15 Inspiring Women in Film

March 8th, 2009 by May

March 8th is International Women’s Day. Over 150 years have passed since the demonstrations on March 8th 1857 when women protested poor working conditions and low wages in textile factories. A lot of progress has been made since then. But even today there is still much to be done to bring women’s rights into line with men’s, and this day remains important.

10 Kick-Ass Heroines

We’re taking the occasion to honor 10 strong independent women characters in film – and 5 great women directors, if you scroll down. Women can demonstrate strength and insight in every situation, and we’ve reflected this in a diverse list – from action to animation, comedy and even war.

10. Action: Kill Bill (2003-2004)

Quentin Tarantino‘s the Bride is definitely one of the strongest heroines in recent years. She does not fear violence and is determined to have her revenge. Yet the end of the movie also shows her gentle and motherly side. In fact, the motivation for the Bride’s vengeful quest is that she was pregnant when her enemies tried to kill her. The Bride is not violent just for the sake of it, like many male heroes. She is deliberately protecting her right to give life and become a mother.

Feminist message: Women aren’t easy targets – they can be just as vengeful as men…

9. Thriller: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The character of Clarice Starling represents many women who are harassed on the job, their skills questioned by the men around them. In this environment, Clarice’s talents are brought to the fore: Not only does she succeed in her investigation of the infamous Hannibal Lecter, which no male investigator managed to do, but she does so with absolutely no support from her male-dominated organization. Lecter is the only one who appreciates her intellect rather than her looks, and thus is willing to open up to her and not to her colleagues.

Feminist message: Judge everyone by skill and dedication, not appearance or gender.

8. Drama: Thelma & Louise (1991)

This ultimate female friendship movie takes several traditional “male” genres such as road movie, buddy flick and outlaw film and puts women in the leading roles. It’s an interesting subversion, in which the women emancipate themselves from their unhappy daily lives. All the men in Thelma and Louise’s lives are disrespectful, domineering or harmful. During their road trip they learn to be more assertive and to take control of their destinies.

Feminist message: Choose your own path in life!

7. War: G.I. Jane (1997)

In G.I. Jane, Demi Moore portrays the character of Lt. Jordan O’Neil, the first female candidate for the U.S. Navy SEAL unit. She undergoes grueling physical and mental challenges, just like the men beside her. But unlike the men beside her, she also deals with sexism, chauvinism and lack of trust from her fellow comrades. Many would give up under such conditions (for example, 60% of the male soldiers in Jordan’s training unit…). But O’Neil does everything in her power to succeed.

Feminist message: Men and women should have the same rights and responsibilities – in all domains of life.

6. Comedy: Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)

This comedy-drama is set in a time when women could not make their own decisions and needed a husband to participate in society. So it is all the more surprising that this is actually a story of feminism and feminine love – in the complete physical sense. The heroines of the movie, Idgie Threadgood and Ruth Jamison, live together, raise a child together and run a café together. Together, they manage to get rid of Ruth’s abusive husband and form a different way of life, extremely unusual for the time. Lesbian love never looked better.

Feminist message: You have the right to choose who you love.

5. Animation: Mulan (1998)

Some brows are probably raised here: animation? And Disney at that, usually known for favoring delicate heroines whose existence depends on the men they love. But Mulan is a strong heroine. She impersonates a soldier in a time when women were forbidden to even speak in public. Thanks to her cunning and inventiveness she manages to defeat the entire Hun army. It’s true that even in Mulan there is a man who’s the object of her affections. But at least he falls for her not because she looks pretty in her sleep, but because he admires her intelligence and skill.

Feminist message: If traditional societal rules don’t suit you, break them!

4. Horror: Alien (1979)

In most sci-fi horror films before Alien, the lead character was male. He was the active one, the initiator, the fighter and the leader all at once. Female characters, if there were any, usually remained victims or subjects to be rescued by the brave hero. (Note that Psycho was released – with great care to maintain suspense – on March 8 1960.) In Alien these roles are dramatically reversed. Ripley is a strong female main character who makes the decisions and survives the creature that tries to kill her. She is responsible for herself and acts well under pressure – thus defying almost every female stereotype ever invented.

Feminist message: Trust your own intellect and powers – don’t rely on anyone else to save you.

3. Family: Whale Rider (2002)

In Maori culture in New Zealand, it is traditional that the first born son of the tribe leader inherits the leadership. This tradition is broken when the only living heir is a girl named Pai. Pai is resented by her grandfather, who is disappointed that his only heir is a girl. But she does not give up. She manages to pass the ultimate leadership test: riding a whale. By doing so, she establishes her worthiness and earns the respect of her grandfather and the entire community.

Feminist message: You deserve your family’s approval, but doing what they tell you isn’t the only way to earn it.

