I would love for this post to be interactive, meaning that I hope people will add movies to the list that I have neglected to add so that the list can become more complete.
1. Sunset Boulevard (1950): My all-time favorite movie. Norma Desmond is the aging silent-screen diva who runs the show and takes all the power – in her home and in her relationship with William Holden – for the better part of the movie. Played without compare by Gloria Swanson. So she’s a bit delusional, suicidal and narcissistic – who wouldn’t be in her shoes? She is a feminist by default – she has had a career in one of the most lucrative industries at a time when women didn’t have careers and she made her own money. Cecil B. DeMille has a cameo as himself.
The next four movies explore and examine woman-as-whistleblower-crusader-advocate:
2. Norma Rae (1979): Female empowerment comes in a small package in the late 1970s as Sally Field plays the title character, who, in a textile mill in the South, helps to form a worker’s union. She dares to do what none of her co-workers have the courage to do. She’s tough, has moxie and spunk. Field won the Oscar for her performance. From Gidget to Sybil to Norma Rae!
Apparently, North Carolinan Krystal Lee Sutton was the inspiration for Norma Rae. She recently died while battling her insurance company over treatment.
3. Silkwood(1983): Meryl Streep plays the title character, Karen Silkwood, who works in a nuclear power plant. This is based on the true story of Silkwood’s life. The scariest thing about the movie for me, besides the fact that Silkwood is run off the road and murdered, is seeing the lack of precautions available to workers in a nuclear power plant. Second scariest thing: Cher playing an earthy, working-class lass (pre- gowns, glitz and surgeries).
4. North Country (2005): Set in the mines of northern Minnesota. Charlize Theron plays a rare commodity in the mines: a female worker. This movie tackles flagrant sexual harassment and abuse – there is nothing subtle about excrement smeared on lockers and sexual assault. Although this movie is fictional, it does depict harassment that was experienced by women working in the mines of Minnesota. Frances McDormand should be mentioned, as she plays an older, wiser union rep who goes along with the boys’ game while she’s in their company as a coping mechanism.
5. Erin Brockovich (2000): I’m not a big fan of Julia Roberts, and yet three of her movies happened to make my list. Go figure. I never really forgave her for “Pretty Woman.” Even typing the title makes me wince.
I love a good story that reveals a self-made person, especially when that person is a woman. Erin Brockovich is the true tale of a legal crusader/advocate who helps litigants win their negligence suits against a California power company for dumping chemicals in a city’s water supply without any thought to the consequences ( such as health issues) of the dumping. Of course, much of the pollution and chemical dumping perpetrated by a variety of corporations has occurred almost exclusively in rural and other areas without political power. Roberts won an Oscar for the role.
6. Private Benjamin (1980): Pampered princess becomes empowered. Goldie Hawn plays the title character who forsakes her sheltered, privileged life to join the army. She’s completely naïve about the army as a career choice and about love. She is schooled in both and comes out wiser. Who doesn’t love Armand Assante?
7. Mommie Dearest (1981) : Written as a tell-all memoir by Joan Crawford’s adopted daughter, Christina, after Crawford’s death, this movie provides a cautionary tale about wire hangers and being adopted by a fading, frustrated movie diva. While some have questioned Christina’s memory, I believe that the events depicted in the movie did occur. The real tragedy is that this movie eliminates true introspection into the hard-scrabble life of Joan Crawford.
The subtext of the movie, though, shows us that Crawford was a very powerful woman who made it big in Hollywood, only to have her mentor, Louis B. Mayer, turn his back on her. She had to reinvent herself many times. Along the way she married Pepsi-Cola Chairman Alfred Steele. After his death, she was elected to his position on the board. The phrase “tough cookie” should have been invented by Crawford.
I have included this in my list as a reminder that women in power can abuse it on the very people they should be caring for most.
8. Yentl (1983): This movie features Barbra Streisand as a Jewish female who wants to engage in religious study but cannot be formally schooled because she is a female. Her solution: dress and act like a male. And it works! Streisand not only stars in Yentl, but also directs it. Amy Irving plays a misguided love interest. The saddest comment that I ever heard about this movie was at a dinner party, when a guest pejoratively called this movie a “lesbian” movie. Apparently she was unable to follow the plotline.
9. Steel Magnolias(1989): Ensemble cast includes Sally Field, Shirley McLaine, Olympia Dukakis, Julia Roberts, Darryl Hannah and Dolly Parton. Overacting abounds, but so do issues very important to women, such as motherhood vs. health risks, death of children, female friendship, marriage and where to get your hair done. My favorite character is Ouiser Bourdreaux, played by Shirley McLaine, who has the best line in the movie: I’m not crazy, I’ve just been in a very bad mood 40 years! I can relate
10. A League of Their Own (1992): During World War II, while men fought overseas, women did things like work in factories and munitions plants and also play baseball. Directed by Penny Marshall and features acting by Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna.
