By David Raether, veteran TV writer and essayist
With the enormous success of Wonder Woman this summer, it’s a good time to take a look at women as heroic centerpieces in films. Sadly, and unsurprisingly, there are not a lot of examples. At least, not in the conventional sense. One reason Wonder Woman is so notable is because it is so unusual—it’s the first huge smash hit movie with a woman superhero as the main world-saving figure.
Part of the reason for this may be old-fashioned sexism, a well-ingrained feature of the movie business: girls are only for being pretty, not for being strong. But another reason may be that women are heroic every day, in ways that don’t involve a cape or superpowers. We all know these women in our everyday lives, and the movies featured here show women being heroic in ways we find familiar—dogged, persistent, and committed to doing the right thing. Incidentally, these kinds of films often bring out award-winning performances by their leading actresses.
Since we’re talking about women’s roles in film, I’d like to introduce a brilliant concept called the Bechdel-Wallace Test. This test is applied to films to gauge the depth and range of women’s storylines. Named for Alison Bechdel, a cartoonist (“Dykes to Watch Out For”) and her friend Liz Wallace, this method evaluates a movie with three simple questions:
Are there at least two women with names in the movie?
Do these women talk to each other?
And if they do, do they talk about something other than a man?
Roughly 50% of American films fail this simple test, including half of the Academy Award nominees in any given year.
Let’s look at some who passed the test and the unconventionally heroic women they focus on: the She-roes. These are films that feature a woman at the center of the story who is engaged in heroic feats of derring-do, but in more real-life (often true biographical) ways.
A feminist movie from the 1950s?! Yup. This movie is a singular work of modern feminism in disguise as a Western. Joan Crawford plays Vienna, a saloon-keeper in a dusty, godforsaken town in Old West Arizona who wears jeans and flannel shirts and has a lover named Johnny Guitar. She is strong-willed, hard-bitten, fully-armed, and ready for a fight. Or a little bit of romance, if the situation calls for it. The film is directed by Nicholas Ray, who went on to direct Rebel Without a Cause. The screenplay is credited to Philip Yordan, but was actually written by the blacklisted McCarthy-era writer Ben Maddow. Because of anti-communist hysteria in the mid-’50s, several screenwriters were barred from getting writing assignments from studios because of their political leanings. Other writers would serve as a “front,” taking the official credit for the movie but passing on all earnings to the true writer. Yordan, an accomplished screenwriter in his own right, did this twice for Maddow.
Prior to this movie, Sally Field played the girlfriend, the ingénue, the sweet candy-filled center of movies that had the nutritional value of cotton candy. Fields turned around to stun audiences with a gritty performance as a young woman and single mother who helps unionize a textile mill in North Carolina. It’s based on a true story, and it passes the Bechdel-Wallace test.
While primarily known as an anti-nuclear power thriller, this movie also has a powerful feminist streak in it. Jane Fonda plays a local TV news reporter who keeps getting shunted onto fluff pieces but grabs the story of a lifetime when she pushes her way into covering a nuclear accident that the power company wants to keep quiet. A great surrounding cast includes Michael Douglas, Jack Lemmon, and Wilford Brimley. You probably watched this movie from the anti-nukes perspective. Give it another viewing as a feminist tale.
Another movie based-on-a-true story, Silkwood features what is one of Meryl Streep’s finest performances as the unassuming but determined Karen Silkwood. Silkwood was a union activist who turned into a whistleblower over the mishandling of nuclear materials at the Kerr-McGee plutonium plant where she worked. The film is unflinching in its portrayal of her everyday struggle to keep her life together while crusading against a large corporation. A brilliant and understated performance by Streep, along with Academy Award-nominated supporting role performances from Kurt Russell as her boyfriend and Cher as her lesbian housemate. Mike Nichols directed it off a script by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen. It also passes the Bechdel-Wallace test.
Erin Brockovich (2000)
Julia Roberts hits a homerun with this one. Her Academy Award-winning portrayal of the real life Erin Brockovich, a feisty paralegal and accidental environmental advocate who took down Pacific Gas & Electric (one of the more disreputable companies in America), was steely, relentless, and true. The film was directed by the always-interesting Steven Soderbergh and was written by Susannah Grant, who also penned Sandra Bullock’s alcoholism recovery tale 28 Days and Disney’s Pocahontas.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times is awaiting publication.