The Fem Spot

Fem’s “Top Ten” (English language narrative feature films of 2009)

Posted in Film and Television by femspotter on January 3, 2010

January 3, 2010

Last year, 2009, was a great year for women’s issues in English language cinema. Though mainstream critics may have missed the boat on most of them, I hereby take it upon myself to rate 10 films on two scales: 1. relevance to contemporary feminism and 2. cinematic achievement. Each scale allows me to designate films 1 – 10 and then add the two numbers together for a final total, which determines placement on the list. With this system in play, I present a “Top Ten” ranking that includes fair to outstanding movies that American audiences witnessed in 2009. An asterisk (*) denotes a film that would appear on a “Top Ten” list based solely on criterion 2.  I’d like to point out that I am not a real film critic – as in, even though I’ve studied film, nobody pays me to see and write about movies, for shame! – so I’ve seen movies on my budget. If I’ve missed any that you think belong here, let me know and I’ll look for them on DVD or consider amending the list.

Keep an open mind and enjoy!

10.  The Proposal (1:5, 2:2 = 7)

Crazy am I? I did not thoroughly enjoy this silly film when I sat through it with two new girlfriends last spring; however, I did stop and think about something the moment the film’s protagonist (Sandra Bullock) admits to crying in the bathroom after a messy, public argument with a subordinate colleague. That sounded to me like something I might have done. To avoid showing any signs of weakness, I would have hightailed it to the ladies’ room where I’d be free to be…well, a lady. Let’s face it: sometimes women do need a good cry. Crying relieves tension and stress and helps to clear emotions from our minds so that we can be more like…well, men. Bullock’s character is no exception. She’s a woman trying to adapt to a “male model of careerism,” the model that predates the Second Wave of Feminism. But the question that I pondered during the latter half of this movie, chuckling here or there, I admit: why are women adapting to male careerism rather than working to make the workplace adapt to us?

This isn’t always the case, at least not in the United States. We have achieved maternity leave and pay. In some if not most cases, we’ve worked toward equality of treatment and pay on the job. But that still leaves the crying: every working girl knows that she can’t cry at work either because she once did (guilty!) and then found herself subsequently ostracized for it, or because she’s seen it happen to somebody else.

The bathroom is for doing things we hide from public view and crying is something that we believe belongs out of sight and out of mind. But if you’re used to work bathrooms with rusty sinks, musty smells and nowhere but the toilet to relax, why should your temporary moment of emotional relief be sequestered to a 3 by 5-foot area that faces a sign reading “If you sprinkle when you tinkle…”? Some offices now have nap rooms. Perhaps they should also have cry rooms.

9.  Observe and Report (1:6, 2:2 = 8)

Moderately humorous at times, but overall a painful examination of naked male insecurity, I point to this film solely for the “date rape” dilemma that ensued following its release into theaters. (For clarity, I don’t think this instance counts as a date rape – which is an ambiguity intended by the filmmakers, I suppose – because the man involved is clearly not able to distinguish that the woman is under the influence of drugs and alcohol and not consenting to their sex for two reasons: 1. he’s deranged and 2. she yells, “Why are you stopping, motherfucker?!” in the middle of it all. It’s a disgusting scene nonetheless and certainly NOT funny.) Here’s the setup: a woman agrees to go on a date with a man she barely knows and while having dinner consumes much alcohol and some of his prescription anxiety medication, of her own volition. She subsequently vomits and he, reacting to this ugly display, affectionately kisses her and tells her he accepts her just as she is. Cut to: he’s humping her while she’s passed out, he pauses when there’s no reaction, she awakens and insists he keep going and…the scene ends. Yuck!

Do I detesteth too much? I think not. While this scene would be more compelling as a date rape admonition with one of two additional factors – he’s cognisant that she’s in no condition to give consent or she tries to fight him off – it still serves to warn viewers against the dangers of abusing drugs and alcohol at all, let alone in close proximity to somebody you don’t know well enough to trust with your safety. Take heed, ladies. Avoid this scenario at all costs. We have to try and protect ourselves from idiotic men and would-be rapists. We owe ourselves that much and more.

On the one hand, I recommend women see this film/scene for its sobering ugliness; but on the other hand, I think these filmmakers should be forced to clean toilets with toothbrushes for trivializing an issue that IS a serious problem in the U.S. AND EVERYWHERE ELSE!

