The Women’s World Cup of Soccer (Football) is in full swing this week, with an early 3-1 win for the U.S. team against Australia and more matches to come. It seems an age since the Men’s World Cup wrapped up and that intoxicating, breathless excitement and brief sense of national pride left us dizzy with the abrupt loss of its addicting spirit. Now here is something to fill that void, something just as intensely competitive and exciting as the male version, and yet there’s a distinct lack of interest in the exact same competition populated by women. Even Google, which prominently displayed the day’s matches and game times for the Men’s World Cup hasn’t bothered to do the same for the Women’s World Cup. It would be baffling if it wasn’t so predictable.
It’s little comfort that the same goes for women in film, that there are very few movies in which women undertake tasks or play roles more commonly assigned to men, even though women in real life undertake those roles all the time. The interest in making those female lead movies is also often about as high as the interest in the Women’s World Cup. Studio bigwigs think that female driven movies are a high risk investment and that demand for these kinds of movies is low. However, there is a huge demand for said films, particularly for underrepresented female film-goers. The real problem is that most attempts to fill this gap are undertaken by men. Occasionally, though, something a little more interesting and thoughtful slips through.
Bend It Like Beckham
Let’s start with a movie about women’s soccer. Everywhere except in the U.S., soccer is typically a man’s sport, certainly associated with fit footballers like David Beckham and premiere league soccer. And while soccer in general, neither men’s nor women’s, is a particularly popular sport in the US, the U.S. women’s national team happens to be lightyears better than the U.S. men’s national team. And it seems that women all over the world are fighting for that athletic recognition in what is primarily a boys club. Bend It Like Beckham is the story of young women forming bonds over their love of soccer, as well as a coming of age story about casting off social constructs to follow your dreams. Keira Knightly is probably the name you’ll recognize from the cast, but the real star of the movie is Parminder Nagra, who runs off to a German soccer camp against her traditionalist Sikh parents’ wishes. The female lead movie, written and directed by a woman, portrays women realistically and relateably, while still also preserving a sense of love and passion for the sport of soccer.
Million Dollar Baby
This Clint Eastwood directed movie is about a woman (Hillary Swank) who hires a boxing trainer (Eastwood) to become a professional boxer. This, of course, is another sport populated and dominated by men, but which also has a sizable and skilled female contingent. But do you ever see female boxing movies? Eastwood changed that, making the hero of this film every bit as tough and determined as any male boxer, and facing that many more obstacles due simply to her gender and the sport she pursues. And as much as its a story about her journey as a boxer, its also a tender story about two life hardened people who come to care for each other.
When you think buddy cop movies, you usually think of Lethal Weapon or Bad Boys or any number of similar off-shoots – all starring male actors portraying male policemen with male partners in a male dominated work force. Contrary to this portrayal of the world, however, there do exist female police officers who also have partners, who can be either male or female. While television has been better at showing the female side of the buddy cop formula with shows like Cagney & Lacey (1981) and more recently Rizzoli & Isles (2010), film has not been as forthcoming with the female storylines. The Heat (2013), however, reimagines a typical buddy cop movie – uptight straightman and mentally unstable partner included – with women in the lead roles. Director Paul Feig has been one of the leading filmmakers producing female lead movies in the last few years, with movies like Bridesmaids (2011) under his belt and the upcoming all-female Ghostbusters (2016) in the works. The newly released Spy is also one of his, in which Melissa McCarthy enters the male dominated profession of espionage.
Not only does this film explore a real life female serial killer – which are rare both in life and in film – but its a film for which a beautiful actress was actually asked to gain weight instead of lose it. Charlize Theron portrays Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute who took to killing and robbing her clients – a role for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2004. The film explores a character who tries to turn her life around after forging a close relationship with another woman, but finds herself blocked at every turn because of her lack of privilege and education. In desperation, her situation escalates until she turns to murder and growing ever more hostile. Not only did Charlize Theron and her co-star Christina Ricci turn in phenomenal performances, but director Patty Jenkins (now attached to direct Wonder Woman) had Theron gain thirty pounds for her role and Ricci ten pounds. The practice of gaining and losing insane amounts of weight to fit characters is pretty common among male actors (think Christian Bale in The Machinist vs Batman Begins vs American Hustle), whereas actresses are commonly expected to stay unnaturally fit and thin. But how much sense would Monster make if a woman who looks like the movie star Charlize Theron played the under-privileged, white trash Wuornos?
Borgen (TV Series)
Films and television shows featuring high-ranking female politicians are perhaps slightly more common than some of these others, especially with shows like Veep and the short lived Geena Davis series Commander in Chief on television – but you still don’t see a woman portraying the President of the United States all that often. Borgen (translated as “the state”) is a Danish political drama about a woman’s unexpected rise to the position of Prime Minister and the even more unexpected personal and professional obstacles she has to tackle as a result. The show is wickedly smart, intensely gripping, and often times wryly funny. It weirdly sometimes makes me think of Battlestar Galactica in its levels of dramatic greatness and stylistic sensibilities. And Sidse Babett Knudsen always delivers a transcendent performance as the confident, smart, and sexy Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg.
The Silence of the Lambs
Not only does Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novel – featuring the now iconic Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter – follow the exploits of the female FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling, but the movie is as much about her rush to catch a serial killer as it is about her finding her footing in a male dominated profession. The film is populated by discomfiting shots of characters looking straight into the camera – often men and often as they are looking at Starling – giving the audience a taste of what it’s like to be objectified and underestimated on a daily basis. Wherever Starling goes she finds herself surrounded by men as she determinedly avoids and ignores their persistent gazes. Lecter, of course, knows her struggle better than anyone, giving her a brutally accurate account of her desperate fight to escape her under-privileged upbringing and prove herself in a world of men. In the end, Starling catches the killer and the fickle admiration of the FBI.