Coming Soon: Celebrating the Lives of Women On Screen

Not so recently, an idea struck me while looking at a consensus/canonical list of the greatest films ever made. I noticed how few of the films featured central female protagonists, and how many omitted the presence of women entirely. I wasn’t angry, but rather somewhat dismayed that my experiences as a woman were not being represented in my favourite art form. It’s not surprising, as most filmmakers are men, most popular stories are about men, and most critics are also male. It’s hardly something I can help, and at least behind the lens things seem to be moving forward as many women are taking the opportunities to make their own films, and are doing a damn good job at it at that.

Instead of lamenting the state of affairs, I thought why not celebrate what we already have? My goal is to make a list of 100 films that celebrate women and the screen. It’s not exclusively a list of films made by women, if anything I’d be surprised if they dominated the list, but rather taking a moment to celebrate the lives and characters of women through film history. I honestly don’t know how anyone could hope to make a list of the greatest women’s films while omitting the best of Ingmar Bergman or George Cukor. It seems unfair to punish them for being men, and unfair to punish the actresses who worked for them. As a result, the only qualification for the list is that it features a central female protagonist. In some cases this is more difficult to determine, as in films like Bonnie and Clyde, where two characters are on such equal grounds, that choosing one above the other is near impossible. Or else, a film like Jules et Jim, where it’s unclear if the film is about the friendship of two men, or the woman who tears them apart.

When I celebrate the lives of women, I don’t mean championing only the positives of personality or experience. The dark and gritty, the disgusting and repulsive is just as much a part of womankind as it is of mankind, and I don’t want to omit those portraits.

I’m not planning on ordering my list, and I’m not going to claim it’s definite in any way. I only hope it inspires some discussion, as well as inspiring some new favourites and viewings.

I’m planning on unveiling my own list sometime in July if all goes according to plan. What I’m asking for you are recommendations, and suggestions. Post-1960 and foreign cinema is not my strong point, so if you could especially focus them during those eras I would be most appreciative. I also challenge you to come up with your own lists, be it 10 or 100, choose your favourites and tell us why.

25 responses to “Coming Soon: Celebrating the Lives of Women On Screen

  1. Great idea!

    I’d suggest all of Jane Campion’s films from Sweetie up to Holy Smoke; lots of Almodovar – especially What Have I Done to Deserve This?, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Volver; Whale Rider (NZ); Love Serenade (Australia) – umm, that’s all I can think of off the top of my head, but I’ll try to come up with some more…

  2. Your feminine greed is counter-progressive. What is needed is a total demolition of dramatic action. We need to substitute real life for the petty fiction and melodrama we are so entrenched in. Male and Female are labels that will continually be in friction until such labels are abolished–what is left? ‘Human.’
    We are human (‘all-too human’), and while you’re searching for the female protagonist to highlight your personal experience you are missing the general fact: that experience is already there. It is in you and your experience of male orientation. The harder you look, the less you find. See the whole!

    Don’t listen to me. What I mean to say is: This sounds like one of those projects you get half way through before scrapping it for something else. How many times have I said this? :p

  3. You’re the same Mango!You are the political human, I’m the a-political human. You see labels that restrict identity, I see a search for it. Clearly I see the world through and by the eyes of a male dominated world, it’s how I understand it. I’m suggesting a set of new eyes, equally human, equally as important and equally relevant. While often appreciating our differences leads to conflict, abolishing them seems just as senseless. I am woman, you are man, we are all part of the same flesh, and the same family. A father a mother, a daughter, a son. Why must these labels hold restriction and resentment when they can be a celebration of being?

    Yes, I’ll probably never finish. I’ve resolved myself to have it all written down before I post any of it though! I’ve already started, and have been working on it for at least a month now 🙂

  4. I haven’t seen any Campion, so will do! I love Volver and will seek out the rest, and Whale Rider is wonderful. I haven’t even heard of Love Serenade but it looks intriguing. Thanks Tim for the wonderful recommendations 🙂

  5. Campion is definitely good – The Piano is my favourite of hers, but all of her movies (except for the recent ones) are pretty well worth watching. I had some other ideas too – Irma Vep; Look Both Ways (Aus); most Miyazaki (esp. Nausicaa & Princess Mononoke, plus Totoro & Spirited Away if you’re counting girls; and the Kieslowski movies like the Three Colours trilogy and Double Life of Veronique.

    Definitely looking forward to however much of the list you end up doing! 🙂

  6. Irma Vep, Look Both ways and the Kieslowski I haven’t seen are added to the “list”. I’ve seen most of Miyazaki’s films, and at least one will certainly make the list. I’m counting girls are well, should be fun.

  7. Make no promises, break no hearts. You ought to have finished it before we knew it was coming.

    Dualism is a state of mind. Reality is kicked from consciousness. Osh, it’s hot–sweat is dripping from my head to the keyboard, forgive me. When men and women are equally established, what will there be to celebrate? <–Do you see the problem? The more we distinguish the sexes, the less we distinguish them. The only way to remain to satisfied is to keep them in a constant struggle. BUT if you are out to destroy that struggle, what remains? You will want to struggle some more, and here is my answer: Abolish the definition of the sexes–we are leading to that anyway–abolish it and work on something else. Then abolish. Once everything is abolished, humanity remains. Triumphant? Nope.

