Un-feisty women on film

They aren’t ‘strong’ or ‘fierce’, but these ten women are complex, interesting and human

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To celebrate the new Girls Rule issue, Dazed is running a month-long online series of girl-centric interviews, thinkpieces and features. This week, we kick off the theme with exclusive head-to-head interviews with some of our favourite females – beginning with Girls creator Lena Dunham and YA author Judy Blume. Keep checking our Girls Rule page for more content all month.

Sick of seeing yet another Strong Female Character on screen that we should all aspire to? These athletic, one-dimensional male fantasies (see: Lara Croft, Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Megan Fox in Transformers) are presented as a feminist alternative to simpering damsels in distress. But, in real life, most women are neither of these two extremes. Being human beings, women are varied, multifaceted and flawed. You know, like men. Thankfully, Lena Dunham’s Girls is back with a third season full of irritating and over-privileged – but realistic – screw-ups. Dunham’s characters aren’t constrained by “any standard of sweet female decency”, and not one of them could be described as “feisty”. We celebrate ten female characters who have multi-layered personalities, but who would totally lose in a fight.

NATALIE PORTMAN IN BLACK SWAN (2010)

Prim prima ballerina Nina Sayers has just the right mix of innocence and neurosis in this psychosexual ballet horror film. When she is given the lead role in Swan Lake, Nina has to unleash her dark side if she wants to be “perfect”. She succeeds, in abundance. The overbearing mother played by Barbara Hershey is also fantastic. Portman prominently raised the issue of ‘strong’ female characters in an interview last year. “The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a ‘feminist’ story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho,” she said.

CATHERINE DENEUVE IN REPULSION (1965)

Not content with being one of the most beautiful women in the world, Deneuve has also had a talent for choosing interesting and innovative roles throughout her career. In this Polanski melange of horror, sex and alienation, she plays Carol, a young woman who one day retreats from the outside world and increasingly into herself. The reason for this is never explained: it just happens. What follows is a surreal succession of hallucinations and death, yet there is a distinct lack of emotion. Two years later, in Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour, Deneuve played another memorable role as Séverine Serizy, a frigid housewife who fantasises about sex with repulsive men, and finds her libido when she decides to become a prostitute.

CAREY MULLIGAN AN EDUCATION (2009)

Based on Lynn Barber at 16, Jenny Mellor is seduced by an older man, immediately making her the coolest girl in class. She smokes cigarettes like a pro, disregards all advice from adults, and has fantastic hair. Mulligan’s vulnerability in the role is pure magic, but it’s her biting intelligence and humour that make her memorable (after a disappointing first sexual experience, she muses “All that poetry and all those songs, about something that lasts no time at all?”). She’s also terrific in muted dystopian chiller Never Let Me Go.

ALLISON WILLIAMS IN GIRLS (2012-)

Hannah Horvath may be the voice of her generation (“or at least voice of a generation”), but the more buttoned-up character of Marnie is underrated. Marnie’s struggles to reassess her identity, overcome heartbreak, and figure out a future are genuinely touching, and her fights with Hannah are deliciously toxic. She’s indecisive, makes bad sexual decisions, and embodies a believable mix of over-confidence and insecurity. And her mother is hilariously awful (“You look – can I be honest? – 30 years old,” “Sometimes all you need is a pair of rough hands on your body”). Other female characters that portray quarter-life crises well are Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation and the implausibly adorable Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha.

FRANÇOISE FABIAN IN MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S (1969)

Sexy, sad, intelligent Maud basically embodies French cinema’s nouvelle vague. The third in Éric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales series, Ma nuit chez Maud follows two Gauloises-smoking intellectuals as they are entertained, teased, tempted, and accidentally set against each other by sophisticated divorcée Maud. There is something mysteriously tragic about her, she holds long conversations with them about religion, Pascal and maths, and wraps herself in a white fur rug, yet retains an air of vulnerability throughout. Naturellement, they are helpless at her feet, as is the audience.  

TILDA SWINTON IN WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2011)

We all know that Tilda Swinton is basically the "Best Thing Ever", but her performance in this Lionel Shriver adaptation is exceptional, even for her. She plays Eva Khatchadourian, the mother of a teenage boy who goes on a Columbine-style massacre. We first see Eva daydreaming about crowdsurfing at the Tomatina festival in Spain, and that’s the last time we see her smile in the film. The action cuts between Eva's past, raising a child she secretly hates and who detests her in return, and her present, when she stoically accepts the scorn of the town in the aftermath of the bloodbath. The film also offers a much-needed de-romanticisation of the notion of motherhood.

JULIE DELPY IN THE BEFORE TRILOGY (1995-2013)

Delpy’s character Celine is neurotic, vulnerable, paranoid, erratic and unpredictable. She’s also intelligent, artistic, funny, romantic, and a real, tangible person. Just look at all those adjectives. The ‘feminist icons’ of Sex and the City were only defined by one simple and unchanging characteristic: fashion-victim, prude, nympho, cynic. Conversely, Celine’s personality changes throughout the trilogy, although she always remains recognisably herself. In Before Sunrise we meet a badly-dressed, idealistic 23-year-old; nine years later she’s a conscientious but troubled woman; in Before Midnight we find her as an over-worked, irritable mother who’s desperately unhappy and confused. Together with Ethan Hawke’s character Jesse, Celine’s anecdotes and observations make these largely plot-less, dialogue-based films utterly enthralling.

JESSICA CHASTAIN IN THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)

‘Good’ characters are often dismissed as ‘weak’, but this woman is so wonderful she’s almost a saint. She is kind, meek, and protective of her children – characteristics that are often seen as schmaltzy and un-feminist. It’s not a showy role: for most of the film she almost fades into the background, ineffectually attempting to rein in her abusive husband's worst excesses. But in one scene that shows Terrence Malick at his most transcendent, she is so ethereal she literally floats.

ELIZABETH OLSEN IN MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (2011)

This is a role so complex and uncanny it will leave you creeped out for weeks, and Olsen pulls it off with charisma and sinister poise. Olsen Junior (sister of the twins) plays the titular character, whose name changes throughout the film as she goes through different stages of indoctrination. At first, it looks as if she has managed to escape a cult-like commune in the Catskill Mountains, seeking refuge at her wealthy, conformist sister’s place and attempting to readjust to the real world. From there on in, the film descends into a maelstrom of drama and paranoia. After a performance like this, we’ll even forgive Olsen her Manic Pixie Dream Girl turn in Liberal Arts.

SETSUKO HARA IN TOKYO STORY (1953)

At the start of Yasujirō Ozu’s restrained masterpiece Tokyo Story, you could be forgiven for finding Noriko exasperating. She is full of inner strength and happiness, exhaustingly polite, patient, forgiving, and all those other qualities you wish you had. A Japanese war widow, she welcomes her elderly in-laws who have come to visit Tokyo. While their own children think they’re a nuisance, Noriko is unaffectedly kind and generous to them. But towards the end of the film, the cracks start to show. The über-politeness takes on a manic edge, and she reveals herself to be just as miserable as the rest of us. “Isn’t life disappointing?” a younger character says. “Yes,” she replies, with the most diaphanous smile. “Nothing but disappointment.” 

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