The claim that “We don’t need feminism anymore” is often repeated, and it’s true that feminism has made leaps and bounds since the beginning of the 20th century. Women have gained important, tangible rights previously denied them – the right to vote, to get an abortion, and to open a bank account, just to name a few. Topics like consent and equitable division of household labour have also been brought into mainstream, and we would like to think that as a result of these things, attitudes towards women have changed.
Cinema, however, tells a different story. Some progress has been made, of course. Many more roles are open to women now than in the 1930s, for example, and to a more diverse range of women at that. Current films also have a much higher frequency of strong female characters and “girl power’” moments, but these often prove to be empty posturing in the wider context of the story and the themes. One thing becomes clear when comparing the cinema of yesteryear to the cinema of today, and that is just how similar they are in their representations and discussions of women – how many films of the 21st century still lean into tired tropes of bitchy blondes, bitter older women, and sex workers with a heart of gold? How many films of today treat women as just that little bit less human than men?
The fact that the most recent films on this list (which is chronologically sorted) would not be out of place in the in the early 20th century shows just how far we as a society still have to go.
1. The Women (George Cukor, 1939):
With its reputation as a classic and its star-studded all-female cast, George Cukor’s The Women sounds perfect on paper, but no number of female characters can help a film so determined to present women as vapid, petty gossips. When the women aren’t stealing each other’s husbands or making snide remarks, they’re getting into physical catfights. And the men who cheat? The narrative lets them off scot-free, instead blaming their wives for divorcing them. The protagonist’s mother even claims things were better when women couldn’t get a divorce, and given that all the divorced couples are happily reunited by the end, it seems the audience is meant to agree with her.
2. Annie Get Your Gun (George Sidney/ Busby Berkeley, 1950):
This musical-western about Annie Oakley, history’s most famous sharpshooter, had the potential to be a great, feel-good story about a woman from a poor background whose skill catapulted her to fame. What we got instead was sexist garbage. Annie works with and falls in love with Frank Butler, and he loves her too, but there’s one problem: he can’t handle the fact that she’s a better shooter than him. Instead of Frank dealing with his misogynistic insecurities, the couple’s happy ending is finally achieved when Annie purposefully loses a shooting contest against Frank to pacify his fragile ego and allow him to enter into marriage secure in the knowledge that he’s superior to his wife.
3. Carousel (Henry King, 1956):
Domestic abuse: the musical! Carousel follows Billy Bigelow from his physically abusive marriage all the way to the afterlife, where he is given the chance to come back to earth and help his teenage daughter. He promptly squanders this opportunity by hitting her too, but no fear – she’s fine with this. “Is it possible for someone to hit you hard […], and it not hurt you at all?” “It is possible, dear,” comes his wife’s reply. Carousel not only offers its abusive protagonist a singularly unearned redemption, but suggests that perhaps he didn’t ever really need to be redeemed. After all, his wife didn’t mind being hit that much, and she did the right thing in staying by her man when all those nosy, judgmental townspeople suggested he shouldn’t beat her.
4. I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978):
There has been no shortage of discourse over the feminist merit of I Spit on Your Grave, the film that kickstarted the rape-revenge genre, but its alternative title, Day of the Woman – a callback to British horror Day of the Triffids (Steve Sekely/Freddie Francis, 1963) – should give us some hint as to who the monster is in this horror film. I Spit on Your Grave is flaky in its sympathies, and it does allow for moments of genuine catharsis, but it is clear that the film is primarily aimed at a male audience and capitalises on the fear of women’s liberation. Perhaps another clue that this film was made for men is the fact that Jennifer, the protagonist, has to seduce each of her rapists before murdering them.
5. Sixteen Candles (John Hughes, 1984):
At first, Sixteen Candles looks to be your average teen romcom; the shy girl finally gets a chance with the hot, popular guy, and his girlfriend is kind of bitchy so we don’t care too much when she gets unceremoniously dumped – it’s by no means feminist, but it’s unfortunately pretty standard fare. Sixteen Candles, however, goes above and beyond. The male love interest not only dumps his girlfriend, but explicitly gives another man permission to rape her when she’s blackout drunk. To make matters worse, she’s pleasantly surprised when she wakes up and actually ends the movie in a relationship with her rapist.
6. Death Becomes Her (Robert Zemeckis, 1992):
A film about Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn as glamorous feuding zombies sounds like it should be a fun, campy time, but Death Becomes Her is the furthest thing from it. What we get instead is a mean-spirited film that despises its larger-than-life female characters, choosing instead to sympathise with the bland object of their affections, Ernest Menville. Poor, good-hearted Ernest ultimately chooses to die rather than spend any more time with these exaggeratedly vain and catty women. The ending, which shows them as miserable, alone and, crucially, ugly, feels more vindictive than funny.
7. Match Point (Woody Allen, 2005):
It’s a classic story – boy meets girl, girl is too sexy and leads boy astray, boy kills girl. Though Match Point’s Chris is a cowardly, opportunistic misogynist, the film takes him seriously and even sympathises with him to an odd degree, going so far as to have other characters comment on how Nola’s attractiveness naturally causes men to make bad decisions (you know, like murder). What really makes Match Point stomach-turning, however, is the possibility that it may contain semi-autobiographical elements. It becomes significantly harder to watch a film made by a director who married his wife’s barely-adult adopted daughter, and has been accused of sexually abusing another one of her children.
8. Beowulf (Robert Zemeckis, 2007):
In this CGI monstrosity, a poem originally about the transience of life and the cycle of vengeance becomes a story about… the dangers of sexy women? Beowulf warns men that no matter how heroic they are, an evil seductress could come along and destroy their legacy. It’s a misogynistic sentiment in and of itself, but the execution puts it on another level. Grendel’s mother is a villain so sexually objectified that her feet are actually shaped like stilettos (yes, you read that right – skin stilettos). This adaptation took a monstrous female warrior who fought and killed with her bare hands, and instead chose to make her a naked temptress, never mind that most women wouldn’t voluntarily sleep with their son’s murderer.
Seventy-year-old American filmmaker Robert Zemeckis holds the dubious distinction of featuring on this list twice!
9. The Hottie and the Nottie (Tom Putnam, 2008):
Paris Hilton’s vanity project is regarded as one of the worst films of all time, not least because of its misogyny. Proto-incel Nate Cooper wants Cristabel, but before she sleeps with him, he needs to find a date for her friend, June, a woman so hideous that cruel neighing sound effects play every time we see her. The camera lingers on her rotten teeth, her hairy legs (God forbid a woman who doesn’t shave!), and the mole on her face. Predictably, Nate realises June was the one for him all along, but not before she becomes ‘hot’. Even this dubious character development means little when the film has spent the whole runtime laughing at her appearance.
The Hottie and the Nottie is pictured at the top of this article.
10. 365 Days (Barbara Białowąs/Tomasz Mandes, 2020):
This Polish erotic film asserts that intimidation and sexual harassment really is the way to get women. The only film on this list co-directed by a woman follows an Italian mob boss who kidnaps a woman and gives her a year within which to fall in love with him. He claims that he won’t touch her before she’s ready, but in practice he subjects her to constant sexual harassment (including forcing her to watch him receive a blowjob in a baffling attempt to show her what she’s missing). Somehow, his plan actually works, and he is promptly rewarded with yet another blowjob. It would be far easier to accept this film as a female sexual fantasy if it were at all focused on female pleasure.