The kind of girl I want to be

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So, last night I watched Gangster Squad. It was alright. My housemate and I had grabbed the DVD from the shops and headed home with some burgers. It was a pretty sweet plan – we were both in the mood for action, and I loved the line-up of actors. Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling? Sean Penn being insane? Nice.

But by the second half of the film, I was wriggling around in my seat, grunting to myself. I sat forward, threw my hands up. Yelled some half-sentences at the screen. “But what is she–” … “But why doesn’t he–?” … “BUT YOUR WIFE IS–!!”

Something was really bugging me, and it wasn’t just the awkward direction or the under-developed characters. (All of those A-grade actors were working so hard to make something out of that script, but man, they didn’t have much to work with.)

I was getting seriously bugged by the female characters in the film. Emma Stone’s character – what are her motivations? Why does she hang off the arm of that psycho gangster? The only explanation we get – “I came to this town to be a star”. Come on. “I came here to be a star, but that didn’t work out, so now I’m dating the bloodthirstiest mob boss on the west coast”? What? It was hard to see such a paper-thin role inhabited by the gifted comedic actor of Easy A. I mean, she brought the world this:

The only other named female character in Gangster Squad was the sergeant’s pregnant wife. She was clever and tough as nails, but she still spends most of the film being abandoned by her husband.

The thing I was having trouble articulating to my housemate, a dude of the dudest order, is that movies like these make me feel a bit left-out. I don’t see myself in these movies. I love action, I love thriller, but the only people who look like me in them are not the heroes. I’ve never seen myself in the role of dependent girlfriend or long-suffering wife. Growing up, I didn’t dream of waiting at home to find out what was going on. These weren’t the character types that spoke to me.

I wanted to be Ryan Gosling, smooth-talking with a heart of gold. I wanted to be the straight-shooter, pinging tin cans out of the sky with a knowing wink. I wanted to be that “one man” (in movie voice) who saves the world. I wanted to be Will Smith punching aliens; Keanu Reeves stopping bullets; Tobey Maguire discovering he could climb walls with his fingertips. I wanted to be MOTHER-FLIPPING WOLVERINE.

But I’m a lady.

You might be excused for thinking I’m gender-confused, wishing I was Hugh Jackman or something, but that ain’t it. It’s not me who’s confused about my gender – it’s Hollywood. Women are categorically more interesting, varied, and powerful than is represented in cinema. No wonder that, when I’m watching the latest blockbuster, I find myself relating more to the male characters for their appealing array of courageous and tenacious heroes.

There have been flares of cinematic womanhood that have dazzled my weary eyes, such as Hermione punching Malfoy, or Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, or Pocahontas diving off a cliff with zero fear. And, I know I bring it up a lot, but The Hunger Games. These characters are self-possessed, capable, at home in their surroundings. They have that thing inside them, a special power. That’s what so many female characters in cinema lack: an internal power. Their power is more often derived from external sources (usually whomever they’re letting lie on top of them at night).

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read past here if you haven’t seen Season 2 of Game of Thrones yet and you still want to be surprised.

Daenerys Targaryen, "Game of Thrones".

Daenerys Targaryen, “Game of Thrones”.

I think that’s why Daenerys Targaryen of Game of Thrones has gathered such an intense following among fans: She is the Khaleesi. She started off a meek, oppressed, pretty little thing who did what the men around her said. Then, she walked into a fucking bonfire with some dragon eggs and everyone was like HOLY SHIT. No one told her to do that; she felt it intuitively. It came from inside her, a special power that she possessed. I love that. She isn’t a perfect feminist icon, but as Caitlin Moran recently tweeted (in response to the overthrow of Prime Minister Julia Gillard): “[F]eminist role models don’t need to be perfect. Currently, they just need to exist”.

They exist in real life (see: Wendy Davis). I’m damn sure they could comfortably exist in our imaginary lives, as well.

US Senator Wendy Davis. (Dragon probably photoshopped.)

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Movies That Are Good For Girls

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As longtime readers may know, I used to work with teenagers of the female variety, and I noticed that the only movies they would watch were awful Hollywood rom-coms. In other words, they were living on a steady diet of stupid.

myboyfriendthinksimfatI wrote a post a while back, shaming a few “bad movies for girls” – but now I’m stepping it up. I’m not just bringing problems, here; I bring solutions. So, what movies would be good for these teenage girls (and anyone else) to watch? What movies are out there that offer solid alternatives to the ol’ “I need a boyfriend, wah!” formula? I’ve made a list of movies that I wish those teenage girls would watch instead of No Strings Attached. If they ever felt like watching some light entertainment that didn’t end with Matthew McConaughey laughingly mocking a woman and then planting his face on hers*, I would like them to have some options.

* Notable examples of this trope include: “You throw like a girl” (Sahara, 2005); and “Bullshit!” (How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, 2003), to which he romantically adds, “You heard me. Bullshit”.

