Calling a female protagonist a "feminist" character has become a way for mainstream Hollywood to blind audiences to regressive gender politics and conservative conceptions of femaleness, maleness, marriage, and romantic love. A favorite smoke-screen is to have a female heroine who can beat up the bad guys (Pirates of the Caribbean, Parts 1-4, both of the recent Snow White reinterpretations, Willow, Star Wars). After the bad guys are defeated, the heroine is suddenly and inexplicably happy to settle down with Mr. Right and start popping out babies. Or maybe, the heroine reads! Books! Belle, in Disney's Beauty and the Beast, has more than once been called a feminist purely and simply because she reads. However, this is what Belle reads - "Here's where she meets Prince Charming, but she won't discover that it's him 'til chapter 3." And (surprise surprise) at the end she gets married.
Now, there's nothing wrong with women defeating bad guys or reading fairy tales, but for those of us who read (and enjoyed) The Second Sex, most movies are frustratingly free of female characters who are self-determining, independent, and more interested in things like careers and self-identity than marriage and motherhood. Some of the movies on this list really couldn't be called feminist, but they all acknowledge and explore the challenges women face in a patriarchal society.
La souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet) (1922)
This very rare and hard to find silent film is widely recognized as the first feminist film. It uses avant-garde special effects to portray an unhappily married bourgeois housewife during a typical mind-numbingly boring day. Unlike the notoriously long and tedious Jeanne Dielman, The Smiling Madame Beudet is only 16 to 22 minutes long (depending on the source) and shows the vivid imaginings of a woman struggling to hold onto her own individuality within the confines of an empty marriage without losing her mind.
La passion de Jeanne d'Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc) (1928)
Carl Theodor Dreyer's masterpiece is, as far as I'm concerned, the best film of all time, and its star, Renee Falconetti, gives the single greatest film performance of all time. Closely based on the actual documents of St. Joan's trial for heresy, the film is a stirring and deeply moving reflection on faith, hypocrisy, cruelty, and how women act/acted and are/were treated within the patriarchal church. Joan emerges as strong, complex person who struggles to maintain her faith in the face of paralyzing fear. This film is absolutely mesmerizing.
Die Buechse der Pandora (Pandora's Box) (1929)
Georg Wilhelm Pabst's brilliant silent film stars Lulu Brooks as the alluring woman no one, male or female, can resist. Brooks is iconic in a role that incarnates female sexuality as a force that cannot be contained, scattering tragic consequences whenever someone attempts to do so. This film can be interpreted as either radically feminist or misogynist, but, to my understanding, the film is a parable about the folly of the patriarchal repression of unbridled female sexuality. The film also has one of the first portrayals of lesbian attraction and romance.
His Girl Friday (1940)
This fabulous screwball comedy stars Rosalind Russell as a pulp reporter, Cary Grant as her boss and ex-husband, and Ralph Bellamy as her fumbling new fiance. Russell's character Hildy, fast-talking, ambitious, and fully capable of taking care of herself, realizes she can't throw over a career she loves to be a housewife. Russell and Bellamy switch traditional gender roles in a number of crucial scenes and Grant is portrayed as the right guy for Hildy because they're both tough newspaper(wo)men. The movie is a hilarious send-up of the newspaper business, with a great cast of character actors and lines like, "Put Hitler on the funnies page."
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
Maya Deren's short experimental film has an ambiguous repetitive narrative structure that uses powerful imagery, a key falling or a knife in a loaf of bread, to tease out a drama of the subconscious contemplating suicide. It's questionable whether or not this film can truly be considered feminist, but its exploration of the psychic underworld from a woman's point of view is radical and challenging.
The Red Shoes (1948)
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger's brilliant and gorgeously colored film tells the story of a talented ballerina caught between the chance of a great career and the love of a composer. Still painfully relevant today, the conflict is reflected through the lens of the ballet world, until eventually ballet and reality have become intertwined. The magic fatalism of the film may seem disheartening, but The Red Shoes is still the finest ballet film ever made and the fifteen minute dance sequence is a tour de force of color and movement.
