Welcome to Girls on Film -- a Monday-night Cinematical column full of female-centric musing, rants, love, and aggravation.
When I first started this column, I wrote about remembering the Women Who Rock. Taking on the Sisyphean task of writing about women in Hollywood, there was no better way to start than with the sources of inspiration and adoration. Though there are many arguments to be had, and rants to release, it is all fueled by the love elicited by the women of cinema -- those who shape it and those who bring it to life.
Before we prepare to stuff ourselves like gluttonous fools this Thanksgiving, it would be nice to give thanks, and when it comes to women in film, there's no better body of work to be thankful for than the front lines who spark our love of cinema -- the fictional femmes of the big screen. Though there are many real women who are wonderful sources of inspiration, our love of the form starts with the characters who populate our cinematic fantasies and make them real.
The great female character is always there. She provides strength, inspiration and escape on film. She sticks with us well beyond one viewing, becoming an old and motivational friend. She, along with her many compatriettes, show us the possibilities in life -- the paths we should follow and the ones we should leave behind. She miraculously teaches and comforts just as much as she entertains. She whips us into shape when we're lazy and snuggles us when we need a moment of comfort.
What follows are the women who -- thankfully -- stay with me long after the credits roll. Read through and offer your own thanks in the comments below.
It's easy to believe, if you're not discerning about the films you watch, that women are hot-headed, irrational fools obsessed with nothing but men and babies. But many decades ago, Nora Charles (as played by the sensational Myrna Loy) in 'The Thin Man' series subverted expectations just as much as she fulfilled them. Her entrance had her frazzled, and laden with bags, snarking at her husband for mentioning the dog before herself, but as she sat down and asked the waiter to line up martinis so she could catch up to her husband, it became infinitely clear that Nora wasn't the usual wife.
She pulled back the stereotypical veil, subverting stereotypes not by being their antithesis, but by having them be no more than an aspect of her diverse personality. The woman who waits until her husband is asleep to have a serious conversation is the same person who casually makes a face when he embraces another woman. She performs the classic female roles of wife and mother, but does so in such a secure and fun manner that she offered a whole new way to show women on the big screen, and a whole new way to think about feminine characterizations.
What's remarkable about Sarah Connor is not what James Cameron dreamed up, but how Linda Hamilton embodied the character. Rather than her strength coming from storytelling, it came from real physical transformation. Sarah Connor morphed from the innocent and seemingly frail young woman into a hardened fighter in body and plot. Her strength wasn't shown in some careful beads of sweat and a painted-on six pack. It came from Hamilton's own physical transformation.
Connor in 'T2' isn't the typical, larger than life Hollywood heroine with invisible muscles. She's an example of real female potential -- what is possible with focus and drive. By revealing a chiseled body and new, hard edge, Sarah Connor made female heroines into a real possibility, rather than some fantastical construct possible only in a world of fantasy. She's not special, nor uniquely talented. She's simply a woman who rose to the occasion when life required it.
The '90s were a special time for the youth of the U.S. because the young, mainstream characters who came before and after were temporarily shelved for indie heroines, including 'Before Sunrise's' Celine. Julie Delpy's leading character was a natural and engaging lead who had one very special -- and rare -- attribute: She's one of the few female characters of popular cinema whose worth and storyline are based on her intelligence.
Jesse quickly becomes enamored with Celine because of theoretical discussions and recollections that delve into all manner of discussion. Whimsical revelation flows into crass discourse into idealized dreams and chatter about harsh realities. The two-part series is romantic not because of the romance, but because the respect and lust comes from each character peeling through the other's mind. Neither has to present themselves as some strange and questionable ideal to be romantically liked. They simply have to be honest and smart.
Faye Dunaway's character in 'Network' is unique. It's not that she's actually anyone we'd want to be -- so emotionally stunted and focused on her job that she simply cannot function with any success in all other facets of her life, leading her to cold and deadly decisions. Nevertheless, she's the female character who perfectly holds up the dream that a woman can be as professionally successful as she wants.
She's the antithesis of the typical romantic lead. She knows nothing of love -- only of business. Yet Dunaway never makes her feel like a one-note character, and because of that, she's a source of inspiration as much as she's a lesson on focusing to heavily on only one segment of your life.
The Women of '9 to 5'
I think feminism was first introduced to me through '9 to 5' -- the idea that women might have to struggle for respect rather than earning it from their own smarts and accomplishments. But the idea never seemed scary nor daunting because Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton were so driven and capable.
Though their methods are often ludicrous and unbelievable, their drive to succeed never made any threat of future struggle seem all that daunting. If a glass ceiling was reached, or a great job stopped in the wake of a "sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot," it didn't seem like an insurmountable roadblock, but merely a challenge to overcome. Years later, they're still some of the best working women the screen has seen.
In the early '60s, a string of Miss Marple films were released with Margaret Rutherford in the lead role. Less refined than other incarnations of the classic female detective, Rutherford's Marple was magnificent because she led a wonderfully engaging life as an older, single woman. (Not to mention being a stout woman who earned the role of someone thought to be tall and slim.) She offered the possibility not only that life wasn't defined by romance and family, but that it could be wildly fun and fulfilled. Marple was spunky and eccentric, yet wildly smart and unstoppable.
She was the spunky thorn in ideas that a prince must carry a girl away for her to have a happy life. In fact, with the intrigue and fun that Rutherford's Marple had, singledom actually seemed preferable.
We understand female strength in terms of tough bodies and minds -- unbeatable drive or vision. But Poppy in 'Happy Go Lucky' offered a wonderful lesson in alternate strengths. Her power is being happy, which is one of the most sensational powers Hollywood has seen. Poppy is remarkable for her ability to live positively no matter what happens around her. She refuses to let annoyances and the indifference and shortcomings around her affect her own life, and this mindset relies on no other person than herself.
Really, it makes her one of the strongest
Noomi Rapace's Salander is the woman of the future -- a character who transcended language barriers to become a cultural phenomenon for her strength and uniqueness. She's a figure of self-reliance and a character who pushes back the veil on notions of "the other."
She isn't loved because she reflects the everyday woman, but because she's a fierce, smart and independent fighter. One has to hope that her success can shepherd a new idea of the cinematic woman -- that she can be widely loved and admired while being entirely different than the women who came before her.