Ten Hollywood Movies That Get Women Right
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A few weeks ago, two AlterNet critics asked whether white Hollywood could ever make a good movie about race relations. This in turn led us to another question: Can Hollywood directors -- male or female -- make good movies about women?
At first, it seems like a ludicrous question. After all, we've come so far since the bad old days when Western writer Max Brand summarized everything wrong with the roles we were assigned on film. "There should be a woman," he said, "but not much of one. A good horse is much more important."
Today, we've got our Meg Ryan comedies, our Meryl Streep dramas, and our Angelina Jolie desert romps. We've got girls with guns, girls with laser beams, girls with briefcases, girls with magic powers -- what's there to complain about?
Quite a bit, I think. I'm a woman who makes IMDB.com her homepage, considers popcorn and Raisinets a well-balanced meal, and pays for the "Magic of 8" on her Netflix account because three DVDs at a time just isn't enough. But I've finally accepted that when it comes to putting people who look like me onscreen, Hollywood really only has four movies on its menu, which it reheats and serves to us over and over again:
The Chick Flick. That 90-minute sitcom you're always stuck watching on the plane. Oh, look, they met in a dog park! But neither one of them has dogs! Wait, they love each other online, but hate each other in real life! Oh no, he/she is a hired escort, but in the end, true love will find a way! More exercises in tabloid wish fulfillment than love stories, the chick flick makes you feel like you need a shower, or at least a wardrobe overhaul.
The Earnest Social Commentary. Norma Rae, Silkwood, Erin Brockovich. In which brave women face down The Man, and let us go home feeling exultant, or at least ready to place our bets in the Oscar pool.
The Cancer Weepie. Terms of Endearment, Stepmom, Steel Magnolias. More brave women share their souls on hospital beds, tearing up photogenically as the sisterhood sweeps them up in tissue-soaked arms and ushers them into the great beyond.
The Action Figure. Catwoman, Tomb Raider, Elektra. All the one-dimensional women in three-dimensional popup bras, who seem pieced together to elicit a collective "You go, girlfriend!" from the audience. As if we all thought heroism -- or rather, heroinism -- should be defined by humorlessness, spandex and a good personal trainer.
Throughout my (evidently unrequited) love affair with Hollywood, I've been empowered, encouraged, affirmed and celebrated on screen to within an inch of my life, but I've almost never felt represented in any way that felt plausible. I say almost never, because even in Hollywood, there are exceptions -- ten of which I humbly submit to you here -- in which the women, their relationships or their circumstances, feel somehow authentic, or, for lack of a better word, real.
Beyond saying that they resonate with my sense of what being a woman means, can I define exactly what makes them real? No, and I wouldn't want to, especially because all those attempts to define female authenticity is part of the problem to begin with. But, like Justice Stewart, I know it when I see it.
(This is, of course, my own highly subjective and unscientifically produced list of anti-Max Brand movies that do offer Much of a Woman. It is based entirely, I'm sure, on personal biases and childhood traumas. AlterNet readers are invited to add alternate lists in the comments section.)
Alien (1979) The iconic image of Sigourney Weaver, cursing behind awesome firepower with her sweaty tank top (and butch hair in Alien 2 ), spawned a whole crop of chicks-with-ammo knockoffs. But the real leap was 10 years earlier, when writer/producer team Dan O'Bannen and David Giler were pitching their script about a monster that steals aboard a spaceship and starts picking off crew members. It was the mid-70s, and when the filmmakers heard that Twentieth Century Fox was looking for strong female leads, they decided at the last minute to make their main character, Ripley, a woman. Ripley was never intended to be a spokesman, a symbol or a poster child; at first, she was just a marketing gimmick. But when Ridley Scott took over the film and cast then-unknown Weaver in the role, he gave us one of the beautiful, powerful and believable heroines we'd seen so far: She fought to keep the ship secure, fought to keep her crew alive, and finally, in a harrowing last scene, managed to blast the terrifying alien into deepest space. Scott made very few alterations to accommodate the new gender of its star and only survivor -- which was exactly the point. It was the first time I ever saw a capable woman onscreen in a way that didn't call attention to the fact that she was a "capable woman."
