Classic Film : Female empowerment in films

Female empowerment in films

What comes to my mind are those unconventional roles in which women shatter sexual stereotypes and/or challenge male authority. There are other examples, of course ~ of oppressed women being brought to enlightenment and thereby empowerment, and also of women who live more "traditional" lives but do so by virtue of an inate sense of their own empowerment, often born out of necessity.

I immediately thought of the following:

Sigourney Weaver in ALIEN (et al), and Demi Moore in G.I. JANE, two of the most obvious and powerful examples of women shattering sexual stereotypes that I know.

Sally Field in NORMA RAE, who unexpectedly finds within her the voice to speak truth to power, and Meryl Streep in SILKWOOD, who undergoes a similar transformation. To me, the most interesting part of their stories is the actual "awakening" itself rather than the struggle that comes after.

Maria Falconetti in LA PASSION DE JEANNE D'ARC, who is perhaps the ultimate (and most divine) incarnation of speaking truth to power.

In a more traditional vein, I admire the strength of Irene Dunne in I REMEMBER MAMA, Greer Garson in MRS. MINIVER, Dorothy McGuire in A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, and Jessica Lange in COUNTRY, all of whom with dignity and grace manage to help their families thrive under difficult circumstances.

Other thoughts, examples?

Re: Female empowerment in films

The first movie that came to mind was 1954's Johnny Guitar featuring outstanding performances from both Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge, one of my all-time favorite films!

TCM recently aired LA PASSION DE JEANNE D'ARC and I taped it but then erased it by accident. Falconetti's performance is simply masterful.

Johnny Guitar

Haven't seen this one, Mike, though I certainly know of it. Gotta see it one of these days!

Glad you appreciate Falconetti - so remarkable, an actress whose life sadly ended not so well.

Re: Female empowerment in films

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in THELMA & LOUISE, of course

Judy Garland and Margaret Hamilton in THE WIZARD OF OZ - This is an interesting film from the perspective of female empowerment, particularly given the mores of the era during which the book was written and the film was produced. Historically in America, women who defied the expectation that they be submissive and subordinate to men were vilified as witches, old maids, etc. (Calling an unmarried woman a witch in old Salem, Massachusetts made it possible to seize her property!) So we have strong and fiercely independent females in the alter egos of Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West, and they are evil incarnate. But on the other hand, we also have the very strong figure of Dorothy, who leads a bunch of hapless males out of a very dark place.

any of the films/miniseries centered on the Queens of England - Elizabeth R; Bette Davis as Elizabeth I; Mary, Queen of Scots

Rosalind Russell in HIS GIRL FRIDAY - even from the title, you can tell that they are only going to let the female lead go so far in defying gender role stereotypes; yet, still, she is a very strong figure and a woman who has a professional career, hardly sitting home baking casseroles and cookies

Whoopi Goldberg in THE COLOR PURPLE

all the female leads in THE FIRST WIVES CLUB

possibly Jane Fonda in THE CHINA SYNDROME

Sigourney Weaver again in DEATH AND THE MAIDEN

Shelley Winters in BLOODY MAMA

maybe(?) Elizabeth Taylor in WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? – this is one of those films where a women showing assertiveness might be seen as a negative, given this particular character, so I'm not sure whether this is a good example–I think it could be argued either way



the ultimate has got to be Raquel Welch in MYRA BRECKINRIDGE – the strap-on dildo scene has got to trump just about anything else that graced the silver screen from a major studio prior to 1980

Re: Female empowerment in films

With the exception of MYRA BRECKINRIDGE, which I haven't seen, I agree with all your choices. Great list. Especially appreciate your insightful comments about THE WIZARD OF OZ. And Rosalind Russell, with few exceptions, more or less made a career out of playing empowered women (who can top AUNTIE MAME?).

In Older Films

For female empowerment moments in classic film it's tough to beat Grace Kelly in,–

High Noon, as a Quaker woman who kills a man to save her husband's life.

Dial M For Murder, in which she stabs her would-be murderer in the back with a pair of scissors (way to go, Grace! 😃).

Rear Window, in which she snoops through an apartment in a courtyard looking for the wedding ring of a man whom her boyfriend suspects is a murderer!

Grace Kelly

Great choice! I love it.

Big Girls

Some big girls, strong ones, from the Fifties:



Dorothy Provine as The Thirty Foot Bride Of Candy Rock as well as The Bonnie Parker Story.

Allison Hayes in Attack Of The 50 Foot Woman.

Shirley Kilpatrick in The Astounding She-Monster.

Big Girls

Yes, good choices from the Fifties, even if they had to (more or less) play cartoonish characters in films that weren't particularly good. I thought Dorothy Provine did a good job in The Bonnie Parker Story, script notwithstanding.

And here's one from that bigger-than-life female genre that we can add from last year: Wonder Woman. I thought it was a lot more interesting and nuanced than I would have imagined. Patty Jenkins did a great job - with the cast, the script, and the amazing special effects.

Not in the "Big Girl" category, and I haven't watched it yet, but I wonder if Sally Hawking in The Shape of Water would qualify? I really need to watch that; I have it on a screener, and I just keep putting it off. Shame on me.

And here's another from last year that I think could qualify: Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird, which I did see. I thought she was wonderful - powerful and strong against so many forces for the ordinary that conspired to constrain her.
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