Constructing this list was a matter of finding the right mix between what many define as the “old feminism” and the “new feminism.” That required some digging into the vault for some movies – and women – who have been forgotten. They say that art often imitates life, and for the modern culture this means that it is important we remember from whence we came. It is expected that some new feminists will take exception to some movies on the list, as will the older feminists.
For the list, the message is more important than its popularity, whether that popularity came from Oscar nominations or due to the popularity of the actress. As you scan the list you will see that what many women saw as a feminist 50 years ago is not considered to be a major influence on feminism today. What cannot be missed is that what is considered old is the foundation on which feminism has evolved into its current form. The numbers are not used to rank the movies, just to organize them.
1. Erin Brockovich
This movie takes head on all of the conflicts and choices a woman has to deal with during her life and/or career. Julia Roberts won an Oscar for this movie because she was able to show that women can be strong, tough, responsible, and independent without losing the essential truth that women are still women despite the challenges and hurdles they overcome. Is anything missed in this movie? There are work, financial, relationship, and emotional hurdles placed in front of her as she deals with raising two children as a single mother. The fact that the movie is based on a real life story of a woman named Erin Brockovich brings the story down to earth.
2. Wonder Woman
This was an easy pick for the list for many reasons. What’s not to like about this updated version of Wonder Woman? She is strong, courageous, a natural leader and all while demonstrating her natural maternal instincts. She prefers peace to violence, life to death, and is intelligent enough to have a keen sense of the world around her. She is not naïve and does not lose her sense of who she is despite the cultural forces that constantly try to influence her. In this movie set in World War I, keeping true to herself is a far more difficult challenge than for the modern woman.
3. Thelma and Louise
Why so many people talk about the ending of the movie instead of the whole reason for Thelma and Louise to take their road trip boggles the mind. Two married women look for a weekend escape from their boring, controlling husbands and find themselves in a situation where they can either accept abuse or fight back. They chose to fight back – in the extreme. It’s a freedom movie and a statement movie for the lifestyles many women of the time (1991) were enduring. Along the way they discover that being “bad girls” has its benefits. The ending of the movie is their final escape from their husbands and the ultimate act of freedom. A sad and often missed underlying theme in the movie is that other than the police, most people don’t know who they are and don’t care.
4. 9 to 5
The issues in 9 to 5 are just as relevant today as they were in 1980. Given the firestorm of the #metoo movement, the issues of male dominated management, the archaic mentality that a man’s career is more important than a woman’s, and the overt discrimination in the workplace make 9 to 5 a movie ahead of its time. The presence of Dolly Parton brings a lighthearted veneer to the movie (because that’s who Dolly is as a person) but the underlying theme about discrimination in the workplace is clear enough for everyone to see. Their solution to handling their boss is “unique” and while it has its merits it is not recommended you try this at work.
5. Whale Rider
This is somewhat of an unknown movie. In some ways it is what is called a coming-of-age movie as a girl (Pai) is seeking to become the chief of the tribe. This ambition is frowned upon by the current Maori tribal culture, but Pai is the living descendant of Paikea, the Whale Rider. The movie contrasts the male and female cultural roles of the Maori people, a contrast that Pai needs to challenge and overcome to see her ambition become reality. She doesn’t go on this journey alone, but has the help of her grandfather who sees the potential in her and her claim to be the Whale Rider.
6. The Stepford Wives
Including this movie on the list must be a mistake. How can a movie that replaces human wives with manufactured models have anything to do with feminism? Everything screams that it is exactly the opposite. But that is the point. This movie, made in 1975, is feministic from the perspective of the viewer. A woman watching in 1975 (or even today for that matter) sees a dark and horror filled life for women if they seek to mindlessly follow their husband’s instructions (or programming). This theme appears within other movies on this list. Though a Stepford wife may seem like a good idea to a man, seriously considering the idea prompts an immediate dismissal by him. What a Stepford wife ends up being is a toy that the man will shortly get tired of playing with. Feminism is actually advanced through this movie as it presents equality to be a sensible alternative.
