According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, of the top grossing films of 2016, just 4 percent of film directors, 11 percent of writers, and 19 percent of producers were women. No wonder Hollywood films often feel like they depict a reality totally alien to the way real women live. Our antidote? This list of the most groundbreaking movies for women. These are films where women have actual jobs and are shown at work, not just talking about men over cocktails or cooking dinner.
Or they're movies that challenge misconceptions you didn't know you had about women's roles in movies. Maybe the girl lead is the aggressor, not the victim. Maybe a devoted wife will become an outlaw and seem more at home outside of heteronormative society. Or maybe it'll be about a female character who seems to have very little hope in her life — she'll have served jail time, her her lover won't have been faithful — but she'll still make the best of her situation.
Besides the very worthy aims of these works, these are just entertaining movies, proving you don't need a photogenic male lead to keep an audience on the edge of their seats. So, next time you're at a loss as what to watch next, consult this list.
1'A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night'
Ana Lily Amirpour's film, known as "the first Iranian vampire Western" turned the horror genre on its head. Instead of letting her attractive female protagonist be the victim, she's a vampire who feasts on men. It felt like Amirpour's film ushered in a tidal change in horror, triggering publicity and support for female-directed films like The Babadook and The Invitation as well as XX, a horror anthology boasting four different female directors and solely female writers.
2'Born in Flames'
Lizzie Borden's dystopian documentary-style sci-fi film is revolutionary in the sheer breadth of female experience it represents. It focuses on two groups of feminists in New York City, who begin protesting following the suspicious death of an activist while in police custody. The film is famous for its examples of how to handle sexism via direct action, such as when a group of women on bikes and armed with whistles chase off some men attacking a lone woman on the street.
3'If These Walls Could Talk'
Don't be duped by the fact this is a made-for-cable movie. The subject matter isn't one that gets covered by your average film: it focuses on the way three women in three different decades ('50s, '70s, '90s) deal with unplanned pregnancies and consider abortions.
Innovative in both its subject matter and the way it was shot, Tangerine focuses on Sin-Dee Rella, a trans woman who has just got out of prison and suspects her boyfriend has been cheating on her. It sounds bleak, but the dialogue crackles and it's incredibly funny. The film was shot with three iPhone 5s, showing how accessible filmmaking has become in our era.
5'Thelma & Louise'
This was Callie Khouri's first screenplay, and she went on to win a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for it. Focused on a female friendship, it swerved the usual rom-com ending expected of a film starring two women. Instead of embracing their relationships with men, the female outlaws would rather continue along their own path, no matter how deadly that gets.
6'The Watermelon Woman'
In Cheryl Dunye's fake documentary, the lead is Cheryl, a black lesbian holding down a job in a video store while simultaneously trying to craft a film about a black actor in the '30s, who is never credited by name for her work, but, in one film she watches, is referred to as the "Watermelon woman." Cheryl decides to start sleuthing to figure out the woman's identity. According to The Boston Phoenix, this was the first feature film directed by an African-American lesbian filmmaker.
7'9 to 5'
Long before Grace and Frankie hit our laptop screens, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda played alongside each other (and with Dolly Parton) in this 1980 comedy about three women in the workplace getting even with their "sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot" boss.
8'I Was A Teenage Serial Killer'
Made by underground filmmaker Sarah Jacobson, the movie focuses on a teenage girl who punishes sexism with violence. Speaking in 1998 to Film Vault about the movie, Jacobson said:
"I consider myself a feminist filmmaker, definitely. The whole reason I got into film was because I never saw cool girls in films that I liked. I have no fear of the word 'feminist.' I know that has certain negative connotations to some people, but then why should I let other people’s stupidity bully what I want to do, right?"
9'The Hurt Locker'
The movie that made Kathryn Bigelow the first woman to win Best Director at the Oscars and that proved how empty stereotypes about women filmmakers could be. The Hurt Locker is anything but stereotypically feminine, with its focus on the Iraq War and psychological reactions to trauma.
10'Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels'
Chantal Akerman's 1975 arthouse classic, focused on a lonely housewife who brings up her son alone on a wage earned by sex work, caused ripples from the moment it hit screens, with The New York Times calling it "first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of the cinema."
11'Mad Max: Fury Road'
If you've watched this action movie, it won't be entirely surprising to you to learn that Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler consulted on the movie and spoke to the cast about violence against women. Ensler said of her time on set:
"One out of three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime — it's a central issue of our time, and that violence against women relates to racial and economic injustice. This movie takes those issues head-on."
The Guardian called her "the first action heroine," and it's hard to dispute it: Warrant Officer Ripley is the only person on board the commercial spacecraft Nostromo who is tough and logical enough to hold her own against the alien creature.
Carmen Jones (Dorothy Dandridge) shows up for work late one day at a parachute factory, gets into a fight with a co-worker who threatens to rat on her, and chaos ensues. Dandridge was the first African-American to be nominated for an Oscar for a leading role for her part in the film.
So, sure, things look bleak in the film industry for women. But life's just as full of highs as lows. Don't forget to celebrate the moments when women have enjoyed immense success in controlling their own depiction in movies.