Girls on Film: The female taboo

Something that saddens me about the film industry is the ongoing and indisputable lack of female representation in cinema, an issue which is continually attested, yet still rebuffed by some. This isn’t to say that wonderful female-led films don’t exist, of course, with many of my most memorable viewing experiences of the last few years taking the form of intelligent and socially progressive films, ranging in genre, which study interesting and nuanced female characters. With this in mind, I was inspired to talk about some personal favourite female-driven films, many of which are recent releases, and all explore the experience of being a woman in different ways.

Not only did I single these films out due to their depiction of female characters, but also due to the way in which they break down social taboos and stigmas surrounding women, which is something they should absolutely be commended for. You may be wondering what I mean by social taboos and stigmas, by which I’m referring to the many female-related topics which I feel aren’t covered in film and other mediums as much as they should be, or those which are prudishly and ignorantly deemed by some as controversial or ‘inappropriate’, such as LGBTQ issues, female sexuality and sexual discovery, the female orgasm, mental illness, female friendships, the deconstruction of the ‘manic pixie dream girl trope’, and girls coming of age. Note that not all of these topics are negatively stigmatised, but I feel they are all underrepresented in film to some extent, so that’s why I want to celebrate them here! Hopefully you’ll enjoy reading this list and might pick up some new recommendations. It goes without saying that there are lots of other films which I’m sure could be included, but I’m just pointing out some of my personal favourites. So, without further ado…

Blue Is The Warmest Colour (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)

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Blue Is The Warmest Colour left possibly the more enduring impression on me out of any film in this list. It details the coming of age, self-discovery and sexual awakening of the young and unsatisfied Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos), who is introduced to a new world of cultural experiences, philosophical thought and sexual gratification by older and more self-assured artist, Emma (Léa Seydoux). This film’s most recurring criticism was its ‘gratuitous’ and long-winded sex scenes, deemed unnecessary by many, yet I felt that these scenes only further enhanced the astonishingly real and gut-wrenching depiction of first love, sexual liberation and the confusion of young adult life that Exarchopoulos and Séydoux deliver. There are few films which have affected me as deeply as Blue Is The Warmest Colour did, as there are few which dare to approach these issues with such unapologetic honesty, candour and raw emotion.

Queen of Earth (dir. Alex Ross Perry, 2015)

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The critically-acclaimed Queen of Earth provides one of the most audacious depictions of depression in recent memory, with Elisabeth Moss providing a startling performance as a woman who escapes to a countryside retreat hoping to find solace from her busy city life, but finds herself falling apart in the process. Alex Ross Perry explores a mental breakdown in a creative, fragmented and explosive way, creating an novel and inventive psychological horror film which shook me to my core.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (dir. Marielle Heller, 2015)

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The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Marielle Heller’s 2015 adaptation of the graphic novel with the same name, is so much more than the Lolita-esque story it might appear to be upon reading the synopsis. Bel Powley stars as Minnie, a 15 year old girl living in 1976 San Francisco, who yearns for her first sexual encounter, which presents itself in the form of an affair with her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). Minnie embarks on a series of sexual relationships, exploring her womanhood and newly awakened sexuality, ultimately learning the importance of self-love over dependence on validation from others. This film is visually beautiful and rife with familiar moments of adolescence, and is refreshing in the way it depicts women’s enjoyment of sex, which I feel is all too often played down.

Appropriate Behaviour (dir. Desiree Akhavan, 2014)

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Appropriate Behaviour is my most recently-viewed film in this list, and was part of my inspiration for writing it. It follows bisexual Iranian-American writer and teacher, Shirin, and her struggles following the break down of her relationship with ex-girlfriend, Maxine, as well as the dilemma of coming out to her overbearing Iranian parents. The Annie Hall-esque script lends itself well to comically exploring the sexual failings of a young, Brooklyn-dwelling woman attempting to fill the void left by her partner, whether that be through unsatisfactory dating site encounters or awkward threesomes. The humour with which the subject matter is approached feels both endearing and refreshing, making Appropriate Behaviour a strong debut for director Desiree Akhavan.

Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller, 2015)

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George Miller’s much-loved rejuvenation of the Mad Max franchise may seem an unorthodox choice, but it stood out to me on the basis of its extensive female cast and overarching themes of female liberation and patriarchal destruction. Charlize Theron and her co-stars give vivid and memorable performances as the escapee wives of Immortan Joe, as they attempt to flee his oppressive dictatorship, building a strong and unshakable sisterhood and overthrowing any obstacle which might thwart their goals.

Melancholia (dir. Lars von Trier, 2011)

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One of two entries to the list from director Lars von Trier, and certainly one of the more unsettling titles listed here, is the second installment of his semi-autobiographical ‘Depression Trilogy’, Melancholia. To this date, it remains the most accurate portrayal of clinical depression I’ve ever seen onscreen, starring Kirsten Dunst in a career-making performance, alongside the always impressive Charlotte Gainsbourg. Melancholia draws interesting parallels between the feeling of utter dread one would associate with the end of the world, which forms most of the film’s minimal plot, and the crushing and insidious weight of depression. It makes for difficult viewing, but I can only applaud it for its completely unabashed depiction of mental illness.

Nymphomaniac, Volumes 1 & 2 (dir. Lars von Trier, 2013)

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The final part of Lars von Trier’s ‘Depression Trilogy’ is Nymphomaniac, divided into two parts, which chronicles the life of Joe, the titular nymphomaniac, in a lurid, unpleasant, but fascinating study of addiction, hedonism and sacrifice. As with any von Trier film, it won’t necessarily appeal to the masses, but Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg’s performances as young and current Joe lead a bold and unique exploration into sexual obsession and the tribulations that come with it.

Persona (dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1966)

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Persona is one of the most noteworthy films, and my personal favourite, by revolutionary surrealist director, Ingmar Bergman, and focuses on two women whose personalities or ‘personas’ begin to intertwine as they spend time together on the basis that nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) has been assigned to take care of the seemingly mentally ill mute actress Elisabet (Liv Ullman). The film’s volta occurs during the infamous monologue in which Alma confides in Elisabet about a sexual experience she once had which involved being unfaithful to her husband. Bergman uses the carefully-crafted dialogue of the film to create a perplexing and cerebral study of female sexual repression, identity, reality, and the roles we play in our own lives.

Precious (dir. Lee Daniels, 2009)

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There are few films in this list more heartbreaking than Precious, Lee Daniels’ 2009 adaptation of Sapphire’s 1996 novel, Push. It stars Gabourey Sidibe in her breakout role as Precious, a 16 year old illiterate girl living in a deprived area of 1980s New York City, who is physically, emotionally and sexually abused by her parents routinely. With the help of a teacher at the alternative school she enrolls in to improve her literacy, she turns her life of oppression and neglect into one of progress and friendship, making this film a truly painful and emotional ride, yet an eye-opening one.

Carol (dir. Todd Haynes, 2015)

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Todd Haynes’ exquisite adaptation of the novel, Carol, differs from other films in this list due to the anachronistic lens through which the relationship of its protagonists is approached. Wealthy socialite, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), and younger shop girl, Therese Belevet (Rooney Mara), move in very different circles but begin to fall in love after meeting when Carol visits the toy section of a department store in search of a Christmas present for her young daughter. Set in 1950s Manhattan, the pair live in an era in which same-sex relationships are simply not talked about, let alone accepted, so as Cate Blanchett interestingly pointed out, there is no real language or discourse through which the women can articulate the nature of their relationship. This adds an interesting new dimension to lesbian relationships on film, and touches on the prejudices faced by same-sex couples in a way we are rarely exposed to.

