Women, on the verge

Studios and audiences are embracing an overdue trend: female-empowerment films

In 1975, Ellen Burstyn--who'd won the Academy Award for best actress the previous year--caused a stir when she publicly decried the lack of good female roles in movies, and encouraged her sisters in cinema to boycott the Oscars by refusing to nominate, vote for, or participate in the actress and supporting-actress categories.

Her plea was rejected.
And 17 years later, in 1992, the number of good, high-profile roles for women was still so scarce that of the five films garnering best-actress nominees that year, the domestic box-office grosses of four of those movies combined added up to less than $10 million.

But something surprising has occurred since then. When Susan Sarandon walked home with an Oscar--finally--for Dead Man Walking, and when Kate Winslet took the statue for Sense and Sensibility last March, they did so not as the lesser of five evils, but as first among equals. For the first time since 1950, the most competitive of all the Oscar categories were the two acting berths reserved exclusively for the "y" chromosome-deficient members of the Academy. Finally, belatedly, remarkably, the era of women may have arrived, as a new subculture of cinema begins to emerge: the female-empowerment film.

The significance of what's happening in Hollywood runs deeper than a mere Oscar ceremony. It isn't just that a few women happened to deliver better performances last year than their male counterparts, or even that the quality and number of roles for women has improved drastically. Rather, women are coming into their own as complex, fully formed individuals on film, and the subtle social slant of these movies is edging toward outright feminism. Good female characters no longer need be defined merely in terms of the men in their lives, but can stand alone. And perhaps more importantly, studios--and audience members (including men)--seem to be embracing feminist ideology in their heroines without being scared off by it.

For the moment, this revolution remains in its infancy--and there are numerous betrayers to the cause, like Showgirls. But the trend is encouraging. Whereas movie males have always been independent without a single line of dialogue inserted to explain why this is so, well-adjusted women usually spend vast amounts of screen time justifying their independence. While this year's Oscar nominees included seemingly "routine" female roles--two prostitutes, three sisters, four wives--they also included some rarities: a devout nun portrayed without caricature, and a clutch of women who stand on their own and stand up to the men in their lives.

Of the four actresses nominated this year who play spouses, only Kathleen Quinlan, as Marilyn Lovell in Apollo 13, could be called the typical doting housewife. The rest were a mix of women seeking ways to express their burgeoning independence: an unstable drug addict trying to assert herself (Sharon Stone in Casino); a strong, steely eyed first lady refusing to be controlled by her paranoid husband (Joan Allen in Nixon); and a middle-age immigrant who carries on a torrid affair in order to escape a stale marriage (Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County). These were all women who found ways to wriggle out from under the thumb of dominant males, and they succeeded not just by deception or pouting, but by meeting their oppressors face to face, as equals--and sometimes as their superiors.

The rise of cinematic feminism has increased exponentially in recent years, even if in indirect ways. The evidence is out there, flickering on the movie screens. Women characters seem more comfortable at demonstrating an individual sense of purpose and well-roundedness; they act rather than react, and convey a full range of emotions instead of the rote, subservient female responses allowed to a film's "love interest" (forlornness, maternal nurturing, and the like).

The current film Diabolique, for example, despite being a messy, uneven thriller, portrays two abused women who undertake the ultimate exercise in female empowerment: They kill their male tormentor. The 1995 Christmas hit Waiting to Exhale surprised many by generating $60 million in revenues without a single above-the-title man to buoy it, while Heat struggled to reach $40 million with three top-name actors in the leads. Jane Austen's 19th-century brand of feminism got trotted out and tacked with modern themes three times in 1995--in Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, and in Clueless, which was written and directed by one of the most powerful women in Hollywood, Amy Heckerling, and based broadly on Austen's novel Emma. And two recent art-house releases, Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad, and especially Antonia's Line, are among the most unabashedly feminist films to be seen in a long while.

In the era of B.T.L. ("Before Thelma & Louise"), the only major studio release that seemed as subversively feminist in its portrayal of women triumphing over men was The Witches of Eastwick--and that film suffered from the disadvantage of labeling its heroines "witches."

The nervous patriarchy that has silently, implicitly run Hollywood for years has simply refused to acknowledge a film's commercial viability when the women are not only independent, but normal. In just the last decade, "feminism" has been equated routinely with lesbianism (Personal Best, Claire of the Moon), villainous man-bashing (Fatal Attraction, She-Devil), or both (Basic Instinct). Lesbianism seems, in fact, like Hollywood's short cut for making a female character interesting. More perversely, feminism has sometimes been represented as a weakness in women that can be "cured" by a strong man. Die Hard, an otherwise dandy action picture, is marred when the hero's wife is criticized for using her maiden name until her beefy, testosterone-laden he-man of a husband finally rescues her--at which point she takes back her married name; it's as if she finally realized the error of her feminist ways and capitulated to his superior hunter-gatherer instincts.

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