The Formidable Woman of the Screen

Zachary Cruz-Tan

I don’t remember a time when women didn’t play a big part in the movies for me. Even as I was growing up and cinemas everywhere were filled with The Matrix (1999), Trinity always seemed the most dangerous. She kicked the most butt, slipped into some of the most ridiculously fetishistic costumes since Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, and always appeared to be in control. She was never a puppet of the plot, always its impetus (until, of course, she fell in love with Neo and the writers decided to turn her into the Lois Lane of the franchise…).

Now we live in an age of constant social and political scrutiny, thanks to the handy availability and widespread reach of the Internet. African-Americans are having their say about race and brutality. The LGBT community continues to be vocal, maybe even more so. There has never been a greater push for gender equality, which I think is essential, but in the movie world, this can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, more female actors are leading films in roles of great stature. On the other, studios are succumbing to pressure to turn every male-centric box office success into an oestrogen-fuelled copycat. We’ve already had Ghostbusters (2016). Still to come: Ocean’s Eight (because apparently Ocean’s Eleven would require more actresses than Hollywood can spare).

There is a difference between respecting the female character and tossing her around like a football. Remakes like Ghostbusters do nothing for the cause, because they are about nothing and could just as easily star men, while films like Hidden Figures (2016) desire to do more for women by understanding their strengths and playing to them. Consider the power of the scene in Hidden Figures where Janelle Monáe fights for the right to study in a segregated college in 1960s Virginia. And then turn to Melissa McCarthy bouncing around like a balloon trying to subdue a proton rifle. Yes, one is historical drama and the other is physical comedy, but respect is universal. And respect is, after all, what all this is about.

But is this current female enlightenment such a big deal? Have we forgotten Beatrix Kiddo, or Ellen Ripley, or Dorothy Gale? Or the movies of Alfred Hitchcock, like Notorious (1946) or Psycho (1960), that seem to be about men, but are told through a feminine lens? Perhaps not. We are all aware of the great women of the past, how they practiced their craft – sometimes in harsh company – and inevitably shaped the present by opening doors once thought to be sealed. But Hollywood believes in repeating a winning idea until it has been done to death, and then repeats it some more. So it has boarded the feminism wagon because it thinks it must, and fails to find the balance between respect and farce.

2017 has already seen its fair share of female-centric releases, with Their Finest and Ghost in the Shell. The Zookeeper’s Wife, starring Jessica Chastain (perhaps Hollywood’s most prominent crusader) is currently in cinemas, and Alien: Covenant opens this week. Yet to arrive is the much-anticipated Wonder Woman, which will see the iconic comic book character receive her first solo treatment on the big screen.

What excites me about these films is that they seem organic. They are not ideas that pander or condescend, or that are daft in their conception. Many people will enjoy the silliness of Ghostbusters and Ocean’s Eight, but to gaze up and come away from a movie feeling truly inspired and entertained by a formidable female performance is perhaps worth that much more.

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

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