4×4 Feminist Features: Films

Features Editor Sophie Perry is pursuing a Masters in Contemporary Literature, Culture & Theory and has a special interest in Intersectional Feminism, Queer theory, gender performativity and postcolonial identities.

[Featured Image: Thelma and Louise from their popular film posing for a selfie.]

In this third piece for 4×4 Feminist Features the focus will be on films. The use of films, through their narratives and central characters, and the impact the very act of film making had on the latter half of the twentieth century as an important part of feminist discourse and activism. Before we begin it is important to note that all of the films on this list were directed by men, an odd choice on a feminist film list you might think. However, I have chosen to list these particular films for a number of different reasons, central to this being the protagonists of these films and what they represent both within the narrative and in wider culture.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

If I were to explain the plot of Mad Max: Fury Road in simple terms it would sound like the most truly boring film to grace cinema screens: baddies chase goodies in one direction, they turn around and come back. However, Mad Max: Fury Road is an excellent example of feminist storytelling with compelling characters and darkly complex themes. As well as this when it was released it had Dude-Bros pulling out their slug-like moustaches in anguish, crying ‘It’s feminist PROPAGANDA!!’. What’s not to love.

The plot of the film centres, much like the original Mad Max films of the 70s, on titular character and protagonist Max Rockatansky. Captured by a gang known as the War Boys Max is used as a live blood donor, effectively a living blood bag for a sick War Boy called Nux. Meanwhile, the tyrannical leader of the gang, Immortan Joe, sends Furiosa, one of his lieutenants, on a mission for gasoline. When her truck drives off-route Immortan Joe realises that his five Wives (See: Sex Slaves) are stowed away in the truck and are escaping with Furiosa. Immortan Joe leads his entire army in pursuit of his Wives across the desert, Max becoming embroiled in the chase and eventually joining forces with Furiosa and the Wives.

Mad Max: Fury Road can easily be misunderstood as an all action-no-substance kind of film. However, the film uses Max’s perspective as a window to the much more interesting narrative of Furiosa and the Wives, with the underlying discussions of autonomy, agency and what it means to be a woman in this dystopian world. In essence, the film isn’t really about Max at all. He is actually a secondary figure who just happens to be there while Furiosa takes matters into her own hands in revolting against a misogynistic, tyrannical war-lord. The dramatic centre of the film, thus, being a female one. 

Another element of the film that is important in terms of feminist critique is the reclaiming of the female body, both in terms of sexual and non-sexual agency. When we first meet the Wives properly they are using bolt cutters to free themselves of heavy, metal chastity belts which have literal spikes where their vaginas are. In this image we see women freeing themselves physically from the misogynistic constraints of ownership and what ‘defines’ virtue. By taking control back control of their bodies and sexualities from Immortan Joe the film establishes these characters as ones with autonomy, choice and goals. An important notion when women’s bodies and sexually agency is still something that is heavily monitored, debated and policed.   

2. Thelma and Louise

Thelma and Louise has long been regarded as a feminist classic since it burst its way onto the screen in 1991.

The film tells the story of titular characters Thelma and Louise who, bored by the hum-drum of everyday in small town Arkansas, hit the road for some escapism. However, when Thelma is raped outside a bar Louise shoots, and kills, her attacker. Following this the women go on the run, pursued by the law. 

One of the most important themes of Thelma & Louise is friendship. Female friendships are often something that is not presented fairly or accurately on the screen whereby they seem to lack a certain depth that just cannot translate from real life. Or, on the flip side of this they are driven apart during a film’s narrative, often due a conflict of interest – usually jealously over a male love-interest. This is perhaps a reflection of the misogynistic narratives that the patriarchy teaches women from a young age, where women are taught to see each other as competition and not-to-be-trusted. Films with a female duo where the heteronormative relationships take the backseat are a rare occurrence even now, Thelma and Louise thus being a great example of female friendship and the way women can support and protect each other.