8. Away We Go (1:5, 2:5 = 10)

Maya Rudolph, John Krasinski and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Away We Go

This is a film about parenthood and more specifically, motherhood. It is primarily a woman’s story and one that involves the searching for home and identity before the birth of one’s child. As seen through the eyes of its unconventional lead (Saturday Night Live alum Maya Rudolph – charming!), existing mothers are either disinterested in their children, detached from reality, obsessive-compulsive or long-suffering. She doesn’t want to be any of these mothers and searches for a way to balance self and motherhood. This is a must-see for any woman grappling with the idea of who we women become as we become mothers and what are the most important things we take with us as components of our identities as we travel through life.

7. Sunshine Cleaning (1:7, 2:5 = 12)

For this touching odyssey of two underachieving sisters going into business for themselves, filmmakers interviewed two real-life women business owners about the realities of crime scene cleanup…and those women confirm that Sunshine Cleaning got it just right. The biggest battle women face in life is perhaps the one we face when looking at ourselves, honestly, and accounting for our choices or lack thereof. Does the former cheerleader turned single mom and maid (Amy Adams) want to rely on the approval of a married man, her lover, as the sole support for her fragile ego? Does her pothead, deadbeat sister (Emily Blunt) want to always cower in the shadow of their dead mother? No and no. And the way out is to stand up tall, dig their heals in and make lemonade from some very sour lemons.

True, crime scene cleanup is not the most glamorous profession – in fact, it may be the least glamorous profession there is. But this film reminds us feminists that good business practices and a strong work ethic can help us distinguish ourselves as conquerors of our American Capitalist economy. Remember to support women owned and operated businesses whenever possible to help empower the women in your immediate locale.

6.  *Inglourious Basterds (1:5, 2:8  = 13)

Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to create an epic poem of a movie about Nazi Germany. I loved nearly every moment of this witty, at times intentionally campy and spirited tribute to…well, itself: epic cinema! While female director Kathryn Bigelow turned out a more conventional war narrative in 2009 that has people talking “Best Director” Oscar for the first woman ever (The Hurt Locker),  it is the unconventional spirit of this war narrative that forces me to think about the way our culture glorifies and skews violence. And speaking of unconventionality, get a load of the women in Inglourious Basterds: they are forces to be reckoned with! At once full of sly vengeance and a commitment to ending violence, these women in disguise (adeptly portrayed by Melanie Laurent and Diane Kruger) are essential players in a cruel and gratuitous game, in much the same way their warrior predecessors like Boudica and Joan of Arc were before them. In short: never underestimate a woman’s ability to fight for a (noble) cause.

Melanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds

5.  *Avatar (1:6, 2:8 = 14)

Also on the subject of women and the war/peace effort, this bold and visually hypnotic fairytale focuses on a fictional alien goddess-worshiping, spiritually matriarchal culture where men and women fight, hunt, harvest and pray together as equals. It’s beautiful! And as for the human world that Director James Cameron presents: women may not be calling all the shots there, but they do harness their own moral agency in science and diplomacy.

This trend of exploring female agency is not new for Cameron, who brought us the adventurous heroics of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s Lindsey Brigman in The Abyss (1989), and Jamie Lee Curis’ Helen Tasker in True Lies (1994). In fact, when I think of these movies, I don’t think of Arnold Schwarzenegger saying “I’ll be back;” in fact, I don’t think of men at all. I think of Hamilton doing pull-ups, Mastrantonio volunteering to drown in an aquatic vessel filling with freezing water, and Curtis doing a wacky strip tease thinking she’s a spy. These are fantasies I enjoy participating in: I’d love to save the world, save the man I love or at least spend 24 hours thinking I’m clever enough to master international espionage. And in real life, I take this fantasy, this agency, and apply it to the things I can change: the lives of the people I know and love. Kudos to Cameron for injecting feminism into the action film genre that’s generally devoid of interesting women.

