A Plea for Better Movies

In a December piece in The New York Times, Nikita Richardson ( a Times staffer) says that The Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies was for millennial women what Star Wars was for an earlier generation.  She cites the gentle scenes between characters — not just Aragorn and Arwen, but between Sam and Frodo as well as other male characters — and notes that she and her sister and her friends rewatched it countless times.

I gather  she means that both series were a touch point for those who were teenagers when they first saw them. Both series were compelling, so this makes sense.

I was older than that even for Star Wars, and in truth my love of the first three of those movies had a lot to do with them being well-made space opera with incredible special effects at a time when the movies didn’t do that.

My fondness for the Lord of the Rings movies had more to do with my love of the books, which dates back to my college years. (I re-read the entire trilogy every semester during law school finals. I am not exaggerating. It kept me sane.)

Plus I’m a fantasy and SF writer and reader and remember all too well when those things didn’t get noticed beyond the cons. So it makes me happy to see them shared far and wide.

But on the whole, her essay broke my heart, because if teenage girls fixated on Lord of the Rings — a story in which there are only three women of any note among a multitude of men — it is one more reminder of how utterly our popular culture has continued to fail women.

The same can be said of Star Wars, up until the last three movies — I ignore the middle three that supposedly take place before the original movie because they were so unwatchable I don’t even know what the gender issues were. Leia is pretty much all you’ve got in the first three.

Science fiction and fantasy books have done a better job. As someone who found my way into the SF/F world because I stumbled onto some of the great feminist writers in the genre in the 1970s, I tend to define the genre in terms of the work of Joanna Russ and Ursula K. Le Guin, among many others.

But movies? The closest thing to a feminist movie I can remember from the 1970s was Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (which was made by Martin Scorcese, giving you some idea of how feminist is actually was). But even if the movie makers of the 1970s missed second wave feminism entirely (I know there must be something but nothing comes to mind), you’d think that by now they’d be doing better.

But as far as I can tell, as someone who hasn’t been to a movie theater in a couple of years (three guesses as to why) and hasn’t done a great job of keeping up on the streamed versions, either, we’re still not getting anything like the quantity of feminist movies we should be seeing. And the ones that have some feminist elements are not the best of movies.

People praised Wonder Woman as if it were feminist as opposed to something that barely passes the Bechdel test once you leave the Amazon homeland. I was incredibly disappointed in that movie.

Captain Marvel had some excellent feminist moments, from a strong response to gaslighting to the friendship between two major female characters. I didn’t find the story as compelling as I might have, though.

Mad Max: Fury Road was a boring movie – I am bored out of my mind by car chases – but it did have a strong feminist side during the 15 minutes of the movie that told the story.

The last Terminator movie expanded the female bad ass quotient beyond Sarah Connor, but otherwise it was mostly a special effects movie.

I loved The Old Guard and it was great seeing bad ass women in there figuring out how to do things together. If I’d seen that in the 1970s it would have moved me greatly in a feminist way because I was hungry for women bad asses back then. But these days I want something more.

The only truly feminist movie I have seen in the last few years was the 2019 remake of the slasher film Black Christmas. It was brilliant, but it came and went without much notice, which is possibly why the movies I really want to see don’t get made.

None of these movies has caught the popular imagination in the way that Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings did, so it makes sense that women who saw those movies at a formative age would have been drawn in.

Young women are still having to find their feminism in the cracks, particularly (but not exclusively) when it comes to movies That’s one of the things we were so angry about back in the day of second wave feminism, but it continued to happen with each of the generations that came after and it’s still happening today.

That’s what breaks my heart, that we’re still having to find ourselves and our truth in the cracks.

The stories exist to make some awesome movies. Please, someone, start making them.

4 thoughts on “A Plea for Better Movies

    1. That’s the movie made from the Ted Chiang story, right? Yes, I did, and I liked it very much.

      I suspect there are many good movies I’ve missed. I just want more stories that teenage girls can identify with without having to find themselves in between the lines.

        1. I think I got sidetracked by my personal frustration with the lack of really feminist movies. It just made me so sad that teenage girls are still having to find the stories they love in the margins of very male stories.

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