in the workforce. Sadly, Hollywood didn’t follow suit with the rest of the United States. At the height of the studio era, only one female filmmaker managed to have a long, fruitful career, and that was the openly gay Dorothy Arzner. She made almost twenty films in a twenty-year time span and frequently worked with big stars like Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford (twice), Clara Bow, Rosalind Russell, and Merle Oberon. The reigning heroines of Hollywood all wanted to work with her.

Dance, Girl, Dance
is her penultimate film, and it illuminates two common stereotypes: the virgin and the whore. The virgin is embodied by Maureen O’Hara as Judy, a classically trained and talented ballet dancer trying to earn a living during the Depression. Before becoming part of the cultural lexicon as Lucy Ricardo in I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball acted as the whore-of-sorts in Dance, Girl, Dance. Her character, named Bubbles/Tiger Lily White, uses her classical dance training to become a popular burlesque performer. Judy goes to work for Bubbles as her “stooge,” which is someone who performs before the big act only to be ridiculed by the audience.

Through sensitivity and some hard-boiled Depression era pizzazz, Arzner strips away the typical shortcomings of the stereotypes. This is illustrated throughout the entire film in little bursts of feminist thought, but it all comes to a head when Judy breaks down the fourth wall of filmdom and yells at the male audience for being chauvinistic pigs. Women’s cinema has rarely been so sassy and snazzy.

Alternates:

Now, Voyager (1942, Irving Rapper): Starring Bette Davis, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, and Gladys Cooper.
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943, Maya Deren): Starring Maya Deren.
Mildred Pierce (1945, Michael Curtiz): Starring Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott, and Jack Carson.
Leave Her to Heaven (1945, John M. Stahl): Starring Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, and Jeanne Crain.

1950s
Main Choice:

Street of Shame
or Akasen Chitai
(1956, Kenji Mizoguchi), Starring Machiko Kyô, Aiko Mimasu, and Ayako Wakao.

During the latter part of his career, Mizoguchi specialized in gritty, pulpy, socialist dramas that often centered on the plights of women as prostitutes. Street of Shame was his last film, and it expresses the dignified fall of five different ladies of the night in Tokyo’s Red Light District. Unlike a lot of the American women’s pictures being made in the ’50s, the protagonists of Street of Shame embrace their anger in a seething fury.

With the threat of illegalizing prostitution looming over their heads, the five women, in their separate but equal sectors of femininity, strive with a stringent force to better themselves and their wallets before it happens. Despite the constant derision they receive from the outside world, these ladies know what they’re made of and won’t let anything—love, money, motherhood, or death—get in the way of their survival.

Alternates:

Outrage
(1950, Ida Lupino): Starring Mala Powers and Tod Andrews.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953, Howard Hawks): Starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell.
Johnny Guitar (1954, Nicholas Ray): Starring Joan Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge, and Sterling Hayden.
All That Heaven Allows (1955, Douglas Sirk): Starring Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, and Agnes Moorehead.
Lola Montes (1955, Max Ophuls): Starring Martine Carol, Peter Ustinov, and Anton Walbrook.
Nights of Cabiria
(1957, Federico Fellini): Starring Giulietta Masina.
I Want to Live! (1958, Robert Wise): Starring Susan Hayward.

1960s
Main Choice:

7 Women (1966, John Ford): Starring Anne Bancroft, Sue Lyon, and Margaret Leighton.

Try as I might, I simply couldn’t find another ’60s film that champions feminine strength as much as John Ford’s 7 Women. While the world was changing with the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and a plethora of other things, cinema was changing right along with it. The rise of independent filmmaking, where directors like Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, and Cassavetes came into play, forced the now over-bloated studio system to collapse and reevaluate its tactics.