All About Eve (1950) The movie posters boasted, "It's all about Women, and their men," promising a juicy, lurid saga of backstage catfights and feminine conniving. The plot delivered on that action, pitting Bette Davis as Margo Channing, an aging, egomaniacal actress, against a conniving upstart named Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Eve begins as a fan, becomes a best friend and ends up a rival, and all the way through she plays on Channing's insecurities and turns both her fiancÃ© and her best friend against her. The scenes between Channing and Richards are some of the only honest depictions of non-romantic rivalry between female friends in American cinema. But Channing's real struggle is a particularly modern one: balancing love, friendship and a career that is eating her up inside -- she's never learned how to be offstage, even in private. Watching Channing navigate -- usually unsuccessfully -- her way across that tightrope is like seeing every modern woman's desire to "have it all" played up in the glorious caricature of one of America's greatest actresses.
Adam's Rib (1949) In this classic comedy, a husband and wife (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn), both lawyers, find themselves on opposite sides of a courtroom battle over "women's rights." The heart of the conflict is not really feminism, but rather the role of law in society. Tracy and Hepburn -- whose characters call each other "Pinky" and "Pinkie" when they're getting along, and many far less endearing names when they're not -- argue about the law and lob cheap shots culled from the "Battle of the Sexes" jargon of the day. Hepburn cries crocodile tears, her husband calls it a cheap trick, and he's right. Tracy waxes on about principle, Hepburn tells him he's hiding his own ego behind lofty legal jargon, and she's right. The final resolution of the film pulls them away from simple ideology and back to their basic passion for their chosen profession, and it's a triumph of shared humanity over gender politics, a lovely parable of marriage. Of course, it's also a sad indictment of how far we haven't come since then.
Batman Returns (1992) Michelle Pfeiffer and Tim Burton rewrite the Catwoman myth. Here, Selina Kyle is a mild-mannered single girl, Cosmo magazine's choicest reader: afraid to speak up in business meetings, surrounded by cats, living in an overstuffed, over-cute, ultra-feminine apartment, and getting stood up by her boyfriend because she beat him at tennis. After her boss tries to kill her, she sews a costume for herself, one in which she can be free to reach out and scratch someone whenever she pleases. But her new life is morally untethered and lonely. She can't imagine loving without returning to the repressed, passive life she led before finding her alter ego. "I can't go live in your castle," she tells Batman in the movie's big scene, her sanity by now as frazzled as her wild blond hair. Then, she slips out into the night, a tragic hero in the most modern sense -- her identity split between what she thinks society wants from her and the person she wants to become.
Jackie Brown (1997) Never has a director more masterfully combined lascivious fandom and respectful worship than in Quentin Tarantino's finger-licking homage to blaxploitation queen Pam Grier. Grier plays Jackie Brown, an airline stewardess working for Cabo Air, the "worst airline there is," and earning extra cash as a courier for an arms dealer named Ordell (Samuel Jackson). When the police catch her and try to use her in a set-up, she wins the support of a bounty hunter and works the angles to make off with her freedom and a cash payout. Shot when Grier was almost 50 years old and a good 20 pounds heavier than when she was a black-power nymphet days in the 70s, Jackie Brown was still one of the sexiest movies of the 90s. Grier plays Brown as calm, confident and exhausted, a woman who knows she only has this one last chance. She explains that the only thing that scares her like violent retribution from Ordell is having to start her life over at nothing, and you feel her fatigue, her desperation and the certainty that she deserves a second run. It's Tarantino's take on film noir, told, for once, from the point of view of the victorious femme fatale.
