Said Thelma to Louise in a film that still stands as the seminal feminist big-screen journey. Because movies featuring or made by women still get far less investment than they should.
USC’s Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative released a study on more than 25,000 speaking characters in 600 of the highest-grossing films of the past seven years, and, unsurprisingly, the results for women are dismal. While women made some headway in comedies with a whopping third of characters, they represented less than a quarter of action-adventure roles. The number of women directors dropped, and women characters were sexualized three times as often as men. (There are even financial reasons why this should be otherwise.)
Add to that, the vast number of movies that perpetuate gender norms and contribute to rape culture, and we’ve got a pretty sorry picture.
But there are films out there that challenge traditional ideas of women, give women voices and agency, and explore women’s experiences. We can argue all day about what definition to use to categorize a movie as feminist and you’ll be disappointed if you’re favorites were left off of this list, but I’m really digging Flavorwire’s “50 Essential Feminist Films” and am ashamed to say that I’ve only seen fourteen of them. Now you know what’s on my Netflix queue.
To give you an idea of what’s on the list, here’s what I’ve seen: Meshes of the Afternoon, All About My Mother, Daisies (a feminist, anti-capitalist frolic; you too will long to stomp around in cake at a wealthy shindig), Orlando (my introduction to the incomparable Tilda Swinton), Alien, Wendy and Lucy, Female Trouble, Morvern Callar, I Shot Andy Warhol, Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains (a young, punk Diane Lane!), Nine to Five, Clueless (yes!), A View to a Kill (an unexpected pick, but Barbara Broccoli produced and Grace Jones kicked ass), and The Punk Singer (which I wrote about recently).
This is truly an excellent list: science fiction, transgender stories, female magistrates in Cameroon, women in Tehran, Cuban revolutionaries, Maggie Cheung, Catherine Deneuve, Pam Grier and bell hooks in the same film, Margarite Duras, Margarethe von Trotta, Jane Campion, Agnès Varda. Cassavetes, our best frenemy, makes an appearance. And Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, which I’ve wanted to watch ever since I read about it in college.
There are also great suggestions in the comment section. So is your favorite missing? What else would you recommend?
As for the future of film, and feminist film especially, check out these fine organizations and projects: Black Feminist Film School, Athena Film Festival, Women in Film, Women Make Movies, Reel Grrls, PODER!, and, of course, from Thelma herself, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.
I’ve written before about the need to do something creative every day. It’s how I take care of myself, how I keep from getting stuck. If I’m creating something — whether writing an essay or singing while making dinner, knitting a scarf or turning an old drawer into a nightstand — I’m giving instead of taking, building instead of wasting or wallowing, meditating instead of worrying. What I create might be for someone else or for myself, but the time I spend working on it is all for me. I’m giving back to myself.
The current issue of TRIVIA: Voices of Feminism features Monica J. Casper writing about exhaustion in “Toward a Theory and Praxis of Sustainable Feminism.” We work and tend and advocate, and even when faced with grief and disappointment and health problems, we keep working and tending and advocating. We keep going because that’s what we’ve been trained to do. We take care of everyone but ourselves. There are women in my life who are unable to slow down even though they are getting older. They aren’t interested in humoring the increasing limitations of their bodies because they’ve spent their lives taking care of everyone, so they push through.
At 22, I was at a young women’s leadership workshop in Seattle, and I remember one of the other attendees reacting negatively to the idea of self-care. She said it felt wrong to spend time on herself — get a massage, say, or buy a special dress — when there were people who needed her time and could make better use of the money she would have spent. She didn’t think social justice had room for self-care. Doing something for herself made her feel guilty.
In a world where women have been taught from a young age to tend to the needs of others at all times, self-care is a radical act. And it’s certainly a feminist act.
Likewise, I know people who think creativity is a luxury. They feel guilty spending time on things like writing poetry because it’s something that’s just for them and not anyone else. But that’s self-care, and we truly can do more for others when we have taken care of ourselves.
