INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY 2018: Unlikely Women Heroes in Film

Artwork by Chloe Leeson

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2018, seven of our Queens have chosen their favourite unlikely women heroes in film.

MINNIE GOETZ- The Diary of a Teenage Girl

1970’s San Francisco; Minnie Goetz, fifteen, embarks on her first sexual relationship, with her mother’s boyfriend Monroe, thirty-five. Typical coming-of-age ensues.

Marielle Heller’s directorial debut is very careful in that it does not make Monroe a predator nor Minnie his underage victim. That’d be too easy. Minnie controls the narrative, and for the most part, their relationship. That’s not to say it’s okay or that Monroe is not doing anything wrong, but it certainly presents us with a complicated relationship between two very complicated people; in other words, something true to life. Heller does a brilliant job in presenting this multifaceted relationship without any judgement, because that’s not what the film is about. It’s about Minnie, an average fifteen-year-old exploring her sexuality, and how this is completely okay.

Minnie openly expresses the flaws she finds in herself. For all her naivety, sharp wit and insecurities, this makes her endearingly real. When she stands naked in front of her mirror examining her own body, the majority of us will likely have stood in her place. She is not our typical throwaway ‘strong female character’ because she is not always strong, she makes a lot of stupid and selfish decisions, but Bel Powley’s portrayal and Heller’s direction do not invite judgement or speculation; only watching and understanding. Everything we see is on Minnie’s terms, because it’s her life and her lessons to learn as a young woman.

“If we start to view women with agency – and with needs and desires that are as important as boys’ – it takes heterosexual men out of a position of power.” – Marielle Heller, Director –MT


NADINE- The Edge of Seventeen

In recent years, a trend has emerged when it comes to the kind of stories that are being told about women in coming-of-agers. In 2017, the world was introduced to Saoirse Ronan’s beautifully complicated titular character in Lady Bird, and audiences relished the presentation of a young woman that felt so authentic. Here was a teenage girl with several dimensions to her, who could love and rage in equal measure. It was beautiful and, God, how rare it felt. Lady Bird, of course, has been written about extensively over the past few months and so, I turn my attention to another gloriously messy female protagonist in a comedy. The Edge of Seventeen is a refreshingly real snapshot into the life of Nadine (a fantastic Hailee Steinfeld); a teenager who feels trapped by isolation, so-called ‘unpopularity’, and boredom. Like Lady Bird, not much happens in this little film, there is no plot twist, no melodrama. It is, quite simply, the story of a girl. And that is what it makes it so brilliant.

There are a great many films out there that document teenage years, but few choose to do it with women as genuine and as human as Steinfeld’s Nadine at their centre. Nadine is as witty and kind-hearted as she is occasionally self-absorbed and cruel. She is unapologetically muddled, she feels what every teenage girl feels, and crucially, the film allows her to feel whatever she wants. This is how exactly how young women should have their stories told. –HR


CHENILLE- Save The Last Dance

Bucking cinematic tradition, in Save the Last Dance, the protagonist and the “strong female character” are not one in the same. Chenille (played by Kerry Washington) is the unsung hero of the film, and I would argue the most interesting character. While we are trained as an audience to align our loyalties and emotions with Sara Johnson’s (Julia Stiles) plot, it seems rather banal when you consider the compelling story to be found in Chenille’s. On paper it would seem that we are supposed to look upon Chenille with pity, as her status as a teenage mother in a Chicago public school makes her appear, on the surface, a statistic. However, Washington brings a warmth and complexity to the character. Far from the one-dimensional sidekick, Chenille maintains her own personality while helping Sara navigate her new environs. Chenille occupies a multitude of roles: mother, daughter, designer, sister, friend, student, and doesn’t ask for help with any of them. Despite this, she is still fallible; she knows her ex and father of her son is wrong for her, but she can’t resist his charms when he asks her to dance at STEPPS. Her friendship with Sara is one of tough love; Chenille makes Sara confront her socialised prejudices, and calls her out when her rose coloured glasses make her blind to reality.

I first saw this movie as an 11-year old bun-head, and I was obsessed with Sara’s story, but as an adult I find myself wanting to see more of Chenille. In fact, the beginnings of a fan-fiction in which Chenille grows up to become Olivia Pope are running around in my head. Because if anyone in this movie could convincingly say “it’s handled,” it’s Chenille. –AB


MAUDE- Harold and Maude

Maude Chardin (Ruth Gordon) is a 79-year-old woman who attends funerals for fun, steals cars from priests, and teaches Harold how to play the banjo and “really live.” In some ways, Maude is a bit of a manic pixie dream woman: free-spirited and quirky, teaching the young male protagonist how to embrace life in all its complexities. Maude is this, but also much more. First of all, unlike the classic love interest, she is decidedly not young, a contrast to the 20-something Harold with whom she begins a romantic and sexual relationship. Though priests, therapists, and Harold’s mother are repulsed by her age and body, Maude proves that she still is as deserving of love as anyone else, starting a relationship with Harold, posing nude for artists, and not letting anyone stop her from expressing her desires. Maude has her flaws, too, for despite all her lessons to Harold about needing to “embrace life,” she chooses to take sleeping pills when she turns 80, which she feels is the proper age to die. But perhaps this isn’t a flaw exactly: she does not let her relationship with a man interfere with her long-held plans to go on her own terms. She is contradictory and strange, embodying wisdom and impulsiveness, inspiring Harold but also making it clear that she is not a perfect role model. Maude is a woman who knows what she wants; even if those desires are frowned upon by others, she does not let anyone interfere with her getting it. –KD


