For years, critics have contended that Hollywood films leave a lot to be desired when it comes to female representation. Analyses such as the Bechdel test suggest that too often the male-dominated screenwriting world puts women in passive, one-dimensional roles.
But even as early as the 1940s, some filmmakers were breaking those stereotypes of powerlessness by casting women as fighters, geniuses and breadwinners. From the single mother in the 1945 film “Mildred Pierce” who opens her own business to the Wakandan warriors in the recent “Black Panther,” female characters have stolen the show in a wide variety of genres and settings.
Host Frank Stasio talks with Marsha Gordon, film professor at North Carolina State University, and Laura Boyes, film curator at the North Carolina Museum of Art, about listeners’ favorite films that feature strong female leads.
His Girl Friday (1940)
Gordon: It’s just a great kind of modern film about family and career and this woman who can kind of duke it out in any context.
Boyes: But of course she’s tried to talk herself into wanting what she thinks she should want. Which is a boring Ralph Bellamy and a cozy cottage in upstate New York, denying what her own impulses are: to be a part of the greater world.
Mildred Pierce (1945)
Boyes: This is like the flip side of “Ladybird” where there’s no love in the arguing at all. This was made at a time when women were alone raising their children. Their men were off in WWII. Women were the main movie audience, and people like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were the biggest stars because they were telling women’s stories, and that’s what they wanted to see.
Gordon: And as rotten as Veda is, the men in this film are more rotten! They are incapable and double-crossing and lazy.
Gordon: Within the academic world of film studies, “Klute” was such a big deal. For a long time there were all of these articles being written about it because it’s a very unusual, explicit discussion about sex as work. This Bree Daniel character played by Jane Fonda, that kind of combination of vulnerability and power, exploitation and being exploited. That’s one thing that really stands out about this film, the way that it kind of addressed that very overtly in a way that hadn’t been in films that were as popular as this before.
Boyes: And she seems like a regular person. I mean, you have this cliched idea of what a prostitute might be like, and you would think you wouldnt have that much you’d be able to discuss with them … But you could see having a cup of coffee with her.
Norma Rae (1979)
Gordon: This is a film that’s actually based on a North Carolina woman, Crystal Lee Sutton, who was a textile worker and textile mill union organizer in North Carolina. And I was reading a [interview with her] from this time period … And she was actually a little disappointed that this film was played with such singular heroism for the Sally Field character … As opposed to the group and larger effort.
Boyes: There are other films about working class heroines like “Silkwood” and “Erin Brockovich.” And they’re all about women who are considered to be part of the under class, not well educated and not able to speak up for their own agency or their own rights. It’s always very thrilling when they get a chance to do that.
Gordon: I love this pick … She is so totally tough. She’s unsentimental. She’s so streetwise. This film is so full of unconventional things and surprises. It's really, really a great example of something that is totally original in terms of its imagining of a female character.
Boyes: She's taking care of a child, and it’s a movie that acknowledges that maternal instinct can also be a power. It’s so often denigrated that having children and caring about them is a weakness and not a strength.
Daughters of the Dust (1991)
Gordon: This is an incredibly beautiful and interesting film … Made completely outside of the Hollywood system. This film was just restored and has just been playing in New York and other places. If you have a chance to see it I highly recommend it.
Boyes: It has a very dreamlike atmosphere that really draws you in, and it’s hopeful, but at the same time there’s this underlying feeling of dread because they’re all getting ready to move up North where the opportunities are going to be greater. But they’re stepping out of paradise, essentially. So you feel happy and sad and worried for everyone at the same time.
Kill Bill Volume 2 (2004)
Boyes: Since this is a Miramax movie, Uma Thurman may have been channeling some of that anger as well … It’s an exploitation movie in so many senses.
Gordon: This is a film we would have been talking about differently a year ago. Because fairly recently the New York Times ran a story in which Uma Thurman finally talked about what happened to her during the making of this film … Quentin Tarantino bullied her into driving this stunt car that she was not comfortable with, and she got severely injured during the shoot. She was one of the victims of the Weinstein universe.
Black Panther (2018)
Gordon: I would love to literally count the lines by male and female characters in this film, because I think the women come out pretty good all told … There are female warriors. They’re innovators. They’re inventors. I love the little sister character. She was probably my favorite.
Boyes: I also love the fact that technological worlds are always envisioned as being very sleek and shiny. And this is a futuristic world with lots of surface decoration, which itself as seen as maybe a feminine attribute. That everything is covered with pattern and color, and it just kind of sizzles off the screen.