I’ve been active in the feminist movement for nearly twenty years, and I definitely feel exhausted sometimes. I get tired of politics and want to run away to the mountains to never hear another word about legislation and demonstration. In these moments, diving into a creative project is like finding sanctuary. If I don’t do it, I can’t go back to work. My work is emotionally draining; at some point, the tide goes out. To make it sustainable, I have to find a way to pull the tide back in. My way is art.
In a captivating interview in The Paris Review, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips says, “One of the reasons we admire or like art, if we do, is that it reopens us in some sense—as Kafka wrote in a letter, art breaks the sea that’s frozen inside us. It reminds us of sensitivities that we might have lost at some cost.”
Take some time this week to think about the ways you reenergize or heal or reclaim yourself. I’m not talking about drinking a bottle of wine and slurping down a pint of ice cream, although those things are enjoyable (until the next day). If you don’t have healthier ways of dealing, try a new creative pursuit. Sketch what you see from your window, go to a salsa dance class, start a journal, make something.
Do something creative every day. Keep it to yourself or share it with others, but keep doing it. Make time for yourself. Cultivate serenity and carry it with you. Be radical.
As I write this, I keep peeking at the #YesAllWomen Twitter conversation, where women are explaining what it’s like to live with the constant threat of male violence thanks to misogynistic attitudes that caused a young man to kill seven people and injure several others at UC Santa Barbara. He was angry that women wouldn’t sleep with him. See, we never know if this guy is lurking inside the dude who harasses us on the street or sidles up to us at the bar, so we say, “I have a boyfriend” and grip our keys between our knuckles.
Recently, on a late-night walk with my partner, I thought we’d walked enough and wanted to go home and sleep, but he wasn’t done. He said he could just meet me at home. I said, “Uh, it’s a forty minute walk back on dark streets where no one walks, and I don’t even have my phone or ID. You think I’m walking that by myself?” He does it all the time, so he didn’t think twice about it. Must be nice, I thought, to not live with the kind of fear women live with for good reason.
This isn’t what I want to talk about this week, but I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s constantly under the surface as I do other things. I’m so relieved that people are having this conversation instead of ignoring the reason this guy plainly gave for his actions and the reason women die at the hands of men every day around the world.
But what I want to talk about isn’t totally unrelated.
My subject today is “strong women.” Please, can we stop saying it? Screenwriters and directors who care about female characters just a little more than the average filmmaker use this term a lot. So do the people who interview them, stunned that someone might see women in complex ways. And so do people who want to see more of these women on screen. It’s become shorthand for fully drawn female characters or female-driven stories. I was going to give you a few examples, but there are just so many and if you haven’t come across this term a hundred times in the last year, then you probably don’t have a TV anyway.
It isn’t that I don’t appreciate the sentiment. I get what these people are saying and appreciate what they are doing.
The problem, however, is that the still fairly new idea of making movies with “strong women” implies that such women are a rarity. That there are loads of women out there who are little weaklings just floating around waiting for a big, strong man to reel them in and protect them from all the harsh difficulties of real life. That most women don’t know how to handle life on their own.
What is the male corollary of the strong woman? In film or fiction, it’s just…a man. No one says, “Gee, I love that this director focuses on strong male characters” because that wouldn’t make sense. Men get to be who they are and women, if they are lucky, get to be strong women. I asked my partner to tell me the first thought that came to him when I said “strong man.” He said, “A man in a striped, old-timey bathing suit with a waxed mustache and a heavy barbell.”
Need I say more?
Honestly, I don’t know any women who aren’t strong. Do you? Every woman I can think of–whether family, friend, colleague, or acquaintance–is strong in her own way. I used to work for a nonprofit that housed women who had faced intimate partner violence, sexual assault, addiction, prison and other problems that totally disrupted their lives. Some of them had worked or lived on the streets. Many had lost their children. Nearly all had faced sexual abuse when they were young. You might assume that these were weak women. That might be what you associate with drugs and domestic violence and prison and sex work. But they were the strongest people I’d ever met in my life. Each one was working to overcome a series of debilitating problems that all began when someone they trusted had hurt them in ways many of us couldn’t imagine. They had reached rock bottom and gotten back up. I’d say that’s as strong as it gets.
