Beyond Ocean’s 8… 5 Lesser Known Feminist Films That Dig Deep
From vintage cowboy and war dramas to modern epics about girls who want a bike, these films offer feminist viewers more than the joys of an all-female cast.
With a number of glossy, high budget, all-female remakes hitting our screens, one would be forgiven for thinking that all it takes for a film to be feminist is to have an all-female cast. From Ghostbusters and the recent Ocean’s 8 to an upcoming gender-swap reworking of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, these casting decisions can sometimes feel like an atonement in the age of #MeToo.
Although Ocean’s 8 has its flaws, it may inspire viewers to explore more challenging female-centred films. The model behind Ocean’s 8 is well-intentioned and the flick is enjoyable in parts, yet there are lots of great feminist films out there waiting to be discovered. This list of lesser known gems offers an alternative to mainstream attempts to depict gender equality, because a feminist film is so much more than an all-female cast.
Tender comrade (1943)
Forget all-female ghost-zapping and jewellery heists, there’s nothing that exemplifies female camaraderie better than this little-known WWII drama in which a group of army wives decide to form a democratic partnership within a communal living space.
With her husband off fighting in the war, headstrong factory worker Jo (the multitalented yet oft underrated Ginger Rogers) struggles to make ends meet. When she hears that her fellow workers are in the same financial situation, she suggests that they each move out of their dingy, cramped apartments and rent a large house together. The women decide to run the house like a democracy, splitting rent, diving household duties, and taking votes before any major decisions are made.
Unlike many films of the era, the characterisation defies stereotypical representations of women; so often female characters are lacking in personality and barely distinguishable from one another. Here we are presented with a diverse range of women brought to life by a team of extraordinary actresses, from Ginger Rogers’s Jo determined not to be broken by her husband’s absence and the uncertainty of his return, to Ruth Hussey’s Barbara defying convention by seeking solace through other men while her husband is away, and Patricia Collinge’s older, sagacious Helen who not only awaits her husband’s safe return, but her young son’s too.
Considering Hollywood’s long tradition of eschewing female camaraderie by propagating notions of jealousy and resentment among women, Tender Comrade extolls the power of solidarity and sisterhood. Penned by the prolific Dalton Trumbo – best known for his screenplays for Roman Holiday and Spartacus – Tender Comrade contributed to his blacklisting by the House of Un-American Activities (director Edward Dmytryk was also blacklisted).
What makes Tender Comrade so interesting is that not only is it socialist, but it is also fiercely patriotic: at a time when socialism was deemed antithetical to American ideals, and was therefore punishable by the HUAC, Tender Comrade showed that patriotism and socialism could indeed coalesce.
“A woman’s voice is taboo” utters one of the characters in Wadjda. Written and directed by the first female Saudi filmmaker, Haifaa al-Mansour, Wadjda tells the story of a defiant 10-year-old girl who refuses to be oppressed by a patriarchal culture.
Our titular heroine (Waad Mohammed) wants nothing more than to own a bike, which is frowned upon in Saudi society. While walking to school one day, Wadjda is encircled by a group of boys cycling to school: the boys pull off her head scarf and mock her audacity in believing that she could beat them to the school gate on foot. As she watches them ride off into the distance, she proclaims, “If I had a bike you would see”.
A bike would mobilise Wadjda in a society that benefits from keeping her immobilised. Wadjda’s mother (Reem Abdullah) spends much of her free time making herself look beautiful for her husband, only to discover that he intends to marry a second wife with whom he can conceive a son. Clearly, Wadjda dreams of a life beyond the dull domesticity and servitude of her compliant mother. Hope comes in the form of a school competition to recite the Quran, promising a hefty cash prize with which Wadjda resolves to purchase a bike.
The film deals with many of the issues faced by Saudi women, including polygyny and homophobia (two of Wadjda’s classmates are accused of being lesbians). Wadjda is a triumph not solely as a phenomenal work of cinema, but in the fact that al-Mansour, as a woman, made the film in the first place.
As al-Mansour told the Independent, “I could not be outside with the actors, I had to be in a van using a walkie-talkie to direct, because men and women are not supposed to mix in the workplace”.
A woman’s voice may be taboo, but al-Mansour – and Wadjda – made their voices, gutsy and unrelenting, heard against all odds. That is enough to inspire any woman to follow her dreams.
Lilya 4-ever (2002)
Swedish director Lukas Moodysson’s harrowing sex trafficking drama is quite possibly one of the most feminist films ever made. What makes Moodysson’s film so important as a seminal feminist work is its depiction of the sex trade.
