I Feel Pretty hits cinemas this month, bringing with it a wave of controversy after its somewhat inauspicious trailer split opinion. Whatever your take, you never really need an excuse to celebrate women in film – so let’s take some time to celebrate some brilliant movies that, in some form or another, celebrate the strength, fortitude, intellect, and even deviousness, of women on the big screen.
9 To 5 (1980)
It might be disheartening to note that a 38 year old film about sexual harassment is still relevant, but in the age of #MeToo, 9 to 5 may as well have been made last year. Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin star as three women who dream of revenge against their “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” of a boss, Mr Hart (Dabney Coleman). Particular highlights include the cathartic fantasy sequences in which the women get high together and imagine how they’d get their revenge. Cue Tomlin as a Disney princess (complete with cartoon birds), beaming as she pours poison into his coffee, or Parton turning the tables as a brash J.R Ewing type tycoon ordering a bashful secretary Hart to smile more.
When farcical circumstances lead to Mr Hart’s indisposition, the women soon find themselves in charge. Implementing changes their pig-headed boss would never allow – job-sharing roles, flexible hours, equal pay, and an on-site creche for employees with kids, the office soon becomes something of a utopia – until Hart’s reappearance threatens it all. Beyond the satire, this is ultimately a movie about female friendship and solidarity, and misogynistic men getting their comeuppance – oh, and it has an absolute banger for a theme song.
After three instalments starring one of Hollywood’s most well-documented bigots, George Miller’s fourth visit to the Wasteland gifted us with one of cinema’s most pleasant surprises. Max (now played by Tom Hardy) becomes the sidekick in his own film, swept along for the ride as Charlize Theron’s indomitable Imperator Furiosa figuratively and literally takes the wheel to rescue five young women from a life of sexual slavery. Caked in blood and dust and engine oil, head shaven and an arm amputation plainly visible, Furiosa isn’t Hollywood’s typical glossy-haired action heroine.
Rather than play second-fiddle to Max, she’s the film’s true star. Max frequently bows to her leadership, follows her commands, and even becomes her gun rack when required – a powerful statement of deference from such an established male protagonist. The supporting cast is equally terrific, featuring a fantastic variety of diverse women – young and old, cynical and idealistic, gentle and violent – fighting back against the revolting patriarchal despot Immortan Joe. A full-throttle, utterly bonkers two hour car chase that utterly condemns toxic masculinity in all its forms AND features badass biker grannys? WITNESS ME.
There are two kinds of women in the world – those who teared up at the sight of Themyscira, the matriarchal paradise island populated exclusively with warrior women, and goddamn liars. Perhaps this choice is a tad obvious , but in 2017, when the blessed All-Mother Patty Jenkins bestowed Wonder Woman upon us, it was cinema’s first female-fronted solo superhero film since 2005’s ill-received Elektra. Doubling down on her explosive Batman vs Superman debut, Gal Gadot stormed her way into hearts everywhere as the Amazonian powerhouse forced to intervene in the bloody conflict of World War I.
A towering figure of both immense strength and incredible compassion, Diana gave women starving for representation a veritable feast – and a fantastic role model to boot. It’s hard to picture the breathtaking shot of Diana striding over No Man’s Land through a hail of bullets, or lifting a tank over her head, without getting the shivers. But equally, her simple underlying message – “I believe in love” – provides the all-important message that strength without compassion is meaningless. Bring on the sequel!
Female empowerment isn’t – and shouldn’t – be solely catered around physical strength. In the real world, the fight is often institutional, Sometimes it’s about Emotional and intellectual strength is out in full force in Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures, which aims the deserving spotlight at the black female mathematicians of 1960s NASA who helped America win the Space Race. Each woman presents a figure of astonishing grit and determination, battling prejudices based on both their race and gender as they fight for their recognition.
Aspiring engineer Mary (Janelle Monáe), who gains a court order to allow her to study engineering at an all-white school; Dorothy (Octavia Spencer), the human computer who teaches herself how to programme the new IBM 7090 in order to avoid being replaced by it; and Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), the mathematician who forges her way into all-white control rooms and later all-male meetings, only to have her work accredited to colleagues. This is an incredible story about black women whose contributions were largely overlooked finally being brought to the light – and serving as inspiration to women in STEM fields everywhere.
In the words of Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn: “Women have spent so many years girl-powering ourselves…we’ve left no room to acknowledge our dark side. Dark sides are important. They should be nurtured like nasty black orchids.” Well then, consider Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne a horticultural triumph. A calculating anti-villain of almost startling viciousness, Amy’s story is a powerful and much-needed reminder that women aren’t all soft, nurturing, forgiving creatures – and they shouldn’t exclusively be portrayed as such. They can be nasty, vicious, cruel, wrathful – murderous, even.
As played by Rosamund Pike, Amy isn’t exactly a “yas kweeeeen” figure by any conceivable means. Framing her unfaithful husband for abuse and murder, slitting a man’s throat, faking a rape (reprehensible in 2014; unthinkable now) – there’s little that should be considered aspirational in Amy – and therein lies the point: women shouldn’t be placed on pedestals. We love and cherish our Wonder Women, but heroic glamazons aren’t enough. We need our own Walter Whites too – female characters that aren’t kind or loving, but unpleasant, dark, or even evil. Women onscreen need to humanise women offscreen, representing all the facets that real women possess, including the ugly parts we’d rather not see.