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Girls & Women

The Best and Worst Movies for Celebrating Women

@dobrevsense via Twitter

When you need to escape reality, there’s nothing quite like plopping down on a comfy couch and losing yourself in a good movie. But the thing is, someone wrote that movie — a real person — and so the film is also reflective of that person’s beliefs and the world around us. And they don’t always get it right.

Hollywood is notorious for its under-representation and misrepresentation of women, but some films are more guilty of doing this than others. We’ve pulled together the good, the bad, and the ugly — the films that are the kindest and the worst in their portrayal of women.


The Good:

We’ll give you the good news first, here are the movies that would make it into Netflix’s “strong female leads” category.

“Legally Blonde”

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In “Legally Blonde,” Elle Woods is a bubbly sorority girl who totally upholds the “dumb blonde” and boy-crazy stereotype — until she turns around and completely shatters that stereotype. After her boyfriend deems her “not serious enough” and breaks up with her, she decides to follow him to Harvard Law School to win him back. She not only gets in, but rises to the top of her class, and surprises even herself with her capabilities. She simply refuses to be put into any box or adhere to stereotypes. What begins like a typical rom-com, turns the genre on its head, focusing instead on Elle’s evolution and the realization of her potential.

On Netflix and Amazon Video

“She’s the Man”

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So “She’s the Man” may not the greatest movie ever made (Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 43%), despite being based on one of Shakespeare’s greatest works, but the way it challenges gender norms had earned it a place on our list.

Viola Hastings is a skilled and passionate soccer player left without a team after her school cuts the girls team. The coach tells her she can’t join the boys team because “girls aren’t as fast as boys … or as strong. Or as athletic … it’s a scientific fact. Girls can’t beat boys.” But Viola is determined to play and prove him wrong. She disguises herself as her brother and secretly joins the boys team at his school. On the home front, Viola refuses to conform to pressure from her mother to be a more ladylike debutante. Eventually, the complex deceit she’s woven to conceal her identity unravels — but it all works out in her favor. Her new team, and her family, accept her for the great player and person she is. She then joins her new team in defeating the team that turned her down, proving that anything boys can do, girls can do (better) — she’s not the man, she’s the woman!

On Amazon Video

“10 Things I Hate About You”

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“10 Things I Hate About You,” another Shakespeare work given a modern makeover, stars Julia Stiles as the unabashed feminist Katarina Stratford — Stiles herself is also a proud feminist and has written about the part film can play in raising important questions about women’s roles.

“I’m a firm believer in doing something for your own reasons, not someone else’s,” her character says. And that’s pretty much her mantra — Katarina won’t be pressured to change doesn’t care that her outspoken, feminist speeches make her persona non grata at the popular kids’ table and she won’t be pressured to change. She just does things on her own terms.

On Amazon Video

“Mona Lisa Smile”

A photo posted by Hevin (@hevinloves) on

While Julia Stiles is in this one, too, she plays a less overtly feminist role — but still inspires conversation about women’s roles in the home and the world. The film’s main character Katherine Watson, played by Julia Roberts, is a liberal, feminist art professor new to Wellesley College (an all-girls school) in the 1950s. Though the students have mostly come to find a husband and prepare for marriage, Watson challenges the social norms of the era and goes head to head with a traditionalist student (played by Kirsten Dunst). She encourages the young women to form their own opinions, chart their own paths, and aim to be more than just the wife of an Ivy-League man.

On Netflix and Amazon Video

“Erin Brockovich”

A photo posted by Beau (@beaulandia) on

Based on the true story of an unemployed single mother of three, “Erin Brockovich” is a biographical film about a woman who lawyers up when she is the victim of a traffic accident — but ends up taking down a big company that’s poisoning the residents of a small town. When her case is lost, Brockovich insists that her lawyer hire her. She becomes interested in the history behind a seemingly straight-forward property purchase he has her work on, and discovers the Pacific Gas and Electric Company has been covering up a hazardous water contamination problem. Without formal legal training, the strong, capable woman helps to organize a major class action lawsuit and bring the offending company to justice.

On Netflix and Amazon Video

“Gravity”

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In most disaster, sci-fi, and horror films female characters are the first to go — that’s not the case in “Gravity.” A small crew goes on a mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope, but things go awry. There are essentially two characters in this film: Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). SPOILER ALERT: Kowalski floats off into space to meet his certain death pretty early in the film leaving Stone to fend for herself. Though she is an engineer and not an astronaut, Stone overcomes a series of life-threatening challenges and makes her way back to Earth. The only female — the only person — from the crew to survive.

