It is no secret that women are still underrepresented in cinema – whether they work behind or in front of the camera. They are also, as the Independent’s alternative all-female list of nominees for the 2019 Academy Awards shows, under-recognised during awards season.
The latest data from the BBC shows that fewer than half of the 89 films named best picture at the Oscars since 1929 have even passed the measure of on-screen female representation known as the Bechdel Test. For a film to pass the Bechdel test, it must satisfy three criteria: 1) does it have at least two named female characters? 2) Do they have a conversation with each other? 3) Is that conversation about something other than a man?
This only needs to happen once to count as a pass, so it’s even more astonishing that so few films manage it. There are 8,052 movies in the Bechdel Test database, a user-generated archive, of which 4,640 (57.6%) meet the three criteria, 817 (10.1%) meet two of them and 1,781 (22.1%) meet one. Another 814 (10.1%) meet none of the criteria at all. Again, that’s just one single conversation between just two women that is not about a man.
The Bechdel test has been a good catalyst for talking about women’s representation in film. But it is a rough-and-ready measure that doesn’t analyse the quality of the representation of the women or allow for an intersectional perspective on women’s representation, which would consider how gender intersects with race, class, sexuality, religion or ability.
So this is a list that highlights the work of women behind the camera, but that also pays attention to the quality of representation of the women projected onto the screen. It includes a variety of genres, from historical drama to contemporary comedy, but all were written, directed or produced by women and have a sustained focus on women and their lives.
The second-wave feminist movement in North America and Western Europe opened the path for a new generation of female writers and directors in cinema. The first ground-breaking film on the list is Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970).
Loden wrote, directed and starred in this independent film about a woman’s existential crisis in the coal region of eastern Pennsylvania. The film was remarkable at the time for its in-depth focus on the experiences of a single woman. It won the Pasinetti Award for best foreign film at the 31st Venice International Film Festival.
In the early 1980s, Nora Ephron, one of the figureheads of women in contemporary film, co-wrote the screenplay for Silkwood (1983).
The drama is based on the real life of Karen Silkwood, a whistle-blower and union activist, who died in a car crash while investigating dangerous practices at the plutonium plant in Oklahoma where she worked. The film is notable for its two female leads, Silkwood, played by Meryl Streep, and her best friend, Dolly Pelliker, played by Cher, who won best supporting actress for her role at the Golden Globes in 1984.
Daughters of the Dust (1991)
The Fool and his money (1912), thought to be the first film comprising only African-American actors, was directed by a woman, Alice Guy-Blaché (1873-1968), the first female filmmaker on record. Then, 79 years later, Julie Dash became the first African-American woman to write, direct and produce a major independent film distributed theatrically in the US. Daughters of the Dust (1991) is set in the year 1902.
With beautiful cinematography and innovative narrative structure, it tells the story of three generations of Gullah women from the Peazant family on Saint Helena Island off South Carolina as they prepare to leave the island and start a new life on the mainland.
The Piano (1983)
New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion makes the list for her lyrical masterpiece The Piano, which she wrote and directed. Again, the film focuses on the lives of its two central female protagonists, the mute piano player Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) and her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin), who are sent to live with New Zealand pioneer (Sam Neil).
Key to Campion’s portrayal of the erotic relationship between McGrath and Baines (Harvey Keitel) is that male, as well as female, nudity is shown. This is important because a recent report reveals that female nudity is three times as likely in Hollywood films as male nudity. Campion is the second of only five women ever nominated for the Academy Award for best director (Kathryn Bigelow is the only female director to have won) and is the first female filmmaker in history to receive the Palme d'Or (for The Piano).
I Like it Like That (1994)
Darnell Martin became the first African-American woman to write and direct a film at a major studio.
The film, the comedy-drama I Like it Like That, tells the story of a young Puerto Rican woman struggling to survive in the poverty of New York’s South Bronx neighbourhood.
Marie Antoinette (2006)
As a multi-award winning director, writer and producer, Sophia Coppola has created some of the most compelling cinematic portrayals of young female characters in our time.
In The Virgin Suicides (1999), Lost in Translation (2003) and Marie Antoinette (2006), Coppola provides aesthetically innovative and lusciously filmed depictions of lonely young women who, according to American film critic Roger Ebert, are “surrounded by a world that knows how to use them but not how to value and understand them”.
Written by Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig, this film boasts a predominantly female cast of comic actors at the very top of their game.
At its heart, it is a film about friendship between women, but it is also a key piece of cinematic evidence in the continuing, if redundant, debate about whether women can be funny.
The first woman to shoot a Saudi Arabian feature film, writer-director Haifaa Al Mansour, earned multiple accolades for the bittersweet tale of a ten-year-old who, in conservative Riyadh, enters a Qur'an-reading competition to raise the funds to buy a bike.
What these films have in common is their unflinching focus on the choices women are able to make in societies still dominated by patriarchal structures. Some critically examine the fates of those who suffer under the status quo, but others show us ways to challenge it and make choices differently. Here’s to these trailblazers of cinema!