May 25, 2022

In recent years Hollywood has finally started working with some diverse creatives. In return, movie-goers have had the pleasure of experiencing more dynamic representation than ever before. As was always the goal with feminism, inclusive and realistic portrayals are at the forefront of New Cinema. But who paved the way for this filmic revolution?

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Be they billed as sexploitation, exist in male-dominated genres, or present like another shallow rom-com, some older movies are unexpected beacons of equality and empowerment – you just wouldn’t know it by their trailers. Unfortunately, marketing makes or breaks the initial reception of a film. When mishandled, it’s up to word of mouth to get these pioneering flops the recognition they deserve.

Jennifer’s Body (2009)

Available for rent on AppleTV

Frequently referred to as a perfect example of miss-marketing, Jennifer’s Body was billed to young male audiences as a sexy thriller with Megan Fox, an actor Michael Bay took great pleasure in “discovering” in his 2007 Transformers reboot. Much to many audience members’ (and the studio’s) chagrin, Jennifer’s Body has since been heralded as a queer classic.

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The heavy bisexual undertones and “Good For Her” message gave young viewers a timely reminder of female autonomy and the prevalence of underage coercion. Unsurprisingly from Juno writer Diablo Cody, the message came with a dose of tongue-in-cheek that director Karyn Kusama said went over the (all male) advertising departments’ heads. They even went as far as suggesting Fox advertised the film through live chats on amateur porn sites. Yikes.

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Thirteen (2003)

Available for rent on AppleTV

At a time when complex female characters were few and far between, Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke and Nikki Reed brought audiences Thirteen. Written in 6 days, the low-budget, R-rated coming-of-age film is loosely based on Reed’s life and was drenched in controversy from the start.

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The frank, realistic portrayal of peer pressure, experimentation, and mental health issues experienced by young teen girls was instantly categorized as a glorification, and vilified by the media. Thankfully, the film starring Evan Rachel Wood has garnered a cult appreciation. While the early 2000s were rife with 2D females, small filmmakers like Hardwicke were giving flawed, vulnerable girls the representation they desperately needed.

Gypsy (1962)

Available for rent on AppleTV

The “Stage Mom” trope is nothing new, but the empowering portrayal of burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee in the memoir and stage play-turned-movie Gypsy is nothing short of legendary. Co-written by the film’s namesake, Gypsy is a tale of two complicated women and their relationship, in a time when complex female characters were few and far between.

In the wrong hands, Gypsy could have been a belittling portrayal of sex work from the male gaze. Thankfully, the creators of the original Tony Award-winning Broadway hit realized the potential (and importance) of exploring Lee’s relationship with her mother, and what a source of pride and fulfillment her burlesque success was, free of the pressure, judgment, and exploitation placed on her by the person who was supposed to love her most. The 1993 remake with Bette Midler (Queen of the Villainess) as Mama Rose is also brilliant.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Available for rent on AppleTV

Oscar-winning bombshell Charlize Theron captivated audiences with her sex appeal and has taken great pleasure in destroying this perception throughout her career. The talented South African first caused a stir with her transformation into serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003), but cemented herself as a badass extraordinaire as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road.

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Similar to the cultural impact of Princess Leia, Furiosa was a strong and complex woman commanding power in a male-dominated genre. Female fans of Mad Max rejoiced when the Tina Turner-sized hole left in the franchise was finally filled, especially as it was by a capable and unapologetic Fiorisa, who quite frankly out-performed the film’s namesake and has since inspired many a Halloween costume and cosplay. Also, Theron broke Tom Hardy‘s nose during filming. Strong indeed.

Sextette (1978)

Available for rent on AppleTV

An aging beauty and star of the screen wrote a play-turned-film to be known as her pièce de résistance, and with all the power and influence she earned through years of box-office gold, her vision is brought to life. We present to you, the magnanimous Mae West, and arguably her greatest work, Sextette.

Having fulfilled male fantasies time and time again throughout her career, Sextette is West’s middle finger to the patriarchy and fantasy fulfillment in one (not that we would ever doubt her eternal appeal). Playing a woman recently betrothed for the sixth time, it turns out her Russian delegate ex will only negotiate if he can have one more fling with the star. On top of that, her many exploits have been documented by her new husband. Handsome men a-plenty prevail. Is there anything more feminist than an eighty-four-year-old woman with a male harem at her feet?

I Am Not an Easy Man (2018)

Available to stream on Netflix

Although centered on a male experience, the French film I Am Not an Easy Man was created by writer and director Eléonore Pourriat and provides a powerful vision of a chauvinist waking up in a matriarchy. His ensuing realization of the intrinsic power imbalance women face on a daily basis is poignant and is vital viewing for anyone questioning the existence of the patriarchy.

As expected in French cinema, the film is cinematically simple and the performances of leads Vincent Elbaz and Marie-Sophie Ferdane drive the honest narrative. Billed as a “Romantic Comedy”, this movie deserved far more credit for its challenging of societal norms. Based on Pourriat’s short film Oppressed Majority (2010), Netflix contacted the director and lead actor in order to create the streaming platform’s first French film.

Muriel’s Wedding (1994)

Available to stream on Starz

Australia’s knack for quirky, character-driven narratives was on full display in Toni Colette and Rachel Griffiths‘ breakout performances. A small-town misfit with a complex home life reconnects with an old school friend and tries to discover herself in Sydney. The story is bold, heartbreaking, and wickedly funny, with one-liners that are still pop culture staples almost thirty years later. Quite simply, there would be no Kath and Kim if it weren’t for Muriel’s Wedding.

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Muriel’s flawed behavior and inability to connect to the world around her, outside of ABBA, is not only a refreshing portrayal of a woman, but a brilliant example of the neurodivergent experience. Women with personality disorders, mental health issues, or outside the neurotypical norm are so often portrayed as villainous, despite their intentions. Muriel’s Wedding is a perfect example of a woman, an outsider, and a flawed being who can be loved just as she is.

Josie and the Pussycats (2001)

Available for rent on AppleTV

Archie Comics adaptation Josie and the Pussycats was painfully ahead of its time. While mass media took a shark-like approach to celebrity culture and documented every move of anyone in the public eye, Josie tried to explore the danger of consumer culture and was quite spectacularly vilified by the press.

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Two decades later, audiences are coming around to the idea that the media may not have their best interests at heart, and Josie has garnered a cult following for its progressive view on consumerism and sick soundtrack. Unfortunately, it’s too little too late for the actresses who had their careers essentially blacklisted. All hail Rachael Leigh Cook, Rosario Dawson, and Tara Reid who are more than deserving of a comeback or quiet retirement, whichever they may prefer; perhaps an MBE for services to the general public that went unappreciated.

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