No filmmaker in their right mind would advertise the fact that their film has feminist ambitions — we’re pretty sure that’s box office suicide (sad, but true). Despite that, some films have pretty obvious feminist heroes — think Thelma and Louise, G.I. Jane., Jodie Foster’s character in THE ACCUSED, and Erin Brockovich. And then there are the stealth feminist films — movies that advance the feminist cause without anyone driving off a cliff or shaving their head or fighting against rape or giving an Oscar-winning, stick-it-to-the-man performance. These movies take feminism for granted and act like it’s no big deal — in fact, they’re so stealth that sometimes maybe even the filmmakers and stars didn’t know what was going on. Here are ten of our favorites (we didn’t include BRIDESMAIDS, by the way; while we loved the movie, producer Judd Apatow insisting on a big group diarrhea scene automatically disqualified it):
10. UP IN THE AIR (2009)
If you haven’t seen UP IN THE AIR, please go watch it right now and then return to this list, because its designation as a secret feminist movie doesn’t make sense until the last five minutes. Okay. Now that we’re all on the same page — PLOT SPOILER ALERT! — Alex (Vera Farmiga) tells no-strings-attached frequent flyer Ryan (George Clooney) that she’s basically the female version of him. “I am the woman that you don’t have to worry about,” she says. His response? “Sounds like a trap.” And the gut-wrenching ending of this movie only happens because Ryan, and the viewers along with him, don’t believe Alex. Because she’s a woman. So she can’t fuck like a man, right? Turns out she can fuck way, way worse than a man. Not that cold-hearted marital cheating is a feminist value. It’s just that this movie forces us to face our own acceptance, however subconscious, of widespread gender stereotypes: all men want sex and all women want love; men cheat, women don’t.
9. CATWOMAN (2004)
Terrible movie. We’ll say it again: terrible, terrible movie. (So bad that we won’t even bother warning you about any plot spoilers.) But we love that the villain (Sharon Stone) is part of a cosmetics company with a new beauty product “guaranteed” to reverse the effects of aging (the cream actually has monstrous side effects). Catwoman’s self-appointed mission is to bring this villain down — though ultimately, the villain is undone by her own vanity, when she is distracted by a glimpse of her imperfect reflection in a window and plummets to her death. (Let’s just pretend we don’t know that Halle Berry is a celebrity endorser for Revlon.)
8. BILLY ELLIOT (2000)
Because eleven-year-old boys can be feminists, too. This feel-good movie set in a small, working-class, Northern England mining town during the 1984 Miner’s Strike follows Billy’s journey from boxing ring to all-girl ballet class to the Royal Ballet — much to the chagrin of his macho dad and older brother — ultimately proving to them all that dancing is not just a girl-thing or a gay-thing.
7. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999)
Loser puppeteer Craig (John Cusack, sans eighties boombox) tries to cheat on his wife Lotte (a dowdified Cameron Diaz) with Maxine Lund (Catherine Keener), but Maxine gives him the Heisman. Then Lotte ends up falling in love with Maxine — and Maxine falls in love back, but only when Lotte is inside John Malkovich’s body. You know, just your typical chick flick plot. All the men are trying to cheat on something — their spouse, death, whatever. But the two women — SPOILER ALERT! — decide to leave all those cheatin’ male hearts behind and start over together. The ultimate feminist fuck-you twist? Maxine got knocked up by Malkovich while he was possessed by Lotte, so the two ladies kinda made a baby together too.
6. THE PIANO (1993)
Some people think that this is an old school bodice ripper masquerading as a Serious Feminist Work (in part because of that scene with the stocking and Harvey Keitel’s finger, implying that all she really needed was a good ravishing). Others think of Holly Hunter’s Ada as the ultimate feminist icon: she literally has no voice (in fact, it seems she chooses to have no voice) and is sold off to a man — and yet she is as strong-willed and expressive as any female character on screen.