You don’t have to kick someone’s ass to be strong.
What we really mean when we say a film or TV show has strong women characters is that we’ve been shown a more comprehensive view of those characters’ lives. Someone has taken the girlfriend of the hero and shown us other parts of her life. We can see that every minute of her life does not revolve around the hero, that she has agency, her own concerns and interests and desires. By showing us other sides of the usual narrative, we can see her as the hero of her own life. This isn’t anything special. It’s every day for more than half the world.
We live with the threat of violence every day. And we go about our business anyway. You think we’re not all strong?
On a lovely May afternoon a couple of years ago, my partner and I headed to a popular brunch spot in our city. When we arrived and saw dozens and dozens of families in pastel dresses and button-down shirts, we remembered it was Mother’s Day and realized we’d never get a table. But they sat us immediately. There were virtually no other couples there, so they had plenty of two-tops. At some point, I went to use the unisex restroom, and a boy–probably ten or eleven years old–kindly gestured for me to go ahead of him. I shook my head, but he insisted. When I returned to our table and related this incident to my partner, commenting on how sweet it was, he said, “Oh, he thought you were someone’s mother.”
Once he said it, it became obvious, but it hadn’t occurred to me in the moment. I’m not someone’s mother, so I don’t realize that’s what strangers assume about me. I immediately thought, oh god, do I look like a mom somehow? (Cut to a stoned Abbi Jacobson rolling on a waiting room floor after being asked how many kids she has in Broad City.) And then I felt a strange sort of guilt because I took a place in line that was meant for someone’s mother, which was not me.
I’m always happy to recognize my mom’s hard work in birthing and raising me. I was a real bitch at thirteen, so I can’t imagine why she put up with me. But have you ever thought about the fact that the only US holiday that honors women in any way is about motherhood? Men are honored for being fathers, yes, but also for being founding fathers, soldiers, workers, presidents, pilgrims, genocidal maniacs, civil rights leaders, and the son of god. Okay, it’s likely that in a few years President’s Day will include a single woman (though some states just celebrate the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln) and technically women are included as soldiers and workers, but they have not been included historically and popular images of Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Labor Day do not include women. Their work, outside of motherhood, was usually forgotten or erased.
There are four states that celebrate Susan B. Anthony Day, and one state, Ohio, now honors Rosa Parks Day. Can we make those federal holidays? Can one of them replace Columbus Day?
I have some additional suggestions for holidays honoring women with stunning accomplishments, especially for the times in which they lived, that changed this country for the better. Some managed these achievements because they did not have children, while others somehow balanced both.
- Anne Bradstreet Day: First American poet, author of The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, who somehow found time to write while raising eight children and struggling with frequent illness (1612-1672)
- Phillis Wheatley Day: First black American poet, former slave whose art countered racist expectations and worked to undermine the institution of slavery (1753-1784)
- Sojourner Truth Day: Black abolitionist and women’s rights activist who gave the phenomenal speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” (1791-1883)
- Harriet Tubman Day: Underground Railroad “conductor” who led hundreds out of slavery, abolitionist, Union soldier, suffragist (circa 1822-1913)
- Jane Addams Day: Founder of Hull House, the first settlement house in the US, first US woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, first woman public philosopher in the US (1860-1935)
- Zitkala-Ša Day: Sioux writer, musician, and activist who worked to pass the Indian Citizenship Act and co-founded the National Council of American Indians (1876-1938)
- Alice Paul Day: Suffragist and women’s rights activist whose civil disobedience, including the first political protest outside the White House and hunger strikes that led to force feeding and psychiatric treatment, secured votes for the Nineteenth Amendment (1885-1977)
The Feminist Wire has a great piece on the problem of Mother’s Day (even though, yes, it has somewhat feminist beginnings). It’s a holiday that reinforces traditional ideas of motherhood. Shouldn’t we be emphasizing parenthood over motherhood and fatherhood? We need dads to be equal parents, to be, in a sense, mothers as much as women are mothers.