3. Alien

Ridley Scott’s genre-changing 1979 release Alien is a classic film and an example of great film-making for many reasons. It has suspenseful writing, great effects, a truly original design and complex themes and imagery – all of which combine to make an intelligent and terrifying science fiction feature. The film was released to critical acclaim and its popularity has spawned an entire film franchise, video games, graphic novels, toys and a variety of other memorabilia. Cited as one of the most influential science-fiction films of all time Alien was preserved by the National Film Preservation Board of the United States in 2002, for it was deemed ‘Culturally, historically or aesthetically significant’.

The film is set on in the year 2122 on a commercial space tug called the Nostromo, the crew of this ship having been in stasis during their return journey to Earth. The crew are awoken by the ship’s control board, Mother, when the ship receives a distress signal from a nearby Moon. As it is policy to investigate any distress signal the crew make their way to the Moon, coming in contact with a strange creature while they are stationed there which attaches itself to a crew members face. By bringing the crew member back on board with the creature attached to his face it all then, for use of a better phrase, goes to shit.

While there are many parts of this film I could discuss at length I want to focus on some of the themes, imagery and the lead character, Ripley, in this short space I have.

First and foremost, I will look at the character of Ripley. Sigourney Weaver’s role as Ripley was a career changing one, making her one of the first true female action heroes. I mean, how could she not be considered an action hero, regardless if she is a woman or not? Ripley is badass. If we are talking about her as an action hero it is important to remember that Ripley is not a super human with super abilities, she is a normal woman who survives the Alien attack with her own wit and skill. It is in this sense that I find her one of the most feminist characters because she is able to achieve and survive based on her own merits, not because of some freak turn of events which gave her advantage over the Alien.

Secondly, I turn to a number of the imagery and themes which appear not just in Alien but throughout the franchise. These images and themes are sexual in their basis, whereby phallic and vaginal imagery is littered throughout the film (once you notice it, it is impossible to miss). Even the Alien itself is comprised of phallic imagery in which it impregnates its victims with eggs that then burst out of their chests. In this sense, Alien is a film about rape and the ‘male fear of female birth’. It turns on its head the narratives around rape that often paint women as inherently victim by having them as the ones whom fight back.

4. Legally Blonde

I’m sorry but who doesn’t love Legally Blonde? Elle Woods inspired a generation of girls to turn ‘You got into Harvard?!’ ‘What, like its hard?’ from a funny quote to mantra of empowerment.

The film tells the story of Elle Woods a popular, blonde sorority president who is heartbroken when her boyfriend Warner Huntington III breaks up with her, instead of proposing to her. He explains that he needs someone more ‘serious’ in order to achieve his dreams of completing Harvard Law School and becoming a senator. Elle deciding to enrol at Harvard too in order to win him back.

Now, the one critique people always bring up about Legally Blonde is that Elle Woods only gets where she is in the film (Harvard, Professor Callahan’s internship ect) because she was chasing a man in the first place. That can be a valid point, yes the film does begin with Elle trying to get into Harvard because that’s where Warner is going. However, the film isn’t about Warner or Emmett or any of the men and boys in Elle’s life. The film is about Elle coming into her own in spite of those around her (See: Warner) not believing that she can do it.

Throughout the film Elle is shown to be a resourceful, intelligent and with a quick-wit. Her intelligence being something that many of the characters doubt throughout the film, and something many viewers do not take note of till around half way through. I mean, it is literally in the first ten minutes of the film that Elle easily proves wrong a sales woman who thought Elle was an easy target for a mark-up on a dress. Elle knowing off hand what season the dress was from, the cut and the stitching that should be used on it, as well as the fact that she was not going to pay full price for a ‘last year’ dress. Many viewers underestimate Elle at this point in the film but why? Is it because she is studying fashion at UCLA? (which she has a 4.0 GPA in, might I add).

The fact is that this film is, in its entirety, about showing how women are often worth more than they allow themselves to be seen for, and Elle Woods proves that. While she might end up with the ‘nice’ guy Emmett at the end is not important to the plot or Elle’s character, she does not need him, and it is just a minor side plot.

Elle Woods is a feminist icon through and through. Not only that but she proves that you can have it all and still wear pink – her signature colour. 


Featured Image Credit: https://lwlies.com/articles/thelma-and-louise-25th-anniversary/

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