by Harper Owens
Living in the age of the internet has given us unprecedented access to popular forms of entertainment – in recent years, expressions like “binge watching” have become an accepted part of our lexicon, indicating how normalized extreme media consumption has become. However, just because we are saturated with media does not mean that we see equal representation of different populations. A quick glance at a list of Netflix recommendations, for instance, will reveal the not-surprising but nevertheless harmful overrepresentation of white men. Though quantity doesn’t determine quality, it is still disconcerting to see that, by and large, the media tells the stories of white males far more than it tells those of any other race or gender.
Fortunately, because the amount of material to be found online is so broad, it is getting easier and easier to find films that are more woman-centric, provided that you look long enough and in the right places. What follows is a list of a few excellent films with strong female leads, currently streaming on Netflix.
However, I’d like to make two disclaimers. The first concerns what has become known as the Bechdel Test. The idea is that if a film passes the Bechdel Test – that is, if it features a dialogue scene in which two women talk about something besides a man – then the film presents a fairer representation of femininity. The test originated in a 1985 comic written by Alison Bechdel, and has risen dramatically in popularity in recent years, so much so that Swedish cinemas now incorporate the test into their movie ratings.
While the Bechdel Test can be a fun tool to use on your favorite movies (it’s almost guaranteed that few of them will pass), the fact that some use it as the standard by which to hold movies is worrisome. The test has serious limitations. It is fairly useful when it comes to determining female representation in a given film, but it indicates nothing about how women are characterized in said film – a film which passes the test could still have a substantial amount of misogynist content (this complaint was levelled against Guardians of the Galaxy last year). Also, it is conceivable for a female character to be strong and complex without talking to another woman.
Some of the selected films pass the Bechdel Test, others don’t. I promise that they were each chosen with good reason.
My second disclaimer: though the selected films all feature wonderfully vibrant and complex female characters, the directors of these films are all male. The dearth of respected woman directors is a persistent problem in the film industry. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t find female voices out there – Sofia Coppola, Miranda July, and Lisa Cholodenko are three that immediately come to mind, and they each have work available on Netflix. But while Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides has something interesting to say about male perceptions of femininity, I didn’t feel that it fit this list. The same goes for Cholodenko’s The Kids are All Right, which I frankly found to be juvenile in its portrayal of same-sex relationships (it validates, whether unintentionally or not, the myth that all lesbians secretly want men). And I regret to say that I have not yet seen July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know.
A simply-told, well-observed portrait of twentysomething Frances as she navigates her way through young adulthood. Though coming-of-age stories are common enough, this film still carries the feeling of a story seldom told. Writer-director Noah Baumbach, with his observational camera style and slice-of-life dialogue, places attention on everyday scenes that we don’t typically get in mainstream films, and Greta Gerwig (who also co-wrote the film) gives an excellent performance.
Short Term 12
Another tale of growing up, this time focusing on Grace, a young counselor for at-risk children. The film handles serious subject matter with tact, and there is never a false or heavy-handed moment. A superb effort by newcomer Destin Daniel Crettin, the film pulls off the rare feat of being gripping and tender at the same time.
20 Feet from Stardom
A pleasant and compelling documentary, telling the story of several backup singers in the recording industry, who have each lent their talents to some of the most celebrated music of the last century. These singers, most of them African American women, have lived in relative anonymity despite their massive contributions to pop music, and this film finally gives them some well-deserved time in the spotlight.
The Silence of the Lambs
There are several factors which make this a compelling movie, but one of the most interesting points of conflict is Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster)’s status as one of the few females in her FBI training program. Director Johnathan Demme, using long, fluid point-of-view shots, does an excellent job of conveying the discomfort and sense of injustice inherent to being a woman in a male-dominated environment.
This was the first time Quentin Tarantino attempted to write a powerful female lead (his Kill Bill movies are also currently streaming), and his attempt is, by and large, a success. Jackie is, without a doubt, the most competent player in this caper where competency is crucial. The story, adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, is labyrinthine – it’s one of those crime thrillers where, whether we think we’re following everything or not, we know the protagonist must be one step ahead of us.