In 1975, film theorist Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema made a powerful case for a feminist perspective on film, arguing that women typically appear in passive roles that cause the viewer, regardless of their own sex, to be placed in the role of voyeur when watching women on-screen. While Mulvey wasn’t the first to write on the topic, her timing was impeccable. In 1975, the field of film theory was still in its infancy and second wave feminism was arguably approaching its peak; the Equal Pay Act 1970 finally took effect in the UK in 1975, as did the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975, while American feminist Susan Brownmiller was one of TIME’s Women Of The Year, thanks to her book, Against Our Will: Men, Women And Rape.
It was a prime time for an essay which would unite feminism and film theory. Visual Pleasure wasn’t just analysis, but called for feminists to make their own films that would react “against these obsessions and assumptions” made about women in classic narrative cinema. While some of the films below pre-date this essay, all the films on the list accomplish to some extent what Mulvey was hoping for. So forget about the career woman who just wants to land a husband, the nagging wife or the bikini-clad, curiously silent, action movie girlfriend. These feminist movies — and the women in them — are multi-dimensional character gold.
The Women (1939)
Director: George Cukor
Rejecting the idea that the lives of women in the domestic sphere weren’t interesting enough to be the subject of a film, this 1939 film boasted a cast of 130 women and not a single man. Even the animals appearing as pets were female. While the subject of conversation is mostly the men in their lives (as bore out by the film’s tagline “It’s all about men!”), the film is hardheaded about the financial aspect of being a single woman at the time, with the film’s arch seductress going after the protagonist’s husband not out of pure desire so much as the desire to not work at the perfume counter serving snooty wives anymore.
His Girl Friday (1940)
Director: Howard Hawks
Some feminists find this film problematic: Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) ostensibly just wants to leave journalism and settle down with her second husband in Albany, Newark to raise some kids. But she finds herself being drawn back into the frantic world of the newsroom when her ex-husband, editor of The Morning Post, Walter Burns (Cary Grant) asks her to cover one story before she leaves: the execution of the murderer Earl Williams. But what’s more feminist than a celebration of women’s choices? Both life as a wife and mother, and life as a hit newspaper-woman are presented as being equally appealing.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
The title is purely tongue in cheek in this Iranian vampire western, since the killer isn’t a man preying on a vulnerable woman. No, the film upends the cliché with a fearsome female vampire: The Girl (Sheila Vand), who hunts down bad men and drinks their blood. Forget the clichés about women on the street at night. In Bad City, men should be careful what women they approach once the sun goes down.
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (2014)
Directors: Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomi Elkabetz
Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz) wants a divorce from her difficult, religious husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian). Although she’s been going to court to achieve this aim for the past three years, so far, she hasn’t had a lot of luck: her husband has simply refused to show up. Unfortunately for Viviane, Jewish citizens of Israel, whether or not they observe their religion, can only break their marriage through a rabbinical court. This tense courtroom drama is all the more sobering for the fact that we’re aware Viviane is just one of many women who are trapped by patriarchal laws designed to keep them in their place.
The Hours (2002)
Director: Stephen Daldry
Who’s more of a feminist than Virginia Woolf? It's no wonder that this film, which acts as a loving tribute to Woolf’s work, focuses not on one, but three women: Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) herself, struggling to write her hit novel Mrs Dalloway in 1923, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), an L.A. housewife who in 1951 is suffering from clinical depression, and book editor Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep) in present day New York, who is planning a party for her friend and former lover Richard, who aptly nicknames her Mrs Dalloway.
Frances Ha (2012)
Director: Noah Baumbach
Frances Halladay (Greta Gerwig) is a 27-year-old dancer who’s still trying to get her career off the ground. The film is quietly revolutionary in its focus on Halladay’s friendship with Sophie (Mickey Sumner) and by not making romance the center of Halladay’s life. Sure, Halladay goes on a date now and then, but it’s no big deal that she continues to be single.
