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20 Essential Feminist Films You Need To Watch

06 May 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Jose Gallegos

best femonist movies

There is a common misconception that all feminist films are about butch women who actively hate men and fight for equal rights/abortion laws/equal pay/etc. This one-dimensional stereotype doesn’t do justice to the complex elements that are at work in feminist films.

For instance, feminist filmmakers are not only concerned with content, but they can also challenge the notions of heteronormative coupling, narrative closure, editing, fetishization, objectification, modes of (dis)pleasure, temporality, and spatiality. In experimenting with the form and content of a film, feminist filmmakers are incorporating feminine perspectives into the diegetic film world while also challenging patriarchal film grammar. It is not solely about creating gendered difference, but it is about building a cinematic language that can give pleasure (and displeasure) to a variety of spectators.

This article is not meant to create a definitive list of films you need to see in order to call yourself a feminist. It is an attempt to create a discussion about the films that have been praised for creating new perspectives and new representations of women in film. It is a launching point from which one can explore new female voices.


20. An Unmarried Woman (Dir. Paul Mazursky, 1978)

An Unmarried Woman

Jill Clayburgh is exceptional in her Oscar-nominated role as Erica, a complacent wife and mother who discovers that Martin (Michael Murphy), her husband of 17 years, wants a divorce. The dissolution of Erica’s marriage leads to her newfound independence and an exploration of her untapped sexuality.

Mazursky’s careful direction and nuanced writing explore how far a woman will go to evaluate who she was, who she is, and who she wants to be. Erica evolves from repression to liberation, aided in large part by her group of female friends, her therapist, and her teenage daughter. The film challenges the notion of narrative closure and “happily ever after” by showing Erica rejecting an invitation to live with her artist boyfriend, Saul (Alan Bates). As the two depart and Saul gives Erica a present (an enormous painting), Erica roams the busy streets of New York, facing an unknown future while carrying her enormous present.


19. Passion Fish (Dir. John Sayles, 1992)


Daytime soap actress, May-Alice Culhane (Mary McDonnell), is paralyzed by a freak car accident. Unable to come to terms with her condition and unwilling to change her stubborn ways, May-Alice endures a series of nurses and caregivers who all quit, save for the final caregiver, Chantelle (Alfre Woodard). Though May-Alice and Chantelle deal with their own personal demons, the two aid each other in finding inner strength and overcoming physical limitations.

Anchored by the performances of its two lead actresses, Sayles’ Passion Fish is an examination of the dynamic relationship between two women who rely on one another in order to endure physical and emotional hardships. The film also features a fantastic scene in which a group of daytime actresses discuss their careers, including Nancy Mette’s great monologue on her first film line, “I didn’t ask for the anal probe.”


18. The Color Purple (Dir. Steven Spielberg, 1985)

The Color Purple

A survivor of sexual and physical abuse, Celie (Whoopi Goldberg, in her film debut) writes letters to God and to her sister Nettie (Akosua Busia), chronicling everything that she has to endure. Through all of her hardships and demons, Celie finds her voice and finds the strength to stand up to her oppressive husband.

Based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation (a watered down version of the original, primarily in its handling of the lesbian elements) maintains an important aspect of the novel: strong women. Each actress tackles her role with a great ferocity, especially Whoopi Goldberg whose performance as Celie is the emotional anchor of the film. Each female character transgresses her allotment in life, especially during a time when both women and people of color were considered second-class citizens. Through it all, you identify with these women, relish in their pleasure, and tear up when Celie is finally reunited with her sister, Nettie.


17. Todo sobre mi madre (Dir. Pedro Almodóvar, 1999)

All About My Mother

Manuela (Cecilia Roth) lives in Madrid where she dedicates her life and career to providing for her son, Esteban (Eloy Azorín). When he is pronounced brain dead after a car accident, Manuela makes the difficult decision to donate his organs to patients in need of transplants. Realizing there is nothing left for her in Madrid, she returns to Barcelona in order to find her estranged husband and tell him about the son he never knew.

The second entry of Almodóvar’s unofficial “Brain Dead Trilogy,” Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother) ends with a fitting dedication that succinctly describes its purpose: “To all actresses who have played actresses, to all women who act, to men who act and become women, to all the people who want to be mothers… to my mother.” The film is about the roles women are given in life and the roles that they craft for themselves. It is about a variety of women, from lesbian actresses and pregnant nuns to grieving mothers and transgender prostitutes, who rely on one another for guidance and direction.


16. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 1974)

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn, in her Oscar-winning role) leaves her New Mexican town after her husband is killed in a car accident (I’m starting to notice the role car accidents play in particular feminist films). Pursuing a childhood dream of becoming a singer, Alice and her son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter), head toward California, only to find a surprising detour at Mel’s Diner in Tucson, Arizona.

It is surprising that Scorsese, who established a career built on ultra violence and machismo, was able to craft such a wonderful film about a central female character. Alice meets a variety of women, including the fiercely independent Flo (Diane Ladd) whose “Kiss my grits” has become a part of pop culture. Through it all, Alice never gives up on her dreams, even when her current situation proves too hectic. She still finds something to keep her going, and knows that she has more opportunities than she had in New Mexico.


15. Gloria (Dir. John Cassavetes, 1980)

gloria movie

Cassavetes had a knack for creating powerful representations of women, but none were as staunchly independent as Gloria. Rowlands’ performance as the titular Gloria challenges the conventions of the gangster genre, creating a former mob mistress who is neither passive nor objectified.

Gloria is willing to do whatever it takes to protect Phil (John Adames), the mouthy Puerto Rican boy who is concealing incriminating accounts books that belong to the mob. Along the way, Gloria even manages to tap into her suppressed maternal instincts.


