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Goddess: Power, Glamour, Rebellion learning resource

Through iconic stories, characters and moments from over 120 years of moving image history, Goddess celebrates the women and gender-transcending superstars who have shaped their own roles, taken creative control and fought a system that tried to exploit them. The exhibition includes examples from silent cinema through to the present, and has a global focus with highlights from Hollywood, Bollywood, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia and Europe.

Goddess is organised into five themes: Crafting the ideal, Breaking the binary, Dangerous women, Weaponising glamour and Fighting back. These themes could also be described as provocations designed to encourage discussion, reflection and alternative viewpoints.

This thought-provoking examination of on-screen female representation offers secondary Media and English students new perspectives on gender, representation, narrative and changing social values.

Our resource provides an overview of the themes and content of Goddess plus general questions, activities and prompts to support further discussion and analysis following the visit. Students will also have their visit enriched by content collected on the Lens.

Download the exhibition worksheet

Getting started: questions and activities for class discussion

1. What does the word Goddess suggest to you? Brainstorm a list of words that describe your understanding of this term.
2. Goddess: Power, Glamour, Rebellion explores how women have been represented and portrayed on the screen. Which films, characters and actors would you expect to be included in an exhibition with this theme?
3. Make a list of the female film, TV and videogame characters that you particularly like, or find memorable. Provide a brief description and explain what makes them stand out.
4. Representation means the way that something is shown or described. Representations are never a mirror of the real world but the product of choices and assumptions and are often influenced by the beliefs and values of the time in which they are created. How do you think screen representations and portrayals of women have changed over time? How do you think they have stayed the same? Explain your answer and provide some examples.
5. When talking about screen representation, we not only think about how people and culture are portrayed on screen, but also pay attention to whose stories are told and who gets to appear on screen. Check out this survey https://insights.paramount.com/post/the-effects-of-poor-representation-run-deep/ Explain why lack of representation, as well as negative representations can affect viewers' well-being. When referring to screen culture, what is meant by the expression "You can't be it, if you can't see it."
6. What is a stereotype? What is a gender stereotype? Can you give some examples of gender stereotypes that you have noticed in your viewing and/or gameplaying? What is the problem with stereotypes? Why are they considered harmful?
7. Have you heard of the Bechdel test? Find out more about it, and list the three elements/criteria that make up this test. What point was Alison Bechdel making when she came up with this test? Apply the Bechdel test to a few of your favourite films and see what you come up with.

Section 1: Crafting the ideal

Marilyn Monroe on the set of Some Like It Hot, photo by Don Ornitz, © Globe Photos / ZUMAPRESS.com. Image courtesy of ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo.

Marilyn Monroe on the set of Some Like It Hot, photo by Don Ornitz, © Globe Photos / ZUMAPRESS.com. Image courtesy of ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Hollywood was built on glamour, with many other film industries also engaging audiences through a fantasy of idealised on-screen characters and larger-than-life movie stars. In particular, female actors and roles have been subject to powerful perceptions of beauty and glamour.

While the female ideal has changed over time and according to taste and fashion, screen representations have been influential in deciding and reflecting social values relating to beauty and bodily perfection. Neverthless, not only do screen texts have a complex relationship to culture, they are also required to be interesting and to connect with a wide range of viewers. This leaves plenty of room for resistance and disruption, either through the creative process, the on-screen performance, or the audience's response.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Marilyn Monroe's roles as Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953) and Sugar Kane in Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) encapsulate the power of the image and attest to how Monroe's on-screen sexuality became a product to be marketed by the Hollywood film industry.

Yet, Monroe's role in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes subverts the idea of the 'dumb blonde' and, in Some Like it Hot, the star's figure-hugging costumes and unrestricted body pushed beyond 1950s norms.

The pink dress worn by Monroe in the 'Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend' number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (see video above) has been referenced and reinterpreted in many contexts over the seventy years since the film's release.

