Call it a pink wave if you must. But there’s no denying that a bunch of feminist-leaning movies are vying for Hollywood’s biggest trophies this awards season.
From animated superhero mom Elastigirl, leaving her husband and kids behind to fight crime in “Incredibles 2,” to a flame-haired Saoirse Ronan leading troops into battle in “Mary Queen of Scots,” a gender-bending Rachel Weisz in “The Favourite” and a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg finding her legal voice in “On the Basis of Sex,” female characters are assuming traditionally male roles on the big screen while contemporary counterparts battle for parity in Hollywood and beyond under the Time’s Up movement.
Even Nicole Kidman’s hollow-eyed detective flips the script on Hollywood gender norms in “Destroyer,” which unravels her troubled past and violent actions rather than those of yet another complicated man.
Although the underlying feminist politics in these movies — intentional or not — seem entirely of the moment, their concurrent arrival owes more to the vagaries of movie production than the galvanizing forces of #MeToo or Donald Trump. They gestated between eight to 20 years.
“I think in particular my film is very much a rallying cry,” says “On the Basis of Sex” director Mimi Leder, whose film centers on Ginsburg’s fight to overturn gender-based discrimination during the 1970s, when it was deeply encoded in our nation’s laws. “A lot has changed, but we still have a long way to go. Even the #MeToo movement right now is still in its infancy, I would say.”
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Leder, a groundbreaking female director who won a rare Emmy for directing a drama series in the 1990s before switching to films and circling back again, was attracted to the story, written by the Supreme Court justice’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman, on a personal and professional level. “I don’t ever compare myself to her accomplishments, but in different worlds we have had similar things happen to us. I had to find my confidence, and find my strength, and continue to fight for what I believe in and the things I wanted to do with my life,” Leder says.
Her movie’s Ginsburg, played by Felicity Jones, is outwardly conventional — married, with children — but determined to practice law at a time when doors were closed to women, and ultimately helps outlaw such discriminatory practices. “The film is about a real human being and I responded to that story,” Leder says.
Josie Rourke, another trailblazer in her own right, felt a similar attraction to “Mary Queen of Scots,” about the power tussle between two female claimants to England’s crown. “I’ve spent a big part of my life really considering in a practical way what it is to offer leadership and what the costs and balance of that is,” says Rourke, the first female artistic director of a major London theater (the Donmar Warehouse).
She directed her first movie with vigor, charting the diverging romantic and political paths of Ronan’s Mary Stuart and Margot Robbie’s Queen Elizabeth, each surrounded by men who question their right to rule: Mary repeatedly marries and has a child, while Elizabeth avoids those entanglements.
Pressed why, Robbie’s Elizabeth declares: “I choose to be a man — and marriage is dangerous.” Left unstated: Her mother Anne Boleyn’s brutal fate after she fell out of favor with serial groom King Henry VIII.
“What we have in this movie are two bright young women who are at a point as women of deciding what they most want to do with their bodies, with their romantic lives, with marriage, with children, but at the same time they are politicians,” Rourke says. Given the prevailing rules of succession, it’s impossible “to not have every romantic, sexual act or gesture also be a political one.”
Yet for all their differences, the two cousins shared a sense of sisterhood as “two women trying to be queens at a point at which many people thought it was against God and nature for a woman to be a monarch,” Rourke says. “They challenged each other’s claims to the throne of England, but at the same time they were each the only person who could ever understand what it’s like to be them.”
“The Favourite” is even more daring and gender-fluid than “Mary Queen of Scots.” Yorgos Lanthimos’ twisty tale revolves around power struggles among Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), who arrives at court in reduced circumstances but manipulates her way into favor.
Weisz leans into her character’s gender-bending role, swaggering around in leather boots and a tri-cornered hat at one moment and swanning about in a beautiful gown in another. “Historically, she was a very dominant and domineering character,” says producer Ceci Dempsey, who co-produced with Ed Guiney and Lanthimos, and first became involved with the project in 1998. “She ran the country, really.”
Married to a leading general, Lady Sarah leverages her intimate relationship with the queen to call the shots politically until Stone’s Abigail, who employs more traditional feminine wiles on both genders, enters the picture.
The three characters “all feed off each other, they exist in this triangle that’s constantly rotating,” says Dempsey. “Their energy seems to come from themselves as well as each other.”
Brad Bird, for his part, got the idea for the role reversal at the heart of “Incredibles 2” while promoting the first “Incredibles” movie in 2004, but it took him a while to work out the proper villain for the story. In the first “Incredibles,” husband Bob escapes a soul-crushing job to flex his languishing superhero muscles, but in the sequel, Helen (aka Elastigirl) is the one donning her Spandex again — and reveling in it. “Finally, the superheroes are starting to become legal again, and frustratingly for Bob, the first assignment goes to his wife, who isn’t really pining for it the way he is,” Bird says. “I just thought it would be a great situation and it would be good to see that part of Helen get fed, and to show she’s just as competitive as she steps into that role as Bob is.”
