2010 was not what you’d call a banner year for women in the real world. Gossip rags and TV offer ever more ways for everyone to look bad, but women in particular get a special place in our celebrity-obsessed hearts. The famous-by-marriage Real Housewives of Wherever are releasing their own wines, tee shirt lines, and diet plans. The “stars” of “Teen Mom,” most of whose sole claim to fame is their deplorable immaturity and lack of successful birth control, end up on glossy tabloid covers every week. The Learning Channel airs “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” while MTV plays “Bad Girls Club” and other dreck about women fighting for the affections of Bret Michaels and Flava Flav. Note: narrative television (“Mad Men,” “Big Love,” etc) had a lot of strong, complex female characters to offer in 2010, but that’s for another blog.
Meanwhile, over here in the real world things aren’t much better: battles over reproductive rights and the redefinition of rape are front page news. The right is set on barring federal funding from one of America’s most important women’s health organizations, Planned Parenthood.
Basically women’s bodies and behavior are, as always, available for scrutiny and hand-wringing. But 2010’s film releases, which feature a cadre of resolute, opinionated, loving, and intelligent ladies, offer a comparative breath of fresh air for women in front of the camera. In 2010 movies, True Grit‘s Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) adds the real balls to a film ostensibly about men, while Blue Valentine‘s Cindy (Michelle Williams) is deeply flawed and sexually conflicted. The Fighter and Winter’s Bone spotlight women who’ll do anything to protect their families. Helena Bonham Carter has wriggled her eccentric way back into the Academy’s heart with her turn as loving, determined Elizabeth in The King’s Speech. Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give offers female protagonists who aren’t necessarily likable but are certainly relatable.
Easy A and Salt give us smart, sexy main characters. All in all, the movies worth watching in 2010 have offered strong, complicated female characters. Last year’s major movies also offer a thrilling number of women on the receiving end of sexual pleasure–subject matter at which studio films often balk.
Oscar contenders Black Swan and The Kids Are All Right depicted eminently pleasurable lady-on-lady oral sex, while Blue Valentine featured a male character going down on his girlfriend, much to her apparent satisfation. Those of us who paid attention probably noticed with chagrin that the MPAA originally rated Blue Valentine NC-17.
Ryan Gosling (Dean in the film) popped out of the woodwork to despair the latent misogyny behind such a decision. Two women getting it on is super sexy, see? But a man who focuses on a woman’s enjoyment is immasculated. This comes on the heels of the MPAA’s decision to add a male nudity clause to the rating system–because female nudity is a given, but the average American male moviegoer gets icked out by naked guys. An NC-17 rating is a death-knell for a major film–I’ve only seen one in the theater (Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny, which is pretty porny when it’s not horrifically boring) , and had to travel two hours to find a little place willing to screen it.
Luckily the MPAA repealed the NC-17 and Blue Valentine got all the play it deserves. It’s not an easy movie to watch, but it lends depth to the complex, sexually charged demise of a promising relationship–and to its flawed main female character.
On top of the various depictions of female pleasure, this year’s Oscar nominations are brimming with strong female characters and wonderful actresses. In Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree Dolly follows her meth-addled extended family down a violent, ugly rabbit hole to protect her loved ones. Lawrence’s gorgeous performance in a brutal, heartwrenching role has made the 20-year-old Kentuckian a sudden Hollywood darling, and rightly so.
In The Fighter, Melissa Leo’s Alice loves her sons so much it aches to watch her watch them fail. Amy Adams’s Charlene is yet another strong, fiercely independent woman. As much as The Fighter is about a pair of boxer brothers, it’s about the women who keep them going.
Then there’s True Grit‘s Mattie Ross, played by Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld, who kicked our collective moviegoing ass when she appeared onscreen. Not only does Mattie hold her own in a movie dominated by tough male characters, but fourteen-year-old Steinfeld whips out a performance that will surprise and thrill you.
Black Swan is a brilliantly-made (though perhaps overwrought) movie about performing femininity and a Mother/whore complex. Aronofsky’s last big film, The Wrestler, is duly about an athlete struggling with mental issues and sexuality, but of course that movie starred Mickey Rourke and his ravaged face and massive muscles. Black Swan‘s performance of femininity and batty main character (Oscar nominee Natalie Portman) are a perfect counterpart to The Wrestler‘s emphasis on the hypermasculinity of the titular sport.
I’ve already written about Kick Ass and my affinity for Hit-Girl. The character is problematic for some critics, but damned if she doesn’t do most of the ass-kicking in a movie about a failed (male) superhero. Chloe Grace Moretz also pulled a frightening turn as child-vampire Abby in Let Me In–this girl is one to watch.
2011 seems to offer some great roles for younger actresses: Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, The Lovely Bones), another young actress whose performances are consistently mindbogglingly good, will shortly return to theaters as another scary-strong youngster in Hanna. Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch looks like it might fetishize violence and hardcore women, but hey, we’ll take badass ladies in (almost) any form we can get.
Don’t get me wrong; 2010’s films are also full of wonderful actors and dynamic male characters. Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth are fantastic in The King’s Speech. Christian Bale’s drugged-out Dicky Eklund in The Fighter is yet another great role for the chameleon of an actor. I wrote an article refuting The Social Network‘s supposed misogyny–that movie made sexism look horrid (as well it should), and Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield did a fantastic job.
2010 was, in general, not a terribly good year for movies. We’re in the midst of the Twilight deal (featuring one of the weakest, most obnoxious female characters ever to grace the page and screen); we were cursed by Sex and the City 2; we got to watch Pepper Potts shriek like a schoolgirl and totter around in heels throughout Iron Man 2 (though Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow gave us a little more to like); The Killer Inside Me (a gruesome, affecting movie) featured a little of the old ultraviolence against women. Dudes didn’t have it all that easy either (thanks to Grown Ups, Little Fockers, and Jackass 3D).
The 83rd Academy Awards are on Sunday. After Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Director win last year, I was hoping to see more love for ladies behind the camera (Holofcener, Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik). But alas, I’ll settle for a year whose award-nominated films feature complex, intelligent, sex-positive (or sexually guilt-ridden as a knowing plot device) women. Women’s rights aren’t doing so well in the real world, but in 2010’s major film releases, we get the chance to identify with and fall in love with some grand women, young and old, strong and weak, crazy and tough. And that’s the way we like it.