This legendary sequence has been playfully reconsidered and repurposed in:

Coochee Coochee Dance

A number of the earliest films made in the 1890s for Thomas Edison's kinetoscopes presented female dance and performance. The kinetoscope was a small projection device with a peep-hole for viewing. Viewers would put a coin in a slot and then watch a program of (very) short films covering a range of amusing topics.

The grid of white lines stamped onto the film of the Coochee Coochee Dance (1896) to obscure the dancer's body is a reminder of constraints around the public display of the female body during this period. That said, the grid doesn't appear until half-way through the performance and then doesn't obscure the offending naked 'belly'.

If the dance is considered too revealing, why do you think the dancer's body isn't covered from the very beginning? Could this have been a way to respond to complaints while still satisfying audience demand? Or could it have been a shared joke with the viewer? What do you think?

Further stories to explore

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, 1999, Hally Berry. Image courtesy of Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo.

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, 1999, Halle Berry. Image courtesy of Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

Motion Picture Production Code generally referred to as the Hays Code was a set of guidelines set up in 1930 by the movie industry in response to social concerns about the boundary-pushing content of many films made during the 1920s. You can read more about it here.

Meera Kumani's performance in Pakeezah (Kamal Amrohi, 1972) is notable for the fact that production took 15 years to be completed. Kumani, who was a superstar of Indian cinema, died soon after the film's release.

Dorothy Dandridge was the first African American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award for best leading actress. The multi-talented and very glamorous Dandridge was the Hollywood ideal in every way, but her opportunities were limited due to her ethnicity. She spoke up about the way she was treated in the Hollywood system and was a significant trailblazer for other women of colour working in the film industry. You can find out more here.

The Watermelon Woman (1996) is written, directed and edited by Cheryl Dunye who plays a fictionalised version of herself in this landmark New Queer Cinema film, which is also the first feature film to be directed by a self-identified Black lesbian. Dunye foregrounds the women of colour whose performances have been devalued within the racist structure of the Hollywood film industry.

Crafting the Ideal: questions and activities for class discussion

1. How has screen culture defined the female ideal? How has it disrupted this ideal?
2. What does 'glamour' mean? What does it suggest to you? Give some examples. Why is glamour often associated with female performances? Why should we question this association?
3. This section of the exhibition looks at recognisable gender stereotypes and shows how these stereotypes have been resisted. Choose an example of a text that resists or overturns gender stereotypes. How important is performance in challenging assumptions and resisting stereotypes?
4. Choose one of the stories featured in this section of the exhibition and explain: why it stands out for you; why it has been included; and what it communicates about the power of screen representations.
5. As well as being idealised within screen culture, the female body has also been seen as something that needs to be contained and controlled. What did you learn in the exhibition about the history of censorship in Hollywood?
6. Watch the video of the Coochee Coochee Dance (see above) and then find out more about the background to this film. What is your response to the white grid that appears on the film partway through the dance? What do you think viewers of the time would have thought about this addition to the film?
7. Choose one of the screen texts inspired by the 'Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend' number and mentioned in the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes section (above). Describe how the original screen performance has been referenced. What is the purpose and impact of this and how this has been achieved in the example you have chosen?
8. How do the design and colour of Kitty's dress from the Australian comedy show Kiki and Kitty (2017) reference and spoof Hollywood glamour? You can find out more about this dress and the character who wears it here: https://www.acmi.net.au/works/107706--sequins-and-sapphires/
9. Why do you think costume is such an important part of character creation?
10. What role does colour play in the creation of character through costume? Explain using examples from this section of the exhibition.

Section 2: Breaking the binary

Goddess_Orlando (1992)_Quentin Crisp_image courtesy of RGR Collection, Alamy Stock Photo.

Orlando, 1992, Quentin Crisp. Image courtesy of RGR Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

The film and TV industries in Hollywood and beyond have played a significant role in defining and fixing gender roles according to a particular set of social values. We can see how these values influenced the crafting of the female ideal within a screen culture where a woman's appearance was valued above all else.

