Friday, April 29, 2011

Modern Foxes: A Guide to Women and Adventure in Film

What does a girl have to do to get some adventure around here? No, seriously - I'm not talking about Terry McMillan novels or adventure fantasy junk that describes in detail the texture of a fairy's iridescent wings. I'm talking about Tama Janowitz adventure, or Sylvie Simmons adventure. Adventure where women are tough, sarcastic, and have a humorous free spirit that finds them in an elite pad on the Upper East Side one minute and then on an expedition in Egypt the next and then maybe learning how to sculpt in Southern California the next. I'm not talking about your typical, corny "girl power" story that either shows us how oppressed we are and that...sniff, sniff...we CAN survive it or YEAH (!!!), we're BADASS and we can use just as many guns as the next guy, all while wearing a short skirt.

Octavia Butler, Anne Rice and Joyce Carole Oates have crafted excellent stories, but not all my students get their culture from reading. Furthermore, there is a darkness to their writing, a sense of complete suffering, which is vital to the work. I appreciate that women have suffered, but I also appreciate that we have a great time. Why not celebrate that more? It's missing from the conversation. It's like when the Wayans' brothers made this film in order to criticize the stereotype that all African American people are miserable in the 'hood - we need to make fun of the Lifetime network stereotype of women suffering for two hours then feeling empowered for two minutes already.

In that vein, I have created a comprehensive, but not all-encompassing, list of films that have inspired my female imagination and sparked my desire for more and more and evermore adventure. I had a few requirements when choosing what would go on the list: 1) the film can't just be about getting the guy; 2) the film has to show women thriving in some way, even if they are totally not perfect; 3) the main character has to be powerful in a fresh way (i.e., she can't just be a chick with a gun - can we say "fetish"?); 4) there has to be adventure!

The list is in chronological order and I have not included documentaries; if you think anything is missing, post a comment!


Auntie Mame was based on a novel by the same name. Our main character has many adventures while raising her nephew in a wacky, bohemian way.

DARLING (1965)

Julie Christie plays a woman who does whatever she wants...and makes it all the way to a palace doing it. However, it is not a Cinderella story because the palace - and the prince - are boring.


Shirley MacLaine stars, Chita Rivera is featured, and the women shine and believe in love, despite others around them who are not as strong.


Riff Randall is the embodiment of adventure - she lives for it!


Two teenage girls, who have both been deemed crazy, btw, hold a concert in Times Square. One of them is a tough street chick and the other is the daughter of NYC's mayor! Class rules broken!

FOXES (1980)

Jodie Foster, and Marie Curie of the Runaways, star as fearless teens who try to negotiate growing up in corrupt L.A.


The adventures of a true, English, punk rock queen.


Diane Lane stars as a young girl who heads a band and gets thousands of people to follow her lead.


Ann Carlyle plays with gender roles and looks amazing doing it.


Okay, technically, the main character isn't female, but there are definitely girls doing their own thing here and they aren't wimpy or afraid of abandoned buildings, etc. Furthermore, a woman - Penelope Spheris - directed the film.


Miriam, played by Catherine Deneuve, is the oldest person on the planet, the mother of civilization, an imperialist beeatch. She meets her match in Susan Sarandon's Sarah, an innovative researcher. Current vampire films don't compare to this one, imho.


An Almodovar film where nuns do some very peculiar and wild things. It could be said that most of his films feature badass women who are on adventures, but this one seems to be the least related to boyfriends or births, so I thought I'd share the rare film. I guarantee it will become one of your faves.


Rock and roll debauchery in a silly, silly film.


Rosanna Arquette is adorable, Aidian Quinn is quirky, and Madonna is Madonna. The outfits and locations make an adventure out of 80s New York and New Jersey - love it! If you rent the DVD, look at the alternative ending, where the women leave their men sitting at home while they explore Egypt.


Three roommates, no money, no car, and it's the weekend. Step in geek and the adventure begins! Ex.: One of the roommates has a chance at running off with a famous musician - but she chooses her own life!


Melanie Griffith stars as Audrey/Lulu, a woman who is hot, smart and could care less about convention. Jeff Daniels is funny as her cute puppy and Ray Liotta is amazing as her psychotic husband.


When I first saw this I loved it because it showed a big girl with a hot boyfriend, something which I had never seen on-screen. It also showed girls willing to stand up against racism, defending interracial romance, and kids, in general, being fun and smart at the same time. Totally liberating without that "oh poor us" syndrome. But I love all John Waters films. A DIRTY SHAME is especially empowering and hilarious, too.


Great dark comedy with Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, but more importantly, she doesn't choose to be with a guy at the end. Pretty girls can be smart, too? Wow, what a concept.


Helen Slater and Melanie Mayron - who were later cast in much blander films and TV - are classical musicians trying to make the rent. Again, great outfits and locations, but most importantly, the resolution really has nothing to do with getting the guy - in fact it's quite the opposite.


Parker Posey in one of her great indies where a party girl re-evaluates her life and re-invents herself.


The sweet artists who you thought were dumb in high school actually got skills - and they are more fun than you. Work can be fun - who knew?


I think all Gregg Araki films have strong women in them but this one is notable because it turns marriage and childbirth on its head. Technically, it is NOT about getting the guy but about getting TWO guys. Completely unconventional but definitely adventurous - and hilarious. A newer film, HAVANA EVA, explores this concept, too - it won an award at San Anto's Cinefestival this year. I should also mention Araki's NOWHERE, which stars Rachel True as a girl who does only what pleases her; I have mixed feelings about it because the character is somewhat unsympathetic, but True is amazing in the role - very nuanced - and I wish there were more roles like this for Black women.


Suburban girls navigate identity while at rummage sales and in art classes. I do have to mention that I'm creeped out by the older guy relationship, but the complexity of Thora Birch's Enid overrides that.


Ironic/funny look at L.A. artists with a very strong female lead. The guy from T.V. on the Radio is in it, too, as a filmmaker - and the analysis is scathing! So much fun to watch!


A teacher who has a sex life (!), has a nightlife, has friends, wears cool clothes, and is completely moral and sweet and hopeful, even around negative people. I'd say she's the new Sweet Charity - and my hero!

WHIP IT (2009)

Girls supporting each other without getting all annoyingly corny - I'm there! I think this is much better than Drew's other "girly" projects.

I hope you find the list useful. Like I implied earlier, I'd like to see more novels with the spirit found in these films, but these will do for now. Oh, and I should mention that I found lots of "girl power film" lists online, but too many of them had stuff like THELMA AND LOUISE, where the chicks end up committing suicide (!) at the end, or SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS, which makes me want to regurgitate my dinner, or films that were just too victim-centered.

And that's the worst part of it, isn't it? That is, to constantly portray women as having to get out of a victim situation instead of happily sweating out a challenging, exciting situation, in the end, perpetuates our concept of ourselves as victims. These films, with all their flaws, show me how women/girls can have fun with challenges and I am certain that imagery has contributed to my own success.

Now, go ahead, all you writers out there, start writing more stories that show women for who they are: adventurers. I'll be waiting...or actually, no, I'll probably be busy with my next adventure...maybe a trip to a new place...or finally editing that play...or maybe...