7 Women
represents a mélange of both sides of the Hollywood fence via its acting style and creative talent. Maverick filmmaker John Ford was on his last legs after spending a lifetime directing meditative portraits of masculinity when he decided to tackle the tense feminine narrative of 7 Women. A pre-Mrs. Robinson Anne Bancroft plays the swaggering John Wayne-esque Dr. Cartwright, a foulmouthed feminist pioneer, who reluctantly takes a position at a Christian mission in 1935 China.

Dr. Cartwright’s atheist viewpoints, sharp tongue, and almost overtly manly persona make her unpopular with the other ladies of the mission until she uses those assets to offset a hostage/rape crisis with Mongolian bandits. Though she doesn’t uphold their view of femininity, most of the other women realize their judgmental mistake and appreciate Dr. Cartwright as a welcomed voice of change and progression. Her fateful sacrifice will both break your heart and make you appreciate our feminist foremothers all the more.

Alternates:

Cléo from 5 to 7 or Cléo de 5 à 7
(1962, Agnes Varda): Starring Corinne Marchand.
My Life to Live or Vivre sa Vie: Film en Douze Tableaux (1962, Jean-Luc Godard): Starring Anna Karina.
Daisies or Sedmikrásky (1966, Vera Chytilov): Starring Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
(1966, Mike Nichols): Starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylo , Sandy Dennis, and George Segal .
Rosemary’s Baby
(1968, Roman Polanski): Starring Mia Farrow, Ruth Gordon, John Cassavetes , and Sidney Blackmer .
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
(1969, Sydney Pollack): Starring Jane Fonda, Bruce Dern, Susannah York, and Michael Sarrazin.

1970s
Main Choice:

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (
1975, Chantal Akerman), Starring Delphine  Seyrig and Jan Decorte.

Though the ’70s are chock-full of feminist-minded flicks (see the alternates for Pete’s sake!), Chantal Akerman’s three and a half hour avant-garde delight, Jeanne Dielman, stands above the rest because of its structural dedication to showing the minute-by-minute monotony of being a housewife. We watch Jeanne Dielman (played with buttoned-up boldness by Delphine Seyrig) literally live every painstaking detail of her daily life. She gets up, cleans, makes food, grocery shops, watches children, etc. without ever visually stopping to reflect on what she’s doing or why.

Almost like Marlene Dietrich, Jeanne is surrounded by a suffocating, yet aesthetically pleasing familial artifice. As the hours go by, we slowly start to see her domestic sanctity coming unraveled through little touches, like her otherwise perfect hair, for a moment,  not being coifed correctly. Though the film may sound tedious, I promise you it’s not.

Akerman’s passion for Dielman’s dilemma leaks through the celluloid, which gives the otherwise simple narrative enough oomph to make it truly fascinating. We inevitably hang on Jeanne’s every move and come to know her well enough through her body language and limited speech. In so doing, we realize the tremendous pain she’s in.

Alternates:

Wanda (1970, Barbara Loden): Starring Barbara Loden and Michael Higgins.
Klute (1971, Alan J. Pakula): Starring Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland.
Celine and Julie Go Boating or Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974, Jacques Rivette): Starring Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier.
A Woman Under the Influence
(1974, John Cassavetes): Starring Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk.
Coffy (1973, Jack Hill): Starring Pam Grier.
Switchblade Sisters/The Jezebels
(1975, Jack Hill): Starring Joanne Nail, Robbie Lee, Monica Gayle, and Kitty Bruce.
Halloween
(1978, John Carpenter): Starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance.
My Brilliant Career (1979, Gillian Armstrong): Starring Judy Davis and Sam Neill.
Alien (1979, Ridley Scott): Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, and Ian Holm.

1980s
Main Choice:

Aliens
(1986, James Cameron), Starring Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Carrie Henn, and Jenette Goldstein.

The fury of mainstream feminist filmmaking fell surprisingly flat in the 1980s. After the likes of Star Wars and Indiana Jones hit screens in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the gals were mostly kicked out of the blockbuster club for good. All but one, that is. While Princess Leia and Marion Ravenwood were content to stay on the sidelines as supporting characters (though they‘re each strong in their own right), Lieutenant Ellen Ripley stepped up and took charge of female sci-fi/action cinema.

