Feminist Films

My semester is nearly over, my papers will be done in a couple of weeks, and my Netflix account has been sorely underused for the last four months. It’s time for me to find some good feminist movies to watch during the holiday break.

Some of my favorite feminist films deal overtly with gender roles and pushing up against patriarchal norms.

  • Whale Rider, about a 12 year old girl who is destined to be the leader of her people, blew me away when I saw it.
  • Iron Jawed Angels, about Alice Paul’s fight to win suffrage in the early 20th century, is a movie every woman should see before election season.
  • Brides of Christ. Ok, this might be an unusual choice, since it is a 1990′s Australian miniseries about Catholic nuns during the Vatican II era. But the issues it dealt with — divorce, female leadership and communities, birth control, faith and progressive values, etc. resonated strongly with me.

These are films that have stayed with me, ones I want to watch over and over again because they speak to something in my feminist heart. But I also enjoy movies that might not be as overtly feminist, but that do feature strong women and strong female friendships. When I read Starfoxy’s fantastic post about the Bechdel Test, first popularized in Alison Bechdel’s comic Dykes to Watch Out For, I thought this was an interesting basic (very basic) standard for the feminist movie goer. It’s a simple test. A movie passes if it

1) has at least two women in it

2) who talk to each other

3) about something besides a man

It’s shocking to see how many movies don’t pass. As Starfoxy points out, the Pixar classic Finding Nemo barely passes — it only squeaks by because Flo asks Peach about a patient’s root canal during an ensemble scene. Even lots of women centered movies don’t pass because their conversations center around men.

Please share your favorite feminist films, and other films you’ve loved that pass the Bechdel test. What are the ones that have stayed with you over the years?


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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36 Responses

  1. Rixa says:

    I love Whale Rider. I should watch it again–it’s been several years now.

  2. In Pray the Devil Back to Hell, Liberian Christian and Muslim women unite to stop the 10 year civil war in Liberia. A powerful film showing the strength of women united to save their families and themselves from the ravages of war.

  3. spunky says:

    Um… if the women talk about war, does it count? The Land Girls might be a good choice.

    Horseman on the Roof (French) might also fit, though there is primarily one male and one female role, when the woman speaks to another woman (after introducing herself via her husband- who is not the male lead) the women discuss cholera.

    • spunky says:

      Now I am thinking that the cholera conversation might be more one-sided with a lot screaming.

      Looking for Alibrandi might also fit the bill in the mother/daughter “Glory Box” conversation.

      Tomorrow, When the War Began -sort of fits the bill as well. It is a teen movie, but the lead is a female, and she leads her co-ed mates in war against invaders. Not a deep plot, but I loved the female military lead.

      • spunky says:

        Oh! And how could I forget Made in Dagenham? You will enjoy this film about women’s fight for equal pay in the UK. I promise. There is a powerful sceen between two women, where one women re-introduces herself as a University graduate, rather than just her husband’s keeper. Brilliant.

      • spunky says:

        Last one- haven’t seen it, but I reckon it’d be interesting: Yes Sir Madam, about the Indian female revolutionary. (I think I chose all non US films? Sheesh!… I need to get to a real theatre soon…) http://yessirmadam.com/

  4. EmilyCC says:

    LOVE Whale Rider and Iron-Jawed Angels. My other favorite one is Dangerous Beauty. It takes place in the 16th or 17th century in Italy. A time when an upper-middle class woman had two choices: become educated and independent as a courtesan or be a wife and mother.

    Oh, and Cold Comfort Farm…I’m still sad I lent out my copy 10 years ago 🙂

  5. HokieKate says:

    My grandmother sent me “Iron Jawed Angels” and it is amazing. But why oh why did they need the bathtub scene?

    I think “Mamma Mia” passes the test. They talk about money troubles. It’s just a fun movie.

  6. Beatrice says:

    Not a movie, but “Damages” passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.

  7. Miri says:

    What interesting criteria! I want to start testing all the movies I own and see how many of them measure up. I never saw Whale Rider, although I heard really great things about it when it came out. And I was actually just reading something about the Iron-Jawed Angels the other day… so inspiring. I definitely want to check out some of these movies.

    I think Howards End and Miss Potter both pass the test, and I love them both. Have any of you seen Stage Door, with Katharine Hepburn? That’s one of my favorites, and it has almost exclusively female characters (though they talk about men plenty, too).

