The entertainment industry has made great strides for women as of late in terms of comedy, thanks to brilliant and hilarious ladies like Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, Sarah Silverman, and Mindy Kaling, among others… Yet as I settle back into the auditioning actress’ life after a fortunate stint away working, I’m reading script after script and my heart is crying out, “But where are the dramas?!”
Specifically, where are the period piece dramas, especially ones with war-torn action? There is something wrong with the quantity of this rare subcategory of female audience-aimed material not being able to go mainstream and big screen. The ratio of male-driven to female-driven action-drama that reaches your average AMC theater in middle America is not equal, especially in the period piece category. There are gratefully a slew of indie films that center around pre-1950s female lead characters—Cracks, Albert Nobbs, and Jane Eyre to name a recent and amazing few. But again, they reach a very limited audience, and these stories were relationship-based, not war-based. How many male-driven period piece films do you see that don’t revolve around war and physical violence? There were just as many women going through those hard human times as men, and their stories deserve to be told, critically acclaimed, and audience-exposed too! I want to see a Civil War movie about the life of Susan B. Anthony and I want it to be rated R, and I don’t want to watch it watered down on the Lifetime channel. My sister told me she wants to see a movie about the underground railroad, and I immediately saw Viola Davis starring as Harriet Tubman. I want to see a film about the women who fought in combat in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—a Hurt Locker with female leads. I want to see true stories and I want to see historically-based fiction.
I’ve heard the argument that there just isn’t enough demand from the public to see female-driven period pieces, but I find that hard to believe and the mainstream as well as critical success of The Help proves that. Granted, it wasn’t an action flick, but it shows me progress. Maybe studios will lift their dollar sign-glazed eyes up and produce more films like that in the near future. Maybe things are finally changing and I’ll see more of my dream-role material come my way. Maybe blockbuster epics like Braveheart, Gladiator, Last of the Mohicans, and Tombstone will have a comeback, and maybe this time a woman’s will be the first name in the screen credits. Where are the G.I. Jane’s and Joan of Arc’s of this decade?
To keep my spirits up and to remind myself that there are indeed films being produced by women, for women, and about women, I’ve compiled a list of my favorites. I call it a feminist list because of each movie’s determination to expose both old fights women have faced and the ongoing ones that ensue today, including misogyny, double standards, persecution, and other sexist injustices. A couple of these films starkly point out the soul-crushing war religion continues to wage on women, however subtle or blatant, a topic that is especially important to me for first-hand reasons. Instead of naming the brilliant directors of these films, I am recognizing the writers, for it is they who took the first step in making a woman’s story come to life. It’s a brave thing in Hollywood to pitch your female-driven script to potential directors and producers, as these kinds of movies are frequently rejected or limited to the Hallmark channel, since studios want broader demographic profits.
Here are twelve of my favorite feminist films in no particular order. I hope you enjoy watching them as much as I did, and that you allow them to enrage, inspire, and motivate you as a woman or as a man who loves women.
Iron Jawed Angels written by Jennifer Friedes, Sally Robinson, Eugenia Bostwick-Singer, and Raymond Singer; starring Hilary Swank, Julia Ormond, and Anjelica Huston. This film centers around the dauntless Alice Paul (Swank) and her courageous female comrades, passionately telling how women won the right to vote: by voluntarily unifying in a hunger strike. When politicians couldn’t stand to see their wives force-fed anymore, the nineteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution was finally made.
The Magdalene Sisters written by Peter Mullan and starring Nora-Jane Noone, Anne-Marie Duff, and Dorothy Duffy. Set in Ireland during the 1960s and based off of true events, this is a very realistic story of the damage inflicted upon women by religion; in this case, the Catholic church. Three young women are put into an insane asylum run by nuns for their “sins”, from being raped to simply being too flirty. The abuse and shame they endure in the name of God is horrifying.
