It doesn’t matter if you are a boy or a girl. You have to face it: women in films and in the media are constantly misinterpreted. Often the conventional role of women is associated with glamour and the “natural” ability to seduce. Sex symbols such as Marilyn Monroe don’t die. They become martyrs.
In the recent Why Him? (John Hamburg, 2016), the 21-year old girl Zoey is dating the tech millionaire Laird, an overconfident and vulgar nouveau rich. His behaviour, not too different from Donald Trump’s, scares Zoey’s father. Laird mission is clear: he needs to convince Zoey’s parents that he deserves to marry her. She is the ultimate cliché of the passive and old-fashioned woman: she is vulnerable, she wants to marry a millionaire and she even needs her parents consent before making a decision.
On the other hand, the non-conventional women roles are linked to feminism. Those women struggle to find a place in the sun. Evidently, they shun the roles of women supporting men. They don’t have the burden to provide the male subject with the illusion of wholeness and unity. Instead they are lonely heroines and warriors. The fiery and murderous protagonist of the Chinese movie The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 2016) is a good example.
But does it always have to be either one way or the other? Is it all that black and white?
Some characters – both fictional or in biopics – subverted the role of women in cinema, transposing this dichotomy between conventional, passive females and feminists. They challenged conventions and inspired me to become an independent woman. These dirty women are my personal favourites!
1. Shangay Lily (Marlene Dietrich) in Shanghai Express (Von Sternberg, 1932)
Dietrich plays Shanghai Lily, a notorious woman for relying on men for survival. She traded sex for new dresses and a bed to rest her head at night. When she meets up with Doc (Clive Brook), both have to deal with fate. He is a former lover, who can’t bring himself to trust her, though he loves her. She loves him too. Can they step out of their comfort zone and surrender to love?
2. Pagu (Carla Camuratti) in Eternally Pagu (Norma Bengell, 1987)
Pagu is the nickname for Patrícia Rehder Galvão, who was a Brazilian writer, poet, playwright, journalist and translator. She devoted her life (1910-1962) to challenge the moral and social standards of her time. Pagu broke open the truth behind the image of women in arts. The Brazilian rock singer Rita Lee (Brazilian like myself) once wrote: “My strength is not brute/ I’m not a nun and I’m not a whore” in a song about the artist.
3. Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek) in Frida (Julie Tamor, 2002)
Surely, Hayek’s most important movie was Frida, which launched her as a producer. On a talk in TIFF in 2015, she revealed: “It took us eight years to get it done. Being ahead of the curve is the most painful place to be. You have to be ready to be rejected 2,000 times.” At the same time, playing the painter was very rewarding too. With Frida Hayek got rid of an obsession which lasted nearly 20 years. Her passion for the Mexican painter was so immense that after the movie was finished, she allegedly had problems with her left leg (in real-life, Kahlo was left crippled after an accident when she was 18).
4. Mabel Longuetti (Gena Rowlands) in A Woman under The Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974)
Teamed up with his wife and actress Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes explores ordinary characters, including women, who weren’t being portrayed at that time. The protagonist is a working-class housewife and mother, who has a serious nervous breakdown and is incarcerated into an institution for six months. She is a woman dedicated to the family who has no room of her own. She lives in constant silence and reflection, unsure of her abilities as wife or mother.
5. Michiko (Shima Iwashita) in An Autumn Afternoon (Yasujirô Ozu, 1962)
Frequently articles quote Japanese filmmaker Ozu as an artist who shaped the image of men (fathers and workers). But by portraying angry and silent women in his features, he evokes the unconscious suppressed role of women in Japan. The widower Hirayama lives with his 24-year-old daughter Michiko. She stays single in order to take care of his father, who tries to force her into marriage. One day he blurts out: “Aren’t you going to get married?”. The problem is that Michiko’s concept of a husband is based on her father. Hirayama drinks more than usual and is totally insensitive towards her. Michiko’s silent refusal to marry is an ultimate subversive decision.
6. Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis) and Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon) in Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991)
What could be more thrilling than two women who leave their husbands for a road trip that leads to murder and violence? The film shell-shocked audiences not just because of the ending, but also because they murdered their rapist. Actress Susan Sarandon recently declared: “I’ve always thought of it as a cowboy movie with women instead of guys on horses. But it was pretty shocking that people were so threatened by it”. Geena Davis, founder of an Institute on Gender in Media, lamented how little progress Hollywood has made in finding roles for women in the last 25 years. She claims that we are making less movies with a female stars now.
7. Celie Johnson (Whoopi Goldberg) in The Colour Purple (Steven Spielberg, 1985)
Based on the eponymous book, this film follows the life and trials of a young Black woman, Celie Johnson, who is trying her best to find her feet after years of abuse by men. Her early years are a catalogue of painful events. Goldberg delivers an amazing debut performance, but she confessed she didn’t identify with the character: “I’ve tried to explain to a lot of interviewers that Celie has nothing to do with the black experience. It’s like, they were saying Celie is black and you are black and so you have all these things in common. Celie could be Oriental, Puerto Rican, and these same specific things could have happened to her”.
8. Orlando (Tilda Swinton) in Orlando (Sally Potter, 1999)
Based on the novel by Virginia Woolf, Swinton plays a sex-switching character who lives throughout four centuries. The story line reveals events of the sexual politics in Europe and in the Middle East while Orlando tries to break free the chains of sex and class. A masterpiece.
9. Gloria (Carmen Maura) in What Have I Done to Deserve This?! (Pedro Almodóvar, 1984)
Gloria lives a suffocating life in Spain. Though she is completely devoted to her husband, her two children and her mother-in-law, she is isolated. According to Almodóvar, “the world of the housewife amuses and horrifies me because it is monstrous in its alienation”. One day, her husband asks her to iron his shirt, and she kills him. And she doesn’t regret it! Carmen Maura is pictured as a nun at the top of the article in another Almodóvar movie: Dark Habits (1983).
10. Malala Yousafzai in My Name is Malala (Davis Guggenheim, 2015)
Women fight not only for knowledge; we fight for action. The documentary is perhaps a clear answer to what’s next for women of the world. Malala was only 15 when she was severed wounded by a Taliban gunshot in Pakistan. She miraculously survived and decided to speak up for womens’ right for education, triggering her to leave the country. Malala is a portrait of a resilient young woman who confronts her society with an audacious message.