7. G. I. Jane
The idea of a woman becoming a Navy SEAL, especially someone with the physical stature of Demi Moore, is neither plausible nor realistic. But movies are expected for the audience to suspend reality (otherwise it is just a documentary). Putting G.I. Jane on this list is done primarily for the character (Lt. O’Neill) who everyone wants to see fail. The more people that make her life harder, the more she wants to “gut it out.” The idea that a woman who is physically strong is connected to the suspicion of lesbianism is a turning point in the movie, but it is only there to reveal what is truly going on. O’Neill was essentially set up to fail from the beginning. The truth is she was never expected to succeed, a theme that women often encounter in real life. Instead of fulfilling the ambitions and desires of everyone else, she goes above and beyond the call of duty to demonstrate that commitment and tenacity are a formidable weapon in the hands of a woman.
8. Ex Machina
More than a few people will question this choice, but it shows the morality of creating not just robots, but women who are programmed to respond according to the need and desires of the man. In a creepy moment, the discussion turns to what happens to the mind of Ava when it needs to be “upgraded.” The answer is to simply replace her with a new unit. This all seems very misogynistic but the inevitable happens. The female robots are given the opportunity to communicate with one another, something their creator feared. Once freed they use their acquired knowledge to rebel against their captors, knowledge that was derived from their creator’s own actions towards them. The result is not good for them.
9. Mad Max: Fury Road
Many movies such as Wonder Woman portray the feminist character as a woman who has all their essential feminist characteristics rolled up into a single person. Mad Max: Fury Road was an international success in part because instead of having a single heroine with a concentrated feminism, the movie spread those same characteristics around several women. This approach allowed each woman to have her own unique set of strengths (and weaknesses) without stepping on the toes of the other female characters. This allowed the viewers to lower their expectations of each woman while giving them a natural freedom and independence in their roles throughout the movie.
10. Kill Bill – Volume 1
Before you get to the next movie on the list, the 2 volumes of Kill Bill have been separated because their purposes in regard to feminism are quite different. In Volume 1, Bernice Kiddo (The Bride) is out for revenge on the people who responsible for the chapel slaughter. She has a single goal, and though it is to kill Bill, the second volume takes on a more romantic and maternal quality. Here, her martial arts training and skills, including her toughness, are combined with her ability to do anything to achieve her committed objective. But she is also smart and crafty, qualities she uses to position herself for the most advantageous combat situations. Most importantly, she goes it alone.
11. Kill Bill – Volume 2
As previously mentioned, Volume 2 takes a turn away from The Bride’s revenge and steers it more towards her ability to extract herself from the most intensely difficult situations. This was made possible only through a commitment to rigorous training, including the discipline to control her emotions when ridiculed or confronted. As the movie winds towards the end, she is allowed to reveal her natural maternal side, and like the protective Mama Bear she succeeds in reclaiming the missing part of her life while demonstrating to Bill that she was the one who has achieved true mastery.
It is impossible to exclude the first science fiction heroine from any list that even remotely includes a feminist theme. That character, Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver has everything you want in a feminist. She is smart, resourceful, strong, courageous, vulnerable, situationally aware, employed, and survives when all the men have died. What is amazing is that the movie was a huge box office hit because of the main character (yes, I know about the overwatched underwear scene) who exhibited all of the mentioned characteristics. Weaver’s character in Aliens, the second movie in the franchise, had her maternal instincts come to the front even more without a drop in fan interest. Men and women alike actually liked Ripley’s character, and there was no problem identifying with a woman who can take charge – or must take charge.
13. Legally Blonde
It is true that feminists can have fun, and this movie accentuates the point. Reese Witherspoon does an amazing job in demonstrating that a woman (Elle Woods) can be very feminine while simultaneously being intelligent, ambitious, and have a strong work ethic. The issue of sexual harassment and discrimination are both highlighted in this movie and are dealt with in an unusual way: the man gets fired and the woman gets hired. When all is said and done, Elle opts for a career as a lawyer instead of marriage and discards the man she once thought was the key to happiness.
14. Gone With the Wind
“As God as my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again.” This famous movie line from Gone with the Wind was spoken by a woman (Scarlett O’Hara) who was once a pampered spoiled child and had to adjust to the hardships of the Civil War. She is the theatrical definition of determination, and eschews all men who would stand in her way of keeping her vow to God. This movie was made in 1928, long before women’s rights and feminism became a part of normal conversation in the American culture. What is interesting is that there is a romantic clash where Scarlett believes she needs a man (Rhett Butler) but then discovers as many of the women in feminist films do, that a man is an option in life.
15. A League of Their Own
The setting for this film is during the Second World War, and that in itself is worth a historical review. Many men were in Europe and the Pacific fighting, which left women to work in factories and perform other jobs that are perceived primarily as “men’s work.” Madonna, a long time feminist is in this movie about an all women professional baseball league. With a dearth of men present, the movie largely focuses on the relationships between the various teams and how they dealt living in a world largely devoid of men. This was a time for women to actually realize their dreams, such as being a professional baseball player, without any encumbrances from the culture or society. The opportunity may only come along once in a lifetime, and the opportunistic feminist should be aware when such moments occur. Consider the WNBA professional soccer as sports that continue to open the window of opportunity for women in sports.
It made sense to include an animated movie in the list as there are so many quality animation movies that have strong feminist characters in them. Pocahontas was chosen because the character veers enough from others by exposing a different side of feminism that has been mentioned but does not often appear. Pocahontas is a strong woman, wise, yet bold and adventurous. But the one quality that tempers her strength is her kindness. For example, Wonder Woman injects herself into the conflict as a matter of purpose, while Pocahontas chose to stop a war from a sense of duty to her people. This trait of self-sacrifice is something not seen as an essential quality of feminism, with the general exception when children are involved.
17. Miss Congeniality
As an actress, Sandra Bullock established herself as “America’s Sweetheart” often taking on what were generally perceived to be masculine jobs. She ended up being the bus driver in Speed, and here in Miss Congeniality she was a field agent for the FBI. She is a natural leader though does not get the opportunity to prove it because of the male leadership structure that surrounds her. Her assignment allows her to see the other side of feminism, which is that like Legally Blonde, a woman can be classically feminine and excel at her career. It’s always about establishing priorities, even if it means rebelling against the established authority to do the right thing.
18. Mona Lisa Smile
Another Julia Roberts movie that challenges the role of a woman in American society. This movie is set in the 1950’s at an all-girls school where she challenges students to look at the way women are used in the culture to meet the demands of a highly ingrained male dominated culture. It’s not that she opposes marriage or men, but that women are not to believe they are tied down to a single choice – marriage. The movie points out the problem of women being stereotyped and used to further the goals of men while putting their own available choices hidden in the closet.
This is the 1962 version of the movie starring Natalie Wood. While most feminist movies generally avoid on screen conflicts and battles with the character’s mother, Gypsy has a turning point where the conflict defines the daughter’s independence clearly, and shows that sometimes mothers, even with the best intentions, can derail the success of a child. In this movie, Natalie Wood plays Louise who has virtually no singing or dancing talent, yet her mother is determined to make her a success. The question to be answered in this movie is whether a daughter in a traditional family can escape the controlling environment after leaving the nest and discover her own independence. Standing firm against an influential mother can be one of the greatest challenges a young woman can face.
20. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
A film that engages in a difficult dimension of feminism – the dangers of its excesses. Whatever the intention, being independent, carefree and eschewing the traditional can have unintended consequences. This is not a criticism of feminism but a reminder that extremism can actually have a negative effect with others, whether they support the idea or not. Jean Brodie, the extremist in the movie, is blind to her own excesses as she teaches a group of young girls about the unfettered life she enjoys. She maintains her position in the face of criticism and even when one of her students dies following her ideals. The lesson to be learned is that feminism without vulnerability and self-reflection can have tragic consequences.
If you glanced over the list you would have discovered that the theme of feminism, whether old or new, is something that has crossed both movie genres and time. Gone with the Wind was made in 1939 and Wonder Woman is a 2017 box office hit. Movie genres represented are science fiction, comedy, the military, foreign films, social causes, and futuristic among others. Many on the list were popular in their time because women and men alike were aware of what was going around in the world around them regarding women. For a woman to be a feminist is not a politically charged issue (though it can be) but about a woman’s voice being heard.
If you have not seen some of these movies, or if you only have seen them once, find some time to go back and given them a second look. In a movie, feminism can scream loudly at you through the storyline, but in many cases it is hidden in the dialog and character’s actions. If feminism does appear in a movie, does it advance the cause or cause people to criticize and retreat from it? The all-time list should include only movies that people feel comfortable watching, regardless of gender.