In Alien (1979), Ripley used both brain and brawn to pummel two stereotypes:  one, that a woman can defeat the bad guys/gals no matter their species, and two, that an action movie starring a woman could be a box office success and (gasp) critically acclaimed. This goes double for Aliens, which was released seven years later and takes place fifty-seven years in the narrative future of the first movie. Following some massive hyper-sleep, Ripley wakes up to find that no one believes her alien story and that her only daughter, Amanda, died two years earlier. When communication is lost with a space colony, Ripley, along with a diverse group of marines (including my favorite character, Vasquez), heads there to investigate possible alien happenings.

Aliens
is the best feminist-minded movie of the 1980s because it proudly parades gender and sexual equality. There are tough men, women, and children who all work together without any chauvinistic douchebaggery or pithy generalizations. While Ripley is still the heroine of the film, each character, nonetheless, manages to have a developed character arc and badass moments, including the jumbo queen mother alien and her egg babies.

Towards the end of the film, Ripley’s situation with her young surrogate daughter, Newt (the only person they found alive in the colony), is juxtaposed with the Alien queen’s—each woman just wants to save the life/lives of her respective children—and they share something that’s almost like a truce. It’s a mother-to-mother moment. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but suffice it to say, it (and the rest of the movie, really) will certainly satisfy anyone’s hunger for adventure and action all rolled into one. Sigourney Weaver was nominated for best actress that year (the academy doesn’t usually honor action or sci-fi films), but lost to Marlee Matlin’s performance in Children of a Lesser God. Sigourney should have won.

Alternates:

Ms. 45 (1981, Abel Ferrara): Starring Zoë Lund.
Working Girls
(1986, Lizzie Borden): Starring Louise Smith and Deborah Banks .
The Accused (1988, Jonathan Kapla): Starring Jodie Foster and Kelly McGillis.
An Angel at my Table (1989, Jane Campion): Starring Kerry Fox.

1990s
Main Choice:

The Piano (1993, Jane Campion), Starring Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, and Anna Paquin.

Jane Campion is a treasure in modern cinema. She is one of three women to ever be nominated for best director (Lina Wertmüller and Sofia Coppola are the others), and she won the best original screenplay Academy Award for The Piano. She was also the first woman to receive the coveted Palme d’Or from the Cannes Film Festival. Her lyrical, introverted female creations often depict working-class artists and writers defying the social norms of female sexuality.

The Piano
, her most critically-acclaimed film to date, is certainly no exception. Holly Hunter’s Ada McGrath is a mute pianist who, along with her young daughter (Anna Paquin), is sent to live in New Zealand as part of an arranged marriage with a wealthy landowner (Sam Neill). With no voice of her own, Ada uses the piano to express herself and her painful marital suffocation. Only George (Harvey Keitel), her compassionate neighbor, understands that.

The Piano
is a testament to the power of female artistry and what can happen to a person when truly loved, appreciated, and respected for who they are. In The Piano and, as well as the rest of Campion‘s films, a person is allowed to passionately love both her mate and her craft. Campion has been on the down low for the past few years, but she recently screened her latest picture, Bright Star, at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and it should be released in the States within the next year.

Alternates:

Thelma & Louise
(1991, Ridley Scott): Starring Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon, Brad Pitt, Harvey Keitel, and Michael Madsen .
A League of Their Own
(1992, Penny Marshall ): Starring Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Madonna, Tom Hanks , and Rosie O’Donnell.
Orlando (1992, Sally Potter): Starring Tilda Swinton.
Death and the Maiden (1994, Roman Polanski): Starring Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley , and Stuart Wilson .
Princess Mononoke or Mononoke-hime (1997, Hayao Miyazaki): Starring Yuriko Ishida, Sumi Shimamoto, and Yoji Matsuda.
All About My Mother or Todo sobre mi madre
(1999, Pedro Almodóvar): Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Antonia San Juan, and Penélope Cruz.