Ghost World (dir. Terry Zwigoff, 2001)

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Ghost World first surfaced in the midst of the abundance of teen films which appeared during the late 1990s and early 2000s, but had a more unique flavour than most. Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson play apathetic, non-conformist high school graduates, Enid and Rebecca, who provide a wry, cynical commentary on the world, and attempt to figure out what path their post-high school lives should take. Despite its comedy, this film is tinged with sadness, particularly through the way it looks at the nature of female friendships and how they can be affected by conflicting perspectives and romantic interests.

We Are The Best! (dir. Lukas Moodysson, 2013)

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We Are The Best! offers an alternative take on the archetypal coming-of-age film, and looks at the lives of a younger age group than most, which particularly interested me. Set in Stockholm in the early 1980s, its plot is sparce, simply following the experiences of three schoolgirls in a punk band, intent on rebelling against every source of authority, from teachers to parents. The script is endearingly written, vividly capturing the spirit and passion of youth, as well as the worries of girlhood.

500 Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009)

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500 Days of Summer was destined to be a classic from the moment it was released back in 2009, proving itself to be one of the most thoughtful and subversive romantic comedies of the 21st century. It intelligently critiques the idea of the ‘manic pixie dream girl’, a trope which as well as being overused, often comes across as degrading, due to its exclusive use as a means for male characters to embrace life and pursue their own happiness, whilst the woman they desire generally has no discernible depth or characterisation of her own. Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is convinced Summer (Zooey Deschanel) is the only woman he could ever love, yet the film’s non-linear reflection on his relationship illustrates the way he romanticises the idea of her, rather than viewing her as a complex, autonomous entity, a deconstruction I find hugely engaging.

Mulholland Drive (dir. David Lynch, 2001)

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In Mulholland Drive, one of his most widely-discussed films, David Lynch subverts formulaic Hollywood styles in more ways than one. As well as challenging conventional film structure and bewildering audiences, Lynch presents us with a reality presented entirely through female perspective, featuring a lesbian relationship which is free from the male gaze. The relationship between Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Harring) is passionate, complete and free from male entanglement, which makes Mulholland Drive an interesting example of a novel portrayal of female romantic relationships.

Fish Tank (dir. Andrea Arnold, 2009)

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Fish Tank, not unlike the previously mentioned Precious, is a film which touches on female adolescence in situations of adversity and destitution. Mia is a headstrong and volatile teenager with a love of dance, living on a run-down council estate in Essex, played superbly by Katie Jarvis in her acting debut. After entering a sexual relationship with her mother’s new boyfriend, she yearns for more from life, and it is clear that a sensitive and compassionate young woman exists beneath the harsh exterior. Easily one of the most textured and absorbing social realism dramas of the last decade, Fish Tank is visceral and authentic in its look at downtrodden teenage aspirations and self-belief.

Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach, 2012)

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The final addition to this compilation of female-led films is Frances Ha, the 2012 mumblecore comedy from frequent Wes Anderson collaborator, Noah Baumbach. I have never seen a film which so vehemently celebrates female friendship and solidarity, whilst simultaneously looking at the trials said friendships face. Dancer Frances Halliday, meanders through her life in New York City, attempting to pursue her goals, yet more often than not finds herself in financially and artistically unstable positions. One of the most noteworthy aspects of the film is its script, as well as Greta Gerwig’s enchanting performance as Frances, both of which combine to create a strong female lead: that is, a woman who is  ambitious, flawed, caring, amusing, chaotic and talented. Unfortunately, such well-developed, believable and human female characters are relatively hard to come by in film, so to me, the character of Frances is a true accomplishment.

As mentioned in the introduction, there are undoubtedly many films of a similar ilk which could be added to this list, particularly as I have many more films to watch. However, these films all highlight, study or celebrate female issues and experiences in an interesting and stimulating way, and all resonated deeply with me on some level. I hope this post may have highlighted some films which interest you, and also that the release of films such as these inspire other filmmakers to keep the momentum going!

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