Female Protagonists in Screenplay Contenders Show Strength Despite the Odds

Herself Nomadland Variety Writers Preview
Herself: Courtesy of Amazon Studios; Nomadland: Joshua James Richards/20th Century Studios

There’s a pivotal scene in Phyllida Lloyd’s keenly observed domestic abuse drama “Herself” in which Sandra, a battered single mother of two little girls, is pitted opposite a judge in a Dublin courtroom. Sandra — played by Irish actor Clare Dunne, who also co-wrote the film — has only recently managed to escape Gary, her abusive husband, within inches of her life. Thwarted by a broken public housing system, Sandra has embarked on a mission to build a home from the ground up —to protect herself and her children. Now Gary is suing for custody, and Sandra is in court defending her right to safeguard her daughters, the younger of whom witnessed their father assaulting Sandra, crushing her hand underfoot, the cold snap of ligaments echoing around the kitchen, blood gushing forth from a gash on her face.

“Was there a reason you didn’t leave sooner?” asks the judge.

It’s a maddening question, one that further exposes society’s collective reluctance to believe a woman when she reports domestic abuse.

Minutes later, after a brief respite during which Sandra is comforted by a close family friend (Harriet Walter), Sandra returns to the courtroom — galvanized, mobilized and determined.

“Ask better questions,” Sandra tells the judge.

This moment serves not only as a catalyst for Sandra refusing to stay silent, but as a reminder that, far too often, women are forced to fight even harder for social justice than their male counterparts. Even when the judge — as in this case — is a woman.

But despite the economic and societal obstacles, Sandra rises to the challenge. And it’s this gumption that defines Sandra not as a victim — but a survivor.

“From women, especially those who have gone through anything similar to this, it has been ‘thank God you finally showed the ones who pull through and begin again,’” says Dunne. “Or, ‘thank God you showed what a mother really is.’ ”

From “Herself” to “Nomadland” and even to “Borat,” tough, tireless female survivors abound in this year’s crop of screenplay contenders. And while that’s not necessarily an anomaly, appreciating said characters through the current framework of the world’s crises — global pandemic, political turmoil, the ceaseless erosion of financial stability — writs them even more inspiring, more relatable, more commanding in their presence.

These female protagonists are stronger than ever, more driven than ever and can achieve anything, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

“I think we are all tired of seeing the archetypal ‘battered woman’ shown as a victim, and this has been a refreshing look at that character,” says Dunne. “[Sandra] wasn’t a victim when she was with her partner, and she was not a victim after. She was a mother, a survivor, in some ways a soldier, trying desperately to time her exit safely after years of being worn down. After that, she became the provider, the decider and the unrealized hero of her own existence.”

In “Nomadland,” Chloé Zhao paints a nuanced and expressive portrait of a woman forging ahead in the face of devastating loss. Fern (played by Frances McDormand) is heroic in her own right, a widow who has lost everything in the 2008 financial collapse — her job, her home. “I’m houseless,” is how Fern describes her predicament. But Fern is resilient, backed by grit and fortitude. So she sets out solo in her old, wrecked van — a plastic bucket serving as a portable toilet — to join a makeshift collective of modern-day nomads while charting her course across the American West.

But what the film does so well, and what makes Fern such a remarkable, admirable character, is that she never once seeks pity. She is a woman of her own design, daring enough to shape her own destiny. Fern may be not have a home, but she possesses a bounty of insight and courage. She is smart, fearless. Fern is a woman who recites Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” by heart.

“To research the book, I immersed myself in the daily lives of the people I wrote about, spending weeks in a tent, then months in a van,” says Jessica Bruder, who penned the nonfiction book, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” from which the film is adapted.

“Experience is a great teacher,” Bruder continues. “I went from knowing very little about nomads to marveling at the creativity, resilience and generosity I’d encountered on the road, often from people who’d faced tremendous challenges in their lives.”

But even when those challenges are not life-threatening, when the stakes are not as high as they are for women like Fern, there is still wisdom to be gained.

In Sofia Coppola’s “On the Rocks,” Laura (Rashida Jones) is an author, a mother and wife. She has money, a fancy New York City apartment, a sunny, bright writing office of the sort plastered across the pages of Architectural Digest. But when Laura suspects her husband of being unfaithful, she begins to question everything, not just her marriage, but her place in the world. Laura’s entire self-worth crumbles into shards of glass. And while her privilege feels out of reach — here comes her rich, playboy father (Bill Murray) to whisk her off to Mexico — there remains something identifiable about a woman who feels pressured to be everything all at once, from children’s at-home tutor, to de facto short-order cook, to plucky, devoted wife. Watching it all unfold as the earth slowly burns — figuratively and literally — around us, it makes the depth of Laura’s existential crisis even more striking.

“I started this script years ago when my kids were little and [I] was struggling with how to work and be creative,” says Coppola. “I used to stay up all night writing, and with kids I now had to get up early and write under time restrictions. I also think it’s a moment for identity crisis: who am I as a woman now pushing a stroller? Male artists can get lost in their work and moods, where mothers can’t vanish completely into their work.

“I think it does have a real effect right now because of what we’re living through,” Coppola continues. “Yes, I can see that — that the demands on women both being mothers and doing their jobs well is so exaggerated right now. There is such pressure to do it all, and do it well, and it’s hard to give ourselves a break and remind ourselves that we don’t have to do everything.”

And that pressure to be perfect manifests itself in women long before marriage and kids come into focus. In writer-director Emma Seligman’s “Shiva Baby,” Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is a college student who becomes a sugar baby not only as a source of income, but also female empowerment. It’s when Danielle realizes “this power is limited,” notes Seligman, that she is forced to contend with its subsequent fallout and carve out a different path.

“So often women feel powerless,” adds Seligman. “I wanted to put someone in a situation wherein the only source of power in her life is disappearing right before her eyes.”

But with pressure, there is also growth — and, ultimately, renewal. And while there are myriad women protagonists in films borne within the framework of struggle and fragility, they are role models for what resolve and tenacity can make possible. After all, America just elected its first female, Black vice president in Sen. Kamala Harris.

That has to signal a turn.

“There are people around that can help you, but you have to take the first brave step,” says Dunne. “I feel like we can look at Sandra and her new tribe and say ‘Well, they didn’t know how to do any of this at the beginning, but day by day and timber frame by timber frame, they built something they’d never built before.’ I hope people see that we all have the potential to be the phoenix from the ashes, individually and globally. That life is cyclical and we can — we will — go on.”