21st Century She-ro Wanted

Casting Call: Female Leader Without Super Powers For Feature Film 

With Kamala Harris, as our newly elected vice-president, and five women who are labeled “also ran” for president, I am reminded that there's still a shortage of women in leadership positions, not just in government, but feature films. If you want to find a popular screen image of an inspiring and powerful woman, your best bets are to look for them in mythical kingdoms, far-away galaxies, Utopias, Dystopian worlds, or on the small screen. And, as we know,  voting and representation matters.

In their excellent and fun iHeartRadio podcast, The Bechdel Cast, hosts Caitlin Durante and Jamie Loftus discuss films, against the framework of that feminist assessment- two (named) characters in at least one scene discussing something other than a man. In Episode 117, January, 10, 2019, they discuss Erin Brockovich (2000) with Alfred Molina. He points out some of the ways that the hero of that story faces gender-based hurdles that a male character would not encounter. In the $240 million dollar blockbuster film, for which Julia Roberts won an Oscar, the protagonist achieves a moral victory and financial success in her fight against polluters, but her boyfriend George, the Hell Angels hottie played by Aaron Eckhart leaves her. He isn’t against her work; he just doesn’t want to be the child-care provider. Twenty years earlier, in Norma Rae (1979), Sally Field also won an Oscar for her portrayal of an underdog fight, in her case as a union leader.  Beau Bridges plays her husband, frustrated because his wife’s work takes her away from what he sees as her domestic responsibilities. While Norma Rae loses her job, and her other love interest, a traveling union organizer, her fate is so much better than that of the title character in Silkwood (1983). In that brilliant Nora Ephron penned story for which Meryl Streep earned an Oscar nomination, Karen Silkwood is an activist who loses her friends, lover, and life when trying to reveal corporate wrongdoing.

During the past two decades, more cinematic stories feature strong female characters who are not doomed to loneliness or martyrdom, although notably these movies do not take place in the 21st century. Hidden Figures (2016) is an account of the female black mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race. On the Basis of Sex (2018) focuses on moments of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life, well before she became known as RBG. 

In these films, set in the 1960s and 1970s, the characters have partners and collaborators. In other recent movies set in mythical lands, characters like Katniss Everdeen, Shuri, and Rey, fight for humanity, their kingdom, or the planet. In these classic tales, they sometimes achieve success, often forge alliances, and occasionally find love. By the way, I haven’t forgotten the 2019, comedy Long Shot  with Charlize Theron as a presidential candidate and Seth Rogen, as her speech writer; it’s just that the story is less about leadership than a romantic comedy; and the jokes and style is far more like American Pie (2003) than American President (1995). 

Returning to the US Presidential Elections, Beto O’Rourke received the Hollywood star treatment on the cover of Vanity Fair (April 2019), as did Pete Buttigieg and his husband as “First Family” on the cover of Time (May 2019). Perhaps one reason that Kamala Harris didn’t actually get to the primaries, was her uphill battle with the media. She was compared to an adolescent character in a 1970’s sitcom, in an article entitled, “Kamala Harris is the Jan Brady of the 2020 Race” (The Atlantic, May 16, 2019). Why would a (male) writer describe a United States Senator, accomplished lawyer, and former Attorney General of the State of California, as a kid from The Brady Bunch? Perhaps it’s sexism and perhaps it’s a shortage of fully-drawn female characters that would be a more appropriate reference? Likely, a bit of both. 

Increasing the variety of modern courageous and ambitious women on the big screen will help to create a new cultural currency. It may not prevent biases, unconscious or not, that undermine women candidates, but it will create a competing image. Don’t get me wrong. I am not looking for a perfect protagonist. In fact, for us to identify with her, have her be flawed, make mistakes, and take a few wrong-turns in her journey. Just please don’t have the movie suggest that challenging the status quo is always a lonely endeavor, or that one must always choose between romance and leadership. 

It’s not a long shot to think that there is a vast audience for a movie featuring a new type of feminist political hero. Like electing a female president,  we just haven’t done it yet.

Nada Djordjevich

Member of the Board
Women In Film
San Francisco Bay Area