    I don’t know about Mamma Mia though… I love that movie, and I suppose it technically does meet the criteria, but I don’t think I would consider it a feminist film. After all, Meryl Streep spends the whole movie talking about how her life would be so much easier if she had a man to provide for her, and Amanda Seyfried does nothing but obsess over finding her father and then calls off the wedding she’s been dying to have to travel instead like her boyfriend wants. (Not saying there’s anything wrong with her calling off the wedding or wanting to find her father–just that it feels kind of weird to call it a feminist movie when everything about the plot centers on men.)

    • spunky says:

      Yeah… there is another movie, Baby Mama- about a surrogate and an intended mother. The women talk about men and babies. Besides the fact that it is so not even close to surrogacy, its not even a funny movie, even though it is supposed to be.

  8. DefyGravity says:

    I can think of a few movies that meet the criteria, although they’re all kind of silly. Miss Petigrew lives for a Day, Hairspray and First wives Club. I love the criteria! So interesting, and pretty sad, how few films don’t meet it.

  9. Megan B. says:

    Have any of you seen Whip It? I definitely saw that as a feminist movie. I also really like Mona Lisa Smile.

    Another movie I always saw as somewhat feminist was Wanted, but I don’t remember Angelina Jolie talking to another woman, so maybe it wouldn’t pass that Bechdel test.

  10. Moniker Challenged says:

    I never know anymore if my tastes in entertainment have the uppity woman seal of approval (it’s much easier to to sniff out the rank woman-hating stinkers). But can I love the Susan Sarandon Little Women? They’re tough females, just takin’ care of business and not obsessing about men.

  11. Starfoxy says:

    I really liked The Girl Who Leapt through Time. I know it’s animated, but it was so interesting, and engaging that I just know everyone would love it. It passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, and I think is feminist in so many ways.

  12. Beatrice says:

    Also, a great miniseries is “The Politician’s Wife.” It is about a politician’s wife who finds out her husband is cheating on her. Really interesting story and amazing acting.

  13. Jessica says:

    My husband told me about the criteria a few years ago. So now he uses it all the time. Its very sad how many movies do not pass the test. I am adding all the movie to my netflix que.

  14. aerin says:

    I really liked Rachel Getting Married, which was dark. The women in the movie are deeply flawed, the men are more of the stock characters. It’s about a family recovering from tragedy and addiction. It is probably rated r and I wouldn’t recommend that my mom watch it. So if you are willing to live on the edge and deal with dark and complicated and possibly rated r, it works.

    Mad Men is not feminist, does pass the betchdel test. I recommend it.

    Finally, the movie Sucker Punch was controversial among feminists. I’ve read positive and negative takes of the film. It’s very dark and violent. There is abuse and attempted r_ape. Also, all the main characters are physically attractive. But I thought it was good…women fighting against the structure of the asylum. Women working together to free themselves. I liked it but I can understand why it was controversial among feminists.

    • LovelyLauren says:

      I actually think that Mad Men is feminist because it shows the struggles that women went through during that time period and how a variety of women deal with it. Joan uses her sexuality as a way to be successful because it’s the only way she knows how. Likewise, Peggy chooses not to and is frustrated when she is expected to. Mad Men has made me so much more appreciative for the changes that have happened in the past 50 years.

      It’s also worth noting that 7 of the 9 writers of Mad Men are women.

  15. Hmm. “Juno” is a possibility, though I don’t know the film well enough to be sure. I’d also put up for consideration “Ever After” and “Girl, Interrupted”

  16. alex w. says:

    I think that something really interesting about the Bechdel test is that there are some really good movies that don’t pass and some horrible ones that do. I think it’s the more useful for some movies (“chick flicks,” for example, although I don’t think women about women should be movies FOR women only) because it makes a lot of sense to follow all those standards, but at the same time, there are movies that just don’t have a place for it. The token Bechdel test scene might be distracting or useless, you know? Not saying that movies don’t need more women who talk to each other about something other than men, but if say, 50/50 passed the Bechdel test, that would be totally random because it’s about a man who gets cancer, and all of the characters revolve around that central character, you know? But in general, I am in favor of this rule.

    Anyway, I looked at a list of movies, and it turns out that I don’t see as many films a year as I think I do, but Easy A, Coraline, The King’s Speech and Coco Before Chanel were a few of the recent-ish ones that I’ve seen that appear to pass the test.

