I am a feminist. I am an educator. I am a girl enthusiast. I am a movie lover. My favorite films are those that embody all three of the aforementioned identities: films that offer an alternative to the dominant narrative (feminism), films that teach you something (education) and films that highlight the stories of girls (enthusiasm!!!). Yes, girls. Not women or ladies or any of the other politically correct monikers for those who identify as female. There is a very particular experience of being a girl in America and while our experiences, cultures and personal identities allow “girl” to mean very different things there remain commonalities between that connects us in this space we call girlhood. And just because you reach a certain age does not always mean you have moved beyond girlhood.
It’s no secret that Hollywood is a depressingly sexist and racist institution that continues to eschew the unique and diverse for more of the comfortable and familiar. This most often means reproducing characters that cultivate stereotypical versions of men and women and storylines that provide mythical, fantasy inducing narratives. All eight of this year’s Oscar nominated Best Pictures were stories of men and their accomplishments. In the top 250 grossing films of 2013, women comprised less than 30% of speaking roles.
As a media educator who looks particularly at representations of adolescence, I have what some may find to be a non-traditional perspective when it comes to analyzing films. I don’t care about the cinematography. I don’t care about art direction. I don’t care if it has terrible writing. And, I certainly don’t care if it’s “good.” Because you know who has defined what a “good” film is? What is budget-worthy? What is award caliber? White dudes. And, frankly, we’ve heard about enough from and about them for last…oh, EVER.
That said, I am a white girl and while stories of girls are undervalued and underrepresented in general, stories about non-white girls are even more so. The lack of diversity on this list is partially due to my own positionality but also, perhaps more importantly, reflective of a lack of diversity in writing, production and overall interest in stories outside of the accepted cultural norm (white people).
Movies are important. They are the most accessible and possibly most influential mediums of modern storytelling. They tell us who we are and what we value. If you want to see me breathe fire tell me “it’s just a movie.” I dare you. Extra burn if you call it a “chick flick.” These four of my favorite, less talked about, Hollywood films that subvert the common tropes of girls as dumb, superficial, boy-crazed, victims and instead focus on the ways girls are brilliant, talented, funny, and resistant within a patriarchal system that would prefer they be submissive, silent or invisible.
Say Anything (PG-13, 1989)
For the record, this is one of my all time favorite movies of forever. Two words: Lloyd Dobler. Which is exactly who most conversations about this film revolve around. He is our reluctant protagonist madly in love with a girl who doesn’t know he exists. But unlike the usual teen romance Lloyd is not an awkward out of touch nerd and the girl is not head cheerleader or some elitist snob. He is a gentle rebel. An anti-establishment dude whose best friends are girls. And she is the school brain, Diane Court. Their courtship is sweet and genuine and heartbreaking and inspiring (and spawned one of the most memorable scenes in teen film history). In a twist on the usual gender narrative his story is actually all about her. He’s her Manic-Pixie Dream Boy.
Diane is the reluctant leading lady, a brain “trapped in the body of a game show hostess” whose social life revolves around academics, volunteering and her Dad. Throughout the course of the film she graduates high school (valedictorian), wins a fellowship, attends her first party, falls in love, and watches as her father (John Mahoney) is investigated by the IRS for tax evasion. Not your average Hollywood teen girl. Nor is Corey (Lili Taylor), Lloyd’s best friend, whose own storyline hints to the emotional abuse teen girls endure to be seen as desirable by boys who care very little about them. She serves as the wise council to Lloyd while processing her own grief through her music: “I wrote 65 songs, they’re all about Joe, and I am going to sing every one of them tonight.” If you haven’t seen this film, what are you waiting for?
Drop Dead Gorgeous (PG-13, 1999)
Both Janet Maslin of the New York Times and Chicago’s own Roger Ebert gave Drop Dead Gorgeous terrible reviews, the latter claiming the film to “load up on stereotypes…make its audience wince through what may be a record number of miserably unfunny jokes.” Ok, Dad! A dark comedy exploring American girls’ dependence on their beauty to afford them opportunities in the greater global economy and offering hilarious commentary on the very real issue of Mean Girl syndrome, DDG is the Christopher Guest film Christopher Guest never made.
Set in Mt. Rose, MN the killer ensemble cast includes Kirsten Dunst, Denise Richards, an unknown Amy Adams and the late Brittany Murphy (<3), with support from Ellen Barkin, Allison Janney and Kirstie Alley, as local contestants trying to win a spot in a National Beauty Pageant. What’s great about this movie is that, amidst the jokes and vicious jealousy, there are a multitude of unique characters, the majority of which are women. The teen characters are especially nuanced and deliberate: Dunst is participating simply as a vehicle to showcase her talent as a tap dancer, Adams’ overzealous cheerleader hints to an abusive relationship, and Murphy’s awkward goofball if only there to please her parents who worship her brother. It is her character who, when Amber’s (Dunst) costume is sabotaged, sacrifices her spot and gives her own costume to Amber so she can have the opportunity to dance. This single moment of solidarity is subtle but powerful. It illustrates a truer version of friendships among girls – supportive and caring – than most film’s would have you believe.
Stick It (PG-13, 2006)
This is one of my all time favorite movies. DEAL WITH IT. The less successful follow up by Jessica Bendinger, the director of Bring It On, Stick It focuses on the elite world of competitive gymnastics through the character of Hayley, a former national champion who is being forced to return to the sport in lieu of juvenile detention. She is sent to train with the notorious Burt Vickerman played by the notorious Jeff Bridges. That’s right, my dudes. The Dude himself.
The nature of gymnastics, in which athletes compete collaboratively as a team, while also competing individually on each event, creates interesting commentary on the judgment and performance of women’s bodies. Via each character’s relationship to the sport we learn details of their personalities and glimpse how the sport forces out individuality in favor of conformity. As Haley snarks to Vickerman, “I wasn’t talented, I was obedient.”
What is most revolutionary about Stick It is how the girls became their own agents for change through camaraderie and collective organization. When her teammate is unfairly judged after a perfect trick, Hayley and the other competitors refrain from performing in that event so that she may win. Together they are able to take a stand against a harsh system built on holding them to an impossible standard, and by doing so, they are able to perform for themselves and their peers in a way that satisfies a personal, rather than systematic, goal.
Snow White & The Huntsman (PG-23, 2012)
A dark and daring reimagining of the Grimm’s fairy tale in which Kristen Stewart’s Snow White is more comparable to Katniss Everdeen than her original namesake and helps to usher forth what I hope will be the new wave of female adolescent protagonists: passionate, brave and confident in who they are. Snow White’s fairness is juxtaposed by the character of Ravenna, The Evil Queen (Charlize Theron), a “villain” who is more a victim of female gender role backlash than sincerely demonic. Taught from a young age that beauty is power and having spent a lifetime subsequently “ruined by men” Ravenna’s humanity makes her the most relatable character in the film.
The script sublimely exposes the double edged sword of female sexuality and the complicated power structure that accompanies it, an element made all the more compelling considering Kristen Stewart, whose post-Twilight fame is what made this film the box office success it was, was cut from the sequel due to an affair between her and the married director. It was Stewart alone who was held accountable for this “indiscretion,” further proof that girl’s have a very specific set of rules they are to follow regarding their sexuality and that deviation comes with punishment while boys…well, they’ll be boys.
Alicia Swiz is a writer, performer and media educator. For information on workshops and live performances visit popgoesalicia.com.