The Stoning of Soraya M. written by Freidoune Sahebjam, Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, and Cyrus Nowrasteh; starring Mozhan Marno and Shohreh Aghdashloo. The infuriating true story of an Iranian woman who, in 1986, is stoned to death by her sons and her village because her husband falsely accuses her of adultery so he can marry a younger bride. Islamic Sharia Law at its finest. The material is intensely disturbing and graphically violent, and that is why the world must see it. Because these stonings are still happening now.
True Women written by Janice Woods Windle and Christopher Lofton; starring Dana Delany, Annabeth Gish, and Angelina Jolie. From the Alamo to the Civil War, to the burgeoning women’s rights movement, this film is a captivating period piece western finally told from a female perspective. From the lives of three heroines, we learn what family, friendship, romance, racism, adventure, childbirth, marriage, politics, war, and sexism were like for women in America during the 1800s.
Mozart’s Sister written by Rene Feret and starring Marie Feret. What must it have been like to be Nannerl, the older sister of Wolfgang? The Mozart family traveled throughout Europe like musical gypsies, and Nannerl performed alongside her brother at the ambition of their father, and received far less recognition. The gender discrimination of the 1700s prevented her from ever reaching her dream of being recognized as the talented composer she was. A vivid and exquisite portrayal.
Vera Drake written by Mike Leigh and starring Imelda Staunton. A working-class woman in post-WWII Britain is put on trial for performing illegal abortions. Her sincere conviction that she was doing nothing wrong, and that she was helping girls in distress out of the compassion in her heart, is made evident by the fact that she would never receive payment. The immediate abandonment by her family, friends, and society is devastating. A must on any list of movies about women’s rights.
Higher Ground written by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe; starring Vera Farminga and Taissa Farminga. This memoire-based film follows Corinne, a dutiful but restless wife and mother whose increasing doubts about her faith begin to unravel the small-knit community she’s a part of. She courageously challenges the sexual double standards of what the Bible says a godly woman is, while desperately wanting God to even be real. An eye-opening peek into ways the feminist movement of the 1970s affected the evangelical Christian world and the women in it.
Desert Flower written by Waris Dirie, Smita Bhide, and Sherry Horman; starring Liya Kebede. If you’ve never heard of female circumcision, this will educate you, though not in too graphic a manner (you’ll never actually see genitalia). Incredible and true rags-to-riches story about an impoverished African woman who becomes a supermodel and uses that fame to bring awareness to the female genital mutilation going on in the world. What are life and love like for a woman who has been genitally deformed and can never experience sexual pleasure?
The Duchess written by Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen, Saul Dibb, and Amanda Foreman; starring Keira Knightley. How a young woman living under rigid 18th century aristocratic rules made political statements through fashion. The double standard of female monogamy in marriage but not the other way around is exemplified heartbreakingly.
Head in the Clouds written by John Duigan; starring Charlize Theron, Penelope Cruz, and Stuart Townsend. A drama that covers both the Spanish Civil War and pre-World War II Europe from the eyes of a combat nurse/model (Cruz), a soldier-spy (Townsend), and a spoiled aristocrat-turned-double-agent (Theron). Ultimately about friendship and fighting for your causes in the face of your most intimate adversary. I applaud the writer/director for using the unique perspectives of two women to show this glimpse of history from.
Dancing at the Blue Iguana written by Michael Radford and David Linter; starring Daryl Hannah, Sandra Oh, and Charlotte Ayanna. Dare I put a movie about exotic dancers on a list of feminist films? Yes I dare, because there are many different forms of feminism and this film encapsulates the courage found in the form that turns female exploitation into power. It endeavors to be real, not glamorous, and it vulnerably follows multiple storylines that show the ups and downs of a career that is oft misjudged.
Changeling written by J. Michael Straczynski and starring Angelina Jolie. What happens when a woman in the 1920s calls out the ineptitude and corruption of the LAPD? She gets thrown into the insane asylum. Based on the true story of Christine Collins (Jolie) whose 9-year-old son Walter went missing. The police return a boy to her, but when she declares the boy they found isn’t hers, they hurry to save face by calling her deranged and locking her away in a facility filled with other women also betrayed by the law. The condescendence toward this persevering woman will make your blood boil.
Think I’ve overlooked a film that should be on this list? Share it with me!