As for female agency in Avatar, let us not forget that Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Grace Augustine and Michelle Rodriguez’s Trudy Chacon say “No” to the carnage of this alien culture and fight to preserve it. And on the side of the Na ‘vi, Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri adopts a foreign soldier and teaches him to respect life rather than destroy it. And he, in turn, respects her life and her choices. She tells him he can choose a woman as a lifelong mate, and he responds, “But she must also choose me.” If only this were the way all men looked at women’s choices…

4. *Bright Star (1:6 2:9 = 15)

Edie Martin and Abbie Cornish in Bright Star

Of course, not every film can be a landmark feminist achievement like Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993). But Campion has done again and again what so few filmmakers can: understand and visualize the female condition. Bright Star is no exception. Rather than telling a straightforward narrative of revered poet John Keats, Campion tells the story – or rather maps the emotional landscape – of Keats’ great love, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish in a breathtaking performance). This isn’t your typical love story; this is instead a flight of fancy wherein a passionate girl designs and wears elaborate fashions that depict her sense of self, and secludes butterflies in her bedroom, where she daydreams and cries and pines the days away. What teenage girl didn’t endure this experience…or what felt like this experience? And Keats almost becomes irrelevant…he might as well be David Bowie (to me) or Justin Timberlake (to somebody else), etc. At once, Bright Star is a romance AND an exclusive journey into the soul of a prurient teenage girl. Nobody visualizes female sexuality like Campion!

3. *Julie & Julia (1:10, 2:7 = 17)

Further proof that he needs to retire, Roger Ebert chastised the characterizations of the husbands of Jule Powell and Julia Child in his review of this film.  “Both husbands are, frankly, a little boring,” he wrote. “They’ve been assigned their supporting roles in their marriages and are reluctant to question the singlemindedness of their wives…if the men had been portrayed as more high-spirited, (the film) might have taken on intriguing dimensions.”

Well, Mr. Ebert, I (respectfully) disagree with you on several points. The husbands aren’t boring; they’re just NOT in a movie ABOUT THEM. Quelle suprise! This is a movie, as the title clearly states, about Julie and Julia. This is a movie about women finding their identities from what you so patronizingly refer to as their “singlemindedness.” And yet, to Director Nora Ephron’s credit, I do know what each husband does for a living and what he is passionate about. She didn’t even have to give us that. We female film audiences have sat through many a good movie with poorly (under)written female characters. We’re entitled to a movie about real women now and again, don’t you agree?

And you can’t ask for a better, more sensitive, more nuanced portrayal of a supportive husband than that given by the great Stanley Tucci as Diplomat Paul Child! I hope he gets the Oscar. So there: the Oscar winner I’d like to see come out of this movie is one of your “boring” husbands!

Julie & Julia is about two women who discover their strengths and generate feelings of self-worth, ironically, in the kitchen. Julia Child can’t have children – that is her great sadness – but she leaves her mark on us in other ways. We love her joy, her bliss: her loves of food, wine and sex! And Julie Powell’s sadness comes from feeling like she’s a 30-year-old failure. “Will I be a writer?” she asks herself. “You are a writer.”

Just because nobody pays me for this blog, doesn’t mean I’m not a writer. I am a writer. This is the identity I create for myself.

2.  *Precious (1:10, 2:8 = 18)

The very fact that Director Lee Daniels had to go outside of traditional casting methods to find the right actress (Gabby Sidibe, a bright, shining beacon of realism) to portray a morbidly obese black teenager, pregnant with her own father’s second child, goes to show you that Hollywood has it all backwards when it comes to women. Not only could I not get enough of peering into Sidibe’s stunning yet stoic face, but I left the theater wishing there was another movie playing that could move me in the same way: force me to look at real women squarely in the eyes and accept us. For that’s what Clareece ‘Precious’ Jones does: she goes from looking in a mirror and seeing a white, skinny, conventionally beautiful teenager (her fantasy self) to looking in the mirror and seeing a strong, black, finally literate teenager (her real self). This film took my breath away!

The film also demonstrates how misogyny and racism often work hand in hand to hurt women. There are truths about the black, Harlem culture revealed in this story and the way the women therein are taught to (de)value themselves (i.e. the number of children you have denotes self-worth, there’s no possibility for survival/advancement beyond the welfare office, etc.) that form the backbone for a formidable thesis: illiteracy, poverty and self-hatred form a cultural cycle that is nearly impossible to break. Just look at the shocking, albeit beautiful, posters for the film:

The first image shows how the sexual identity of Precious has fallen prey to a violent man, her own father – as well as her own jealous mother. The second image invokes thoughts of pre-Civil War southern (U.S.) black domesticity. And finally, the third image sets us, the viewers, free. Precious will grow; she will change; she will fly. And we get to go on this journey with her. (Note: Precious is the film adaptation of the novel Push by Sapphire, which may be worth reading for additional thematic material not found in the film.)