2. Musical: Hairspray (2007)

Almost every woman on earth deals with issues of weight and outward appearance. In our society, if you are female and weigh over 120 pounds, you risk constant feelings of inadequacy beside the models and actresses you see in media around you. So it is refreshing and powerful to see the character of Tracy Turnblad, an overweight teenage girl who is not ashamed of her body. In fact, she does not let her weight stop her from doing anything – becoming a top dancer in a popular TV show, getting her love interest, playing a big role in fighting racial segregation in her home town… Tracy is a very positive role model for the typical beauty-brainwashed girl.

Feminist message: Demand respect for who you are, no matter your size or shape.

1. Period: Gone With The Wind (1939)

A strong independent woman in a movie taking place in the old south, during the Civil War? A strong independent woman who spends much of her time chasing after the one man who is not that interested in her? A strong independent woman strangled in corsets and laces? The answer is yes, yes and yes. Strange as it may seem, the character of Scarlett O’Hara is very strong. She begins the movie as a pampered brat, used to getting everything she wants it.  But as the movie progresses and the Civil War begins, she displays great inner strength and manages to get herself out of a lot of trouble. She acts more practically then sentimentally and trusts only herself. Even at the end, when Rhett leaves her and she understands that this time it’s for good, her thoughts linger not on her feelings but on her future: “After all, tomorrow is another day!”

Feminist message: Being delicate and self-sacrificing won’t help you in times of need. Being strong, independent and creative might.

5 Brilliant Women Directors

As a bonus for the persistent reader, I want to highlight 5 women directors that I personally like. It is strange that even nowadays, when women have entered almost every industry, female directors are still a tiny minority. It’s enough just to look at the Wikipedia list of film directors compared to the list of female directors.

Yet there are some excellent women directors. Here are my favorites:

Mira Nair

This Indian-American director creates visually captivating films. Her first feature film was Salaam Bombay!, which won the audience award at the Cannes Film Festival. It was followed by the acclaimed Mississippi Masala, The Perez Family and Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love. The height of her career so far was the beautiful Monsoon Wedding, which also won several awards, including the Venice Film Festival Golden Lion. She is currently working on a film called Amelia, which deals with the life of the legendary American pilot Amelia Earhart. The film releases in October, but it is already mentioned as one of the possible candidates for next year’s Academy Awards. Fingers crossed!

Jane Campion

In my eyes, The Piano is one of the most lyrical and meaningful films of the 90s. Written and directed with such sensibility and attention to detail, it’s no wonder a woman was in charge. Apart from this masterpiece (which also won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and several other awards), Campion directed several other well-regarded films such as An Angel at My Table, The Portrait of a Lady and In The Cut. She is currently working on a period drama based on the life of poet John Keats. Since she has already proved her talent for period films, I’m waiting eagerly!

Sofia Coppola

Sophia Coppola is the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola. Like her father, she became a film director, though their styles are very different. Her most outstanding project so far is Lost in Translation, which in many ways captures the spirit of a generation. It won 70 awards, including an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Coppola was also nominated for Best Directing: the first American woman and the third woman overall in the entire history of the Oscars. Today she is mainly focused on raising her daughter, but I am certain that when she comes back to directing, we can expect great things.

Julie Taymor

Taymor started her career as a theater director, and after several attempts in TV directing she decided to try the big screen. Her success was immediate: Titus was acclaimed by critics for its stylish filmmaking. When the similarly acclaimed Frida and Across the Universe followed, it became clear that Taymore is a director with a very unique vision. Today Taymor is working on a film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. With a cast including Helen Mirren, Alfred Molina and Djimon Hounsou, combined with Taymor’s visual abilities, this film look like something worth waiting for.

Nora Ephron

Ephron secured her place in the romantic comedies hall of fame with schmaltzy crowd pleasers like When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. Yet she also co-scripted the serious, feminist Silkwood. In the last decade she slightly disappeared – since 2000 she has only directed one film, Bewitched, which did not do well with critics. Now, after almost 10 years, Ephron is making a double comeback, working simultaneously on two films, to be released in 2009 and 2010: first Julie & Julia, about cooking from the famous chef’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams (sound like Oscar material?). Next up is Flipped, in which Ephron returns to the genre that has proved most successful for her so far: romantic comedy.

Feminism * Vengeance * Pregnancy * Sexual Harassment * Investigation * Best Friends * Road Movie * Buddies * Biography * Based On Play * Period * Atmospheric * Basic Training * Sexism * Gays and Lesbians * Animation * Heroine * Impersonating * Soldier * Sci-Fi * Horror * Grandparent and Grandchild * Leadership * Outward Appearance * American Civil War

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