To be a woman in a movie is usually to be someone’s girlfriend, wife, or mother. If you’re single, you’re probably in a romantic comedy en route to marriage, or you’re in an ensemble comedy, lamenting the fact of your singleness. If you have a job, you’re likely a journalist or an assistant, but if you happen to be the boss, it’s at the expense of your personal life, which you secretly prize more than anything else. You’re probably straight, and you’re probably white. You’re probably quite thin with great skin and a large wardrobe. Your living space is probably very clean and well decorated. You’re probably smiling. Or laughing. If you’re crying, you look really beautiful while the tears stream down your face, and men fall in love with you.
Three movies I saw this year broke free of this mold: Certain Women, 20th Century Women, and Hidden Figures. Their titles could almost be interchangeable. They featured women whose characters, motivations, and desires were not defined by their personal relationships to men, but I can’t say I was aware of that while I was watching. It wasn’t until I stepped away from the films that I realized how radical their characterization was. While I was watching them, I simply reveled in seeing women that I genuinely admired and recognized from life.
Certain Women almost had a different title. Director Kelly Reichardt originally planned to call it Livingston, after the Montana town where it was filmed. While I can see the merits of that title, especially for a film that looks closely at daily life, the small choices and compromises that the characters make are so specific to the female experience that the title Certain Women strikes me as just about perfect. The film, adapted from short stories by Maile Meloy, is structured like a miniature short story collection, and contains three short films about three different women living in present-day Montana. Ancillary characters vaguely link the women, but what really links them is a sense of restlessness. These women have jobs, autonomy, and a certain amount of authority, but they don’t move through the world as freely as they would like. They are reserved because they have to be, in order to get what they want. But that same reserve also leaves them lonely.
The screening I attended to was followed by a surprise Q&A with one of the film’s stars, Michelle Williams. In her conversation, she mentioned that Reichardt had insisted on a cinematography that did not include any “beauty shots” of the spectacular Montana landscape — no gorgeous “big sky country” sunsets, no framing of perfect views. Instead, she wanted the dramatic landscape to exist as it did for her characters; something they lived with and enjoyed, but which did not symbolize freedom, adventure, or conquest. This gave the film a quiet, lingering beauty and a kind of defiance in its unwillingness to engage with or evoke Hollywood’s usual myths about the American West.
In 20th Century Women, Annette Bening embodies quiet defiance in the character of Dorothea Fielding. A child of the depression, Dorothea marries late and has her first (and only) child, a boy, at age 40. The marriage doesn’t last and so she raises her son, Jamie, on her own. This puts her out of step with her generation. She doesn’t quite fit in anywhere, but she tries. She buys an old house in Santa Barbara and restores it. She takes in younger, more radical boarders: an earnest, new-age mechanic (Billy Crudup), and Abbie, a 20-something photographer recovering from cervical cancer (Greta Gerwig). The film takes place in 1979, when Jamie is 15, and smack dab in his awkward teenage years. Dorothea listens to his records, Talking Heads and Black Flag, in an effort to understand him. Feeling at a loss, she enlists two younger women to help Jamie grow up and become a man. (Or is it to help her let him go?) One of the women is her housemate, Abbie, and the other is her son’s unrequited crush (Elle Fanning). Both women end up providing Jamie with a sentimental education that Dorothea doesn’t necessarily welcome and/or entirely disparage.
Every once in a while, a character in a movie reminds me so completely of my mother that I feel like I’m dreaming it. Dorothea is in her mid-50s, which is how old my mother was, the last time I saw her. She doesn’t really look like my mother, but her wardrobe reminds me of my mother’s, especially in the way she mixes comfortable shoes and pants with conservative blouses and jewelry. Dorothea’s demeanor also reminded me of my mother — a mixture of idealism and impatience, curiosity and constraint, delight and disappointment. It’s all tempered by a reserved deadpan that the other characters in the film sometimes mistake for humorlessness. Jamie apologizes for her, saying, “she’s a child of the Depression.” It’s his way of acknowledging that she was born too early to reap the benefits of women’s liberation. But the younger characters were born too early, too, and the film seems to understand that for women, freedom is always hard-won.
Which brings me to Hidden Figures, a film that tells the true story of the black women who helped to put Neil Armstrong on the moon, based on a book of the same title, by Margot Lee Shetterly. (And recently highlighted by my colleague, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, in her Year in Reading.) If it’s unusual to find a movie dominated by female characters, it’s downright rare to see film with black women in lead roles, not to mention a mainstream Hollywood film. And Hidden Figures is definitely a crowd-pleasing movie, with a lot of Hollywood moments, including Kevin Costner demolishing segregated bathrooms with a sledgehammer — a scene that was fabricated to show a white male character being a good guy. But the overwhelming message of this film, to borrow from a sign I saw at the Women’s March, was: Can you believe these women have to put up with this shit? In Hidden Figures, you meet three undeniably gifted people who also happen to be black women. One, Katherine Johnson, is a genius. The other two women, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, are mathematicians who do computations for NASA. They have a lot to offer to the space program, but they are given jobs at NASA only because the powers that be are so desperate to win the race to the moon that they are willing to ignore gender and race when seeking candidates. Even so, the “colored computers” are forced to work in separate offices, use separate bathrooms, lunch in separate cafeterias, and drink from separate coffee carafes. They also receive separate, smaller paychecks.
It’s a blatantly sexist and racist situation, and there are a lot of show-stopping scenes to highlight that. Like when Mary (Janelle Monáe) petitions the court to attend night classes at an all-white school so that she can become an engineer. Or when Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) solves a crazy-long equation on a chalkboard to illustrate a new approach to a problem that has stumped her white male colleagues. Or when Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) earns a promotion by showing her white male bosses how to program the new, room-sized computer they’ve recently installed. I enjoyed these moments, but it was the smaller scenes of female solidarity that won me over. There’s the time when Katherine stays late and the other two wait for her to drive her home; the time when Mary is feeling down because she worries she’ll never be allowed to become an engineer and her friends throw an impromptu dance party to cheer her up; and then there’s the opening scene — which you can see in at least one of the film’s trailers — in which Dorothy fixes her broken-down car while the other two women deflect a nosy police officer. Finally, I loved the romance that blooms between Katherine and a veteran she meets at her church. Katherine is a widow with two small daughters. She lives with her mother and is not looking for love. But then the perfect man comes into her life and proposes marriage. It’s an utterly conventional subplot, but progressive in this scenario because Katherine is not asked to choose between her work and her personal life. She’s allowed to have both and is not conflicted by this dual identity.
Hidden Figures has exceeded expectations at the box office. It outsold Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on its opening weekend, a film that also features a female lead. It’s a sign of progress that two recent, popular films star women, but it’s worth noting that even when women are the lead characters in film, they speak only slightly more than the male characters and receive less screen time. When women are not the lead, or when they co-lead with a male character, they are seen and heard even less. These findings are according to studies undertaken by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Davis founded the institute to fight unconscious gender bias, specifically in films targeted to children and families. She works with film executives to create stories that are more balanced between male and female characters. Her prescription is simple: put women on screen more often and allow them to speak. That’s it. The female characters don’t have to be role models or hold positions of power. Roles don’t even need to be created specifically for women — more often than not, women can be cast in parts written for men. The point is for girls and women to be seen and heard on screen as often as boys and men are. It’s not a lot to ask and yet every time I see a movie in which female characters are allowed even half of the narrative, it feels like a small miracle.