10 Intersectional feminist films to enjoy when the patriarchy gets you down
Recently, I was on a quest to find a good movie to watch and was searching through the abundance of feminist film lists available online. Despite finding about 20 lists, I was struggling to find a movie. Why? Because every list had the same suggestions - who hasn’t heard of Mean Girls and Legally Blonde, and what rock have they been hiding under?! So here’s to a list of intersectional feminist movies that you might not have already seen:
1. What Happened Miss Simone?
This Netflix documentary draws together interviews and archival footage to showcase the life of famous singer and civil rights activist, Nina Simone. What Happened Miss Simone? is a powerful dedication to a woman who dared to proclaim herself “young, gifted and black” at a time when a black woman’s brilliance was scorned. The documentary tells the story of Nina’s journey from celebrated singer to a dynamic activist, which began when she wrote ‘Mississippi Goddamn’ in response to a 1963 racially-motivated church bombing that killed 4 black girls - a move that lead her to be punished by the music industry. The documentary provides a raw insight into the pressures of being one of the most forceful voices of an era, while leading a complicated life impacted by domestic violence, mental health, and an irrepressible rage and sorrow. The relevance of Miss Simone’s struggles endure during a time where the resurgence of the black rights movement in the US is capturing the world.
2. The First Wives Club
Diane Keaton, Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn at their finest, 90s vibes, and triumphant musical sequences - what more could you want?! Three friends set out for some hilarious justice when, despite the many sacrifices they have made for their husbands, they’re dumped for 20-something-year-olds. Feeling exploited, their self-esteem shattered, the women find comfort and regain their confidence through their friendships and a shared plot to “get even”. Look, I know it sounds like a terribly cliche plot, but I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed! These 3 women smash the patriarchal and ageist constraints society places on them with a ton of sass. Minor roles by a young Sarah Jessica Parker and a younger Maggie Smith are also highlights!
This movie stuck with me for days and I cannot recommend it enough! Set in a remote Turkish village, the story follows 5 care-free sisters who face immense backlash from their conservative family and community after an innocent frolic at the beach with some neighbourhood boys. After undergoing “purity tests”, the girls’ freedoms are severely restricted, with bars placed on their windows and all contact with the outside world cut off, whilst their family organise arranged marriages for them against their will. The sisters long to have agency over their own futures and rebel in different ways. This film perfectly portrays the intimacy the sisters share, and you feel heartbroken watching them slowly and forcefully being torn apart. Watching the girls bodies being policed and shamed, we’re reminded of society’s deeply ingrained fear of female sexuality and autonomy. Suspenseful and poignant.
4. Ma Vie En Rose
A tragically compelling French film about Ludovico, a 7-year-old trans girl who was assigned male at birth and cannot understand why. Whilst Ludo is confident she will be a woman when she grows up and believes God will send her the “missing X” chromosome to rectify the mistake, her family reacts with anger, discomfort and denial. With a focus upon Ludo’s perspective, this film powerfully illustrates how important it is for a trans child to feel supported and loved. Living in a conservative neighbourhood next door to her father’s boss, whose son she has a crush on, Ludo’s identity creates immense tension within the family and the parents’ marriage. Ludo’s parents are erratically inconsistent in their behaviour towards their child, whom they blame for all of their hardships. Watching this, it’s impossible for your heart not to break for Ludo and every child who has had to endure similar treatment at the hands of people they trusted. The fact that this film is rated R and watching the trailer on Youtube requires you to sign in due to its “inappropriate” nature, speaks volumes as to why it’s a necessary watch.
5. The Sapphires
Set during the Vietnam War and based on a true story, 4 Aboriginal women from rural Australia form a singing group and leave their hometown to tour Vietnam with their hilarious manager. Think ‘The Supremes’ meet the Outback! Singing some fabulous soul songs, The Sapphires is a story of 4 fierce, entertaining and brave women, battling against racist bigotry and dealing with the devastation wrought upon their family by the Stolen Generation. 60s fashion, incredible voices, and witty comebacks are interspersed with compelling cultural depth. Co-written by the son of one of the real singers, why this movie is not bigger amongst Australian audiences I will never know!