1.  *Coraline (1:10, 2:9 = 19)

When I was a girl, I was sometimes unhappy. I was not unlike Coraline, but it wasn’t just my name that people misunderstood: it was my frustration at being born with a perception that didn’t match those in my immediate locale. That’s why, when I went to see Coraline in theaters last February, I wept like a baby when a little girl, not unlike me, crossed into a (dream) world where women are as beautiful as they imagine themselves to be and parents seem interested in the life of their child, only to find out that in order to stay in this fantasy place, she has to sew buttons over her eyes. In other words, she has to blind herself to the fantasy in order to live it. There’s nothing like showing somebody a wonderful world of options and then taking all options away except one! That’s cruel and unusual punishment.

Coraline is adapted from a novella for youth by Neil Gaiman, but much of the visual artistry is the brain child of the filmmakers who rendered stop-motion animation flawlessly to create a female-identified real world and a female-identified, even vaginal, alternate universe. In the former, Coraline and her parents rent an apartment in a grand, pink Victorian house. There’s a black cat (a pussycat) always watching her, two old ladies, hard of hearing, living in the basement, a talkative boy whom Coraline detests, and a circus performer with a collection of mice living in the attic.  These creatures are present in the alternate world but, like Coraline’s father, the men are rendered dumb, even absent, while the women reach their former glory as vivacious Vaudevillian starlets and the mother, “the Belle Dame,” rules with an iron fist.

You're a long way from home, Coraline Jones.

You're a long way from home, Coraline Jones.

At first Coraline is tempted to travel the vaginal tunnel to eat the tasty food prepared by her “other mother,” to wander the ovarian gardens with her “other father” who gives her the time of day… But once the buttons come out, she knows something is wrong and she decides that disinterested parents and gray clothes are better than a fate of self-induced blindness, when one can’t see the things one wishes were true when they ARE true and right before one’s eyes.

This story hit me like a ton of bricks. What we women want are choices. What we NEED are choices. Coraline represents what girls have historically suffered: knowing there’s more to life than what they’re offered, but feeling powerless to achieve the more. Coraline is the reason we founded feminism and she’s the reason why feminist empowerment, the agency to find and seize our choices, is the most important thing that we can inspire in our daughters and the women we know who aren’t already empowered to choose the things they want in life.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Fem’s “Top Ten” (American narrative feature films)

Posted in Film and Television by femspotter on January 18, 2009

January 18, 2009

I’m not thrilled about the lineup of 2008 motion pictures contending for the coveted Oscar statuette this year. I haven’t seen most of them: that’s how thrilled I’m not. Last year marked the first year I ever walked out of a movie in progress (Pride and Glory) owing to its abysmal condition.

That’s not to say I anticipate that the prestige films will be terrible. After all, even last year’s duds, per audiences and critics alike – such as The Women and The Happening – weren’t really that bad. I’m sure there’s good stuff out there. I am looking forward to Mickey Rourke’s comeback in The Wrestler, as well as the always intriguing Marisa Tomei. And I owe it to my proposed dissertation topic (“New England Suburban Macabre”) to endure the angst of Revolutionary Road – though I think it is prudent for me to read the acclaimed source novel first.

Positive standouts in 2008 – for me – include Pixar’s WALL-E and Werner Herzog’s documentary Encounters at the End of the World; neither of which should be mistaken for any kind of fluff filmmaking. In both cases, non-English-speaking creatures capture the viewers’ imaginations; but don’t think for a second that either of these films limits itself to cutesy storytelling devices. Both films contain severe, critical analysis of human behavior. Both examine our human propensity for self-destruction.

But where did all of the interesting women go? Where are the classic heroines like Jane Eyre? Where’s Elizabeth Bennet? Lily Bart?

This past year, I can think of only two films I’ve seen that have posed interesting fuel for discussion about women’s issues: Appaloosa and The Duchess. In the former, a western, a female drifter (Renee Zellweger) arrives in town by train with a single suitcase and finds a way to survive via the gun slinging roughnecks that exist in her path. She emotionally abuses men by telling them she loves them, and then, while they’re not looking, arranges other romantic alliances that will advance her social standing – not to mention her means for survival. Men fall for her because she is elegantly manicured, sweet-smelling and flattering. What an interesting paradox: a woman who works for a living, but doesn’t work for a living. She’s a glorified prostitute…but what other options would a woman in her position have?