    Dialectics is a beast. You are a beast too, Justine. Let’s BBQ.

  8. After I fail to do this, I promise next time I won’t dissapoint you until it’s too late. Then you’ll be dissapointed you weren’t dissapointed. People don’t like change or surprise, despite what they may think.

    The Third Sex is what we should focus on, the sex of the mind, the sex of the spirit. Without gender or thought, only extinct and pleasure. There is not racial or class issue with the third sex, because it’s beyond the concept of the first and second. It brings them both together, while tearing apart what makes each individual, until there is nothing but light. What if in the quest for abolition we find the only true cause is creation, and we’ve worked backwards until there is nothing left but the painful knowledge that we have brought upon our own doom; physical, emotional and intellectual. We are faced with nothingness, and it becomes so great that we cannot bear to exist anymore, and crumble under the weight of this frightening revelation.

    BBQ! Sounds like something we can both agree on… I think.

  9. I love this idea! Many suggestions that immediately occurred to me (Volver, The Piano) were already mentioned, but might I add:

    – other Almodovar’s I’d recommend: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Atame (Tie me up, tie me down), and I just bought The Flower of my secret and will watch it soon, it probably fits.
    – All About Eve (I know, not post-1960 or foreign, and way obvious, but it’s gotta be on there)
    – Jackie Brown/ Kill Bill/Death Proof (Tarantino has strange ideas and obsessions about movies, but he DOES put them front and center)
    – Mulholland Drive (also obvious, but hey)
    – Belle de Jour
    – Marnie
    – l’Eclisse
    – Heathers

    And many more, probably. Good luck with the project!

  10. What an excellent site. I am so glad you commented on my review of “Sweet Smell of Success” and I was able to track it to your blog. I like the idea of lists of films and would be happy to connect from to yours when it is up. Other ideas for lists? John

  11. Thanks Sarcastig! I’ve actually seen most of those, except the Almodovar, Kill Bill Vol. 2 and L’Eclisse. All great choices though, and I already have some slated to make the list.

  12. Other ideas? Not at the moment, I’m sure I’ll come up with another one soon enough. Hopefully I’ll only start it after I tackle this one though, I have a tendency of getting ahead of myself.

  13. if you ask me, Rosemary’s Baby is all about a woman’s fears in terms of bearing children and developing the protective instincts of being a mother, just with how paranoid Mia Farrow gets with the whole world seeming to close in around her…for most of the movie we really have no idea whether her paranoia over MAYBE being impregnated by Satan and her neighbors being satan worshippers are justified or not. I mean, obviously I can’t say whether that movie’s an accurate portrayal of the anxieties a woman can go through once she gets pregnant, but I think I can take Polanski’s word for it 🙂

  14. Rosemary’s Baby is a fine film, and will most likely make my list. I’m surprised at how many horror films so far qualify on my short list, astonishing really. This rises above the rest in my books though. My family has a tradition related to Rosemary’s Baby, as everytime my mother is pregnant my dad makes her watch the film. I don’t know why, but he’s also inspired his friend to do the same. It’s kinda insane :p

  15. He a herald for Satan, or what? 😛

    but speaking of women in horror films, one of the big themes of The Silence of the Lambs is how just about every male presence casts a glancing eye towards Clarice, the small, pretty woman who sticks out like a sore thumb in the grisly world of FBI crime-solving.

  16. Two of my favorites are ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, because it examines a woman’s role in her community, and PAPER MOON, because it deals with a friendship/working relationship between a girl and a man without having them sleep together.

    I hope you do finish your list, I’m looking forward to reading it.

  17. I haven’t seen Paper Moon despite owning it, but I LOVE All that Heaven Allows. I’m a total Sirk fangirl though, so it’s not a guarantee. Still LOVE.

  18. I might, maybe I’ll post it in 2 places. Or add a chicks exclusive essay or something in addition. I’ll think about it. There will be something for Chicks though, I guarantee.

  19. Yay! *happy dance* I’ve been very lazy in terms of movie watching lately. So lazy that I was going to make a nice list today and couldn’t get pass the first sentence! 😦 I’m happy you’re still going strong! Though, please tell me when my turn is up for the foreign write up. I’ve not been there for a long time now.

  20. I had a really dry spell during May, so I feel that. I’m moving back to my average however. The break seemed to have been needed to recharge my passion and attention for movies. I will, the thing is moving sooo slow at the moment however. Hopefully it’ll catch it’s legs in a bit.

    Thanks 🙂

  21. This is a neat idea, even though I’m a little late to the party. Here are my suggestions:

    – Laura
    – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
    – Hannah and her Sisters
    – Opening Night
    – Gloria
    – A Woman Under The Influence

  22. Thanks for the recs, I’ve seen the first three, the others are on the to see list. I especially love Laura, everytime I watch it I reckonize a new detail or nuance… beautiful film.

  23. Pingback: Update on Celebrating the Lives of Women onscreen « House of Mirth and Movies

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