This is one of Melissa McCarthy’s most underappreciated masterpieces. McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a seemingly meek CIA agent who has been charmed into being the eyes and ears of handsome field agent, Bradley Fine (played by Jude Law), her job being to live-monitor his operations. Fine would be useless without Cooper, yet gets all of the glory by convincing her to remain by his side, never entering the field herself… until Fine is killed in action. Susan goes undercover to avenge him, disguised as what she calls “somebody’s homophobic aunt”. While Melissa McCarthy has had a couple of comedy duds in recent years, this is certainly not one of them! The genius of this movie is in its subversive nature - Jude Law’s character makes a mockery of the James Bond-esque spies we’re so used to seeing on-screen; Jason Statham plays a macho mansplaining operative who ruins every situation he enters - essentially spoofing the excessively hyper-masculine characters he usually plays. The whimsical Miranda Hart is Susan’s sidekick; Allison Janney is the hardass CIA Director; Rose Byrne is the haughty villain, and McCarthy destroys the idea that female spies have to rely on seduction to kickass, and makes some big wins for any woman who has ever felt dismissed by their colleagues.
This tribute to Mexican artist and feminist icon, Frida Kahlo, portrayed by the talented Selma Hayek, is truly a masterpiece. Before watching this movie, I knew nothing about Frida Kahlo and I could not for the life of me figure out why everyone was so obsessed with that woman with the monobrow. But this movie effectively documents the incredibly progressive ferocity with which Frida tackled every obstacle placed in front of her. Frida embraced her sensuality, her bisexuality and polyamory, her disability, her penchant for dressing in “men’s” clothing, and forged her way to the forefront of the art scene whilst being a political revolutionary, ALL as a woman who lived from 1907-1954. It’s difficult to fully grasp how impressively free of constraints this woman fought to be, but this film does a wonderful job of it whilst simultaneously showcasing the vibrant spirit of Mexico.
8. Girl, Interrupted
Girl, Interrupted tells the true story of Susanna Kaysen, who was 18 when a psychiatrist she saw for just 30 minutes sent her to McLean Hospital - the mental health institution now renowned for its famous clientele such as Sylvia Plath and Ray Charles. Uninterested in what she considers the limited and bleak options available to a woman in the 60s, Susanna is admitted for depression and promiscuity, issues that are conflated by her doctors. Inside the hospital, Susanna develops a sense of comradery with women who have been diagnosed with anything from eating disorders to sociopathy to homosexuality. Girl, Interrupted is an unflinching look at mental illness and depression, but also an intriguing examination of what happens when social issues are medicalised at the expense of society’s vulnerable. Angelina Jolie, Winona Ryder and Brittany Murphy give stand out performances.
Lily Tomlin is ‘Grandma’, Elle, who has one day to help her teenage granddaughter, Sage, procure $630 for an abortion. Elle is a badass, no-bullshit feminist, who is mourning the recent loss of her partner, and who pities young women like her granddaughter who haven’t read ‘The Feminine Mystique’ and who lack the confidence to tell people not to treat them like shit. She drags Sage from cafes to tattoo parlours to houses of ex-lovers, talking loudly about how absurd it is that an abortion should cost so much, and teaching her a thing or two about life. Additionally, the image of Lily Tomlin beating up a douchey teen boy with a hockey stick is burned into my brain to return to whenever I’m having a bad day. Tomlin is supported by an amazing cast, but let’s be honest, did I really need to say anything after Lily Tomlin? Of course not.
10. Mona Lisa Smile
Set in the 1950s, Julia Roberts plays Katherine Watson, an impassioned middle-class art teacher who accepts a position at the prestigious and conservative Wellesley College, attempting to show the pampered and privileged young women in her class that their lives can consist of much more than marriage and motherhood. At a school promising to churn out tomorrow leaders’...wives, Katherine scandalises the community with her unmarried status (gasp!), her bohemian lifestyle, and her notions of female self-determination. It’s important to note that this movie focuses on the lives of upper-class white women who are obviously incredibly privileged, and that the experiences of women of colour and many other women in the 50s were vastly different to this commonly portrayed narrative. Despite this, Mona Lisa Smile critiques a privileged world that begs for a feminist analysis, whilst examining issues of class and sexuality in a number of subtle ways. Its amazing cast and complex characters make it a personal favourite!