NICKI BRAND- Videodrome

I’d like to quickly write a few words on Videodrome (Cronenberg, 1983). It’s such a colossal film that I don’t feel comfortable writing on it so briefly and so removed from contextual grounding. I went to see Videodrome in the cinema a little over a year ago and can honestly say I’ve thought about it almost every day since. It’s wholly consuming and is ever so much larger than this piece. I ever so strongly urge you to watch it- although, bear in mind it centres on aesthetics of body horror so is possibly to be avoided if you are of a faint heart (but is so worth trying to stomach!)

My unlikely hero is femme fatale Nicki Brand (played by patron saint Debbie Harry). Cronenberg urges us to think beyond a surface understanding of stimulation; his film grapples with the gruesome interior of bodily ‘urges’. Nicki is a highly sexualised woman yet her proximity to desire is not a limiting one of the male gaze. In Nicki, Cronenberg subverts established sexist politics of desire and questions our relationships to our bodies as organic, living objects. Through Nicki, feminine desire is wholly dimensional and complicated. Rather than simply adopting a ‘dominant’ (and thus masculine) sexual persona, Nicki presents a more realistic example of a sadomasochistic relationship to the narrative often presented in cinema. This relationship is initially explored in a scene in which Nicki encourages protagonist Max Renn to burn her with a cigarette during a sexual encounter. These initial flirtations in conflating sex and pain work to foreshadow Nicki’s eventual volunteering to take part in Videodrome, a pirate television channel broadcasting a medley of hardcore pornography and snuff. In Nicki, Cronenberg challenges the discourse of woman as voyeuristic object. Max’s scopophilic pleasure watching Nicki’s broadcasted debasement initially appears to be a violent amplification of woman as sexual thing. However, Nicki soon begins to appear to Max from his television set prompting his mental deterioration. Nicki appropriates the vehicle used to position her as thing. Her amalgamation with the television elevates Nicki above objectification and into a position which is powerfully beyond the human. Nicki Brand is my International Women’s Day hero as she takes the language of desire and sexuality, which we have so firmly established as belonging to the masculine, and warps it beyond recognition of established power dynamics. Long live the new flesh!  –JM


CELESTE- Celeste and Jesse Forever

Clearly inspired by When Harry Met Sally (Also written by a woman, shout out to Nora Ephron), Celeste & Jesse Forever asks the question “can exes be friends?”; it’s like a New York indie set in L.A., it’s a second coming of age movie. Played and co-written by Rashida Jones, Celeste gracelessly navigates the divorce from her husband, but more importantly best friend, Jesse (Andy Samberg) and their completely unrealistic drama-free split. Celeste & Jesse is a rom-com in reverse, the rarely told story of a woman figuring herself out after a break up. Celeste is honest and interesting, and by that I mean Celeste is a complete dick – she’s rude, judgemental, and selfish. She has the generic rom-com job of fashion in writing or something, as a ‘Trend Forecaster’ and has a book out accordingly titled ‘The Shitegeist’. She sings along to Lily Allen, finishes off a whole bottle of ranch dressing at a BBQ, and wears a trash bag to a party; without falling into the manic pixie dream girl trap, down to Jones’ straightforward performance and writing. Celeste may not be a “strong female character” or whatever, but as she ignores literally every piece of good advice anyone gives her, she is a hero within in a genre that rarely takes its own female protagonists seriously. –RM


ASHLEY- Junebug

Phill Morrison’s Junebug is an oddity. It tells the story of Madeleine, a Chicago art dealer who travels to meet her in-laws for the first time in rural North Carolina. However, the film is unequivocally carried on the shoulders of Ashley – a young, wide-eyed expectant mother and Madeleine’s new sister in law. Being a high school drop-out and neglected housewife, Madeleine’s intelligence and sophisticated inner-city lifestyle are just about the most exciting thing Ashley could imagine. She can barely finish asking one question before another strikes her; her childlike enthusiasm and utter admiration for Madeleine betray the lack of fulfilment in Ashley’s own life. Invisible to her brittle and angry husband, Ashley’s only naïve hope is that her baby – whom she has sweetly named ‘Junebug’ – might solve the problems of their fledgling marriage.

She so clearly lacks the confidence, independence, and intellect that someone like Madeleine exemplifies, but Ashley’s great strength is her boundless and unreserved empathy; just moments after meeting, Ashley takes the blame when Madeleine carelessly breaks an ornament in the Johnstens’ home, and offers to paint her nails like an excitable little sister. Ashley is a young woman with so much love to give and nobody willing to take it from her, and it’s painful. And yet, she is never jealous, never spiteful. It’d be easy to patronise Ashley’s small town simplicity, and her unwavering optimism despite the hardship she faces should be grating, but the unadulterated magnetism of Amy Adams’ strikingly human performance only compels you to cling tighter to Ashley amidst her world of suffocating silence and apathy. –MW



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