2000s
Main Choice:

Waitress
(2007, Adrienne Shelly), Starring Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Jeremy Sisto, Cheryl Hines,  Adrienne Shelly, and Andy Griffith.

The ’00s have been a mixed bag for women in cinema. The 9/11 attacks jump started the comic book movie craze, which allows male characters to be both extremely sensitive and overtly masculine at the same time. That aspect of the decade coupled with Apatow and co. robbing the romantic comedy genre away from female characters has left us dames in the dust for the most part. A few filmmakers, like Pedro Almodóvar and Sofia Coppola, continue to create well-rounded and worthwhile female entities, but they’re certainly few and far between. Until something changes, we’ll be stuck with movies like 27 Dresses, Sex and the City, and Obsessed ruling our lives and falsely representing women as marriage-hungry fashionistas with fewer brains than Paris Hilton’s chihuahua.

As far as I’m concerned, we’ve only had one true standout women’s picture this decade: Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress. Without any reservation or hyperbole, it does absolutely everything a great women’s picture should: it puts a strong female character at the center of the narrative, surrounds her with supportive female friends, allows her to explore her sexuality, appreciates motherhood without glorifying it, and, best of all, treats the villainous husband as a person, not a cliché.

The waitress in question is Jenna Hunterson (Keri Russell), an unhappy woman who has a terrible, abusive marriage to Earl (Jeremy Sisto), but a great talent for crafting pies. Her two best friends are her co-workers, Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (played by Shelly), and they’re there to support her when Jenna finds herself pregnant after a night of drinking with her husband. Like Ada in The Piano, Jenna uses her art (in her case, baking pies) to express her innermost thoughts and feelings. Jenna’s pregnancy leads her to the local gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter (the underrated Nathan Fillion), who quickly embarks in a romance with her. He appreciates Jenna for who she really is and makes her feel beautiful and beloved when she needs it the most.

Waitress
is a heartfelt valentine to the best of yesteryear’s women’s pictures, and the true splendor of feminine relationships. Shelly wrote the screenplay while she was pregnant with her daughter, Sophie, who makes an adorable appearance in the film. In a decade full of mediocre female characters and films, Jenna and her story are almost too good for general audiences. Despite receiving little to no awards buzz (damn you, Juno!), Waitress will continue to flower in cinema culture and gather admirers throughout the ages. If Adrienne Shelly hadn’t met a tragic fate two years ago, I’m sure she would have continued on the path of righteous women’s cinema, and we would have far more lovely female characters in our midst.

As it stands now, I will continue to tout Waitress every chance I get and hope that my enthusiasm infects other people. If you’re interested, you can honor Shelly’s memory by supporting the Adrienne Shelly Foundation for female filmmakers, which is run by her husband, Andy Ostroy, and by seeing her last screenplay come to life in Serious Moonlight, which is directed by her close friend and Waitress co-star, Cheryl Hines. It should hit theaters this winter.

Alternates:

Ten (2002, Abbas Kiarostami): Starring Mania Akbari.
Morvern Callar (2002, Lynne Ramsay): Starring Samantha Morton and Kathleen McDermott.
Iron Jawed Angels (2004, Katja von Garnier): Starring Hilary Swank, Frances O’Connor, Anjelica Huston, Vera Farmiga, and Julia Ormond.
Marie Antoinette (2006, Sofia Coppola): Starring Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Judy Davis, Molly Shannon, and Asia Argento.
Volver
(2007, Pedro Almodóvar): Starring Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Yohana Cobo, and Lola Dueñas.
The Last Mistress or Une vieille maîtresse (2008, Catherine Breillat): Starring Asia Argento, Fu’ad Ait Aattou, and Roxane Mesquida.


Share this post