For many decades, the female ideal was matched by an active and strong male hero who was typically at the heart of the screen story being told. In "treating male and female bodies as opposites, and as the only two options", screen stories represented gender as binary. This begs the question of how much has changed and how much has stayed the same in present-day screen stories and representations.

While screen representations are powerful and can contribute to harmful attitudes and stereotypes, the screen can also be a space of creative play and resistance. In this section of the exhibition we celebrate roles and performances that question the boundaries of gender and open the way for more fluid and open identities.

The Consequences of Feminism

In the early silent film The Consequences of Feminism (Alice Guy, 1906), the swapping of gender roles points to the absurdity of a rigid gender binary. The film also highlights the inequality faced by women within this gender binary. Made by legendary screen pioneer Alice Guy, the short film depicts male characters facing harassment and exploitation.

By inverting gender norms, Guy highlights the unfair and inappropriate treatment of women in her society. The ostensible joke is that the male characters are suffering the 'consequences of feminism' but the narrative actually justifies feminism, female protest and activism.

Fluid boundaries

Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus (1932) image courtesy of PARAMOUNT PICTURES, Ronald Grant Archive, Alamy Stock Photo

Blonde Venus, 1932, Marlene Dietrich. Image courtesy of PARAMOUNT PICTURES / Ronald Grant Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Marlene Dietrich began her career in German silent cinema and then was very successful in Hollywood talkies. In a number of her roles, she played a character that challenged gender conventions, most famously in the film Morocco (Josef von Sternberg, 1930). In this movie, Dietrich plays the role of nightclub singer Amy Jolly, who performs dressed in top-hat and tails with a cigarette in her hand, and bends to kiss a woman in the audience.

Dietrich wore top-hat and tails in subsequent films and in her celebrated stage performances. Throughout her career she combined glamour with gender fluidity to develop a signature style.

Blues singer Gladys Bentley was a trailblazer who dressed in the kind of elegant men's clothing that made such a name for Dietrich. However, Bentley was condemned for her queer identity and during the conservative period of the 1950s had to change her style in order to continue performing.

In the film Orlando (Sally Potter, 1992), Tilda Swinton shape-shifts across centuries as the character of Orlando. Described by Potter "as an ironic dance through history", Orlando is about fluid identities and experiences: "What does it mean to be born as a woman, or a man? To be born at one time instead of another? To be born into wealth, or into poverty, or into the traditions of a particular nation?" (Roger Ebert July 09, 1993)

The gender fluidity communicated through costume and clothing by Dietrich, Bentley and in the Orlando narrative has become, in recent times, interconnected with more inclusive social values relating to fluid and queer gender identities.

Breaking the binary: questions and activities for class discussion

1. What are some of the ways gender norms limit people's lives?
2. Why can clothing and costume be an effective way to communicate resistance to gender norms?
3. While often reflecting gender norms, screen narratives can also disrupt and resist these norms. List some examples of narratives that do this and explain how this works.
4. How have attitudes to gender changed over time? Share examples from films, TV shows and/or videogames that show a fluid or non-binary approach to gender representation.
5. What modern-day celebrities inspire others by their refusal to conform to social expectations? Explain why you have chosen these examples and how these people resist expectations.
6. Watch the video of The Consequences of Feminism (above). Find out more about Alice Guy and her contribution to the development of cinema.
7. Did The Consequences of Feminism surprise you? Explain. How does it use comedy to make its point? Why is role reversal such an effective way of highlighting social values and norms? Can you think of any other screen examples of this kind of role reversal?
8. Marlene Dietrich's style has been called androgynous. What does this mean? Why do you think Dietrich's androgynous style and clothing caused such a sensation?
9. Marlene Dietrich once commented: “I dress for the image. Not for myself, not for the public, not for fashion, not for men.” What do you think Dietrich meant by dressing for the image? Name a present-day performer who could be described as dressing for the image. Describe their style and its impact.
10. According to Orlando director Sally Potter, the protagonist switches gender in the narrative because he had reached "a crisis of masculine identity”, but then "cannot conform to what is expected of her as a female either”. How does the film use costume to impose and/or disrupt fixed gender identities? You might like to answer with reference to the costumes displayed in the exhibition.