For my reaction to The Duchess, check out

When I can’t come up with an annual “top ten” movies, I start thinking about a larger list: top American narrative feature films of all time. The American Film Institute (AFI) has a comprehensive list, often referred to as the “definitive” list, circa 1998 and revamped in 2007. I would charge myself with writing a feminist rebuttal, but there certainly aren’t 100 female-centered films of sufficient calibre to make for a serious argument. That – in and of itself – is the argument. Many of the films AFI lists do not contain fully realized female characters at all, and yet – they are “great” American movies. And many of the films that have struck me as “feminist” over the years lack the production value or general appeal necessary to convince readers that they should be counted among the great American films – not to mention that so many of them aren’t American in the first place.

So here’s my list of the top ten narrative feature films – made in America – that offer up feminist food for thought; or, at the very least, involve female characters in significant ways. Alas, none were directed by women – neither were any of the AFI films.

Sophia Coppola

Sofia Coppola

As Liz Lemon (Tina Fey – 30 Rock) said in 2008: No one has it harder in this country today than women. It turns out we can’t be President, we can’t be network news anchors, Madonna’s arms look crazy. . .

Apparently, we can’t direct major motion pictures either! Only three women have ever been nominated for the Oscar in the directing category, and of those, one was American (Sofia Coppola – 2004). Since AFI accounts for awards recognition as one criterion for its list, naturally, women directors and their films have been excluded. My criteria are as follows: 1)American made, 2) something “fem” to talk about and 3) you won’t laugh at me…much!

  1. All About Eve (1950) – AFI #28
  2. The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – AFI #67, moved off the list in 2007
  3. Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
  4. Bambi (1942)
  5. In the Bedroom (2001)
  6. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
  7. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
  8. Sling Blade (1996)
  9. Terms of Endearment (1983)
  10. Fargo (1996) – AFI #84, moved off the list in 2007

Sticking to American masterworks, I have excluded some of my personal feminist favorites, like foreign gems The Piano and Muriel’s Wedding; as well as three American female-centered films The Dead Girl, Waitress and Secretary, ironically liberating despite their titles. But the list includes films I could use to launch discussion in a college class about women as the subject of narrative film, even though, in many cases, the women are peripheral to the central male figures.

Some films that you might consider to be obviously missing – like Another Woman, Boys Don’t Cry, The Color Purple, The Miracle Worker and Sophie’s Choice (AFI #91) – contain great performances, even though they aren’t great films. But that’s a blog for another day.

It really is a man’s business: making movies!

1. All About Eve (1950)

The title suggests that this story will be “all about Eve” Harrington (Anne Baxter); but the truth of the matter is that this witty and enduring film set in the New York stage scene of the 1940’s is all about Margo Channing, the aging actress. In a culture that validates mainly youth and beauty in women, Channing – fabulously portrayed by the aging Bette Davis (age 42), in her comeback role, with every relevant chuckle and sneer – forgets, that while she’s reaping the benefits of fame and fortune, there’s always someone younger and hungrier waiting in the wings to usurp the throne. There’s perhaps not a more relevant topic to women in every walk of life in every era: the feeling of becoming obsolete as we age and lose the sparkle of our youth. Men don’t get older…they become distinguished. Sean Connery will never be “old;” he’s “noble,” “stately” and “refined.” Men don’t age as much as they accrue wisdom and experience.

Apparently, women just get old…or they get fake. Just ask plastic surgery casualty Joan Rivers!

Anne Baxter and Bette Davis

Anne Baxter and Bette Davis

2. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Speaking of age, Angela Lansbury was 36 years-old when she played the proverbial corruption of motherhood in this taut thriller, just three years older than Laurence Harvey who played her son. Mrs. Iselin – the brain behind her oaf of a husband, Senator Iselin, as he makes a bid for President – is one of the most ruthless, yet memorable women of American cinema history. While most parents of our literary and cinematic tradition wish the quality of life of their children to exceed their own, Iselin uses and abuses her son for her own advancement. Power-hungry and stealthy (a traditionally masculine combination), Iselin is as delicious as she is appalling. We applaud the woman who makes her own rules, and hate the mother who makes a mess of her son’s psyche. Iselin has many layers to her personality, while other female characters have few or only just one.

Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey

Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey

3. Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

The pleasure derived from any serious courtroom drama that delights in analyzing women’s undergarments is immeasurably increased by George C. Scott acrimoniously shouting the word “panties” through clenched teeth; and that’s just what happens in this Otto Preminger classic. The reason for designating the word is so that the court of law – all male and held in great esteem – can determine whether or not the premeditated murder of an alleged rapist was warranted. The rape victim, wife to the murderer, is known for her sexual promiscuity, and so the film broaches the additional question: was the rape warranted?

