There's been an unfortunate tendency of late to conflate the presence of so-called "strong" female characters with a film's overall politics, though there are numerous deeply misogynistic films with "strong" female characters and quite a few inoffensive, or even feminist, films that do not. Given that it's still quite typical for films to have only one major female character, she often exists alone within the cinematic universe, and is made to represent all women by default. It is far more important to have films that treat women like people rather than archetypes or cartoonish superwomen and it's even more important that films question broader notions of gender. Who cares if a female character is "strong" if she's surrounded by even stronger men, or conforms to imposed patriarchal ideals, or uses her strength only to further goals chosen by men and without exercising her own agency? There are any number of scenarios that render the presence of a "strong" female character utterly irrelevant by putting her in a context or having her perform actions that annul that strength. The films in this list all have female protagonists that have depth and exercise agency. These aren't necessarily feminist films; they're films that have a lot to say to feminists. For more great feminist films, see my original list, as well as my list of feminist period films.
Christopher Strong (1933)
Katharine Hepburn, at the very beginning of her extraordinary career, plays a glamorous aviatrix, Cynthia, too busy with setting new records in aviation and planning a daring round-the-world flight to care about romance. That changes when she meets Christopher Strong (Colin Clive, best known for playing Dr. Frankenstein), who is unfortunately married. The plot of this film is fairly conventional, though it's surprisingly frank about illicit sex and pregnancy outside of marriage, but for feminists, it is fascinating to see Cynthia - a pioneer in a male-dominated and highly dangerous profession - face the tragic consequences of pursuing what she wants in a society that holds her to absurd standards of morality.
She Done Him Wrong (1933)
The best of Mae West's films, She Done Him Wrong is set in a bawdy saloon where the show's star, Lady Lou, tells any man she wants to "come up sometime and see me." West was (and let's face it, is) an utterly unique presence in Hollywood cinema, unabashedly sexual and most definitely sexually active, busting out of tight bejeweled bodices, and never, ever apologizing. Despite playing characters of ill repute (to put it mildly), West always played women with their hearts in the right place and she always got her man - in other words, she had as much sex as she wanted and she never payed the price exacted on pretty much every other such cinematic character for decades to come. A very young Cary Grant plays the earnest Salvation Army worker who attracts the attention of Lady Lou.
The Lady Eve (1941)
Directed and written by the great Preston Sturges, The Lady Eve stars Barbara Stanwyck as Jean, an alluring card shark with her calculating eye on naive millionaire herpetologist Charles (Henry Fonda). Her scheme is stymied by the good intentions of Charles's staff, but having fallen for the guy, she decides to pull her greatest con to get Charles back. Stanwyck regularly pushed the envelope, playing daring characters; in this film, she defies convention by doggedly pursuing her man without becoming a femme fatale. Though one would be hard-pressed to call this film, with its heavy reference to the story of Adam and Eve, a feminist work, its gender politics are far from typical and are a fascinating study.
Salt of the Earth (1954)
One of the earliest American feminist films, Salt of the Earth languished in obscurity for many decades because it was made by black-listed filmmakers and denounced as communist propaganda, and indeed it has the euphoric fervor of Eisenstein's most powerful films. The film owes a great deal to the Neorealist movement, with its cast of largely non-professional actors, its pro-union sentiments, and its subject matter, a strike against a mining company. The film is narrated by Esperanza (Rosaura Revueltas), a miner's wife who convinces the other women to join their men in the fight for better working conditions. One of my favorite scenes in all of American cinema is in this film; in it, the picketing women have been jailed by the police along with their children and continue to protest, chanting, "We want the milk," so that they can feed their little ones. An exhilarating document of social protest, set-backs, and change, Salt of the Earth is revolutionary.
The Glass Slipper (1955)
This retelling of Cinderella, one of my all-time favorite films, is also the only adaptation I've seen that, with one fundamental change, eliminates a good part of the deeply ingrained misogyny of the original fairy tale. In The Glass Slipper, Cinderella (Leslie Caron) is not sweet-tempered and docile - on the contrary, she is rebellious, angry at the injustice of her life, and struggling for independence. The story itself remains the same, but, by allowing Cinderella the latitude to be difficult and to develop as a person, learning both to care about others and to care for herself, the film gains in complexity and renders the fairy tale far less sexist. The dance sequences by Roland Petit and the score by Bronislau Kaper are some of the best of the Hollywood era and the cast includes the great character actors, Elsa Lanchester, Estelle Winwood, and Keenan Wynn.
The Trouble with Angels (1966)
Directed by Ida Lupino with a nearly all-female cast, this comedy set at a convent school, stars Rosalind Russell as Mother Superior and Hayley Mills and June Harding as the students who make her life Hades. Though at first glance, the film is just about the rather naive hijinks of the girls, there is a lot of depth to this film. Few films treat nuns as complex, nuanced characters, and in The Trouble with Angels, the decision to devote oneself to something greater is lauded without being rendered either simplistic or easy. It's also a film that, while conservative in its values, delves into an essentially female world and grapples with women choosing their paths in life without the influence of men. It is also quite significant that not one of the nuns is portrayed as retreating to the convent after a failed love affair; rather these women are nuns by vocation, pursuing their calling with decision and fulfilled by their choice.
