The strongest female personas we see onthe screen are tributes to actualwomen who have livedremarkable lives.
“With all due respect sir, I have done battle, every single day of my life,” states Meryl Streep, in “The Iron Lady”, while pulling off a jaw-dropping performance as Margaret Thatcher. Streep could, as well, have been talking at the recently concluded Woman in the World summit that opened on Women's Day in New York City, where she felicitated Hillary Clinton; or indeed, about the overall situation in Hollywood, where women — on both sides of the camera — battle for roles.
The online blog Women and Hollywood quotes a recent study about gender bias in Hollywood, which states that women make up only 32.8 per cent of speaking roles — even if they help fund the industry by picking up 50 per cent of the tickets. Streep on CBS News' 60 Minutes spoke about the film industry's obsession with 18-year-old boys to the exclusion of most other audience groups: “That's called the narrowing of the audience. The movie business has … worked hard to get rid of you, because you don't go then and buy toys and games.”
The estrogen counter tallying Hollywood movies structured around strong female leads ticks — very sporadically. No surprise that when such roles do come along they often, deservedly, snag an Oscar — whether Streep in “The Iron Lady”, or Julia Roberts in “Erin Brockovich” or Helen Mirren in “The Queen”. All powerful women, all exceptionally acted — and all based on real-life models.
Not easy lives
Some of the silver screen's strongest female personas are tributes to actual women who have lived remarkable, meaningful, courageous lives. Not easy lives, nor by any means perfect lives, which only make them more thought-provoking; as in Julie Taymor's “Frida” where the fiery painter is played by an equally fiery Salma Hayek; or Shekhar Kapur's feminist “Elizabeth” where a resolute Cate Blanchett declares, “I am no man's Elizabeth.”
Women have laid siege in small ways to traditional male genres such as the “buddy” movie — most memorably in Thelma and Louise; the “sports” movie — “Million Dollar Baby”, where the protagonist is a female boxer (Hillary Swank); or the “coming of age” movie — Jennifer Lawrence showing true grit in “Winter's Bone”.
Movies with female ensemble casts such as “Steel Magnolias” are often worth the popcorn, and can turn up such marvels as Pedro Almodovar's “All About my Mother”, which combines campy melodrama and unexpected tenderness while looking at the travails of an unusual group of women. Meanwhile, “The Hours” plays with curiously intersecting storylines about three women.
Science fiction has thrown up some strong women-centred movie franchises most notably the Alien quartet spun around Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley, who stood up rather smartly to nasty extra-terrestrials with acid for blood. She's also stood up well in the test against time, earning critical acclaim and box office success.
Milla Jovovich's Alice in the “Resident Evil” franchise packs a powerful punch while decimating zombies, as does Carrie-Ann Moss's Trinity in “The Matrix” trilogy. Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia draws power from her acerbic intelligence though she's a mean hand, as well, with futuristic-looking guns.
Women holding guns do not always translate as powerful characters — think the James Bond beauties. However, the gun-toting Sarah Connor in “Terminator2” has left a lasting impression of ferocity. Linda Hamilton toughened up nicely by the time the sequel came along, the pink tie-dye t-shirts and fluffy waitress hair replaced by badass aviators and sculpted biceps.
Trade the guns and the t-shirt for yellow overalls and a lethal samurai sword, and Uma Thurman draws blood as Beatrix Kiddo/The Bride in “Kill Bill”. She's nicely vengeful whether dousing the frame with ketchup or administering the Five-Point-Palm Exploding-Heart-Technique. Quite the image setter for women killing machines is La Femme Nikita 's Anne Parillaud, as a drugged out cop-killer who's converted into a government-engineered assassin.
Anthony Hopkins might be the posterboy cannibal in “The Silence of the Lambs”, but is well counterpointed by Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling. The title derives from her haunted, childhood memories of hearing the lambs cry while being slaughtered; the movie is as much about Starling feeling the fear, yet finding the strength to rescue at least some innocent victims from grisly endings.
Strong, in other words, doesn't automatically equate to violent or aggressive or destructive. All the way at the other end of the gun-slinging spectrum is Julie Andrews, in and as the “practically perfect” Mary Poppins. She scores very high on the strong woman charts, demonstrating that she needs little other than a parasol to establish order with a firm hand — or a spoonful of sugar to help the strong medicine go down. In the most delightful way.