On Amazon Video

“Brave”

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Disney princesses aren’t typically feminist heroes. They generally pine after princes, need to be rescued, get married, and live happily ever after. But “Brave” is the exception. Headstrong Merida rejects the stereotypical “princess” role and the life her parents have planned for her. Though it’s not “ladylike,” she enjoys archery, playing in the woods, and horseback riding. She refuses an arranged marriage, takes her problems into her own hands, and never shies away from the action. Unlike other Disney princesses who refuse arranged marriages in favor of quickly finding their “one true loves” before the film ends, Merida says “she might not ever be ready for [marriage]” — which is a completely understandable thing for 16-year-old, or anyone at any age really. Merida is the truest heroine Disney has had yet.

On Amazon Video


The bad:

The rom-com genre is, perhaps, the most guilty of perpetuating negative female stereotypes. Actress and writer Mindy Kaling explained, “I regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than my regular human world. For me, there is no difference between Ripley from ‘Alien’ and any Katherine Heigl character. They are equally implausible,” in an excerpt of her book featured in the New Yorker.

Still it’s not the only film genre that portrays women negatively and unrealistically, we’ve rounded up some of the movies that paint women poorly across genres.

“Spider-Man”

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We’re talking about the 2002 Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst version. The sole purpose of Kirsten Dunst’s character, Mary Jane Watson, is to be alternately adored and rescued by Spider-Man/Peter Parker. She is the definition of a damsel in distress, who promptly falls in love with a man she knows nothing about, whose face she’s never seen, because he rescued her — also, they shared a romantic upside-down kiss in the rain. Because Mary Jane’s character is never really developed, we also don’t really know why Spider-Man really loves her — presumably, because she is pretty and lives next door.

On Amazon Video

“Pretty Woman”

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This, like the next two films, is an adaptation of “Pygmalion.” Actress Daryl Hannah famously turned down the starring role, which was ultimately assumed by Julia Roberts, calling the movie “a story about a prostitute who becomes a lady by being kept by a rich and powerful man” disguised as a romantic fairytale. And that’s pretty much what it is. Roberts is charming and magnetic and her performance engaging enough to detract from a storyline that is less than favorable toward women — one where a “rough around the edges” prostitute is polished and transformed into a “real lady.” While there are moments when her character, Vivian, shows strength and demands to be treated as an equal, as a whole, the film is not kind to women.

“I think that film is degrading for the whole of womankind,” Hannah said.

On Amazon Video

“My Fair Lady”

It feels blasphemous to include an Audrey Hepburn film on this list, but Henry Higgins, the male protagonist, is misogynistic and pedantic. Higgins is a phonetic scholar who believes he can coach anyone to speak and act well enough to pass for royalty. And he’s determined to prove it. His subject? A Cockney flower seller named Eliza Doolittle. He proceeds to re-make Eliza into a “proper” lady, stopping to sing tunes like “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” And though the ending is somewhat ambiguous, it implies that Eliza has left her fiancé Freddy — a man who loves her, history and all — for Higgins.

On Amazon

“She’s All That”

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This film is yet another “Pygmalion” reboot. Prototypical popular guy Zack gets dumped by his equally popular girlfriend. He insists she’s easily replaceable, so he and his bro sidekicks make a bet — they’ll pick a girl and he’ll transform her into the prom queen within six weeks. Of course, they pick the stereotypical artsy-nerd outcast Laney, figuring she’ll be an impossible subject. Laney gets a makeover and starts to gain popularity and attract attention. In the course of befriending Laney and slowly trying to change her, Zack genuinely develops feelings for her — but she feels betrayed when she finds out about the bet. Zack asks for forgiveness, and even though Laney now knows she was literally a prize to be won, she forgives him. And somehow still feels grateful to be with him. “I feel just like Julia Roberts in ‘Pretty Woman,’ you know, except for the whole hooker thing,” she says.

On Amazon Video

“Little Mermaid”

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Ariel, the little mermaid princess, rescues the human Prince Eric when his boat birthday party is upended by a storm. She brings him safely to shore where she sings to him, but leaves before he awakes so she’s not discovered. In this time, she falls in love with the man she’s never spoken to and he falls in love with a voice. Ariel trades her family, her life, and her voice — a key part of her identity — for legs so she can seek Eric out and make him fall in love with her. To do this, she is advised not to “underestimate the importance of body language.” There are some challenges they have to overcome, but ultimately, they realize their love for one another, get married, and sail off into a rainbow — reinforcing all of the stereotypes. Also, she’s sixteen.

