The first movie I ever saw in the theater was Jaws. It was the summer of 1975 and my parents were too cheap to hire a babysitter. While I credit that experience with sparking my lifelong love of film (horror films in particular), JAWS is not a remotely feminist film. Every character experiencing the adventure of finding and killing the great white shark is a guy. Still, it is a great movie, one of my favorites, and hey, I had to start somewhere.
My introduction to great films that featured great female characters came two years later courtesy of George Lucas. The summer of 1977 was dominated by one seminal event — the unforgettable cinematic experience of STAR WARS. This film introduced us youngsters to a strong, unforgettable, universally beloved female character — PRINCESS LEIA. She showed all of us that girls can have adventures ,too, kicking some serious ass, saving the galaxy and doing it all wearing a dress with a funky hairstyle.
Now that is a chick I could get behind!
A year later, another huge cultural event happened, this time on television. CBS showed, for one of the first times ever on network television, GONE WITH THE WIND. This was treated as a vastly significant event for a movie that had first been shown thirty-nine years earlier. It drew huge ratings and I watched it with my entire family, starting my lifelong obsession with Gone with the Wind, SCARLETT O’HARA and all things VIVIEN LEIGH, who it must be said will always be indistinguishable from the character she brought so vividly to life. It was easy to be fascinated with this character because she was my first introduction to a ruthless, conniving woman who overcame every obstacle life threw at her. Wasn’t I supposed to hate this type of a girl?
Hate her? It just made me love her more.
As an adult, this character is much more problematic to me, as is the movie, but she will always be something of a revelation and one of the most unforgettable characters ever portrayed on film. To this day, I can only imagine what her famous, “God as my witness” speech meant to a world in 1939 that had just survived the Great Depression and newly entered the Second World War. “I am woman hear me roar?” This was more like, “Planet earth get out of my way because even the Almighty will be but a mere witness to my ruthless ways, unable to stop me.” Taking on the Yankees and the Almighty?
Yikes. You go, girl.
It was also CBS that introduced us to another great female character from another great movie from 1939-THE WIZARD OF OZ. Another young girl on an adventure! Thanks to cinema we now knew that such a thing existed! Dorothy from Kansas, like Princess Leia and Scarlett, took us all on an adventure of a lifetime and like so many great female characters from cinema, triumphs in the end and again wearing dresses and cute hairstyles.
As I grew up my parents continued their proud tradition of taking their children to age inappropriate films and we are thankful they did. But alas, as the 1970s drew to a close, and the dawning of the age of corporate America began, both the quality of films and good roles for women declined. This is not a coincidence. And this is where PBS and syndicate television (showing classic films) played a huge role for me and a lot of other young girls who longed to see films where spunky girls had adventures and fascinating experiences. And so it was the television where I discovered great movies that featured inspiring and unforgettable female characters: SALLY BOWLES from CABARET, MAUDE from HAROLD AND MAUDE, MRS. ROBINSON from THE GRADUATE, SCOUT FINCH from To Kill a Mockingbird, BREE DANIELS from KLUTE, ALICE from ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, ANNIE HALL, NORMA RAE….the list is endless. These women were alternately tough, vulnerable, strong, difficult, and complicated, but they always had one thing going for them and that was grit. Determination and tenacity, too. No matter how bad things got, and for some of them things got real bad, they held on because their courage and fearlessness were greater than any adversity they faced. I can’t tell you how grateful I was to these fictional role models in the years to come when I faced my own struggles and challenges. I let their spirits, no longer fictional, guide me. They will always be my mentors.
The power of cinema is unique. It’s an art form unlike any other. Everything must come together-the story, writing, acting, sound, lighting, cinematography, etc. When it does, it’s pure magic, boasting the ability to shape, guide and provoke us, change how we view the world and ourselves within it. For those of us of the female persuasion, this power means a great deal. The big screen with its larger than life characters exert enormous influence, and I hope that as we proceed into the twenty first century, cinema will continue to inspire young girls the way they first inspired me so many decades ago.
In keeping with this theme, in the coming months, I will focus on films that inspire, uplift and inform audiences who cherish great movies with compelling female roles. The power of cinema to form our perceptions of gender is so vast, I will discuss both recent films and classics from past eras. I will also examine foreign films because so much great filmmaking comes from places such as Iran and Latin America. I will also review documentaries because non-fiction films also tell great stories of feminist pioneers we often wouldn’t learn about without this type of filmmaking.
My sole criteria for the films I will review is that they feature interesting female roles, and provide fodder for meaningful discussion. It’s easy to conclude, given the current state of much studio filmmaking, that there are no longer good films that tell compelling female stories. Rest assured, they are out there, but you must hunt for them.
Hopefully, this blog will make that hunt easier and offer a place where all film lovers who care about feminist issues can feel inspired, empowered and entertained, reading about great films you may have missed or not even heard about. This is a time when we are undergoing a worldwide cultural feminist revolution, and I cannot imagine a more relevant moment to examine feminist issues in film and how women are portrayed on film. We mustn’t let this moment pass us by.
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