5. LEGALLY BLONDE (2001)
You could argue that sorority queen Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is more of a post-feminist icon, what with her pink girlishness and her passion for shopping. And then there’s the distinctly un-feminist moment when Elle follows her boyfriend to Harvard Law School to try and win him back. Despite all that, we’re going to claim her for Team F. This film manages to make jokes about shoes and generic toilet paper (so scratchy!) while simultaneously examining sexual harassment, female body image, and that dumb blonde stereotype. Also, lawyer Elle makes the following argument: “For that matter, any masturbatory emissions, where the sperm is clearly not seeking an egg, could be termed reckless abandonment.” Swoon.
4. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (1992)
Almost ten years before Elle Woods, there was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And no, we’re talking about the intense television mega-hit but the hilarious little low-budge flick that took itself a lot less seriously. With a much more Valley Buffy obsessed with shopping and cheerleading, the movie gave us great lines like “Get out of my facial!” and “That’s so five minutes ago!” The giveaway that this was much more than a silly action comic and actually a radically feminist project comes at the end: after Buffy saves her town and basically the world from a vampire invasion, her outsider bad-boy love interest played by 90210 alum Luke Perry says to her, “You’re not like other girls,” to which Buffy replies earnestly (for once), “Yes, I am.” Ladies kick ass!
3. SECRETARY (2002)
On the surface, SECRETARY’s story could be interpreted as a traditional fairy tale in which a poor damsel in distress (a depressed cutter played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) needs to be saved and taken care of and provided for and told what to do by a male hero who’s totally in control (a boss with a BDSM streak played by James Spader). But look closely, and you’ll realize that (at least for the second half of the movie) this is a woman who knows what she wants and knows how to get it, conventions and social norms be damned. The last shot of the movie has Gyllenhaal, now a domestic goddess, placing a gross dead bug in their pristine, neatly made marital bed in their perfectly organized, beautifully decorated, sparkling house while now-hubby is off at work — and then she looks knowingly at the camera, directly at us. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.
2. BULL DURHAM (1988)
Susan Sarandon plays Annie, a Minor League baseball groupie who chooses one player a season to have an affair with. Okay, so far, so simpering. But Annie makes her own damn rules and she sticks to them. When Annie is trying to decide between rookie pitcher Ebby (Tim Robbins, hilarious as a himbo) and Crash, the veteran catcher assigned to him (Kevin Costner, who almost — almost — makes us like the word “pussy” when he uses it in his “I believe” speech), she says to them, “These are the ground rules. I hook up with one guy a season. Usually takes me a couple weeks to pick the guy — kinda my own spring training. And, well, you two are the most promising prospects of the season so far, so I just thought we should kinda get to know each other.” Later, after she’s picked Ebby — she decides to educate him via light bondage and poetry readings — and Crash continues to hit on her, she tells Crash, “Despite my rejection of most Judeo-Christian ethics, I am, within the framework of the baseball season, monogamous.” She’s got her own internal moral code for her sex life and when she decides to finally settle down, it’s on her own terms and in her own time.
1. HEATHERS (1988)
What’s not to love about this movie? Winona Ryder’s character, Veronica, starts off in the popular girls’ clique (whose other three members all happened to be named Heather) and then decides to reject everything that her peers tell her about how a girl should be. This rejection happens to correspond with her new boyfriend — the awesomely sociopathic Christian Slater — dispatching some of those ex-friends pretty literally. Though at first it might seem like she’s going along with it all for a guy, in the end she just lights a cigarette and lets him burn, saving the entire school in the process. In the last scene, Veronica takes the remaining reigning Heather’s crown from her head — a red scrunchie — and declares “there’s a new sherriff in town,” signifying a new era of respect, kindness, and friendship among her fellow students, especially among girls.
MORE ON EMandLO.com:
- And the Award for Best Self-Love Haiku Goes To…
- What’s Your Favorite Pleasure Object?
- 4 Things Emma Goldman Taught Me About Sex