Adam's Rib (1949)
The best of the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn collaborations, this battle of the sexes comedy is not strictly feminist, though it's solution to the epic battle is perhaps more radical than it seems. Two married lawyers take sides in a legal battle between a cheating husband and the wife who tries to shoot him in revenge for his infidelities. Hepburn's character decides to defend her client by proving that a double standard has an unlawful effect on the guilt or innocence of her client, leading to increasingly bitter displays of marital discord in the courtroom. Packed with explicit discussions about gender roles, the movie is not nearly as dated as you might expect.
Sedmikrasky (Daisies) (1966)
This Czech film by Vera Chytilova follows two adolescent girls through a series of surreal episodes. Originally banned for its subversive material, there is no doubt that this is the most challenging film on this list. The girls decide to "be bad" and embark on a crusade of teasing lecherous older men and eating. One notorious scene depicting the girls eating various phallic food items after cutting them up with scissors will be difficult for most men to watch. The girls' "badness" is a radical rebellion against both the misogyny and the political suppression of the time.
My Brilliant Career (1979)
Based on the novel by Miles Franklin, Gillian Armstrong's period drama is about an ambitious young woman determined to have a great career (she eventually settles on writing). Judy Davis gives a splendid performance as the heroine and the sets by Luciana Arrighi are stunning. Much like The Red Shoes, the conflict is between an artistic career and a marriage to the man the heroine loves, but this film is much more progressive, with an ultimate decision that may not appeal to the have-it-all generation but is nevertheless exhilarating for feminists.
Anne of Green Gables (1985)
Aside from being the best television movie I've ever seen, this Kevin Sullivan production is a fabulous adaptation of L. M. Montgomery's novel, a visually beautiful period piece, and a showcase for a cast that includes Colleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnsworth. Megan Follows plays Anne, the orphan girl who has rescued her own identity with imagination, intelligence, and sheer will power. Unlike most heroines, particularly in period pieces, Anne is much more interested in academic achievement than romantic entanglements and her relationship with Gilbert Blythe is realistically complicated.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
This terrifying movie stars Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, an FBI trainee trying to track down a serial killer with bartered information from Hannibal Lecter, played by the magnificent Anthony Hopkins. The most feminist part of this movie is that it doesn't at first glance appear to be anything of the sort. Clarice Starling is highly trained and very intelligent and she keeps up with the men, though there is a constant and subtle subtext of the challenges of being perceived as the weaker sex. But guess what - unlike all of the heroines (except for Joan of Arc) in the movies on this list, Clarice is the only one without a boyfriend or husband in sight. This wouldn't be radical if Clarice were male, but it is incredibly rare for a movie heroine, no matter her job, to have no time for or interest in a romantic relationship.
Muriel's Wedding (1994)
Toni Collette stars in this bitter comedy about an overweight, unemployed woman obsessed with weddings and ABBA songs. What starts out as a quirky romantic comedy becomes a radical deconstruction of every romantic delusion embraced by the genre, from superficial self-transformation as a path to happiness to friends as sidekicks with no problems. In fact, the film is ultimately an homage to friendship and self-determination.
Primo Amore (2004)
Matteo Garrone's film is a horror film about romantic relationships and eating disorders and it is unsparing in its depiction of the slow destruction of the female body. Vittorio (Vitaliano Trevisan) is a jewelry designer determined to fashion the woman of his dreams out of Sonia (Michela Cescon) by manipulating and bullying her into losing weight. The brutal and very graphic depiction of Sonia's shrinking body is not for the faint of heart, but this is a rare film that lambastes the widely accepted misogynistic standard that says thinner is better.
Une vieille maitresse (The Last Mistress) (2007)
Catherine Breillat is one of the only living directors totally unintimidated by honest depictions of female sexuality, traumatic sexual encounters, and unrestrained female dominance. The Last Mistress is about an aristocratic young man, his mistress, and his wife - a typical love triangle. But the movie is extraordinary because it is able to detach itself from the usual clearly male perspective without taking on a radically feminist perspective, and thus examining men with as much distance and mystique as it does women. The effect of this is a complete re-balancing of gender dynamics. Unfortunately Blockbuster bought the distribution rights to this film and it is not available elsewhere nor has it received a wide DVD release.