Here’s another great guest post from one of my frequent contributors here, Ballgame. I’d direct you to his blog, but he doesn’t have one. So, I’m happy to give him an outlet for discussion here! This one should be fun, I think.
What makes a good feminist film?
I wondered about this when I realized that more than a few of my favorite films of all time were what I think could quite readily be classified as ‘feminist’, including my top pick, the somewhat obscure Plenty.
Plenty focuses on the struggles of Susan Straherne (Meryl Streep) to reconcile herself to the stifling banality of female life in postwar Britain, after a brief but courageous stint as a British intelligence operative working with the French Resistance in WWII. Straherne is clearly a profoundly flawed character, at times self-deceptive, arrogant, manipulative, and occasionally even cruel. But she’s also brilliant, sensitive, loyal, empathetic, and uncompromising, and it is through her eyes we begin to see how the hypocrisy and doublespeak of British (and by extension Western or even civilized) culture works to thwart the human impulse for true freedom, virtuous achievement, and honest relationships. Plenty is not “about” feminism, but the misogyny and sexist double standards of the time are a significant part of the frustration that lies at the heart of Straherne’s struggles, as she finds herself repeatedly playing peripheral roles to much less talented men. Straherne is torn between the necessity of living in the world as it is, and the clarity of her vision of how the world could — should — be.
Meryl Streep brilliantly embodies this complex character, and this could very well be her best role, which is saying a lot given her incredible career. David Hare’s dialog sparkles. (He also wrote The Hours, Damage, and Strapless.) The movie as a whole is just about flawless, with impeccable production values, a poignant score, and an outstanding supporting cast (Tracy Ullman, Sting, Ian McKellen, Sam Neill, Charles Dance). (There’s even a segment about British complicity in the contrived circumstances of the Arab & Israeli war of 1956 that may have seemed like an historical aside when the film was made in 1985 but which today seems chillingly prescient.)
Favorite bit of dialog: “I think I married him because he reminded me of my father. Of course, at the time I didn’t realize what a shit my father was …”
Another film that I found extraordinarily moving is Housekeeping, which is set during the same time period but in a radically different milieu: the Pacific Northwest. Christine Lahti plays Aunt Sylvie, who is given charge of her nieces long after their mother dies. The nieces soon learn that Aunt Sylvie is hardly the ideal mother-substitute which they longed for, but is in fact quite an unorthodox outsider to life. Once again, Housekeeping is not “about” feminism, but the radically different ways each niece and their aunt struggle against or embrace the feminine options they see before them is a significant subtext. Sadly, this unpredictable and extremely poignant film from the 1980s has been quite overlooked and hasn’t even been converted to DVD, though it remains available on VHS.
Kissing Jessica Stein is probably more of an ‘LGBT flick’ than a ‘feminist’ one, but deals with relationship and (admittedly rather idealized) career issues from a distinctly feminine perspective. It’s an exceptionally well-written look at two women who become involved that is alternately moving and outrageously funny.
I’m tempted to add the original Alien, given that female action film leads were still a relative novelty back in the late 1970s when it was originally released (outside of cartoony works). But I’m very interested in knowing what everyone else thought were strong feminist films, particularly from those released the last couple of years.