Wednesday, June 03, 2020

My Favorite Cinematic Strong Women

It should come as no surprise that, during this shelter-at-home time, I've been knitting up a storm, and that means the television has been keeping me company. One night I was channel-surfing and came across The Nun's Story, and that was it. I had to stop and watch it.

After the film was over, I thought about other favorite movies that I could watch. We all have them. As my little grey cells began to spark, the thought occurred to me that watching some of my cinematic strong women would certainly fit the bill, and that led to the desire to share them with you.

The following are six of my favorite films featuring strong women characters, ones that survived the cut from the original list of ten that immediately sprang to my mind. I'm going to list them in reverse chronological order... because there's a method to my madness.

Hidden Figures, 2016

Storyline: "As the United States raced against Russia to put a man in space, NASA found untapped talent in a group of African-American female mathematicians that served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in U.S. history. Based on the unbelievably true life stories of three of these women, known as "human computers", we follow these women as they quickly rose the ranks of NASA alongside many of history's greatest minds specifically tasked with calculating the momentous launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, and guaranteeing his safe return. Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Gobels Johnson crossed all gender, race, and professional lines while their brilliance and desire to dream big, beyond anything ever accomplished before by the human race, firmly cemented them in U.S. history as true American heroes."

Even as I cheered these women on and was awed by their sheer intelligence, I felt ashamed. Although I've had to put up with a lot of nonsense just because of my gender, I've never had to deal with what these women did simply because of the color of their skin. White privilege is quite a cocoon that most of us never realize we're protected by.

Temple Grandin, 2010

Storyline: "Biopic of Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who overcame the limitations imposed on her by her condition to become a Ph.D. and expert in the field of animal husbandry. She loves animals! She developed an interest in cattle early in life while spending time at her Aunt and Uncle's ranch. She did not speak until age four and had difficulty right through high school, mostly in dealing with people. Her mother was very supportive as were some of her teachers. She is noted for creating her "hug box", widely recognized today as a way of relieving stress in autistic children, and her humane design for the treatment of cattle in processing plants, which have been the subject of several books and won an award from PETA. Today, she is a professor at Colorado State University and well-known speaker on autism and animal handling."

I stumbled across this film and quickly found myself caught in its spell. What an extraordinary woman! And how very fortunate she was to have a support system that enabled her to share her gifts with the world!

Rabbit-Proof Fence, 2002

Storyline: "Western Australia, 1931. Government policy includes taking half-white, half-Aboriginal children from their Aboriginal mothers and sending them a thousand miles away to what amounts to indentured servitude, "to save them from themselves." Molly, Daisy, and Grace (two sisters and a cousin who are fourteen, ten, and eight) arrive at their Gulag and promptly escape, under Molly's lead. For several days they walk north, following a fence that keeps rabbits from settlements, eluding a native tracker and the regional constabulary. Their pursuers take orders from the government's "Chief Protector of Aborigines", A.O. Neville, blinded by Anglo-Christian certainty, evolutionary world view, and conventional wisdom. Can the girls survive?"

I chose this film to watch one night because it sounded like it would be a good "escape" film. It was, but it was so much more! I learned about a period of Australian history that I knew nothing about, and I learned about an extraordinary teenage girl named Molly Craig who had the strength and determination to guide herself and her two sisters one thousand miles back home. (That 1500 miles on top of the poster is wrong. They traveled 1500 kilometers.) Real footage at the end of the film made me realize that the story was true, and I also learned that Molly made this same trip more than once. What a woman!

Aliens, 1986

Storyline: "57 years after Ellen Ripley had a close encounter with the reptilian alien creature from the first movie, she is called back, this time, to help a group of highly trained colonial marines fight off against the sinister extraterrestrials. But this time, the aliens have taken over a space colony on the moon LV-426. When the colonial marines are called upon to search the deserted space colony, they later find out that they are up against more than what they bargained for. Using specially modified machine guns and enough firepower, it's either fight or die as the space marines battle against the aliens. As the Marines do their best to defend themselves, Ripley must attempt to protect a young girl who is the sole survivor of the decimated space colony."

When it comes to cinematic strong women, Ellen Ripley has a special place in my heart. Probably because-- for once-- here's a woman who's not a petite and frilly female who screams at the drop of a hat. You know... she's definitely not the usual feminine stereotype. Why is that important to me? Because I've never been petite or frilly or a screamer. Ripley also endears herself to me because she defines my type of true courage: being scared spitless and still doing what has to be done.

The Nun's Story, 1959

Storyline: "After leaving a wealthy Belgian family to become a nun, Sister Luke struggles with her devotion to her vows during crisis, disappointment, and World War II. "

I never paid attention to any Audrey Hepburn movie until I saw this one. Before that, I viewed her as an attractive but skinny clotheshorse. As Sister Luke, she showed me that she was so much more. It is very wrong to live in a society in which the only way you have a chance to do what you were born to do (in this case, practice tropical medicine) is to become something that you definitely are not suited for. I found the story of Sister Luke to be profound and powerful: Never. Ever. Give. Up. (And I also developed an appreciation for Audrey Hepburn.)

The Heiress, 1949

Storyline: "A young naive woman falls for a handsome young man who her emotionally abusive father suspects is a fortune hunter. "

The Heiress is one of my favorite movies of all time for the simple fact that I've grown into it and can better understand its subtleties. Beginning as a teenager, the first several times that I saw it, I think I paid way too much attention to the gorgeous Montgomery Clift (Morris Townsend) and his soft voice. The romantic in me wanted Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) and Morris Townsend to get together and be happy, especially if it meant Catherine would get away from that horrid father of hers (played to perfection by Sir Ralph Richardson).

But as I matured, what I saw in the film began to change, and the open-ended conclusion aided me in this. The film never really comes right out and says that Catherine will never change her mind; the viewer gets to "have a voice" in what happens when the movie is over. Now I watch The Heiress and smile. Catherine Sloper is no longer the Lady of Shalott. She finally knows her own worth. She's finally found her strength. Now she's the mistress of her own life, and for someone who's always been so timid, that is Victory indeed.

Well... what do you think? Do you agree with some of my choices? Which ones? And--more importantly-- which of your personal favorites did I leave out? Inquiring minds certainly want to know because I'm always on the lookout for things to watch while I'm knitting!


  1. Hidden Figures is such a great movie!

  2. Yes, on Hidden Figures, both the books and the film were wonderful! And Ellen Ripley. I haven't seen the others, but I will be looking for the Temple Grandin And Rabbit-Proof Fence!

  3. I loved Hidden Figures, Cathy, and I'm glad you included it here. Your choices reflect the fact that you can have a strong female character without her being a fakey superhero.

    1. I sometimes think I'm in a tiny minority because-- other than Batman movies-- I really don't care for superhero films. The non-stop fight scenes are boring.

  4. The Nun's story and the Australian aboriginal story are the two I would really like to read / or watch. Thanks for the update.

  5. Hidden Figures is a great movie, although as you point out, an expose of horrible segregation and mistreatment of Black women who were really geniuses. I loved the scene where Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, knows more than any of the men in the room about orbiting in space.
    And Rabbit-Proof Fence is a stunning film about very courageous young women. I read an article about the girls from the viewpoint of one of their daughters, probably Molly's. She wrote a memoir which the film is based on, I think.
    Never saw Nun's Story, although I do like Audrey Hepburn. Didn't see any Alien movie, not a fan of the genre. I'd like to see The Heiress sometime.

    1. Now I'm sitting here wondering if you'd like The Heiress or not. Difficult call!

  6. Well, I like romantic endings, but I also like women who are independent and make their own decisions about their lives.


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