Since this is a blog about feminism and creativity, I feel obliged to mention some of the poems that come to mind when talking about motherhood. First, of course, is Robert Hass’s “Mother’s Nipples.” Indeed. Is there a better poem for Mother’s Day?
Next comes “Morning Song” from Sylvia Plath, which is not the typical first-day-of-motherhood-joy-and-ecstasty dream we have been sold. Rather, this poem reflects a complicated reaction to birth: confusion, uncertainty, anxiety, attentiveness. “We stand around blankly as walls.” This creature is here; what the hell do we do now?
And then I think of Sharon Olds and her collection The Unswept Room, so much about dealing with her own mother, about being a mother to a grown daughter. As we think about Mother’s Day–about mothers who never stop working, about mothers missing their daughters in Nigeria, about fathers who are mothers too–these poems can remind us that motherhood is a complicated thing. That there are children who are motherless and mothers who have lost children or never had their own in the first place. That motherhood has nearly erased women from historical record. That women still die doing their sacred duty. That women’s ability to choose motherhood or not is threatened every day in the US and around the world. That there are many ways to be a mother. As Hass says, “There are all kinds of emptiness and fullness / that sing and do not sing”.
Sometimes I get in a serious crafting mood, like if I don’t make something with my hands soon, my overloaded brain will collapse. This happens when I’ve been spending too much time on work that’s based on analysis, problem-solving, and decision-making, when my eyes are bugging out from typing and reading spreadsheets or marginalia, and when my neck is nearly frozen from stress and intense focus. My brain feels like it’s made up of all hard lines and sharp edges that will keep filling up my skull like Tetris pieces until my head explodes.
Because I wrote my undergraduate thesis on goddess archetypes in the novels of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker (and, clearly, am a little bit of a dork), I like to think of this kind of experience as my Athena problem. The Greek goddess of wisdom and war, Athena appears to be all about the mind and the shield, and she even sprang fully formed and covered in armor from the head of Zeus. So when I feel her dragging her sword around in my head, I have to subdue her before she busts out with that Gorgon-covered shield and I’m stuck with her battles forever.
What most people don’t know, however, is that she’s also the goddess of weaving. Yep, wisdom, war, and weaving. She invented the horse-driven chariot but also the loom, which is a reminder that one shouldn’t just be an archetype but a well-rounded, multi-dimensional person. So I subdue her by pulling out her spinning wheel, and next thing I know the armor’s hidden under a pile of warm, smelly wool and she’s humming along to her tapping foot.
I taught myself to knit from a book about ten years ago when feminists were starting to reclaim the crafts of their grandmothers as a way to redefine what had always been seen as “women’s work.” I’d never really been into crafting before that; it was easy to write it off as an old-fashioned activity for housewives or something. But crafts like knitting were real work. Women knitted and sewed to provide clothing for their families, and they often stitched in groups, where they would support, empower, and inspire each other. If only someone would unearth an old text describing the cultural revolutions that sprouted in stitching circles. For some, of course, crafting was, and is, a livelihood.
I was the laziest knitter for a long time, making only simple projects and leaving them half-finished on a shelf for months. But then I discovered what an antidote knitting is to over-thinking, so now I dig my hands into soft skeins of yarn in many colors and feel sufficiently soothed. There’s something very zen about knitting: the measured click of bamboo needles, slow unraveling of a ball of yarn, trance-like feeling of falling into a pattern.
Pinterest has helped me branch out into other crafts. I’ve fashioned beaded bracelets and necklaces with rope, embroidery floss, and hex nuts. I’ve found new uses for the fabric scraps and triangles left over from my great grandmother’s quilting bin. I’ve recycled old seed catalogues by decoupaging magnets and boxes. I’m a little obsessed with Pinterest. I get ravenous for ideas on how to craft with random things found around my house and in my yard, and it makes me feel very self-sustainable and accomplished. Also, as a writer who has written so much that no one will ever see, it’s a relief to finish a project that’s meant to be shared, and it’s particularly satisfying in an ever-pixelated world.