14. Yentl (Dir. Barbra Streisand, 1983)


Yentl (Streisand) is an independent Polish woman whose father, unbeknownst to their neighbors and friends, teaches his daughter about the Talmud. When her father dies, Yentl moves to a different town, disguises herself as a man named Anshel, and continues her studies at a religious school.

To the uninformed, Yentl is just that film in which Babs sings to her dead father. To those who have seen the film, it is a brilliant depiction of a woman challenging patriarchal notions relating to a woman’s place in society and religion. Beyond its campy appeal, Yentl uses musical conventions, such as song interludes, to depict Yentl’s emotional state/sexual exploration. Yentl’s ultimate reveal of her gender is another slap in the face of patriarchal society, providing her with an ultimatum: live as a repressed housewife with the man of her dreams, or hold onto her independence. Yentl chooses her independence, moving to America in order to enjoy more opportunities than her repressed Polish town can offer.


13. Daughters of the Dust (Dir. Julie Dash, 1991)

Daughters of the Dust

Julie Dash endured a long struggle to make Daughters of the Dust, a nuanced portrait of three generations of Gullah women who reunite before moving north. Set in 1902, the unconventional narrative focuses on exploring the variety of women who each add their own voices to the ever-evolving story.

More than a film about race or gender, it is a film that challenges the notion of what stories can be told, how they can be told, and who is telling them. Dash’s long struggle is a shining example of how hard it is, but how fruitful it can be, to highlight these brilliant feminine perspectives.


12. La souriante Madame Beudet (Dir. Germaine Dulac, 1922)

La souriante Madame Beudet

Germaine Dulac’s short follows the titular Madame Beudet who is trapped in a loveless marriage to a practical joker. During the day, Madame Beudet dreams of a better life for herself, and even imagines her husband’s ultimate death.

Many scholars consider La souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet) to be one of the first feminist films, primarily because of its exploration of female desire. It is an experiment of cinematic form and content, examining Madame Beudet’s daydreams through a series of superimpositions and slow motion sequences. It allows the viewer to explore a female perspective, one that is both emotional and transgressive.


11. Orlando (Dir. Sally Potter, 1992)


A chauvinist nobleman named Orlando (Tilda Swinton) inherits a large estate from Queen Elizabeth, who makes Orlando promise to never age. The plot takes a strange turn when, after nearly dying in a fight, Orlando discovers that he has fully transformed into a woman. From the 16th Century to the 1990s, Orlando endures the hardships of being a woman, including becoming a single mother and trying to publish a novel.

Based on Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name, Potter’s provocative film examines the hardships that come along with being a woman. Though the film did not cater to everyone’s tastes, it created an interesting dialogue about dealing with the societal/patriarchal prejudices that come with gender.


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  • Elena

    Is it not a little strange that all of the films in this list were suggested by men (according to the acknowledgements)? I’m not saying that this list is bad (because who ever agrees with the entire contents of a list?) but perhaps a female point of view could be relevant in a discussion of feminist films?

    Also, I appreciate this list, but so many of the films seem to be about women’s sexual awakenings.

    • Jose Salvador Gallegos

      I opened the floor to a lot of my Facebook friends who range from butch lesbians to heterosexual women. The thanks at the end is a list of cinephiles that I know (who are primarily gay men – like myself – and 1 heterosexual male). I also based a majority of this list on the discussions I had with my classical film theory professor, who happens to be one of the heads of the Center for the Study of Women.

      • Elena

        Jose, I didn’t mean to insult you at all, but I’m not sure what you’re saying about being a gay man. Are you suggesting that feminism and queer theory have the same ideas? (Of course, queer theory has finds some of its origins in feminism). I’m afraid it comes across as thought you’re suggesting that gay men are a good substitute for women, and I’m sure that’s not what’s intended. Anyway, thank you for the food for thought.

        • Jose Salvador Gallegos

          Hmmm, just wrote a reply, but it didn’t seem to post.

          Anyway, I didn’t mean for my defense to come off convoluted. I was trying to establish that my perspective wasn’t a dominant heterosexual male perspective (queer perspectives are similar to feminist perspectives in that they are often marginalized, but both are different experiences). I also just wanted to let you know that the list came from a variety of experiences and discussions I have had (past and present) with straight women, lesbians, gay men, straight men, etc. I should have also told you that the shout outs were primarily for some awesome friends who helped me come up with the Recommended List (I created the main list a week ago, then recently created a Facebook post asking for recommended titles – it just happens that the most vocal voices were gay men).

  • disqus_BmMPyu3AaH

    Wondering if you would think adding Foxfire to the list of recommended movies at the end is a good idea…!

    • Jose Salvador Gallegos

      Like I said, this list and the recommended titles aren’t the end all be all. FOXFIRE is a great suggestion.

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  • G V

    blue is the warmest color

  • Subir Ghosh

    A Question of Silence ~ Marleen Gorris

  • Jose Alberto Hermosillo

    I knew, with without even reading the article that you would´t have “Violette” or “Frida.” And don’t even think of “Maria Full of Grace.” “Julia” and “Reaching for the Moon.”

  • Mario Tadzio Thalwitzer

    Valie EXPORT – Die Praxis der Liebe

  • camila

    fried green tomatoes – jon avnet

  • Rejitha

    The other half (by Iranian director Tahmineh Milani), Volver (Pedro Almodovar) could have been included

  • Ari

    Where is Antonia’s Line? It’s probably the best feminist film of all time.

  • P.

    i wanted to say

    A League of Their Own
    but then i found it in the additional list!