Section 3: Dangerous women

Gloria Swanson. Photo: Phillippe Halsman, 1950. Courtesy Gloria Swanson Inc. and Philippe Halsman Archive / Magnum / Snapper Images.

Gloria Swanson by Philippe Halsman

In many societies and at many times in history, powerful women have been represented as dangerous to the good order of a society. Societies that see female strength as dangerous are patriarchal societies designed to enshrine the status and power of men.

Yet, stories about disruptive women are not always critical. Instead, they often revel in the drama and strength of these legendary female figures.

This section of Goddess explores screen narratives that represent strong and independent women as both dangerous and desirable. The term femmes fatales (deadly women) has been coined to describe this character type.

While the femme fatale emerged out of patriarchal concerns about female power, many of these characters have become iconic because of the formidable performance of the actor who played the role.

Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong dressed in stylish clothes and staring defiantly into the camera

Anna May Wong, Image courtesy of CPA Media Pte Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

With the arrival of film, many screen stories featured strong female characters, who challenged conventional social values and embodied a disruptive sense of danger. During the silent era actors such as Theda Bara, Louise Brooks and Anna May Wong took on these roles and lent them an enticing allure that audiences loved.

Anna May Wong was a trailblazer; she was the first Chinese American to become an international celebrity and appeared in over fifty films spanning both the silent and sound eras. She also starred in a TV show, appeared on stage and worked in radio.

Wong had to navigate racist attitudes during her career that, in the case of The Good Earth (1937), led to her being rejected for a role playing a Chinese character. Wong was nevertheless a star and was admired for her glamorous approach to fashion. However, her allure was rooted in orientalist attitudes related to her difference – the idea that she was exotic and unknowable. Her on-screen persona centred on this idea, and she typically portrayed mysterious and dangerous characters. Wong's career was limited by social attitudes, but she was proactive in her determination to move beyond stereotypes.

The femme fatale

In the 1940s and 1950s, a narrative style emerged in Hollywood that became known as film noir (dark film). Film noir narratives highlight the duplicity and moral uncertainty of modern society and frequently feature the character type of the femme fatale (deadly woman). In film noir films, the cynicism of the anti-hero is matched by the danger of the predatory femme fatale, who ensnares him with her seductive wiles in such a way that he finds himself acting against his better judgement.

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944 – see trailer above) is a classic version of this set up, with Barbara Stanwyck having the time of her life portraying the husband-killing Phyllis Dietrichson.


Whatever happened to Baby Jane?

In mid-twentieth century Hollywood, many fabulous female stars were tipping over into middle age, and the horror of the ageing woman became the subject of two now iconic films Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) and All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950). In each of these films, the female leads, played by Gloria Swanson and Bette Davis respectively, delivered bravura performances that met social attitudes to older women full on.

While Sunset Boulevard and All about Eve are daring in their treatment of ageing stars, they are celebrated, awards-worthy films. In contrast, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962) may have starred two former screen goddesses – Bette Davis and Joan Crawford – but it is a low-budget genre movie. It was, nevertheless, very popular at the box office and has become a bit of a legend.

In fact, as time moved on, the magnificent Bette Davis became the queen of hagsploitation, a subgenre of the horror movie that suggests there is nothing more monstrous than an ageing woman. Although this screen-based disgust may have been generated by misogynist attitudes in both the film industry and wider society, thanks to the extraordinary performances of actors such as Davis, these roles become a powerful celebration of female identity and presence.