  17. Jessawhy says:

    I liked Monsters V Aliens (kids’ movie) because it portrayed a female lead character as strong and worthy of respect. I’m not sure it passes the Bechdel test, but it has the main character, Gigantica, realizing that she’s not going to settle for her rude, self-centered fiance.

    I loved Secret Life of Bees (of course the book was by the same author of Dance of the Dissident Daughter).

    I also liked Bridesmaids, although the plot was about men. I liked that it portrayed raunch humor from a woman’s perspective. (And it was hilarious. Ok, maybe not a feminist movie, but a girl version of Hangover)

    Caroline, I hope you do a follow-up post about what movies you watched over the break and what you thought of them.

  18. Caroline says:

    Thanks for all these wonderful suggestions, everyone! I read each comment with great interest, but I’ll respond to just a few of your suggestions.

    Emily, I really liked Dangerous Beauty and Cold Comfort Farm as well. It sounds to me like you might also like I Capture the Castle.

    HokieKate, I know, the bathtub scene in Iron Jawed Angels was totally superfluous. In fact, the whole love story was a bit dopey IMO. But other scenes in the movie were so incredibly powerful that i can forgive it for going astray here and there.

    Beatrice, I love Damages! The first season was amazing.

    Miri, I haven’t seen Stage Door. I should check that out!

    Moniker, I love Little Women too. I have a real weakness for female coming of age films.

    Beatrice, I LOVED the Politician’s Wife. It had a perfect perfect ending.

    Alex W., I agree that the Bechdel test does have it’s limitations. Some terrific movies wouldn’t pass. I love the Shawshank Redemption. I’d be shocked if that could pass. So I think it’s a good standard to keep in mind, while acknowledging that some great films won’t pass. And it leads me to hope that more great Oscar worthy films will get made that do pass the test.

  19. SNeilsen says:

    Anything with Sigourney Weaver, particularly “Aliens.” (and give a shout out to the silly cop buddy film “Copycat”, but I can’t remember if there’s another woman in the movie besides Sigourney and Holly Hunter.)
    For foreign films, “Raise the Red Lantern” seared into my brain, but for a more uplifting story there’s “Antonia’s Line”, the 1996 academy award winner for best foreign film.
    My favorite Thanksgivings movie is “What’s Cooking”, it follows four families having their thanksgiving meal.
    For court room drama there’s “The Accused” with Jodie Foster and Kelly McGillis. And can’t forget “Fried Green Tomatoes.”
    One of my favorite films is “The Hours” with Meryl Streep, Julienne Moore and Nicole Kidman.
    For a bit happier movie, “Enchanted April”, the original go to Italy and make it all better movie.
    And if you don’t find lesbians scary, I recommend “If these walls could talk 2” and “But I’m a Cheerleader” and the dickenesque “Fingersmith” about a den of thieves in 19th century London.

  20. SNeilsen says:

    Geez, how could I forget “Frozen River” about smuggling illegal immigrants across the frozen St Lawrence.

  21. Keri Brooks says:

    I recommend Arranged. It’s an independent film, but it’s well-made. It’s the story of two women – an Orthodox Jew and a Muslim – who are new teachers in a public school in New York. They become friends and they navigate the tensions between their faith, family expectations, and modern life. I really identified with both characters.

    • Emmaline says:

      My favorite part of “Arranged” is when one of the brides-to-be finally stops putting up with the incredibly insensitive woman charged with diversity training and says “My choice is not like your, but it is STILL A CHOICE.”

      GREAT movie, I really enjoyed it. It was unexpected for me.

  22. Singlee says:

    The Anne of Green Gables movies (and books). Anne has such rich relationships with other strong female characters, and even though there is plenty of discussion of boys and men, there is also plenty of personal growth and sharing of those experiences with her “bosom friends.” I loved the movies, but the books are my very favorite because of the detail, and there is one character who doesn’t show up in the movies that I just love. Actually, there are two. Or three. Okay lots. And they’re all women. 🙂

  23. Mommie Dearest says:

    My favorite old(er) movie, “Babette’s Feast”, passes the Bechdel Test! The women talk about religion, their work, family, and food. And romantic attachments to men too, but that doesn’t rank as the main thing they talk about.

  24. DefyGravity says:

    I just thought of Steel Magnolias. Great sisterhood film!

  25. April says:

    I saw The Help last night and loved it–so many strong women fighting for social justice together. (Plus a lot of villainous women fighting against it. I like that women weren’t romanticized as the better sex in this movie, either.)

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