Movies to watch that are empowering but also – crucially – entertaining
Lots of films that deal with feminist themes are – how to put this – massive downers. Winter’s Bone, The Hours, The Virgin Suicides: they’re not exactly cheery viewing. Certainly some tough times are inevitable because of The Patriarchy, but what if you want to watch something that’s massively girl-positive AND uplifting? There’s still time to catch Wonder Woman in cinemas, which delivers both, and TV series like Glow or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt will help. But if you want to curl up in the shade and watch a film at home, here are some feelgood feminist hits that will make you want to punch the air.
Whip It! (2010)
Films telling a positive story about mothers and daughters are thin on the ground, and films where women elbow each other in the face even thinner, so hooray for Whip It for fitting in both. Texas teenager Bliss (Ellen Page) is being groomed for beauty pageants by her mother (Marcia Gay Harden). But Bliss prefers to play the speedy, occasionally violent sport of roller derby, setting the family on a collision course. Drew Barrymore’s directorial feature debut, this is fierce and funny and fast around the track.
His Girl Friday (1940)
Hardbitten news reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) is on the verge of marrying and moving to the country when her editor – and ex-husband – Walter Burns (Cary Grant) lures her back for one final story. What follows is a low-down and dirty battle of wits, with Russell firing on all cylinders and often confounding Grant at his own game as the pair fight each other and the whole world to get the story out. Watch it and dream of matching wits with someone on this level.
Marjane Satrapi grew up in Iran as the state grew more and more repressive, and this animated film – co-directed by Satrapi and based on her graphic novel – tells the whole story. It’s a family memoir, a political tragedy and a personal coming-of-age story all at once, taking us from Satrapi’s charmingly scrappy childhood through rebellion and exile to something hopeful at the end. It’s a story bursting with lust for life and personality, showing the people behind dry histories.
Diary Of A Teenage Girl (2015)
This captures the feeling of being a teenager on the brink of everything in the world better than maybe any film ever. Bel Powley is charming and awkward, inspiring and embarrassing as Minnie, a young cartoonist in 1970s San Francisco who has an affair with her mother’s boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard, with a horrible moustache) to disastrous effect. But Minnie is unsinkable, so Marielle Heller’s film ends up inspiring rather than as a cautionary tale.
Real Women Have Curves (2002)
America Ferrera made her breakthrough long before Ugly Betty with this film from Columbia-born director Patricia Cardoso. She plays Ana, a young Latina girl in East LA fighting against her family’s expectations and her mother’s harsh judgments to figure out her own life. Should she stay home and work in the family business or pursue her dreams of Ivy league success? Minor spoiler: Ana ends up breaking free of the limits her mother tries to impose to find her own life. Go, girl!
Hidden Figures (2016)
Prior to this film last year, few knew about the contribution of African-American women to the Apollo space programme: all our films showed a sea of white men and basically no-one else. Thankfully, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae are the brilliant mathematicians who teach us otherwise with this inspiring true story, helping to launch men to the moon while facing institutional sexism and racism with dignity and – not to be flippant – gorgeous wardrobes.
Dixie Chicks: Shut Up And Sing (2006)
OK, so it’s a documentary about a modern country trio, but honestly it’s worth seeking out. The Dixie Chicks were America’s sweethearts until they criticised President George W Bush and faced outrage, boycotts and death threats from people who had once been their fans. This film – originally planned as a triumphant account of their sell-out tour – instead became a chronicle of their principled, kickass response, culminating in new hits like Not Ready To Make Nice. It’s absolutely inspirational.
The Contender (2000)
This one is hard to find, but it’s really worth it. When his vice-president dies in office, President Thinly-Disguised-Bill-Clinton (Jeff Bridges) decides to make history by appointing a woman, Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen). She faces a fierce confirmation struggle with sexist attacks used against her and her past returning to haunt her – but she stands firm against the whole world. Particularly given the current occupant of the White House, this is aspirational stuff.
A League Of Their Own (1992)
Before there was Whip It!, this was the best female-focused sports movie around. Set during World War II, this follows the women drafted into an all-girl baseball league to keep the game going while the men went off to war. Sisters Dottie (Geena Davis) and Kit (Lori Petty) are star players, but they clash on and off the field. Watch it, enjoy learning that there is no crying in baseball and ask yourself: did Dottie do it on purpose at the end?
Adrienne Shelley’s final film tells the story of waitress Jenna (Keri Russell) who finds herself pregnant by her domineering, abusive husband – much to her dismay. As she focuses on baking pies as a distraction from unwelcome reality, Jenna looks around for a way out of her unhappy life, and spots a friendly gynaecologist (Nathan Fillion)… The film’s insanely charming, bittersweet, air-punchingly powerful and absolutely not one to watch on an empty stomach: too many delicious baking scenes.