Dangerous Women: questions and activities for class discussion

1. Make a list of myths, legends and fairytales that feature dangerous and powerful female characters. Which of these characters are the most interesting and memorable? What is their role and purpose within the narrative?
2. Why do many screen representations of powerful women use stereotyped character traits and imagery?
3. Think about the stereotyped roles that dominate many films of the past (and even of the present day). With these roles in mind, do you think it is possible for a performance to be greater than the role? Can a powerful performance overcome stereotypes and patriarchal values? Explain and give examples.
4. Many screen narratives balance the powerful and dangerous female antagonist with a meeker and more law-abiding female character. From your viewing give an example of this kind of pairing and describe each of the characters. Which do you find most interesting?
5. Why do you think many films made in the 1940s and 1950s represented powerful women as dangerous? To answer, you will need to find out about American society during this time. You might like to start here: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/postwarera/1950s-america/a/women-in-the-1950s
6. Find out more about Anna May Wong's career, the limitations imposed on her career by racism and how she took control of her career and identity.
7. For many years, Hollywood film studios would cast non-Asian actors in Asian roles. This practice is often referred to as 'yellow face'. Discuss as a class, why this form of casting is wrong. Do you know of any more recent controversies relating to this practice?
8. Do some research on the film noir style and identify the main elements of this style, including the representation of female characters.
9. While film noir films of the 1940s and 1950s feature male protagonists who ostensibly drive the action, the femme fatale characters are usually more dynamic and memorable. Find out about three or four of these classic femme fatale characters and list their attributes and qualities. Describe your own impression of and response to these characters.
10. Femme fatale characters are not confined to the film noir films of the forties and fifties but continue to delight audiences. Why do viewers relish femme fatale characters so much? Can you name some of your favourites?
11. Female stars have typically struggled to find roles as they age. Do you think the prejudice against older women appearing in central roles on screen is changing? Explain your answer with examples. Why do you think there is often an age disparity between older male actors playing a lead role and their female co-stars? Can you think of some examples where this disparity is reversed?
12. Many animations and movies made for children feature dangerous and terrifying older female characters. (Check out Cruella deVil's dragon dress in our exhibition!) Choose one of these dangerous characters and complete the character response sheet below.

Section 4: Weaponising glamour

Sakuran (2006) | Sun 28 May Goddess Sundays

© 2007 SAKURAN Film Committee © Moyoco Anno/Kodansha

While women appearing in front of the camera have long been held to account by idealised standards of beauty and glamour, there are many memorable examples of this ideal being met head on through an extravagant and flamboyant approach to glamour and fashion.

The sensuality and confidence exhibited by legendary screen identities such as Mae West in Hollywood and Josephine Baker in Paris were enhanced and exaggerated by hair, make-up and costume to lend a provocative power and individuality to their screen performances.

This section of the exhibition also looks at Anna Tsuchiya's performance as the feisty and untameable Kiyoha in Sakuran (2007), a narrative that celebrates female sexuality and agency. Like Mae West and Josephine Baker, Anna Tsuchiya has an individuality that lends power to her on-screen performance.

Josephine Baker

American-born Josephine Baker travelled to France in her late teens to escape the racism endemic to her home country. Rather than her African-American identity being a limitation to her acceptance in France, Baker was able to capitalise on her ethnicity and culture, by activating and parodying stereotypes. Her most famous costume comprised a skirt made out of bananas and a beaded necklace (in the filmed version of this dance, she was required to add a bikini top). Baker became the first African American to lead a feature film, when she starred in Sirens of the Tropics (1927).

"... Baker brilliantly manipulated the white male imagination. Crossing her eyes, waving her arms, swaying her hips, poking out her backside, she clowned and seduced and subverted stereotypes. By reclaiming her image, she advanced her career in ways unprecedented for a woman of that time." (90 Years Later, the Radical Power of Josephine Baker’s Banana Skirt)

Baker combined her glamorous image with activism, which included working undercover during the war and her ongoing commitment to the civil rights movement in the US. She refused to perform for segregated audiences and spoke alongside Martin Luther King Jr in the 1963 March on Washington.

