Why is it that men can be bastards and women must wear pearls and smile?

In honour of International Women’s Day–fittingly preluded by Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Director and Best Picture wins at the Oscars last night–I’ve devised a list of films that don’t treat women in a reductive, flat, or marginalizing manner. Using Anais Nin’s feminist philosophy, I’ve found a list of upbeat, critically-acclaimed films that don’t  “doubt my courage or my toughness” or  “believe me naïve or innocent” because I’m a woman, as many mainstream features do with  their female characters. Hollywood films have come a long way in their depiction of women, but I think there’s still a long way to go.  According to Observe and Report, sleeping with someone too drugged to consent isn’t rape, Bridget Jones (and He’s Just Not That Into You, and Bride Wars, and Leap Year…) desperately argue that a woman’s only goal is marriage, in The Hangover female characters are only stereotypes (the slut, the bitch, and the angel) and in Transformers, any superhero movie recently released, and too many others to mention, women are reduced to ornaments.  I couldn’t write about every great film that addresses those issues (North Country, Norma Rae and Working Girls are missing), but here are a few movies that aren’t guilty of any of the above and are just as, or more entertaining:

Whip It

“Women are the only exploited group in history to have been idealized into powerlessness.”

– Erica Jong

In Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, high school senior Bliss Cavendar (a perfectly cast Ellen Page) escapes the Texas teen pageant circuit her mother drags her around, through Austin’s underground roller derby culture.  Barrymore takes viewers from a pristine beauty pageant of idealized and powerless girls in white dresses lined up like bowling pins, to the decidedly less tranquil, color-saturated world of roller derby where Bliss finds an outlet for her adolescent anger and gets her first taste of freedom.  Whip It is funny and honest, the traits that make Bliss an outsider in the small Texas town where she was raised.  In addition to addressing issues of female oppression, Barrymore also examines the contours of female friendship through Bliss’ BFF Pash (Alia Shawkat), and how class differences can be disempowering with a cruel, somewhat cliched clique of rich kids.  Your guide to coming of age on your own terms, not those dictated by social norms, the comedy could be enjoyed as much by a college senior as viewers Bliss’ age. If want motivation to be more fearless, or just a good laugh, Whip It is it. The movie has just been released in UK theatres, and is available to rent on iTunes for $4.99.

Thelma and Louise

“Women are not inherently passive or peaceful.  We’re not inherently anything but human.”

– Robin Morgan

If you haven’t seen this, you must’ve been dead for the last twenty years.  This 1991 classic is worth the shock of the first-time view and rewatching for many reasons (women, empowered! Brad Pitt, nekkid! among others).  Ridley Scott follows two outcasts fleeing their docile, confining lives, and charts their suspenseful run from the police by alternating scenes of tension, comedy and heartbreak.  The two best friends navigate living outside patriarchy and the law with tenacious strength, and their journey is best described by the movie’s tagline:  “Someone told them to get a life… so they did.”  Scott addresses issues often trivialized or omitted from mainstream films, like violence against women and oppressive relationships, fearlessly, drawing in viewers rather than alienating them.  The film’s compelling narrative and realistic female characters earned it an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay, and a permanent spot in all how-to storytelling and filmmaking books.

Thelma and Louise, and several examples of the literature on it, are available at the university library.


“Easy is an adjective used to describe a woman who has the sexual morals of a man.”

– Nancy Linn-Desmond

Male protagonist aside, in this quiet, scruffy view of the twilight time between college and entering the real world, director Greg Mottola skewers the double standard that venerates men, and penalizes women, for having sex.  James (Jesse Eisenberg), a recent graduate, takes on a job at a dismal amusement park to save money for grad school.  At Advenutreland he falls in love with Em (Kristen Stewart), a jaded NYU undergrad whose only sexual outlet is an affair she can’t reveal without being ostracized.  Mottola takes on the double standard that eventually ruptures Em’s relationship with James directly, establishing a strong case for Em’s actions that demonstrates she is less culpable than the jackass she’s sleeping with.  The film is perfect for anyone who loved Superbad in high school and wants something that can speak to their university experience in a similar, but more mature way.

Upcoming:  The Runaways

“Girls have got balls. They’re just a little higher up, that’s all.”

– Joan Jett

Feminist icon Joan Jett wasn’t always the queen of rock, and with this indie flick–to be released April 9th in the US–director Floria Sigismondi illlustrates how she conquered the male-dominated field of rock and roll.  The Runaways depicts the formation of Jett’s famous girl group, and it remains to be seen whether it sticks to the band’s feminist principles or objectifies its two famous leads (Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning).  I’ve pasted the trailer and a few of Jett’s original songs below (no copyright infringement intended; these were the only videos available online).

The Runaways trailer

Cherry Bomb, The Runaways

Crimson and Clover, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts


“Why is it that men can be bastards and women must wear pearls and smile?”

– Lynn Hecht Schafren

Best for last. An unwanted pregnancy seems to be the last bar in Jenna Hunterson’s cage of a marriage, but her journey through three hellish trimesters with her two best friends and her doctor make her strong enough to follow her passion–pie making.  Adrienne Shelley’s first, and tragically last, film (she was murdered in her home by a burglar before it was released), Waitress embraces “women’s work” (cooking) as real work that deserves real acknowledgment. An apt metaphor for how domestic work is often considered worthless, Jenna (Keri Russell) is forced to hand her salary over to Earl (Jeremy Sisto) every day after work, leaving her totally dependent.  Through the film Shelley also questions the oft-promoted notion that all women just want to be married and have children, either openly or, if they’re career women, as a guilty secret teased out by some dashing love interest.  Jenna’s pregnancy and marriage are her shackles, until she finds the courage to take control of of both.  Most reviews were very positive, but some criticized Earl’s heartlessness as unbelievable. However, according to Women’s Aid, one in four women will face domestic violence in their lifetime, so Shelley’s unflinching depiction of his malice can’t be too far off the mark.

The lightness of the diner where Jenna works contrasts her hellish existence at home, taking inspiration from the slapstick diner scenes from another feminist film, Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.  With the help of Jenna’s tough friends, played by Shelley and comedic actress Cheryl Hines, the scenes add the humour and quirkiness that makes the film so unique.  The gorgeous close ups of pie and Jenna’s kind, feminist doctor (Nathan Fillon) don’t hurt either.   You can rent Waitress on iTunes for $3.99, and I’m working on getting a copy in the St Andrews library.

Adrienne Shelley on Waitress

– Katie Meyer


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