Auntie Mame (1958) Talk about Much of a Woman! Rosalind Russell breathes glamour and adventure as Auntie Mame, the high-society bohemian whose Beekman Place apartment throbs with poets, drunken actresses, aspiring nudists and every other version of eccentric New Yorker that Los Angeles could imagine. Wealthy, spoiled, and intellectually scattered, she seems more like a middle-aged Holly-Go-Lightly than the modern idea of a strong, independent woman. But she still launches her assault on the conventional femininity of the bourgeoisie: She skates through life in her turbans, furs and rustling capes, trailing cigarette holders behind her like magic wands, bustling past trophies of her trips to Africa and India and Arabia. But mostly, Mame begins the movie happily single, marries for money, ends up happily single, and has several affairs in between. Plus, she rescues her beloved nephew from marrying insufferable "Aryan from Darian" by arranging a special new neighbor for the Aryan's anti-Semitic parents: A composer intent on building an orphanage for Jewish refugee children. What's not to love?
Silence of the Lambs (1991) Jonathan Demme's classic nail-biter is a grisly suspense thriller about a terrifying psychiatrist-turned-cannibal-turned-prison inmate-turned-ally (Anthony Hopkins), but it's also about the obstacles an attractive young woman faces as she tries to do her job. Everywhere Agent Starling goes, people react to her as a girl first and an investigator second. They're either trying to pick her up, shut her out, break her down, or chop her to bits. No film has captured the isolation a woman can feel in a room full of suits as well as this one. Her supervisor sends her out of an autopsy room in deference to the sexist local police; a group of male cadets turn to ogle her butt as she trains at the Academy. These are brief, subtle moments, but they add up to a dead-accurate portrayal of a day in the life of a young working woman (except for the flesh-flaying serial killer and cannibalism, one hopes).
Fight Club (2000) The David Fincher/Chuck Palahniuk venture was one of the most controversial statements of masculinity of the last decade. Ed Norton plays a disenchanted everyman, drowning in his IKEA catalogue and searching for meaning wherever he might find it. He first tries support groups (testicular cancer, malignant lymphoma, emphysema), and then enjoys the company of his idealized alter-ego, Tyler Durdon (Brad Pitt). A handsome, insouciant tough guy, Pitt introduces Norton to an underground world where men beat each other to a pulp for fun and camaraderie. It's a man's movie, supposedly, so why did I think it was the best feminist statement of the 90s? Maybe because it was time to watch a man learn what women have always known: That living a life defined by home furnishings, fashion, commercialized domesticity and constant messages about how your body should look can literally drive you batty.
To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) Being a girl comes before being a woman, and never has a girl had a better role than Mary Badham as Jean Louise Finch. The big-screen adaptation of Harper Lee's classic is most often appreciated for portraying the kind of race relations America likes best. The feel-good courtroom drama cloaks a typically smug, white liberal Hollywood storyline: A saintly white man defends a grateful black man (who would neva, neva touch a white woman, No Suh!) from a villainous mob.
However, To Kill A Mockingbird was revolutionary in its portrayal of the relationship between Atticus and his daughter. Scout wears dungarees and straight uncurled hair in a dome cut, and learns from her father how to read, to reason and to treat others with integrity. Atticus (Gregory Peck) never once differentiates between his expectations of her or her older brother Jed, and when he admonishes her to stop fighting with other schoolchildren in the yard, he doesn't tell her to act like a lady -- he tells her to act like an adult: She's too mature for fistfights now. It's a rare opportunity to watch a little girl develop a moral character, one in which she learns to do the right thing, not to dress, act or talk the right way.
Star Wars (1977) In The Empire Strikes Back, Princess Leia's tough talk is just that -- talk -- because, like the rest of America, she's falling for Han Solo. In Return of the Jedi , she's a longhaired love slave in a chain mail bikini, with very little to do but wait for her rescue. But back in 1977, when Leia bravely faced off against Darth Vader, she was the brightest of heroes. Even as a captive, pint-sized princess with cinnamon buns for hair, she showed little girls a new of idea of what a princess could be: defiant, politically able, impervious to torture, and, if that weren't enough, the best shot in the rebel forces. It was a promise no movie heroine has matched since -- not even Leia herself.
Sheerly Avni is a film and culture writer based in San Francisco.