Sexuality is tricky and has historically been suspect in women. Men often fear women who exhibit a desire for physical love. Can this desire be controlled? Will it unleash the unfathomable male appetite for sensual sin? I’m sure we can all agree that women have the right to safety…even when their attire is less than modest. Well…all of us, except Barney Quill who raped a flirtatious woman and now lies dead in his grave.

George C. Scott and Kathryn Grant

George C. Scott and Kathryn Grant

4. Bambi (1942)

“Your mother can’t be with you anymore.” This is unarguably one of the most crushing statements ever uttered on film. Often, in the animal kingdom, motherhood is an all-inclusive parenthood. This is the case with most mammals that engage in polygamous unions. The male often lives alone, fathering offspring as the occasion arises. The female nurtures her babies until they are able to forge their own lives equipped with the knowledge of how best to survive. Mom did it this way, so they do it the same way. Father was nowhere to be found.

“The Great Prince of the Forest” – also known as the stag who knocked up Bambi’s nameless mother – levies this heavy verdict upon Bambi after his mother is shot by hunters. She (“Mother”) represents the bravest and most self-sacrificing maternal figure on this list. We have: corrupt mother (2), jilted mother (5), betrayed mother (6), pathetic mother (7), helpless mother (8), insecure, overbearing mother (9), and hardworking expectant mother (10). But Bambi’s mother transcends mundane maternity and reaches iconic status as one of the first of many murdered (or just plain dead) mothers in family cinema history. Experts tell us that little children feel more secure in their home environments when they’re exposed to a little scary fiction. There’s nothing scarier than a dead mother to a 3, 4, 5 or 6 year-old. That’s why Disney repeated this same motif again – hesitantly at first, and why classic short stories are full of wicked stepmothers. If mother is everything (both parents and all hope for survival), then the fear that she could cease to be entirely is overwhelming to viewers. In the case of Bambi, mother is all or nothing: she exists as the perfect model of female evolution in her species, or she is dead. And that’s what makes the other mothers on this list so interesting: they will never be perfect mothers. Neither will we…there’s no such person!

"Mother" and Bambi

"Mother" and Bambi

5. In the Bedroom (2001)

Indulge me on this one. I originally had it placed in the number 1 spot because I think it is the greatest American drama ever made. I’m fascinated by contemporary stories of New England families and how these stories are rooted in – and often times retelling – the great American literary classics that were spawned during more primitive stages of the American lifespan in geographic areas where this county found its genesis. This film takes a look at an American family identity (military identity; New England identity; affluent, white, educated identity). When it comes to women and our issues, In the Bedroom shows us how difficult it is for an educated, working mother (Sissy Spacek) to relax her influence over her only child as he grows into adulthood. She is rigid and has designed a list of unspoken rules for him. She shuts him out emotionally, rarely showing him love through words or gestures. Women who share this pathology with Spacek’s character might know that such underhanded manipulation often backfires. The son – in what Freud would deem an Oedipal tendency – lusts after an altogether different matriarchal figure (Marisa Tomei), one who doesn’t seek to control or pressure but instead encourages and listens to her own children. I don’t want to betray every plot detail, but I will say that I appreciate the scrutiny that the film employs to examine the way such a manipulative woman is able to control her malleable husband. This is not a caricature but a sharply observed and evenly rendered character study.

I know real women just like this one.

Sissy Spacek

Sissy Spacek

6. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

In the last five films, motherhood is repeatedly examined. Unlike the case of the villainous mother in The Manchurian Candidate, these mothers are well-intentioned, if somewhat flawed, human beings (aren’t we all?). They are (respectively) duped, weak, helpless, competitive and critical, and finally distracted. In the case of Rosemary, viewers adopt her perspective because director Roman Polanski’s makes clever use of sound. Being inside Rosemary’s apartment in New York City is like being inside her head, with “Fur Elise” playing in one corner of her mind and doorbells ringing in another. The film also stages two disorienting dream sequences shown from her perspective. Viewers are appalled by the betrayal made by her self-centered, fame-hungry husband because we have looked through Rosemary’s eyes when he (as the hairy incarnation of Satan) rapes her. Were we not manipulated to take on Rosemary’s perspective, we might not experience such a visceral reaction to the things that she endures.

