Feminist Films by Caroline Kline


My semester is nearly over, my papers will be done in a couple of weeks, and my Netflix account has been sorely underused for the last four months. It’s time for me to find some good feminist movies to watch during the holiday break.

Some of my favorite feminist films deal overtly with gender roles and pushing up against patriarchal norms.

  • Whale Rider, about a 12 year old girl who is destined to be the leader of her people, blew me away when I saw it.
  • Iron Jawed Angels, about Alice Paul’s fight to win suffrage in the early 20th century, is a movie every woman should see before election season.
  • Brides of Christ. Ok, this might be an unusual choice, since it is a 1990’s New Zealand miniseries about Catholic nuns during the Vatican II era. But the issues it dealt with — divorce, female leadership and communities, birth control, faith and progressive values, etc. resonated strongly with me.

These are films that have stayed with me, ones I want to watch over and over again because they speak to something in my feminist heart. But I also enjoy movies that might not be as overtly feminist, but that do feature strong women and strong female friendships. When I read about the Bechdel Test, first popularized in Alison Bechdel’s comic Dykes to Watch Out For I thought this was an interesting basic (very basic) standard for the feminist movie goer. It’s a simple test. A movie passes if it

1) has at least two women in it

2) who talk to each other

3) about something besides a man

It’s shocking to see how many movies don’t pass. The Pixar classic Finding Nemo barely passes — it only squeaks by because Flo asks Peach about a patient’s root canal during an ensemble scene. Even lots of women centered movies don’t pass because their conversations center around men.

Please share your favorite feminist films, and other films you’ve loved that pass the Bechdel test. What are the ones that have stayed with you over the years? 

A Mormon feminist, Caroline is completing her coursework for her Ph.D. in religion with a focus on women’s studies in religion.  Her areas of interest revolve around the intersections of Mormon and feminist theology and the study of contemporary Mormon feminist communities. She is the co-founder of the Mormon feminist blog, The Exponent,



Categories: Feminism

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13 replies

  1. Hi Caroline! I love your post. I was not aware of the Bechdel Test and now I really need to think about which movies would pass.

    I LOVE the Whale Rider and Iron Jawed Angels – both at the very top of my list of favorite films ever. I haven’t seen Brides of Christ yet, but I’m hoping that will change soon.

    Two films I would like to mention are 1. Terms of Endearment – the mother/daughter relationship is so complicated and beautiful; and 2. In Her Shoes – a very complicated relationship between sisters that I think so many women can relate to. If you haven’t seen them, add them to your Netflix account. I think you would appreciate them both.

    Thanks for this wonderful post. I am going to be thinking about this all day now! :)

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  2. Great post! I love anything based on a Jane Austen novel, especially Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility because they involve lower-middle class women navigating a world in which a woman’s security and future prospects are entirely tied to marriage. Mulan is an amazing Disney feminist hero. I also love Legally Blonde, which starts off as being about winning the guy and turns into a sorority girl embracing her intellectual side (without abandoning her love of pink!).

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  3. ‘A Question of Silence”— Danish I think came out in the late 80s and is probably the most powerful
    feminist film ever made. It centers around three women-strangers, who see each other in a clothing shop, one of the women is humiliated by the shop manager, and the women kill him, and get away with the crime. It is women’s rebellion and I just love it! Complex.

    “The Bechdel Test” is amazing, and it really reveals how women’s conversations with each other are erased in almost every heteronormative malestream film ever made.

    Loads of great lesbian films– short films — An epic lesbian film of the 90s “Joan of Mongolia” is fantastic. “Julia” with Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda, probably the best love story about two heroic women… Lillian Hellan and her friend Julia… set in NAZI era. I love films about boldly intellectual women with no children in them, and where the entire story revolves around the heroism of the women.

    “Iron Jawed Angels” is great, but falls short with the dopey and historically inaccurate hetero love story. Alice Paul would never have done that IRL. If they cut that, it would be A plus.

    “Itty Btty Titty Committee” is a lesbian film about women who spray paint feminist slogans on woman demeaning billboards. Very realistic lesbian characters too!

    Lesbian film makers are everywhere now, and the good films just keep on coming.

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  4. Oh, and I forgot “The Turning Point” with Shirley McLaine and Anne Bacroft 1978 passes the Bechdel Test — “The Brave One” Jodi Foster tracks down her fiance’s murderers and guns them all down! Jodi Foster is a lesbian in real life, so I particularly love the women fght back genres, and wish they’d make more films where women break down doors, shoot rapists, gun down pedofile priests,wipe out the rapist football teams… hey I want t women to wage war back, and truely defend ourselves on film for once!