Baker's legend and legacy continue into the 21st century with stars such as Beyoncé, Rihanna and Zendaya channeling and paying homage to Baker's signature style.

Mae West

Mae West wears a long silky dress and reclines on a chaise longue

Mae West was a multi-talented creative who began as a performer and then moved on to writing her own content. She crafted a risqué stage persona through cheeky dialogue and racy one-liners.

West arrived in Hollywood at a time when there was lee-way for her sexually charged dialogue and performance style. Her early films were a great success, and the public flocked to see them. The characters she played were tough, independent, funny and never at a loss for words. However, once the Motion Picture Production Code began to be enforced, her cheeky dialogue suffered at the hands of the censor.

Mae West was different from every other performer appearing on the screen during the 1930s. She developed her own style and had control over her on-screen representation.

Weaponising glamour: questions and activities for class discussion

1. Using examples from the exhibition, explain the idea that glamour can be a weapon.
2. Do you agree that glamour can be weaponised? Can you think of examples that support your response?
3. How can costume communicate a powerful persona? Give some examples from the exhibition and from your own viewing.
4.. From what you have discovered in the exhibition and from your own knowledge of the screen industry, how have female actors taken control of their image through costume, performance and production roles?
5. If female performers with powerful and individual performance styles have proved so popular with audiences across many eras, why do you think that even today many roles played by female actors are driven by stereotypes and require a particular style of beauty? Is this changing?
6. Watch some of Josephine Baker's performances on YouTube and explain how she parodied stereotypes relating to her ethnicity.
7. Can you explain what is meant by Josephine Baker reclaiming her image? Can you think of any performers in the present day who could be said to have reclaimed their image by subverting stereotypes?
8. Watch the supercut of some of Mae West's best lines (above). How would you describe West's screen identity? How significant is it that West wrote many of her own lines? Are you surprised by West's performance style? What stands out most?
9. Everything about Mae West was distinctive and different, including her costumes, which she designed herself. How would you describe the Mae West dress, hat and shoes displayed in the exhibition?
10. West's most popular films were released in the early years of the Great Depression when there was huge unemployment and many people struggled to make ends meet. Which elements of West's films and her performance style would have been most appealing to people living through this time of great hardship?

Section 5: Fighting back

Woman wearing nurse costume looks at camera with a challenge in her eye

Promising Young Woman, 2020, Carey Mulligan. Image courtesy of BFA / Alamy Stock Photo.

This section showcases screen representations of women who fight back, along with the powerful and dynamic performances and exploits of the actors who took on these roles.

Our focus is on films and performances that challenge perceptions around female fragility, and bring to light the forgotten history of female action roles, along with the women who did their own daredevil stunts from the silent era onwards.

In many of these film narratives, women protagonists are activated to fight back in response to social dysfunction and injustice, while finding strength in female friendship.

Pam Grier and blaxploitation

Woman in long black skirt stands defiantly with one leg on a step

Pam Grier 1972

Blaxploitation is a term coined to describe a subgenre of independent, low-budget films that emerged in the 1970s. These films were created for African-American audiences by (primarily) African-American filmmakers and featured African-American actors. The term was originally coined as a critique relating to the perpetuating of stereotypes, but in fact the films were a form of resistance and often dealt with serious issues, particularly in terms of race and police brutality.

As the protagonist of the action film Coffy (Jack Hill, 1973), Pam Grier became Hollywood's first modern female action hero. In the role of a nurse avenging her sister's drug addiction, Grier performed her own risky stunts, brandished a range of weapons and sported an Afro full of raiser blades.