On Amazon Video

“Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”

A photo posted by Costas V. (@costver) on

Despite the fact that the female lead, Elizabeth Swann, shows herself to be an intelligent, independent, and capable young woman early on in the film, the premise of the plot is that she needs to be saved. Literally, the whole storyline is based on a damsel in distress, a girl in need of rescuing.

On Netflix and Amazon Video

Most Woody Allen films

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Woody Allen is a controversial figure both for his personal life and his films. His works can generally be clustered into periods, with several films exploring similar themes. But some characteristics have reached across all the periods of his work and, unfortunately, they tend to be unfair to women. He’s often criticized for featuring May-December romances — in “Manhattan” he himself plays the 42-year-old male lead who dates a 17-year-old schoolgirl. But beyond that, he has a tendency to create one-dimensional supporting female characters that fulfill negative stereotypes of women (see: the narcissistic and materialistic Inez in “Midnight in Paris”).

While many of his female main characters can be easily filed into one of two categories:

The impressionable and somewhat ditzy girl (also known as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl) — eg. Tracy in “Manhattan” and Cecilia in “The Purple Rose of Cairo.”

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The controlling, neurotic, and often cold woman — eg. Jasmine in “Blue Jasmine” and Annie in “Annie Hall.”

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All on Amazon Video


The (Not So) Ugly:

These women's storylines all have their strengths and their weaknesses. They're not the best, but they're certainly not the worst, and give us a lot to think over.

“Grease”

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Initially, I had “Grease” firmly on “the bad” list, because Sandy changes everything about herself to win the boy over in the end. But, digging a little deeper, I realized she didn’t have to change, she chose to. She already had the boy.

It’s been suggested that “Grease” may even be a feminist film that just needs a little historical context. Sandy (or Sandra Dee, as she’s sometimes called in the film) fits perfectly into the 1950s “good teenage girl” mould, from the headband to the pristine white shoes. This was an image that films, parents, and advertising promoted. It can be argued that Sandy’s transformation is actually for herself, after finding the courage to be who she wants to be and not the girl her family expects. On top of that, Frenchy’s storyline is all about her career at a time when women were just expected to keep house.

On Netflix and Amazon Video

“Princess Diaries 1” (and “Princess Diaries 2”)

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In the first film, Mia finds out she’s a princess and is promptly forced to get a makeover. Post-makeover, the popular kids start paying attention to her, but it turns out they’re only using her to get their 15 seconds of fame. In the end, she keeps her new look and tries to adopt a more “princess-like” demeanor, while keeping her old friends. She's a strong teenage girl, but still... her major "win" is that she gets the guy— the one that’s always liked her for who she is — but it’s still mostly about a boy.

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In the sequel, Mia discovers that to actually be the queen, the law requires her to have a king. Most of the film focuses on finding her a suitable match. Just as she and this suitor are about to settle for one another in a lavish wedding ceremony, Mia decides she can’t go through with it — in part because she has feelings for another man, but mostly because she doesn’t want to be married to comply with a law. She insists on ruling without a king, chooses not to get married, and has an outdated law overturned.

On Amazon Video

“Clueless”

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Cher (and her friends) spend most of this film trying to win the attention of a handful of male suitors and the extolling the power of the makeover. Her character seems to be a hybridization of the “dumb blonde” and “valley girl” stereotypes — but we find out all is not as it seems. Cher is actually an intelligent, determined, and strong young woman; those traits are just overshadowed by all the talk of shopping and her somewhat incestuous relationship with her step-brother.

On Netflix and Amazon Video

“Devil Wears Prada”

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Miranda is the powerful editor-in-chief of this film’s version of Vogue — a career woman. So, of course, her family life is in shambles. This movie loses points for supporting the idea that women can’t “have it all.” And for portraying Miranda as a bitch and not a boss.

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The hardworking, driven character Andy, played by Anne Hathaway, helps redeem the film. She puts her career first at the risk of jeopardizing her relationship with her boyfriend, but she sticks with it. She ultimately lands the job she wants, and she and her boyfriend agree to give their relationship a second chance. How it all turns out is unclear, but it’s certainly possible that Andy did manage to “have it all.”

On Amazon Video


Hopefully these hits and misses will serve as a jumping off point for future films and media representations of women to be more diverse and more realistic. Films featuring women in roles that don’t pander to negative and tired stereotypes can help shape the way we see ourselves and the world — in particular, they can help inform the way young girls form ideas about their environment and expectations for their futures.



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