With all the sexist hand-wringing about the upcoming all-female reboot of Ghostbusters (opening July 15), you’d think this is the first time there’s been a woman in a movie. Not only does the reboot have the blessing of the entire surviving cast of the original, it has the blessing of the franchise creator, Dan Aykroyd, who has a cameo. That should be enough to quell doubts, but a sexist backlash against the new Ghostbusters still exists. (One online critic, who actually goes by the name “Angry Video Game Nerd,” made news in May when he said he refused to review Ghostbusters on principle.)
But consider this: The last three films by Ghostbusters director Paul Feig–Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy, all of them with largely female ensemble casts–earned a combined worldwide box office of $754 million, according to Box Office Mojo. And in a 2014 survey, FiveThirtyEight writer Walt Hickey looked at 2013’s box office numbers and found that those movies that passed the Bechdel Test grossed nearly double the films that did not. (Cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s 1985 movie test, in brief: 1. The movie has to have at least two women in it, with names; 2. who talk to each other; 3. about something besides a man.)
Let’s look at what I humbly submit as the Feminist Film Canon. I bet you’ve seen more than you think.
The Career Women: It’s 2016 and we’re still talking about glass ceilings and equal pay, so you can imagine how revolutionary it was to see both Rosalind Russell and Katherine Hepburn working as hard-nosed journalists who kicked their male colleagues’ asses in 1940’s His Girl Friday and 1942’s Woman of the Year. Speaking of women in male-dominated fields, let’s talk about Jodie Foster’s Oscar-winning turn as Clarice Starling in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs. Starling is the blueprint for almost every woman that stars in a crime procedural on TV today, starting with The X-Files’ Dana Scully.
Musicals the 1960s: Between Doris Day bedroom comedies and Elvis Presley song-vehicles, the 1960s were not a great time for women in film. The big-budget musical was the place to find strong ladies such as Barbra Streisand in 1968’s Funny Girl, which won her an Oscar; Debbie Reynolds’ Oscar-nominated part in 1964’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown; and Julie Andrews’ Oscar-winning 1964 turn as Mary Poppins. These movies have their faults, but back then, it was a radical act to show female characters who had careers or causes all their own.
Taking on the System: When Sally Field stands up on a table with a sign that says “union” in her Oscar-winning performance in 1979’s Norma Rae, the sign might as well have read, “This is what a feminist looks like.” In this sweaty, tense story, we see one of the best feminist awakenings on film, but I admit it’s not nearly as fun as watching Julia Roberts earn her Oscar, and $256 million in box office returns, for 2000’s Erin Brockovich. True, the desperation of poverty and being an uneducated, single mom is put through the glossy Hollywood filter, but at least the stakes are high, and it’s refreshing to see Brockovich persevere despite getting told again and again to just shut up and go home.
Things are not quite as black and white in 1988’s The Accused, in which Jodie Foster earned her first Oscar for playing a deeply flawed woman who was raped. (Bonus points go to her lawyer, played by a resolute Kelly McGillis.) Considering that some convicted rapists continue to receive criminally short sentences, the hard truths and gray area explored in The Accused remains a master class in rape culture and its victims.
Sports Heroes: Say it with me: “There’s no crying in baseball!” 1992’s A League of Their Own is not only a great statement about how we treat girls and women in sports, but it’s a great sports movie, period. I would put it up against The Natural or Bull Durham any day of the week. And it’s not alone: 2002’s Bend it Like Beckham, 2009’s Whip It and 2004’s Million Dollar Baby have made their own marks on the genre.
The Outliers: This category is for both the taboo-breaking female characters and the cinematic universes they inhabit in which everyone else acts like that’s just Tuesday. For example: Audrey Hepburn’s widowed character in 1963’s Charade is not only thrust into a fantastic crime story, but doesn’t bother acting sad that her loveless marriage is over. Here, too, we find Pam Grier as the title character of Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 Jackie Brown. She’s the embodiment of the sexy, complicated crook-with-a-heart who wants no part in being some man’s girlfriend or pawn ever again. Her evolution isn’t derived through violence, but through cunning—and when she confidently drives off into the sunset, we’re there with her. Speaking of riding off into the sunset, here is where we find two famous female outlaws: Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in 1991’s Thelma & Louise, whose last, desperate ride redefined the road film.
The Revolutionaries: Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple has an almost entirely black cast and deals unflinchingly with issues such as slavery, domestic violence and rape. Tell me that’s not revolutionary in a Hollywood movie-making system still lambasted by casting controversies and #OscarSoWhite hashtags, some 30 years later.
I’m going to put director Julie Taymor’s 2002 Frida here, too. Salma Hayek’s portrayal of real-life revolutionary activist and artist Frida Kahlo isn’t a perfect representation, but what film could reach such great heights? And the 2007 animated film Persepolis—based on Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel about the Iranian revolution, as seen through the eyes of a girl coming of age as a displaced immigrant—is a stunning portrait of a woman who fights to stay true to herself and her upbringing.
Total Badassery: Like Russell’s role in His Girl Friday, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley (1979’s Alien, 1986’s Aliens, 1992’s Alien3 and 1997’s Alien: Resurrection) was a part originally written for a man. This might be why, as the story unfolds, Ripley is nobody’s sidekick or girlfriend. Even Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow has been ‘shipped with nearly every Avenger.
Ripley is the template for every badass female character to come thereafter, from Sarah Connor in the monster 1991 hit Terminator 2: Judgment Day, to Imperator Furiosa in 2015’s critically acclaimed Mad Max: Fury Road, to Rey in 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And let’s not forget the lightning-fast swords of Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang in 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Yeoh’s Yu Shu Lien is literally a boss, to whom even Master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) shows total respect. Zhang’s impetuous aristocrat Jen Yu may be a brainwashed prodigy, but her character’s arc is one of the most interesting and complicated in modern cinema. Ideas of class, sexuality, consent, and gender norms are not only explored, but are major plot points.
And it’s saying something that The Bride (Uma Thurman), the lethal protagonist of Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies, comes off closer to Die Hard’s Bruce Willis than Glenn Close’s obsessive character in Fatal Attraction. Tarantino deserves credit for not just creating a set of films anchored by a modern-day female warrior, but for creating a universe rich with #bossbitches who give zero fucks about doing things just to please or keep a man. And Uma deserves credit for becoming The Bride, top to bottom. Try to tell her you’re not reviewing her movie on principle, “Angry Nerd.”