Friendship, loyalty and fighting back

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in Thelma and Louise (1991)

Thelma and Louise, 1991, L-R Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, © MGM. Image courtesy of Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.

When Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott) was released in 1991, it stood out for its celebration of female friendship, portrayal of gendered violence and bold depiction of what might happen if and when women decide to fight back.

"No man comes to their rescue. Instead, Louise picks up a gun, and throws away her lipstick. And put-upon, girlish Thelma grows in courage, to take on Louise’s role as protector when it’s really needed." (Thelma & Louise: The film that gave women firepower, desire and complex inner lives)

Thirty years later, Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell, 2020) emerged out of the #MeToo movement to take up the ongoing issue of violence faced by women and the failure of society in the face of toxic masculinity.

In Promising Young Woman, the protagonist Cassie is driven by her determination to avenge the sexual assault of her friend and to expose individual hypocrisy, group conformity and institutional complicity – no matter the cost.

Further stories to explore

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000, Michelle Yeoh. Image courtesy of United Archives GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000, Michelle Yeoh. Image courtesy of United Archives GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo.

Born Mary Evans in Perth, Fearless Nadia became the very popular star of dozens of Hindi films was famous for her incredible stunt work. Her break-out role was in Hunterwali (Homi Wadia, 1935) where she played a masked, whip-cracking avenger.

Mabel Normand was one of the earliest Hollywood movie stars and on-screen comedians. She co-wrote and co-directed a number of her films and did many of her own stunts.

Michelle Yeoh began her acting career in Hong Kong martial arts movies, performing most of her own stunts. Her performance as woman warrior Yu Shu Lien in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon exemplifies the energy and precision underpinning the fight scenes for which she is so well known.

Fighting Back: questions and activities for class discussion

1. In a number of the film narratives included in this section, the female protagonists fight back to avenge a wrong done to them or a loved one. Why is revenge such a powerful force? How does gender impact the revenge narrative?
2. As a group or class, make a list of films, TV shows and videogames that have female friendship as a central part of the narrative. Find out more about the creative teams leading these projects. How important are female producers, writers and directors in creating powerful and convincing depictions of female friendship?
3. How and why do female protagonists who fight back disrupt gender stereotypes and expectations?
4. Find out more about the blaxploitation subgenre. What are the main points about blaxploitation? Watch clips from Pam Grier's performances in blaxploitation films of the 1970s. What elements of Grier's performance style stand out?
5. Explain how and why blaxploitation films could be considered a 'movement' and are a source of cultural pride for African American people. How significant is it that the production of blaxploitation films was primarily led by African American creative teams?
6. The Hollywood genre of the buddy movie has most typically been associated with male characters. Why do you think there are fewer Hollywood films about female friendship than there are about male friendship? What films or TV shows that feature female friendship stand out for you? Explain why they are memorable.
7. In Thelma and Louise, Thelma is transformed by events and experiences and by her friendship with Louise. This transformation is expressed through costume. We have included a 'before' and an 'after' costume in the exhibition. Look at and compare these costumes and explain how they communicate the change that has taken place in Thelma's identity and sense of self.
8. Choose one of the stories featured in this section of the exhibition and find out more. What surprises you or stands out about the performer or topic you have chosen?
9. Many of the protagonists featured in this section are resisting gendered violence normalised within patriarchal societies that privilege male power. This is a serious and ongoing issue and has been highlighted through the #MeToo Movement. How important is it that screen narratives draw attention to this kind of violence? Do you think films, TV shows and videogames can play a role in educating audiences about serious social issues?

Laverne Cox Paper Magazine (Yellow Background). Photo: Joshua Kissi, Courtesy Atrbute

Marilyn Monroe. Photo: Milton H. Greene © 2022 Joshua Greene. Marilyn Monroe™; Rights of Publicity and Persona Rights: The Estate of Marilyn Monroe LLC. marilynmonroe.com

Anna May Wong, Image courtesy of CPA Media Pte Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo