Beyond the lady-washed reboot
The numbers are in and Ocean’s 8 has officially pulled-off the most successful box-office figures of any of the franchise’s previous openings. The diverse female-fronted reboot has brought cinema-goers in droves, and the high percentage of women buying tickets to the picture – nearly 70% of the ticket-buyers are women – is yet another reminder that as women we’re excited to see ourselves and our stories represented onscreen.
Money speaks and studios are listening. Ocean’s 8 represents the most recent entry into what is an upcoming flurry of films fitting the “that old film but with women” genre. Women will be stepping into the shoes of con artists in the upcoming The Hustle (adapted from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), they’ll take on the buddy-cop schtick in The Nice Girls (a la The Nice Guys) and spin records in a female-fronted High Fidelity. Announcements have been bandied about for gender-bent versions of Kung Fu, Dr. Who, The Lord of the Flies, 24, The Greatest American Hero, What About Bob, and The Expendables. The list goes on.
It is not insignificant that films like the upcoming lady-version of League of Extraordinary Gentleman are generating previously-rare female roles in big-budget ensemble films. Nevertheless, their ubiquity becomes less revolutionary in the face of a continuing lack of original big-budget female-made and acted projects. Their radicalness is quashed when their existence is only allowed because they have existed previously as bankable male-dominated stories. They’ve already been vetted by audiences at least once, and they can be considered safe box-office bets.
As Elena Nicolaou writes for Refinery29, the reboot game is rigged. She points out that films can only be considered successes if they “live up to” their predecessors, show themselves to be “as good as” those who came before. And often they aren’t, with films sacrificing character nuance by swapping women into cookie-cutter characters, merely retelling male stories through the novelty of femininity. To add insult to injury, men are usually placed in the role of writer, director and producer, ensuring that the representation remains cosmetic and public-facing.
We have seen fantastically original and compelling characters carved out in big-budget female-driven films– hello, Annie Mumlo & Kristen Wiig’s Bridesmaids. We need more characters defined by their nuance and specificity, rather than archetypes crowbarred into time-worn moulds.
Six films to stream instead
So, we’re taking the opportunity to rally against the reboot and celebrate some of our favourite films that place female narratives and perspectives centre stage. We’ve compiled a list of films created by women in every sense of the word – to celebrate the truth that female-driven stories have immense value, to offer an alternative way forward, and, at the very least, to provide you with some titles for your next movie night.
Whale Rider (2002)
Director: Niki Caro
Screenplay: Niki Caro
Starring: Keisha Castle-Hughes
Following its release in 2002, Whale Rider was routinely wheeled into primary school classrooms nation-wide by substitute teachers and has largely been absent from the public consciousness since. It’s a shame, and it is certainly a film that begs re-watching, if for no other reason than its heavy influence on Disney’s recent foray into a similar narrative . The film tells the story of eleven-year-old Pai as she fights to unify her Maori community and prove her birth-right as chief in a rigidly patriarchal society. As Pai rallies against her grandfather’s disapproval, Whale Rider becomes a considered and heartfelt critique of the constraints placed upon women and the impact this has on cultural survival and lineage. The film falls firmly in the ‘girl-power’ trend of the late-nineties, though it is never tokenistic or formulaic. Instead, Whale Rider is a fiercely local story with global resonance about the intersections of culture, family and community.
Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)
Director: Agnès Varda
Screenplay: Agnès Varda
Starring: Corinne Marchand
Cleo, a beautiful Parisian singer, waits from 5pm to 7pm for results of a cancer test. Following Cleo in the hours between knowing, we see her grapple with her youth, beauty and mortality and come to realise the disparities between inhabiting her prescribed place as a beautiful woman and garnering the respect and meaning she desires. It’s almost a crime to pick only one Varda film – Vagabond begs a mention here – however on its release Cleo from 5 to 7 was an instant poster child of the burgeoning French feminist movement and remains an enduring example of Varda’s penchant for breaking with gender, social and cinematic traditions. Varda’s film is revolutionary because it doesn’t wholly demonise Cleo’s vapidity and self-obsession. Her growth and desire for respect in the face of death, rather, reminds us of the difficulty found in deviating from what women are supposed to desire – beauty, grace and romantic love. As Cleo casts off the shackles of her objectification by others and by herself, you hope that in the light of her results she can continue living her new truth.