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  5. I think this is a great idea. I wonder Caroline if there would be a way to make this a special site within the site where anyone who wanted to could make film recommendations. For example you could move this whole blog with responses and title it “Feminist Film Recommendations” and put it on the taglines somewhere before contact. I am out of the loop on new film recommendations over here in Lesbos, so I would love this.

    Erin Bronkovich
    The Karen Silkwood Story
    North Country

    and for tv:

    Judging Amy

    Daughters of the Dust is rec. by Karen Baker-Fletcher

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  6. I recommend the movie Agora with Rachel Weisz. As for television shows, my guilty pleasure is Bones. Intelligent and strong female lead is the central figure. Her science has made her an atheist and she is partnered with a catholic FBI agent. It is an interesting interaction, but the older episodes are more raw and less trendy.

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  7. just started brides of christ which is an australian miniseries available on downloading sites. the image of the postulants in whilte satin wedding dresses marrying chirst is a-mazing.

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  8. Thanks for all these great recommendations!

    Gina, I’ve been meaning to see Terms of Endearment forever. I’ve got to get that in my queue.

    Lisa G, I myself have a real weakness for Jane Austen films. I thought Mansfield Park — the one that came out in the 90’s sometime I believe, was a rather feminist take on the novel. And Persuasion is just my all time favorite.

    Turtle Woman, thanks for all those great recommendations! I’m looking forward to watching some of those. And I agree that the love story in Iron Jawed Angels is unnecessary, but I forgive them that misstep because other scenes are so powerful.

    Carol, I’ve seen two of the movies you mentioned (which were great) but I never saw the Karen Silkwood story. I will look for that. By the way, since you live in Greece and intimately know mythology, I recommend A Dream of Passion, which is an update of the Medea myth. Very powerful. And great idea about having a special tab for all these recs. We should really look into doing that. I hope Brides of Christ resonates with you in some way. For me it was wonderful to see this mini-series take questions of women, religion, faith, and authority seriously, though I think you kind of have to like BBC masterpiece theater type productions to get into it.

    Michelle, I had never even heard of Agora. Thanks for the rec! And I’ve heard good things about Bones, though I haven’t watched it yet.

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  9. Over the weekend I watched Pope Joan and Cave of Forgotten Dreams about the paleolithic caves. Pope Joan is not history, though it may have been; Cave of Forgotten Dreams is not explicitly feminist, though it could have been: a good companion piece to it is G. Rachel Levy’s Religious Conceptions of the Stone Age (book). Watching the paintings of the animals flicker in the lights in the cave, I was reminded of Levy’s statement that paleolithic people wanted to participate in the “magnificentl life of the beasts.” The point that was not made in the film is that the cave itself was probably understood as the womb of all life. One fab set of paintings were situated above a “hole” in the cave wall through which water flows after the rain. The comment was made that the paintings must have been put there on purpose, but with no speculation that the purpose was because this “hole” could have symbolized the birth canal and the water, the waters of birth.

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  10. The classic Alison Bechel passing film is Julia, the film with Jane Fonda and Venessa Redgrave. It is all about the “relationship” between two brilliant passionate strong women. Their primary conversation is intellectual- about art and political commitment. Lillian is the famous playwright Lillian Hellman; and the friend Julia is a heiress who dedicates her life to economic justice and fights facism in Europe during WW II.

    The men in the film are a side presence. With Lillie, it is a man who challenges her as an artist and intellectual but takes a backseat to the main theme of film which is the relationship between the two women. Julia’s “man” the father of her baby is only mentioned in one sentence.

    A great scene- when the Nazi’s enter a medical school and begin to randomly throwing men over the balcony to their death, Julia, a student, picks up a wooden stick, and with a group of Nazis charges at the hoodlums. This causes her to be savagely beaten, and she looses a leg. When she talks about her missing leg, she laments that as a cripple she is too visible and not as effective as a resistance fighter. She does not lament that being a one legged woman makes her less atractive to the opposite sex. Moreover, when the Nazi’s begin to brutalize others, she doesn’t wait for a man to come to the rescue. She takes matter into her own hands. She takes a big stick and starts busting some Nazi heads, and saving people’s lives. I could go on and on…

    This film is underrated, and needs to be recognized as a feminist classic.

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Trackbacks

  1. Feminist Music By Gina Messina-Dysert « Feminism and Religion
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