Female Empowerment on the Big (and Little) Screen

female director

THE SAME  few movies inevitably appear on lists and in discussions about empowering female roles in Hollywood — Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs, Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, Sigourney Weaver in the Alien franchise. The characters in these popular films are indeed powerful, and empowered, women, played by strong leading actresses. They are intelligent and resourceful characters that represent women’s capabilities well on the big screen. Albeit some of these characters’ lives aren’t that relatable — How many of us are members of assassination squads? Warrant officers on space ships? — the most relatable role may be Julia Roberts’ portrayal in Erin Brockovich, as Ms. Brockovich is a very real person and activist.

If we switch to television, we might name female characters like Clarke Griffin from The 100, who leads a colony of young people when they land on Earth for the first time in 97 years,or Claire Underwood from House of Cards, a cutthroat businesswoman first and a politician’s wife second. Women continue to be represented more realistically and wholly on both the big and small screen, and the writers who write them, directors who direct them, and actresses that play them are often great advocates for females, too. We’ve come a long way since Western writer Max Brand spoke that, when it comes to females in stories, “There should be a woman, but not much of one. A good horse is much more important.”

Here are two great scenes, one from a movie and the other from television, in which a female protagonist stands her ground and steals the show without a samurai sword, a gun registered to the FBI, or any white-hot plasma or grappling hooks… all bad-ass, but not particularly practical for dealing with our daily lives. These characters portray every-day-women being actual every-day-women – -intelligent, clever, witty, and strong human beings.

The FirmMitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) tells his wife Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn) that he cheated on her while on business in the Caymans

Oh man. If you’ve been here, you know how much it sucks. You also know that it becomes way worse when the cheater starts dealing out clichés. Abby handles it beautifully. (If you’ve got Netflix, you can skip to 1:21:25 to see it go down for yourself)

Abby: “Who was she?”

Mitch: “I don’t know.”

A: “You don’t know?”

M: “I don’t even know her name. It didn’t mean anything.”

A: “Like hell it didn’t, it means everything. What did you do? Why did you f*%* some stranger on a beach one night away form me? Who does that?”

M: “Abby, I promise you.”

A: “What? You can’t promise anything. Not ever. Not anymore. Why did you tell me?”

M: “Because I couldn’t stand not to. I couldn’t stand your not knowing.”

At this point, Abby makes direct tear-free eye contact and says:

“Well, now I know. Gimme the keys.”

She promptly take his BMW and gets the hell out of there. Clichés batted out of the park and no huge, dramatic meltdown.

Mad Men, Season 4, Waldorf StoriesCopywriter (formerly secretary) Peggy Olson destroys new art director Stan Rizzo… with a stare

I’ve watched this scene multiple times (you can, too here) because it’s incredibly well done. Peggy is locked up in a hotel room with the new art director, Stan Rizzo, while they try to get an ad about cough drops put together. The scene opens with Stan laying on the bed reading Playboy while Peggy sits at her typewriter, fully ready to work. This follows:

Peggy: “Are you gonna work, or just stare at pictures of women who can’t stare back?”

Stan: “You wouldn’t understand, but this inspires me. It opens my mind with freedom.”

P: “So why aren’t you a nudist? You talk about it all the time.”

S: “Well, in a liberated environment I would be. In the presence of the pope, or say you, it’s difficult.”

P: “You don’t know anything about me.”

S: “I know you’re ashamed of your body, or you should be at least.”

Peggy stands up and starts to undress, pulling Stan’s eyes from the magazine. She boldly states, “I can work like this. Let’s get liberated.” and they both come to opposite sides of the desk half naked. Peggy removes her top and asks Stan why he hasn’t taken off his underwear yet. When he does, she notices he has an erection. Stan’s explanation? “Don’t flatter yourself. It’s involuntary.” Peggy chats away about their work and her ideas for the ad as Stan can’t focus at all.

Peggy: “Anything you’d like to add?”

Stan: “What?”

P: “This pencils a little dull. Maybe I should dip that thing in some ink and write with it!”

S: “Stop looking!”

P: “Thought it might make it go away.”

After a solid five seconds of hard staring, Stan dresses, awards Peggy the prize for “The smuggest bi**h in the world,” and leaves the room.

What? All she was doing was staring back.

Feel free to share some of your favorites in the comments.

+ Leave a Reply