Does an all-female cast make for good female representation? Does putting a woman at the centre of a movie? When we’re talking representation politics, it’s not so clear cut. And we can’t rely on the Bechdel test alone, considering it approved of poorly constructed characters like Bella Swan in Twilight. The following is a non-exhaustive list of some movies with very good female representation, where the women are heroes, villains, and bad-asses of all forms and calibre. Check it out!
The irreverent, loud-mouthed, un-glamorous franchise re-envisioning of classic fairytales, much like it’s protagonist, was an instant hit. But it’s time to show the ladies of Shrek some love. Typical beauty standards are destroyed when Princess Fiona accepts herself in all her large, green glory. She may have literally been locked in a tower guarded by one smokin’ hot lady dragon, but she proves herself in hand-to-hand combat against bandits. ‘Shrek the Third’ features classic fairytale princess as warriors taking control of their own narratives. Ain’t nobody got time for that deus-ex machina stuff! That same sentiment is carried forth even more forcefully in ‘Shrek Forever After’ where Fiona is a no-nonsense rebel leader. And it is glorious.
2. Mean Girls
Don’t hate on this classic because you think it’s a boring old chick flick. The movie unpacks a lot of important themes like homophobia and peer pressure. More importantly, it tackles the issue of internalized misogyny. One of the film’s most memorable scenes is when Sharon Norbury (Tina Fey) gathers warring female factions together to tell them: “You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it OK for guys to call you sluts and whores.”
3. The Runaways
Based on the women that sang “Hello world, I’m your wild girl. I’m youre ch ch ch ch cherry bomb!” comes a drama film about rock music’s most famous all-girl bands – The Runaways. It opens with a young Joan Jett and her devil-may care attitude, exploring the development of four young women as musicians, friends and people, and their hits and misses in a cut-throat male dominated industry. It also addresses alternate sexualities when developing Joan Jett and Cherie Currie’s relationship. The Runaways themselves rose to fame in the 1970s, at the very peak of the second wave feminist movement and have often been cited as a major influence for punk rock bands in the 90s – Riot Grrrl, anyone?
4. The Heat
You know those really good buddy films? ‘Harold and Kumar’, ‘Cop Out’, ‘Turner and Hooch’ (filmmakers would sooner partner a man with a dog than a woman, hmm). What’s the big idea thinking this formula only works with males? Katie Dippold and Paul Feig called bullshit on that tradition and made one of the most enjoyable comedy-dramas with ‘The Heat’. Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock play good-cop/bad-cop in this flick, get over their initial antagonism, get crazy drunk, bag the bad guys, and boy is it fun!
Merida goes into independent badass mode the moment Disney dangles its magical marriage carrot at her, because, as her father Fergus says, she would rather “shoot arrows into the sunset.” ‘Brave’ offers the audience a nuanced look at female relationships. I’m talking of course of Merida and her mom Elinor. Mother-daughter relationships get a facelift from the abysmal one Tangled presented, and it’s about time! Think back and you’ll notice none of the classic Disney princesses had mothers to interact with – Belle, Jasmine, Cinderella, Snow White, Pocahontas, Ariel. So ‘Brave’ explores new ground with that. Oh, and the cherry on that cake is a cute woodcarving, baking witch!
Jolie’s portrayal of the anti-hero is fabulously multidimensional. Maleficent, leader of the faeries in an enchanted wood, is literally not the villain she is usually made out to be. She is a defender of the peace. She goes through cycles of pain, depression, anger, revenge, and finally redemption. After ‘Frozen’ and ‘Brave’, ‘Maleficent’ also got woman-to-woman relationships down splendidly with the bond between the faerie and daughter-like Aurora taking centre stage. Prince Charming’s kiss fails in this telling of the story, and it’s Maleficent, with her dark wings and blood red lipstick, does the rescuing. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Indian cinema one of the best female fronted films ever, with Kangana Ranaut playing the lead role in ‘Queen’. At the beginning of the film, we meet Rani, a sweet, naive bride-to-be. By the end, we recognize the strong, independent, self-assured woman she has become, after a very helpful break up and an amazing Euro-trip. She forms valuable relationships with the uninhibited, drink-life-to-the-lees Vijayalakshmi, her three roomies Taka, Tim and ‘Sikandar’, and one fine Italian chef – bellissimo! The movie completely undoes the idea that a woman’s success and happiness is tied to her marriage and perfect execution of the ‘good Indian girl’ role.
8. Mad Max: Fury Road
If MRA wrath is any indication of how feminist a movie is, then Charlize Theron’s Furiosa has made Mad Max: Fury Road one of Hollywood’s best feminist tales of all time. The fact that female cast members (with substantial talking roles) evenly match the male cast members was obviously a very good call by Miller. It also touches upon themes of ecofeminism (the Many Mothers and their store of seeds). For all its fantastical imagery and scenarios, Mad Max is so close to life and social structures of oppression. You could read Immortan Joe as a greedy capitalistic patriarch, and Max and Nux the male feminist allies. And even if you don’t, it’s still a power-packed film from start to finish.
These movies not only pass the Bechdel test (okay well, the Shrek franchise got 2 out of 4) but also covered other areas missing from the Bechdel criteria. That’s approximately 16 hours of film that doesn’t employ tired old tropes and narratives, so you might want to stock up on that popcorn and soda.