Stream it on Kanopy.
Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)
Director: Susan Seidelman
Screenplay: Leora Barish
Starring:Rosanna Arquette, Madonna
Susan Seidelman’s 1980s comedy isn’t often cited in critical discussions of feminist cinema, but I’m here to tell you it’s a bonafide masterpiece. The madcap adventure follows housewife Roberta as she longs for something more than her lukewarm marriage, friendships and everyday existence. Through some serious screwball comedy logic, Roberta inadvertently swaps lives with the effortlessly cool, mesh-top-wearing, rock-star-dating Susan and whacky adventures ensue. Desperately Seeking Susan isn’t a romcom about finding happiness through love, rather it’s about shedding what is expected of you and recognising that you are responsible for your own happiness. It also includes inexplicable amnesia and the queen of the 80s (Madonna, obviously) herself as Susan, so you know it’s going to be a guaranteed good time. It may not exist in the same conversations as Varda’s oeuvre but it should be firmly on the top of your list for the next time you take a sick day.
Watch it on Stan.
Paris is Burning (1992)
Director: Jenny Livingston
During her speech after receiving the Trailblazer Award at this year’s MTV Movie & TV Awards, Master of None star Lena Waithe stated that “the only reason I'm allowed to stand here is because of a few other trailblazers that you might not even be aware of”. The trailblazers she spoke of are those depicted in Livingston’s Paris is Burning, an essential and intimate portrait of the icons of the Harlem drag balls of the 1980s. Paris is Burning celebrates the drag queens, trans women and members of the LGBTQI+ community who gathered at the balls to celebrate their difference, their talents and their familial bonds. Although drag queens are often men, the film gives voice and power to the trans women involved in the ball culture. In particular, Venus Xtravaganza’s confessionals are touching, heartbreaking, and ultimately serve as a reminder that these stories demand telling. Paris is Burning is a genealogical map, offering a history of drag icons like Pepper LaBeija, Angie Xtravaganza, Dorian Korey and Willi Ninja, and it is a film that gives a history to, and informs the present of, the voices who are now growing louder.
Watch it on Netflix.
Director: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Screenplay: Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Alice Winocour
Starring: Güneş Şensoy, Doğa Doğuşlu, Elit İşcan
Early summer in rural Turkey, five free-spirited sisters take to the beach with some male friends. The children are seen playing in the sea and the scene is quickly misconstrued as illicit activity. Barred from leaving their family home, and progressively married-off, the sisters’ love of each other empowers them to chase a future where they are in control of their own lives. Since it’s release, Mustang is routinely compared to Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides. Although the films share a dream-like sensibility, Mustang’s sisters are wholly self-possessed, not apathetic and doomed, and actively rally against the parameters set for them by their conservative Muslim family. Womanhood and sexuality is fundamental to the story, but so is youth, and the tragedy of youth sacrificed in the pursuit of dogma. Mustang is an impassioned manifesto to the contrary, a heated declaration that life is best lived when it’s firmly in your control.
Watch it on Google Play
My Brilliant Career
Director: Gillian Armstrong
Screenplay: Eleanor Witcombe (based on novel by Miles Franklin)
Starring: Judy Davis
Sybylla Melvyn is a girl full of fire, and one that refuses to let the sensibilities of 19th century Australian life extinguish her. My Brilliant Career charts Sybylla’s life as she travels from country Australian farm to her Grandmother’s wealthy estate and grows from insecure misfit to self-assured woman. During this time Sybylla rejects expectations for her to marry, choosing to pursue the decidedly un-feminine passion of writing to the ire of her family. My Brilliant Career is a story of a heroine who refuses to play by the rules of her genre, and in many ways Sybylla’s desire to be heard reflects the burgeoning voices in Australian film at the time of its production. My Brilliant Career not only marks the beginning of its character’s career, the story also marks the beginnings of its legendary writer Miles Franklin, equally legendary director Gillian Armstrong and the inimitable Judy Davis. A seminal Australian film, and essential viewing for all tenacious and independent women
Watch it on on the big screen at ACMI 26 – 29 July.
Join us on the Thursday 26 July screening for a very special Q&A with director Gillian Armstrong, editor Nicholas Beauman and film writer Philippa Hawker!
- Taylor Brodie