I ran all the movies I could think of through the Bechdel Test before selection. If you’re not familiar with Bechdel, passing the test requires that the film includes:

  • at least two (named) female characters
  • who talk to each other
  • about something other than men.

The movies listed below pass that test with flying colours. (It’s harder than you’d think! Apparently only half the movies in cinemas at the moment pass it.) I also chose these movies on the basis that I just like them. They’re entertaining. They suggest that maybe – maybe – it would be feasible to make more films about diverse female experiences. I know my life consists of somewhat more than just “wah, boyfriend” (although that’s in there, too), so it would be nice to see the movie options out there reflect that.

So here are five movies that I think are pretty good for girls:

1. Stick It (2006)

Angry girl is angry! For reasons that have nothing to do with boys! Also, she is a kick-ass gymnast. She and her teammates learn to put personal ambition aside and work together to shake up Big Gymnastics. It’s a gorgeous example of overcoming petty competition in favour of communal thinking. And, thank the heavens, they weren’t competing over men. To top things off, this movie’s got some rad athletic scenes, set to a cool soundtrack. I’d much rather hear girls quote this movie than the Bring It On franchise, as this one gives the mean/angry girls a bit of depth, compassion, and even redemption.

2. Pitch Perfect (2012)

Similar set-up to Stick It: angry girl is angry, joins in a team competition with much eye-rolling, and eventually leads her new friends to victory. But this take on a familiar trope is just so. Much. Fun. With a capella singing groups battling each other on campus, heaps of screwball characters, and Rebel Wilson declaring herself the “best break-dancer in Tasmania” … I mean, I’m in. There is a half-baked romance in the wings for the protagonist (Anna Kendrick), but it’s pure exposition for her character. The real triumph is her relationships with the other girls.

3. Brave (2012)

Made for a younger market than the other films on this list, but such a beautiful story from Disney-Pixar that I had to include it. This Disney princess resists being socialised to accept her fate as someone’s wife, and takes matters into her own hands. The central dynamic is a mother-daughter relationship – rare for Disney films – and it is handled beautifully. I cry every time. Every damn time.

4. The Hunger Games (2012)

Katniss is a bad-ass archetypal Artemis figure who shoots straight, takes no shit, and will do anything to protect her sister. At first I wasn’t sure if this one would pass the Bechdel Test because Katniss spends most of the movie interacting with Gale, Peeta or Haymitch (two of whom fancy her) … But then my housemate (a man) reminded me about the beautiful scenes between Katniss and Rue, the young victor from District 11, in which they teach each other to survive.

In fact, the narrative plays with the romance genre by introducing a “meta-romantic subplot” – Peeta and Katniss must act as star-crossed lovers in order to survive the Games. Is the love real? other characters ask. Or is it just what the audience in the Capitol expects? I think somewhere in there are the traces of an interesting commentary on how our culture consumes romance.

5. Mean Girls (2004)

Did someone say “YOU GO GLEN COCO”?? After reading Queen Bees and Wannabes in the early 2000s, Tina Fey bought the film rights to the book and BOY DID SHE USE THEM. I am using so many capitals because I LOVE THIS FILM. This came out just after I finished high school, and ten years later I still hear teenagers quoting it. Fey certainly hit a nerve with this story of a high school newcomer who learns manipulation at the hands of girl cliques. It explicitly addresses problems with the way girls behave towards each other, and does so in a hilarious and highly-quotable manner.

To the guy who told me he would never watch Mean Girls because “What, it’s a chick movie”, I say GO EAT A HAT. Iron Man; Yes Man; Cinderella Man; Spider-man; Bicentennial Man; Lord of War; Iron Man 2; The Dark Knight; The Last King of Scotland; I Love You, Man; Spider-man 2; Children of Men; The Men Who Stare At Goats; X-Men; Men In Black; Man On The Moon; and Spider-man 3 – I’ve watched ’em all, and ENJOYED them (even Spider-man 3, no matter what people say), and I still have all my lady parts in tact. Oh, you know what, just read this.

"She doesn't even go here!"

“She doesn’t even go here!”

But, Bridesmaids ..? Some may remark upon the absence of Bridesmaids (2011) from this list … But I felt that it only barely passed the Bechdel Test. Yes, there are many female characters, but they do mainly get together to talk about men. And when we get a blockbuster Hollywood comedy written by women with a leading cast of women, it’s still centered around a wedding. I think this movie is hilarious, but I’m not sure it offers a great alternative to traditional patriarchal narratives. That said, I nearly cracked a rib laughing at the ‘airplane scene’.

Just a quick point: I recognise that my list of movies representing “diverse female experiences” is doing a great job of privileging young, white, hetero, first-world girls’ experiences. I get that. I would love to watch more diverse female characters on screen, and I welcome suggestions of movies to watch that can help me outside this bubble.

My overall hope is that we’ll see more movies being made that represent the rich diversity of human experiences, especially in the comedy/romance genres. There are so many more types of people out there! Let’s get their stories into teenage DVD collections, too. C’mon now.