Daughters of the Dust (1991)
Director: Julie Dash
The first ever film directed by an African-American woman shown in cinemas in the United States, this moving 1991 indie film centers on three generations of Gullah women in the Peazant family in 1902, as they get set to move to the North. In the words of Emanuel Levy the women are “both individuals and symbols” with Mary representing “the indignities suffered by black women.”
Director: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Touted as a Turkish Virgin Suicides, this film depicts the lives of five sisters, who after playing on the beach with their male schoolmates get in trouble with their family. They then cut them off from the outside world, confiscating their phones and computers and keep them imprisoned inside the house, which becomes a “wife factory.” When the older sister is married off, the younger sisters must bond together to do everything in their power to fight for their freedom, resisting the harsh rules they’re given by small acts of rebellion.
Thelma and Louise (1991)
Director: Ridley Scott
When these two friends plan a weekend getaway as a break from their stifling relationships, things take a dark turn when Thelma (Geena Davis) almost gets raped in the parking lot of a bar and Louise (Susan Sarandon) is forced to shoot the man. A fun weekend turns into life on the run as the pair are pursued by a police officer while trying to make it to Mexico. The writer behind the classic script was Callie Khouri, a Texas native who had never written a script before and who wrote Thelma and Louise because she “had never seen a movie that made [her] feel good about the way women were represented.”
Directors: Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud
This animated film, based on Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical novel of the same name, focuses on a young girl’s life during the Iranian Revolution. When Islamic Fundamentalists win the elections, the women of Iran’s lives will never be the same again. They’re forced to dress modestly and wear headscarves, and rebellion is not tolerated: Marjane’s liberal-leaning uncle is arrested and executed. In a bonus feature on the DVD, author Satrapi explains how the black-and-white animated style was deliberate: she didn’t want the characters to look like people in a foreign country but simply people in a country, suggesting Marjane’s experiences are potentially universal: any country could become like Iran and thus any woman could end up living like Marjane.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Director: George Miller
In this dystopian world where women are treated as property and milked like animals for their breast milk, Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is a breath of fresh air. Her mission? To liberate her leader’s “wives” (these aren’t love marriages) and take them to her childhood home. But it’s not just the larger narrative arc but the small moments which make this a feminist masterpiece: like Max handing the rifle to Furiosa after conceding she’s the better shot from the pair of them or the wives cutting off their chastity belts en masse.
The Student Nurses (1970)
Director: Stephanie Rothman
Don’t judge a book by its cover. While this 1970 film looks like a corny B-movie, wrapped in its pretty packaging are issues of politics, the economic problems of poor Mexican immigrants and a woman’s right to have a safe and legal abortion during a time when abortion was still illegal. The film’s female director, Stephanie Rothman, might be the reason why the nurses all figure out their problems independently without turning to a man in their lives.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
Director: Chantal Ackerman
Critics argued that Chantal Ackerman’s film laid the foundation for a “new women’s cinema.” And no wonder. Smack at the center of the action (or lack thereof) is bored housewife Jeanne Dielman. For 3-hours and 20-minutes, we’re treated to an avant-garde depiction of how mundane life as a housewife can be; Dielman’s disinterest in her life and growing alienation from her role in society leads her to become involved in prostitution and eventually murder. Ackerman directed movies at the same time second wave feminism was growing in strength and her early films became important touchstones in the new world of feminist film theory.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Director: James Cameron
Not as unlikely a pick for feminist must-see viewing as you’d first think. If feminism is all about agency, Sarah Connor may embark on her journey in the first Terminator film with absolutely none, being barely able to balance her checkbook alone, but by the sequel, she’s calling the shots. Suddenly Sarah is able to defend herself and she doesn't need any man to look after her. While she does require the help of one machine to fight another A.I., by the end of the film when the T-800 self-destroys, it's because Sarah doesn't need him any longer after they defeat the other terminator. And you thought this would turn into another inter-species love story!
Set It Off (1996)
Director: F. Gary Gray
Pitched as a Thelma and Louise for black women, this heist movie centers on four women (and admirably diverse characters: one is a lesbian, one is a single mother, one is a woman whose brother died because of police brutality) who make up their minds to rob a bank. The film is scathing about Los Angeles’ racist police force and corporate corruption, making it even more compelling viewing now than it was when it first came out in 1996. In a system that’s weighted against black women, their bank raid doesn’t seem to be committed so much for the money as to stick a finger up at the society that treats them so badly.
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Director: Howard Hawks
While Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) plays a thoroughly destructive role in the life of David Huxley (Cary Grant), who she meets thanks to a misunderstanding on a golf course, underneath the manic pixie dream girl trappings, she has far more agency than Huxley. The film upends gender norms by making Vance be the one to woo Huxley and this is reinforced in the clothes the characters wear. While Hepburn spends most of the film striding around in wide pants, at one point Grant is forced into an extremely feminine fur-trimmed nightrobe.
The Day I Became a Woman (2000)
Director: Marzieh Meshkini
This Iranian drama film focuses on three different women, all at different stages in their lives but who are all struggling to live freely in Iran. The young girl Hava is told she must stop playing with her best friend, who is a boy and must wear a chador when in public. Ahoo enjoys cycling but is threatened with divorce by her husband if she doesn’t stop the activity. Hoora is the only woman in the film with palpable freedom, thanks to her wealth: she has recently inherited a lot of money and decides to buy everything she wanted but could not have while she was married. This movie functions as a haunting reminder of how women at all stages of life in Iran may suffer from oppression.
Born in Flames (1983)
Director: Lizzie Borden
This seminal 1983 science fiction mockumentary centers on an alternative New York City where after a socialist revolution, actually, very little has changed. Police brutality is still the norm, with feminist activist Adelaide Norris dying in police custody. This ushers in a new revolution headed by a vigilante Women’s Army who directly intervene assaults against women in a fleet of bicycles. The film acts as a paean to direct action and the necessity of women helping women.
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)
Director: Russ Meyer
John Waters called this undeniably seedy B-movie “beyond a doubt, the best movie ever made. It is possibly better than any film that will be made in the future.” While the sheer amount of cleavage and soft porno stylings may make it seem like a seriously weird pick for a feminist movie, the famous intro to the movie gives us some clues to how we could interpret it: “…let’s examine then closely this dangerous new creation...This rapacious new breed prowls both alone and in packs.…Who are they? one might be a secretary, the receptionist in your doctor’s office or a dancer in a go-go club.” The film could be read as a satire about men's anxiety surrounding women’s growingly liberated post-Pill sexuality.
Muriel's Wedding (1994)
Director: P. J. Hogan
Muriel Heslop (Toni Collette) is an ABBA-obsessed ugly duckling who desperately wants just one thing from life: to get hitched. It doesn’t help that her “friends” are bathing suit model wannabes who find Muriel far too dull and awkward to take along to their tropical island holiday. But when Muriel meets Rhonda Epinstock (Rachel Griffiths), it’s the beginning of her journey to self-discovery, with Muriel realizing she can be a success with or without becoming a bride.
These films are great, but it would be an exaggeration to suggest they’re without flaws — think, for example, of the scene in Mad Max where the wives are hosing each other down. But in an industry in which 7% of the 250 top-grossing films last year were directed by women, these films make a strong case for both more nuanced depictions of women in film and more women behind the camera (as with so many of the films above, which boasted female directors or writers). So yes, we’re still a way off from Mulvey’s vision as laid out in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema and from the radicalism surrounding feminism at the time Mulvey wrote it, but despite the sobering statistics surrounding women working in film, things are looking up.
Fourth wave feminism and its eagerness to embrace both technology and social media suggests that feminism and the media are more closely linked than ever. With cheaper technology readily available and the rise of impressive-looking films shot on iPhones (direct your attention please, to the wonderful Tangerine), it doesn’t feel like hype to suggest that the feminist film revolution can only be around the corner. So kick back, add these films to your to-watch list and get excited. Things can only get better.
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