In fact, crafting is very much about community. I love feeling more connected to history, to the women who came before me, to a handmade life. Crafting, especially with materials found in nature or repurposed from thrift stores or your home, can be a good antidote to corporate industry and overconsumption. There’s a book called In Her Hands: Craftswomen Changing the World, which chronicles the stories of women in twelve countries who turned their lives around by making and selling traditional handicrafts. Then there’s Knitting Behind Bars, which started knitting circles with male prisoners in Maryland, a project that transformed how the men saw themselves and each other. Reading about it will fill your crusty, old heart with joy.
I propose we draw up a new Athena. Perhaps she’s got a skein of yarn attached to her belt or a pair of needles stuffed in the Gorgon’s mouth. We need some way to remember that sometimes she takes off her armor and settles down with a mug of nettle tea and a basket of wool. Sometimes she drops her sword and just crafts the revolution.
It was just last summer that Justin Timberlake released his song “Take Back the Night,” and we were like, oh, cool, a song supporting the Take Back the Night movement that’s been huge on college campuses and beyond since the early 70s!
Oops, no. Just a song about sex. Consensual, one hopes, but there are a few questionable lyrics, as it was the summer of rapey songs with catchy melodies.
JT said he’d never heard of the movement or organization until after the song came out, but he went on to approve of their work: “As I’ve learned more about The Take Back The Night Foundation, I’m moved by its efforts to stop violence against women, create safe communities and encourage respectful relationships for women — Something we all should rally around. It is my hope that this coincidence will bring more awareness to this cause.”
You know what would have been nice? More than a couple of sentences. Donating some of the proceeds. Partnering with them to make a serious statement against rape. Actually rallying around the cause.
We desperately need more men and boys working against sexual assault and other forms of violence against cis and trans women and girls. We need visible men like JT do visible work. We need men in music to encourage other men in music to write lyrics and make videos that condemn rather than condone violence against women.
Here’s a great example. One of India’s most revered metal bands, Sceptre, just came out with an album that focuses on the struggles of women in Indian society, including the problem of rape. The all-male band is celebrating their fifteenth anniversary with this concept album, Age of Calamity, and donating all proceeds to an orphanage for girls in Mumbai. That is how you pay more than lip service to a cause.
Drummer Aniket Waghmode said, “After my daughter’s birth, I could actually foresee how difficult it will be for a girl to move around freely, given the situation we are in as a nation.” In fact, men often become more concerned about gender inequality when they have daughters. But loads of musicians are still doing the same misogynistic stuff they enjoyed before they had daughters. Do they not realize that someday their daughters will be the very women they are dehumanizing?
But asking men to think about their wives and daughters, asking boys to think about their mothers and sisters: this is part of the problem. It seems fine, but this idea keeps women and girls as Other, not male, second-class. It keeps men and boys focused on how gender inequality affects men and boys–how it pains them to see their loved ones go through this; how they go without because their mother is paid less than her male counterpart; how they feel like failures because they couldn’t protect their daughters from rape–rather than how gender inequality affects actual women and girls.
What’s better is to encourage men and boys to think about themselves as women and girls, to imagine what it might be like if they themselves had to endure sexual harassment and threats of rape every time they left the house. If they had to take precautions every time they went out at night. This is empathy, and it reminds us that women and girls are humans with the same rights as men but very different experiences. With a little empathy, Take Back the Night goes from being a nice slogan “we should all rally around” to a much-anticipated reality we’re working toward.
Still, whatever Sceptre’s influence, they appear to be fully committed (though I’ve not analyzed their lyrics. Any discerning metalheads up for that?). I’d love to see more music flipping the script (score?) on gender and writing women as people with agency instead of mere objects. I’d love to see popular male musicians questioning sexist behavior that they always accepted as normal or harmless. Bystander intervention through music. I’m ready for that concept album.