Starring the brilliant and fantastic Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles, a sexually liberated cabaret singer in Berlin during the slow ascent of the Nazi Party, Cabaret is, hands down, the best musical of the 1970s, with great songs by Jon Kander and Fred Ebb, including "Wilkommen" and
"Money, Money," brilliantly bawdy dances by director Bob Fosse, and
knockout performances by Minnelli and Joel Grey. Sally is a free soul, though more determined to be unconventional than actually bohemian, and she's a prime example of the "modern woman" that emerged in the turbulent political climate following the first World War and would be forcefully domesticated following the second, until the advent of second wave feminism.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
This is the fundamental feminist film, absolutely required viewing for any feminist film buff. With a running time of well over three hours and a less than action-packed story, the film is demanding viewing, but well worth it. Belgian director Chantal Akerman takes the viewer through the tedious day-to-day routines of a housewife, lingering over each monotonous detail, and thus making a damning and powerful statement about the barren reality most women faced in the home. Delphine Seyrig, in the title role, is revelatory, channeling with a visceral and brutal intensity her boredom, frustration, and isolation as she makes a meatloaf, reads a letter, makes her bed, and has an orgasm.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
An ambiguous, ethereal, and genuinely creepy fairy tale of a film, Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock proves difficult to summarize. On Valentine's Day in 1900, a group of schoolgirls with their teachers visit Hanging Rock, an extinct volcano in Victoria, Australia. When three of the girls and a teacher disappear on the rock, repressed emotions implode and a desperate attempt to find the missing girls, or at the least, find out what happened to them, founders. Visually gorgeous, the film seems to miraculously channel something sacred, perhaps culled from the Aboriginal Dreamtime. For feminists, the film is something of a secret garden, wordlessly traversing the mysterious regions of love, sexuality, spiritual yearning, and psychic suffering.
Much has been written about possible feminist subtexts for this film, and, although I wouldn't say that Alien is really making a clear feminist statement, the character of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) remains unique in science fiction film. Ripley is the second officer in the tiny crew of the Nostromo, a commercial spacecraft on its way back to Earth. When they respond to an odd distress signal, they accidentally unleash a terrifying alien creature, a bizarre and almost indestructible monster that eviscerates its prey. The science fiction genre has proved particularly hostile to women, relegating female characters to supporting or insignificant roles, especially as romantic interests for the consistently male hero, or simply ignoring them entirely. Although this film was released in 1979, it is still exceptional, both within the science fiction and the horror genre.
Catherine Breillat's film stars Caroline Ducey as a frustrated schoolteacher seeking intimacy in a series of increasingly risky sexual affairs, since her boyfriend (Sagamore Stevenin) pushes her away both emotionally and sexually. The film functions as a tour through the tortured sexual landscape women traverse within a male-dominated world, from rejection to orgasm, submission, and rape, and is one of the few non-pornographic films that features explicitly unsimulated sex (though one of the secondary characters is played by Rocco Siffredi, an Italian porn star). Romance invites many different interpretations, not all of them feminist, but, no matter the interpretation, it is a bold, unblushing reflection on the female body mired in a male world.
Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)
If this film has a weakness, it's that it tries to have its cake and eat it too, simultaneously be an anti-romantic comedy and satisfy the rules of the romantic comedy genre. That being said, Bridget Jones is a genuinely flawed heroine, one who doesn't in the least conform to social standards for women, and particularly in a film squarely set in a genre that typically insists on near saint-like heroines, that is already a gigantic step forward. Bridget struggles with her weight (and really does gain and lose visibly), keeps exactly none of her new year's resolutions, makes a complete ass of herself at work, and never remembers to put her underwear in the hamper. The movies are filled with Average Joes; isn't it about time we had an Average Jane?
Gaspar Noe's film is really unpleasant to watch, but it has to be to make its point.While rape is commonly portrayed in films, it is rarely portrayed realistically. Irreversible is unbearable precisely because it shows rape as a brutal, violent, disgusting criminal act, while in most films, it's eroticized and sparks the usual round of was-it-or-wasn't-it think-pieces (the answer is almost always, yes, it was). Between its nausea-inducing camerawork and its subject matter, this film has polarized viewers since its premiere at Cannes, with huge numbers of theater-goers simply walking out. Irreversible may be the ugliest, most repugnant film I've ever seen, but if it weren't, it would simply be one more film that downplays the devastation of sexual violence against women.
Anatomy of Hell/L'Anatomie de l'enfer (2004)
Another brilliant film about female sexuality from Catherine Breillat, Anatomy of Hell (based on Breillat's novel Pornocratie) stars Amira Casar as a woman who pays a gay man (Rocco Siffredi, who works predominantly in hard-core pornography) to watch her when she's "unwatchable." Not for the faint of heart, the film is extremely sexually explicit, but the sex is not extraneous. Breillat has mastered the art of the specific sex scene; how the characters have sex explains who they are, how they feel about each other, how the act changes them, and what they want. Power and dominance, orgasm, sexual communion, vulnerability, menstruation, the mysteries of physical difference - these are just the most prominent of the many themes Breillat explores.
I had serious doubts about this film going in, as it seemed impossible that a film about vagina dentata, directed by a man, could truly be making a feminist statement. My apologies to director Mitchell Lichtenstein - Teeth is a brilliant comedic horror film that interrogates male fears of female sexuality by empowering its heroine to strike back at a culture of male sexual violence without forfeiting her own sexuality. Dawn (Jess Weixler) discovers her "adaptation" when her first sexual encounter escalates to a brutal rape and as she learns to navigate a world in which women are, ipso facto, sexually vulnerable, she embraces her unique abilities and turns the tables on her male aggressors (including a less than sensitive gynecologist). A rare feminist horror film, Teeth is as terrifying for men as it is satisfying for women.