Mia Farrow

Mia Farrow

7. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

This film also places a naïve young woman at the feet of a despicable male character, and it is a difficult challenge for this woman to build a barrier between this vile man (the murderer of wealthy widows) and her unsuspecting mother. In fact, this Alfred Hitchcock classic presents quite the opposite of a feminist perspective and, in doing so, forces viewers to argue back. The killer’s rationale for killing women is as follows:

The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows, husbands, dead, husbands who’ve spent their lives making fortunes, working and working. And then they die and leave their money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money, proud of their jewelry but of nothing else, horrible, faded, fat, greedy women… Are they human or are they fat, wheezing animals, hmm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?

The young female protagonist points out that these women he resents are human beings. We, the audience, nod. “Are they?” he asks us. Yes!

Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright

Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright

8. Sling Blade (1996)

Sling Blade gives us the male perspective of a mentally handicapped drifter named Karl, who, as a child, had murdered his mother because she was having sex with someone other than his father, but who learns to appreciate the pitiable position of another mother and subsequently rescinds his earlier insistence that the murder was warranted. Why? He changes his mind because he realizes that in the cases of both women, angry men control (or controlled) their lives and they have few, if any, alternatives to breaking propriety.

The portrait of a working class mother in this film demonstrates her limitations (mental, emotional, financial, etc.) while exposing her grace and kindness. In fact, this entire film is a celebration of kindness; and the aforementioned mother is heroically kind in the face of her own personal tragedy (the suicide of her husband) and the violence of her hateful new beau. She even makes Karl biscuits from scratch in the middle of the night, with less than a few hours to sleep before going to work as a clerk in a dollar store. Additionally, she is the only person in this rural Southern (United States) town to befriend homosexuals.

Billy Bob Thornton and Natalie Canerday

Billy Bob Thornton and Natalie Canerday

9. Terms of Endearment (1983)

Terms of Endearment is an accurate portrait of the relationship between a controlling mother and her daughter, who consistently falls beneath her mother’s expectations. Aurora wants Emma to be happy and successful, but not for Emma’s own happiness’ sake, for her mother’s. Aurora measures her own success, as a woman and mother, by the success of her daughter. I believe this type of competitive relationship, where a mother resents her daughter’s limitations as reflections on her lack of maternal competency, to be common in our American culture, which validates success in sports and beauty in strictly pass/fail or win/lose terms. American cinema has yet to fully reflect this dynamic in women much beyond Terms of Endearment. Classic American works like Death of a Salesman, might have you believe that parents only want the best for their children for their children’s sake. In truth, parents often want the best for their children to measure their own success as parents. Aurora questions and critiques every one of Emma’s choices because they are less than the best in Aurora’s estimation.

Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine

Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine

10. Fargo (1996)

Motherhood is a pervasive theme to examine in my ten, but it is Frances McDormand’s portrayal of pregnant Police Chief Marge Gunderson in Fargo that makes a great cap to this list and finds feminists divided on the issue of motherhood and whether or not it should be a self-sacrificing pursuit. Some might argue that Marge is the pinnacle of what feminists should aspire to: a strong, working woman in a professional position of authority. And she can have it all, they say: a career, a loving husband, a comfortable home and a child to call her own. Other feminists who view motherhood as a pursuit worthy of total focus might argue that Marge is selfish in her professional function where she may be shot and killed, her baby along with her, at any moment. The issue is polarizing. If you’re a feminist like me, you have yet to side with either group. Whatever you believe, Fargo is a great film to see if – for no other reason – you want to bask in one of the great cinematic performances by an American actress.

Frances McDormand and John Carroll Lynch

Frances McDormand and John Carroll Lynch


The reason for compiling a list of this type is to encourage people to view and discuss these works. (There’s certainly more that can be written about each one of these films.) AFI wants you to watch and consider Citizen Kane and Raging Bull, etc. As a feminist film critic, I want you to see these and other motion pictures with an open mind. With so few feminist film critics working in the mainstream media, you may not have considered these and other films in this way before. Maybe you have and perhaps you even have ideas about other films that warrant a fresh look at the way they too challenge phallocentrism in cinema. The more we watch and the more we raise our voices in forums like this, the greater the chance becomes to change the way Hollywood understands and portrays women, and the more plentiful the opportunities for women as creators of cinema will become.

%d bloggers like this: