Closing the Cannes International Film Festival, jury member Jessica Chastain took a minute to comment, not specifically on the movies themselves, but on a trend she'd felt was linking them all together: their representation of female characters. Addressing the crowd at the Festival's final conference, she admitted she felt unsettled by the type of women she'd seen depicted in this year's selection, calling for more powerful and diverse female characters in film:
"I do believe that if you have female storytelling you also have more authentic female characters. This is the first time I've watched 20 films in 10 days, and I love movies. And the one thing I really took away from this experience is how the world views women from the female characters that I saw represented. It was quite disturbing to me, to be honest."
Having herself recently launched Freckle Films, a production company run by women focused on developing opportunities for women in film, she explained how she felt we needed more female storytellers, as they'd be the ones truly able to translate female points of view to the big screen:
"I do hope that when we include more female storytellers, we will have more of the women that I recognize in my day-to-day life. Ones that are proactive, have their own agencies, don't just react to the men around them. They have their own point of view."
A few days before, on the red carpet of the Los Angeles premiere of Wonder Woman, director Patty Jenkins addressed the same issue, albeit from the other end of the problem. To her, adapting more stories featuring compelling women will make it increasingly necessary to hire female writers and directors. It's a chicken and egg scenario, but they're both making a crucial point.
Speaking to a reporter from Variety, she said:
"I think more diverse stories will cause you to hire more diverse writers, will cause you to hire more diverse directors. And obviously, the audience is there."
By now, it feels like we've identified the problem clearly enough, and outlined what we should be doing — in theory. But what is actually happening in Hollywood? Rather than list once again the number of overly sexualized female characters, missed opportunities for fully fledged storylines and lack of female directors (as The Wrap reports, "of the 149 movies currently slated for a wide release from the six legacy studios over the next three years, only 12 have female directors"), let's try to take a more uplifting approach and look at the projects that are making a positive change.
What's the recipe for better female characters? I could say, "just give them as many responsibilities as 99% of the male characters in film," but that would take us straight back to Bitter Town. Still, it is (or should be) rather simple: A female character should have a reason for existing in the movie other than completing another character's arc, which means she's got her own actions to carry out and her own dialogue to speak. Now put that action at the forefront of the movie and you've got a Strong Female Character(TM)!
Looking at recent and upcoming releases, there's a number of projects to get excited for. At this year's Oscars, Amy Adams's character in Arrival set the tone: Louise, a renowned linguist, is brought in to help solve an alien invasion crisis, and the cruciality of her presence as the lone, but capable woman among men speaks volumes.
20th Century Women (January 20, 2017)
Starring Annette Bening, Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women is a delightful dive into the early days of feminism, centering around a single mother and her strong, yet struggling desire to understand and bring up her son in the California of the late '70s. For lack of a present father, she's surrounded by plenty of women with each their own idea of what it means to be one — and what that involves for a teenage boy.
The Zookeeper's Wife (April 7, 2017)
With Jessica Chastain in the introduction, it'd be foolish to not include her latest movie, The Zookeeper's Wife. As the title implies, it's based on the true story of a woman woking at a zoo — more specifically, the Warsaw zoo during the Second World War, where Mr. and Mrs. Zabinski use their zookeeper roles as cover to save hundreds of people from the Nazis. The film was also directed by a woman, Niki Caro.
Their Finest (April 7, 2017)
Their Finest is both a war movie and a story of sexism in the workplace, with Gemma Arterton starring as Catrin Cole, a young secretary recruited to write scripts for British propaganda movies during World War II. Her talent leads her to embrace better, more ambitious projects, but her gender and the war raging around her will put her to the test. Based on a book by a woman, Lissa Evans, Their Finest was also written and directed by women, Gaby Chiappe and Lone Scherfig (whom you might know as the excellent director of An Education).
Everything, Everything (May 19, 2017)
The wonderfully talented Amandla Stenberg, who started out as young, heartbreaking Rue in The Hunger Games, is leading this story of a recluse teenager avoiding the outside world because of an overly fragile immune system, whose life is turned upside down when she meets her neighbor. Though the YA novel adaptation genre might not be for everyone, it's worth noting Everything, Everything was directed by a black woman and stars a black teen in the leading role.
Wonder Woman (June 2, 2017)
As far as female representation in film goes, there's no movie more powerful and symbolic this year than Wonder Woman, the DC tentpole that is shattering many a glass ceiling for blockbusters, superhero movies and the film industry as a whole. The first female superhero to get a live-action adaptation on the big screen, Wonder Woman also distinguishes herself by heroic aspirations based on love, far from the cynical and disillusioned caped dudes that abound in her world.
Rough Night (June 16, 2017)
Representation of women in silly comedies is just as important as the more arthouse takes on feminism from the likes of 20th Century Women. Written and directed by Lucia Aniello, Rough Night takes on the Hangover-style party movie with a star-studded cast, from Scarlett Johansson to Broad City's Ilana Glazer. It's a simple premise of a bachelorette party gone wrong, but the amount of talent involved (did I mention Kate McKinnon and Zoë Kravitz were also on board?) will hopefully make it a summer staple.
The Beguiled (June 30, 2017)
With The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola is the second female director to ever win Best Director at the Cannes International Film Festival. Starring Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning, it reimagines the 1971 movie of the same name led by Clint Eastwood. This time, Eastwood is replaced by Colin Farrell, as a Union soldier taken in by a group of young women during the Civil War and certainly never imagined that his battle injury would soon be the least of his worries.
Battle of the Sexes (September 22, 2017)
In 1973, former tennis champion Bobby Riggs, overcome with misogyny and the fear of irrelevance, challenged Billie Jean King to a match that became the most watched sports event on television. Obviously the match was about much more than just tennis, with King defending the revolutionary ideal that female athletes could be just as good as men. That Emma Stone and Steve Carell are playing the pair is (almost) a guarantee of a riveting adaptation.
A Wrinkle In Time (March 9, 2018)
Before she moves on to her stunning project with Rihanna and Lupita Nyong'o — and following in the footsteps of her Oscar-nominated documentary 13TH —, Ava DuVernay is directing A Wrinkle In Time, a fantasy Disney movie based on the novel by Madeleine L'Engle about a girl going on a quest into space to find her father, accompanied by her brother and her friend. Not only are Chris Pine and Reese Witherspoon attached, but the script was written by Jennifer Lee, who's behind Frozen and Zootopia.
Mulan (November 2, 2018)
We still only know little about Disney's live-action adaptation of Mulan, but as the one who redefined the notion of a Disney princess by disguising herself as a man and jumping in on the battlefield, Mulan deserves a spot on this list. On top of her undeniable qualities as a hero, the movie will be directed by Niki Caro, who's also behind The Zookeeper's Wife. Now that we've got more women helming blockbusters, the only question that remains is whether the live-action Mulan will include the songs from the original.
Share your own recommendation of movies restoring gender equality in Hollywood below!