11. Death Becomes Her (1992): Meryl Streep plays an aging movie diva who can’t help but steal Goldie Hawn’s lovers. Both women stumble upon a magic potion that allows them to keep their physical prowess as long as they take care of their bodies. The movie tackles issues such as female beauty and aging, and the outrageous steps some will take to ensure they keep their Maiden power. Very dark humor. Brilliantly written and acted.
12. Fargo (1996): This movie is set in Fargo, North Dakota. Frances McDormand won the Oscar for her portrayal of a pregnant, local police detective named Marge Gunderson. Gunderson investigates a case of murder and kidnapping, which is uncommon in that region. Is she Columbo or really Barney Fife? Whatever she is, she is definitely persistent and laid back. Fargo reminds me that movies rarely show pregnant women in important roles in life other than motherhood. How often have we seen a very pregnant main character? Written by Joel and Ethan Coen.
13. Mona Lisa Smile (2003): This movie is the female equivalent to Dead Poets Society, although it is set in the 1950s at Wellesley. Julie Roberts plays the professor who changes the girls’ lives by helping them awaken out of the dark ages so that they can believe they can be what they want to be. She does this in the same theme of Robin Williams in Dead Poets – through unorthodox and free thinking.
My favorite line is by Robert’s character – you can bake your cake and eat it, too – in response to a female student thinking she had to choose between being a lawyer or being a wife. We live in a time when we know we have these choices, but this movie reminds us that there was a time when it was just taken for granted that women would choose being married over a career. Career choices were also woefully limited.
14. Mean Girls (2004): This movie reveals the truth about the darkness of middle school and high school cliques, and how some in those cliques use their petty power to bully others. Written by Tina Fey. Starring Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams and Amanda Seyfried. It’s a good primer for all adolescent girls.
15. Penelope (2006): This movie attempts to tackle the issue surrounding the myth of beauty and the resultant difficulty of finding a mate if one does not embody the culturally-required assets. However, Penelope, the main character played by Christina Ricci, is not that ugly – she just has a pig nose that turns off potential suitors. You can still see Ricci’s face beneath the nose. What if she had a pig body or was really physically unattractive? What if half of her face was missing or an arm or leg gone? Would we have then figured out something essentially different between the way men and women pick mates? Still an interesting feminist platform for discussion.
16. The Handmaid’s Tale (1990): I read the book by Margaret Atwood prior to seeing the movie. Set in a futuristic “dystopia,” this movie explores potential future horror for women who still remain fertile and viable in the face of environmental infertility and governmental rule by a hypocritical, right-wing oligarchy. Natasha Richardson plays the main character who is forced into fertility servitude based on her continuing ability to conceive. If you don’t think this kind of future could really be possible for women, all one has to do is look at treatment of women in Afghanistan, and sexual slave trades worldwide to understand it not only could happen, but is already happening.
17. The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (2005): This movie is based on the true story of Evelyn Ryan, a 1950s housewife with 10 kids and an alcoholic husband who helps to make ends meet by using her substantial writing talents to enter and winn jingle contests (which were prevalent in the ’50s). It’s a must-see to help us understand in the 21st century how institutions, such as religion and the police, help to enable abusive behavior by males in the home.
18. 9 to 5 (1980): Three female employees at various levels within the corporation take on their egotistical and sexist boss. Revenge fantasies can be so enjoyable, especially when they bleed into reality. Starring Lilly Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton.
19. Cry in the Dark(1988): A dingo really did eat her baby, but main character, Lindy Chamberlain, played by Meryl Streep, went to prison anyway because of her questionable religion and forgetting to act like a typical mother in loss. This movie, set in Australia, is based on a true story. It is included because it pierces through some stereotypes of how a woman must act given certain circumstances.
20. Basically any movie starring Jodie Foster, but in particular The Accused (1988) and Little Man Tate (1991): Foster is best when she plays working-class heroines forced by circumstances to flex her considerable strength in times of despair and vulnerability. Foster won the Oscar for her performance in The Accused.
21. Monster (2003): Do you feel glee when a former model plays an overweight-serial killer-lesbian? Then you’ll love this movie. Charlize Theron plays the main character, Aileen Wuornos, in this movie based on Wuornos’ life. Wuornos is one of the few documented female serial killers. Why include this on my list? The wages of abuse are severe, even if the abused is a female. Theron won the Oscar for her performance.
22. She Devil (1990): Roseanne Barr plays an average wife and mother who is left by her philandering husband for a romance novelist, played very frilly and in pink by Meryl Streep. She creates a temporary employment agency that helps other women-on-the fringe find employment. Barr’s character becomes empowered while seeking her revenge against her ex and Streep character – from domestic wimp to powerful goddess!
23. Sophie’s Choice (1983): No mother should ever have to make this choice. This is set in WWII and its aftermath, and explores some of the real decisions that parents faced given the Holocaust. Also explores being in an abusive relationship. Meryl Streep plays the title role and won a best actress Oscar for her achievement.
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