As an aspiring screenwriter, one of my greatest pleasures is watching films (unsurprisingly) but some of that joy lies in the fact that I can now classify it as ‘research’. In fact, most of life has now become ‘research’ which is brilliant… you can’t write about life unless you live it, right?
I decided it would be fun to write about all of the incredible women who had influenced me in film starting from when I was a young girl.
- Fraulein Maria in The Sound of Music (1965)
It seems there weren’t many inspiring women in the films I watched as a child. I should quantify here that I was a weird child. I didn’t really like cartoons and was therefore not a shoe-in for the fairy-tale propaganda spouting of Disney or other overly simplistic tales. I liked Rapunzel because she had long hair. And also because it had a bittersweet ending (blindness, a long-time before redemption etc) but there has never been a good film made of it. I also liked the naughty twin in The Parent Trap, particularly when she covered the cabin in string and glue, but the eventual reconciliation in that film jarred with the reality of my divorced household, so I only watched it once or twice.
Fraulein Maria however was rebellious and brave but with an enchanting vulnerability which Captain Von Trapp just couldn’t resist and neither could I. She also ended up facing her problems, after The Reverend Mother asks her, “What is it you can’t face?” (insert in-joke here) which was a very valuable lesson for me, which I still rely on once in a while.
The theme of righteous rebellion continued with later films that I could relate to but the trouble is, I can count them on one hand. When you look at the huge films of the 80’s and 90’s it is genuinely shocking how few of them had strong female leads.
The first one which I remember making a big impact was Emily ‘up your bum’ Lloyd in Wish You Were Here (1987) set in wartime England, which I was obsessed with anyway, it about a girl who was just a little bit wild, liked boys, and wouldn’t do as she was told. I have a horrible feeling that something deeper was revealed later in the film which explained her behaviour, like a dark secret, but this wasn’t necessary for the plot of the film, she didn’t need some form of forgiveness or redemption, she was the freest, most honest, and engaging character I had ever come across and I loved her.
This was closely followed by Beaches (1988) which featured another free spirit in Bette Midler and one of the most heart-breaking studies of friendship ever, then Mermaids (1990) with Cher as the crap but ‘free spirited’ mother – I never understood why Winona Ryder complained about her so much (but I wanted to be Winona so I forgave her), then Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistlestop Café (1991) with the very definition of free spirit in Idgie Threadgoode and A League of Their Own (1992) which featured a full baseball team of free spirits.
Basically there was one film a year during this period which was of any interest to me and my friends. Not even sure if there was ONE in 1989…
Later I caught up with other brilliant films with recognisable women and friendships in. Heathers, Working Girl, Steel Magnolias, Mystic Pizza, even Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind! I probably (definitely) missed a few – after all, films for women never got a very wide distribution and they were often only in cinemas for a week and then not bought by the TV channels for years, if at all.
It seems that the female film-going market is only recently being recognised as a potential money-spinner. ABOUT TIME!
As much as I still love and admire the characters I grew up with, I am disappointed that I was so happy in my own ignorance that I didn’t even realise how under-served women have been in cinema. There were still great films with great characters and heroes, Indiana Jones, The Goonies, The Breakfast Club, all of which I loved dearly, but often the women in them were pretty pathetic. There were a few films in the early 90’s which seemed to threaten the status quo, but nothing really came of them.
The first 18 film I saw in the cinema was The Silence of the Lambs (1991) my friend Rachel and I sneaked into the cinema in Bristol. We were so enthralled, and terrified, we hid behind our hands most of the time, but Jodie Foster as the main protagonist did not look remotely out of place and I don’t think we even commented on it, she did a great job, and was a great character. Rachel and I had been brought up in such an isolated world that we didn’t understand this was ground-breaking, we just thought this was normal. We simply didn’t realise how much work there still was that needed to be done for equality. It appears as though the tide is changing again and hopefully today’s tweenagers will have a much wider selection of heroes to look up to. Right, I’m off to see Lucy (2014), wish me luck.