Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
Happy International Women’s Day! While at a conference for working women one hundred and two years ago, Clara Zetkin, a German socialist, proposed something radical: a yearly day for women to celebrate their accomplishments while continuing the fight for equal rights. The day kicked off one year later on March 19 (changed to March 8th two years later), and for the last century, International Women’s Day has grown into a global phenomenon. In fact, though it isn’t an official holiday in North America, it is in countries including Afghanistan, China, Russia, and Zambia.
IWD’s website has listed this year’s theme as Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures, which is a rather good topic of discussion when it comes to cinema. As difficult as it is to navigate the seas of adult women in the film world, it’s doubly difficult for girls and young women. Our adult society trickles down to the youth, and since cinema sure as hell doesn’t champion the diverse lives of women (yet!), it definitely doesn’t have much (if any) time to offer inspiring girls.
Unfortunately, with the world at our fingertips, the Internet doesn’t offer much help either. Most lists of young heroines rattle off Disney princesses and R-rated girls who are wonderful, but aren’t exactly in worlds and situations fit for younger eyes. Therefore, to inspire futures and connect girls with excellent, fierce, and multi-faceted young heroines, I offer the following 10 must-see films with great young women who entertain and inspire.
Forget Disney. Forget Pixar. If a kid – boy or girl – is itching for some great, animated fun, they should be steered to Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Hands down. No question. This is a film rich with imagination and wildly creative characters, but more importantly, it’s a great animated family film with a young girl as the hero. This is the story of a real kid stumbling upon a fantasy world and becoming an inspirational hero to save her friends and her parents from deadly fates. She is everything we expect and demand from a hero, presented in a fantastical world that can challenge (and defeat) any animated competitor. It’s the type of film you will watch and then begin to dream what other animated films would have been like in the hands of Studio Ghibli. (Would Sleeping Beauty have been more pro-active? Would Snow White have been a warrior long before Kristen Stewart?)
Akeelah and the Bee
Akeelah and the Bee is, quite purely and completely, a feel-good story about a wildly talented speller from South Los Angeles who defies expectation to head to the National Spelling Bee. It’s one of those great moral-lesson/inspiration films that breaks out of expectation and rules with thoughtful sincerity. Akeelah learns from her teachers, and she teaches them, along with her mother, some pretty valuable lessons. This is the story of a smart student who learns to be confident in herself and succeed, but it’s also about the power of a positive role model on a struggling community, serving as a great reminder about why we need these films in the first place.
Not all cinematic girls are fictional constructs. Arne Johnson and Shane King’s 2007 documentary follows a Rock ‘n’ Roll camp for girls ranging from 8-18. Adorably powerful and talented young girls are interspersed with less adorable on-screen statistics, painting an entertaining yet informative look at the challenges modern young women face. The title is no flippant and pointless header; these girls, who come from diverse backgrounds and creative motivations, quite simply rock. Just look:
If there’s a film that should’ve received more box office love and been introduced to a larger teen population, it’s Whip It. Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut is an excellent mix of sexy toughness and relatable charm because it doesn’t box its female characters into one mold. The soft girl can learn to become the tough, roller derby powerhouse. This isn’t a world of either-or, but of finding the passion that motivates you without letting it consume all of you. It is part sports story, part coming-of-age tale, and part moral lesson wrapped into a green, roller-derby package.
Whether you care about whales and Maori tribes or not, it is impossible not to be inspired by Keisha Castle-Hughes’ Paikea in Whale Rider. This is a young woman dealt a challenging life from her first moments – both her mother and twin brother, future chief and descendent of the Whale Rider, die during childbirth. For Pai’s grandfather, she is the constant reminder of the tribe’s struggle to survive in a modern world, a sweet girl who can’t continue the patrilineal line. Though he can’t fathom the idea of Pai as chief, and hunts for a male option, the young girl does everything she can to honor the whale call she feels within and learn the customs he isn’t willing to teach her. It’s the story of a hero proving their worth, and this hero is a heroine.
Additional choice: Castle-Hughes has a much different role in the quirky private school comedy, Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger.
Admittedly, I have a complex relationship with Andrew Fleming and Emma Roberts’ detective, having grown up on both the old-school hardcovers and ‘80s Nancy Drew Files. There’s a large part of me still wishing for the firm, fierce, and serious Nancy simply solving a shocking crime with the help of Bess, George, and Ned. Nevertheless, the 2007 film is endearingly quirky and offers more positive messages than one would expect. Not only is Nancy still an incredibly smart and skilled detective with a myriad of tricks up her sleeve, but she is also a poster child for originality. She’s unapologetic for her retro ways; derision rolls off her back because she’s utterly confident in who she is, and won’t subdue her brains, style, or personality to fit in.
Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical novel is an inspirational and downright lovely tale of perseverance. Marji is a well-rounded and flawed character who shows a believable mixture of fallible and heroic moments. Her love of popular culture (Bruce Lee, heavy metal music) make her instantly relatable, while her struggle in Iran during the ‘70s and ‘80s provides an easy-to-access window into a world largely unknown to us. The film is a prime example of how relatable experiences in even the most unfathomable of circumstances can be if done right, and it provides a deep and inspiring passion for rising above and succeeding in spite of life’s difficulties.
There are many wonderful things about Coraline. She’s an inquisitive, front-and-center heroine. Her quest to the button-eyed world is all her own; she’s not the supporting character to round out the hero’s journey, or the fleeting magic to kick off another narrative (oh, Ellie). She’s spunky, opinionated, and she feels real. But what always makes me smile about Coraline is that she’s got guts I could only dream of. She’s the girl who might not like scampering centipedes, but will scowl at them and immediately obliterate each one with a quick, bare-handed slap. She’s the everyday young hero.
Bend it Like Beckham
It’s hard not to get sucked into Bend it Like Beckham. It’s one of the most mainstream and accessible “alternative” films out there, merging a slew of teen experiences into one feature. There are ridiculous laughs (Jules’ mother thinking her daughter has become a lesbian) and heartfelt drama (Parminder being caught between familial and teen obligations); the girls are sports stars and friends (Bechdel alert!), who gossip and like boys, but in amounts that pale in comparison to their larger, deeper storylines. The film offers equal parts reality and cinematic luck, but for all the convenience and perfect destiny that falls into Parminder’s lap, she still thrives as a relatable and inspiring heroine.
My lone cheat, I’m not including Pathogen for its young heroine, Dannie. This film is more worthy because it was made by Emily Hagins when she was 14 years old, as detailed by Zombie Girl: The Movie. Kids can have a little infectious fun, and then learn all about the young woman who defied expectations to make it – plus two more features as a teen director. As easy as it is to get access to high-tech equipment and programs in this day and age, there are few who make use of it to this extreme – writing, planning, and making a feature film. Perhaps if even a few girls are inspired by her feat, we can expect an influx of new and diverse voices in the coming years.