Destitute teen Lilya (Oksana Akinshina) lives in an unspecified former Soviet state where she is left to fend for herself after her mother absconds to the United States with her new boyfriend. Extreme poverty leads Lilya to be groomed by a sex trafficker, Andrei (Pavel Ponomaryov), who initially appears charming and promises her a better life. However, Andrei transports her to Sweden where she is subjected to horrific sexual abuse.
Film and TV has a bad track record of portraying rape and forced prostitution. There is a tendency by male directors to eroticise the very thing that the story purports to oppose. The 2005 miniseries Human Trafficking is one of the worst offenders, with eroticised, softly lit scenes of cowering sex slaves in lacy lingerie. In Lilya 4-ever there are no scenes of sexy lace bras being teased off by attackers, no obligatory nipple shots, no moments of candlelit seduction. Instead, the anti-trafficking plea of the film culminates in a stark montage of Lilya’s numerous “clients” – their cruel, sweaty, flushed faces hideously contorted in a rapid succession of shots. Not once do we see Lilya’s nude body in any of these shots; the camera is focused solely on the ugliness of her abusers.
As bleak as it is, Lilya 4-ever is a must-see for anyone in need of an antidote to the barrage of sexualised rape scenes that are ever present in cinema. In a perfect world it wouldn’t need to be reiterated, but Lilya 4-ever highlights how gruesome and unsexy sexual slavery is.
Johnny Guitar (1954)
Unlike Lukas Moodysson, Johnny Guitar director Nicholas Ray was hardly true to his male feminist credentials off screen. Nevertheless, Johnny Guitar is undoubtedly a pioneering feminist film. Best known for directing Rebel Without A Cause, Johnny Guitar is Ray’s true masterwork, with an unparalleled lead performance by the fabulous Joan Crawford.
At the time of filming, Crawford was 50, an age at which actresses today struggle to find decent work, particularly leading roles, while co-star Sterling Hayden was 38. Nowadays, an actress being even a couple of years older than her male love interest spells “issue film” (see: the infuriating Prime (2005) in which Uma Thurman, 8 years older than Bryan Greenberg, is practically a pederast). Meanwhile, men can be born two decades earlier than their female co-star without any mention of an age gap whatsoever (see: Silver Linings Playbook).
The hero of the story is Crawford’s saloon owner Vienna. A lifetime of hardship has spurred Vienna’s unrelenting resilience in a rough Arizona town where she tries to mediate peace with the surly local cattlemen. When Sterling Hayden’s enigmatic titular Johnny arrives in town, his relationship with Vienna is fraught at best. A Western that expertly subverts the traditional power dynamics between men and women prevalent in the films of the 1950s, Johnny Guitar depicts Vienna as an autonomous woman who has learnt to rely on no one but herself, while Johnny is increasingly dependent on her.
Those of us who love 50s cinema will recognise the obligatory scene of a hysterical, breathless woman begging her man to take her back and forgive her girlish folly. In one of the film’s greatest scenes, it is revealed that Vienna and Johnny were once lovers and Johnny proceeds to beg Vienna to profess her undying love for him. “Tell me all these years you’ve waited,” he pleads, “Tell me you’d have died if I hadn’t come back”. Johnny Guitar takes the archetype and throws it upside down.
Bright Star (2009)
Too often with biopics of great men, the women in their lives are reduced to muted background players whose drives and needs are predicated solely on those of the men in the foreground. Bright Star diverts from the traditional biopic narrative by transporting the subject’s female paramour from supporting player to central character.
Jane Campion’s biopic of Romantic poet John Keats is truly egalitarian, affording the same gravitas to both characters – Abbie Cornish’s passionate, stylish Fanny Brawne and Ben Whishaw’s sensitive, soulful Keats. The entire narrative is shown through Fanny’s eyes, from her flirtatious initiation of their intense romance to Keats’ deteriorating health due to tuberculosis.
Set at a time when women were expected to be dutiful housewives with little personal interests, Fanny is Keats’ equal: a correspondingly creative spirit who loves clothing and textiles, she spends her free time pursuing her love of colourful fashion through sewing and millinery.
The lush colours bring Keats’ poetry to life, with Fanny’s vivid sartorial creations harmonious with the vibrancy of the idyllic English countryside. As the lovers spend long periods apart, Fanny is unashamed in her passion and longing for Keats. One cannot help but be moved as Campion focuses on Fannny’s wistful eyes as she reads the beautiful poems Keats has sent her in his absence.
The old adage goes that behind every great man is a great woman: Bright Star is a metaphor for all the forgotten women, illuminating those who ordinarily would be left in the shadows.