After all, Bird says, the first movie makes it clear from the start that Helen loved being a superhero; she just sublimated that side of herself as a mom. Then when she’s called into action, Bob is the one that stays at home with the kids.
In another gender flip, a woman is the big villain in the sequel. That, Bird says, was the result of story tinkering rather than grand design: He toyed around with various possibilities before creating the roles of Evelyn Deavor and Screenslaver. Evelyn’s prominent role in turn paved the way for a tete-a-tete between her and Helen. “That’s the kind of scene you don’t normally see in animated films,” Bird says. “There are just two women talking about their particular viewpoints.”
Karyn Kusama, meanwhile, was attracted to the complexity of Erin Bell, the wreck of a detective played by Kidman in “Destroyer,” a script collaborators and co-producers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi developed over the course of a decade. Every bit as layered as some of the tortured male cops on the big and small screen, the character is also pissed off — and capable of violence.
“I see her as animated by this somewhat toxic brew of fury and shame, and the shame is mostly directed inward and a lot of the fury she directs outward,” Kusama says. “And fury is something I identify with, particularly now. There are moments when, walking in this world, particularly as a woman, I just feel like breaking stuff. I feel like throwing plates against the wall.
“There was something about this character who had the quality of always living in that space, and there was something to me kind of fascinating about it because there’s a part of me that’s always trying to keep that woman at bay within myself.”
Over the course of the movie, Kidman’s Erin begins to take responsibility for her past failings, something Kusama says men and women both must do for a more humane society. “I just feel like there’s something bracing about studying a woman’s life so intently for two hours,” Kusama says. “That is not an opportunity we get very frequently in the movies.”
But that could be changing, as this year’s cluster of femme-powered movies suggest. Feminists have taken issue with some elements of these stories: Did Ginsburg really have to hesitate in her court room scene to heighten dramatic tension? Ginsburg herself has said that she did not stumble. And “Mary Queen of Scots” has been criticized as too woke with its frank sexuality and color-blind casting.
Overall, however, filmmakers are heartened by the strong cluster of movies with women beyond traditional roles. Certainly “Incredibles 2” did not suffer financially for its role-reversal storyline, ringing up $1.24 billion worldwide, nearly double the original. And “The Favourite,” “Mary Queen of Scots” and “On the Basis of Sex” each made healthy debuts on the specialty circuit late last year.
Filmmakers hope these strong showings will help convince backers that there is indeed a market for movies led by fully realized female characters in a variety of interesting roles beyond the traditional helpmate or woman behind the man, typified by Amy Adams’ Lynne Cheney in “Vice” and Glenn Close’s writer in “The Wife” this awards season. Kusama, for one, is heartened by the fact that the financing for “Destroyer” came together more quickly than usual for one of her projects.
“I’m hoping this isn’t just a trend that just comes and goes, but is the new normal,” Kusama says of this year’s female-powered films. “To me, there’s absolutely no reason that we should ever feel like there’s not that much interesting representation of women on the big or small screen. That should just be business as usual that there are tons of interesting characters.”
“Maybe the market’s waking up to the fact people want to see these movies,” says Dempsey, who over the course of the long gestation for “The Favourite” fended off suggestions it focus on Lady Sarah and her husband rather than the female triangle at the heart of the film. “To me, the ultimate would be that in the very near future, no one ever really remarks on the fact there are three female main characters in a film. That’s sort of the dream, that it becomes sort of normal, and I think maybe this year is a great push toward that.”
Rourke argues that the goal shouldn’t be making movies about strong powerful women per se, but female characters that are allowed to be complicated and vulnerable, just as male heroes are.
“What I’m interested in is seeing all aspects of women’s experiences,” says Rourke. “If we’re in a moment that’s important for the truth of women, what we need to do is tell the whole story of women, and not necessarily leaning into the idea that a strong woman is what we need to be.”
She’s encouraged by the increase in female-centric storytelling on the big screen. “Aren’t there so many aspects of women’s lives that we’re not used to seeing portrayed on the screen? We just need to open the door a bit wider, don’t we? And then other people’s stories can come through,” she says. “I feel it’s starting to happen.”
Leder’s experience filming “On the Basis of Sex” as the Harvey Weinstein allegations broke made her more convinced than ever about the need for gender parity — and films about women like Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“I think these films are a reflection of our society and a reflection of what’s in the climate now, what’s in the air,” Leder says. “Why are these films being made now? Now’s the time.”