Images courtesy of Diana Chire
In many popular movies there is an assumption that replacing the dominant male role with a woman is in and of itself a radical or subversive thing. Kill Bill, Leon, Lady Vengeance, Death Race – these are some of the movies that came into my head when I was trying to think about female leads that have inspired me. These films, though brilliant, don’t subvert Jean Luc-Godard’s dictum that ‘all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl’. All they do is give the girl the gun. Look, I’m woman but I don’t have a gun. I don’t have that power and I don’t want it. There’s more to life than massacres. Why can’t a realistic woman be inspiring? I know many of them - I want to see them in films as well. So, where can I find a female lead that can be inspiring, realistic, and also relatable?
American Honey (dir. Andrea Arnold, 2016) is an idiosyncratic road trip movie, a female driven riff on Kerouac. A gang of kids travelling across America in a van. Young outcasts who sell magazines and live everyday as it comes. They have no apparent normality or structure in their lives. It’s a fresh take on the road movie genre piece. So often in road movies you get a guy on some sort of self-exploration journey. He gets into a car, meets some women, sleeps with them, has an epiphany, and then that’s it. It’s like when university students go to India al la Eat Pray Love. Although the protagonist Star’s life is not carefree – her mother abandoned her, her father is unknown, her stepfather abuses her – she’s also not a victim. She’s on her own journey and makes her own choices. Sometimes these choices are wrong, yet the film doesn’t moralise about mistakes. Her motives, too, are not dependent on a love interest. She is flawed and unpredictable. She is human. She has no saviour and romance doesn’t determine her sense of self.
Sometimes it feels like everyone I know – myself included - is just trapped in a narrative trope. I loved seeing a woman in a role of power, but a power that was derived from an inner strength. Not from a gun, or a man, or a great job, but from herself. Not to fetishize poverty or ignore the miseries of structural violence, but it is undeniably inspiring to see someone overcoming the odds – and without that struggle being the sole focus of their life. So many widely experienced but little represented female experiences are finally coming to the fore. It’s a relief when you see stuff that you talk about with your friends all the time, but have never seen on screen, represented for the first time. There is a - now infamous - scene of period sex in American Honey. They want to fuck, she’s on her period, so she pulls out her tampon and they go for it. It’s pure female sexuality. Nothing can get in the way. I’ve never seen a film where period sex is a thing, but everyone has had period sex. The film is observational and that makes it a lot like growing up.
21-year old Sasha Lane, an African-American White Kiwi/Maori, plays Star. Explicitly, this isn’t explored. In an article by Grace Barber-Plentie for Gal-Dem, a fantastic popular new magazine exploring the contemporary world for people of colour, she wrote that Star’s “displacement is never given a diagnosis.” That the film “suffers because of [the director’s] vagueness” on the issue of race. For me, it’s like, we know she’s black. We can see Lane’s dreadlocks, but somehow this is oddly somewhat incidental to her character. This is precisely one of the things I found most brilliant about the character of Star. In Bad Feminist (2014) Roxanne Gay writes, “audiences are ready for more from black characters — more narrative complexity, more black experiences being represented in contemporary film, We’re ready for more of everything but the same, singular stories we’ve seen for so long.” You so rarely see a film where a person of colour is more than just their race. Seeing this diverseness of blackness makes me feel so much less stressed out and much more represented. It also reminded me that great thing musician Dev Hynes said about his 2016 album Freetown Sound: this “is for everyone told they’re not BLACK enough, too BLACK, too QUEER, not QUEER the right way, the underappreciated”. The joy and inspiration I felt from seeing Star’s story is the joy of not fitting in to something that you don’t want to be a part of.
Bend It Like Beckham (dir. Gurinder Chadha, 2002) was the first film I saw in the cinema with my mother without her falling asleep in the first ten minutes. There was something in the movie that we both understood, but understood in a way that we weren’t ready to talk about at that time. Jesminder (Jess) is a young girl growing up in a Punjabi-Sikh household in West London who joins a football team and worships David Beckham. Her family think her interest in sport is a waste of time, and pressure her to get married and pursue traditional feminine roles. When we saw it, I was still at school and hadn’t done my GSCEs. I loved my mother, but the life she wanted for me was not one that I wanted to venture down. She was hoping I would go to university and study Medicine or Law. I knew I wanted to make art. My mother is Muslim and grew up in Egypt. I’m first generation British. There have been so many misunderstandings between us, some of them upsetting, some of them hilarious. Now she’s used to me, but I’ve taken a lot of getting used to.
In Bend It Like Beckham, Jess has to lie to her parents about her being on the football team because it’s something they wouldn’t be okay with, unlike the rest of her teammate’s families. In the film, Jess's father had experienced racism in cricket and didn't want Jess to go through the same thing. He’s trying to protect her, and this causes him to be tough. The same with my mother; a single parent working two jobs and making concessions in her life to provide me with the absolute best opportunities. Simply put, a career in the arts was something that held too many financial risks. But, nonetheless, it was a risk worth taking and her continual support and love has been so important to me.
East is East, Anita and Me, Goodness Gracious Me. These are great British genre pieces, and one’s to watch for all the first generation Brits out there.
The animated series Daria (created by Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn, broadcast from 1997-2000) is part of my full time 90s obsession. Daria Morgendorffer, Jane Lane and Jodie Landon – their resistance to not conform in a world where teenage girls are made to feel undermined and underestimated was exceptional viewing and totally relatable. There was always a sense of understanding and solidarity between all three women. Each episode dissected gender, sexuality and racial politics. Only an animated show could have had the freedom to explore these themes in the 90s. Daria and Jane were sarcastic, cool and too smart for their family and peers alike. I was 12 when I first started watching the show and I was having a particularly difficult time at school. I remember wanting to be anyone but myself.
Daria and Jane were not afraid to be their true selves and really didn't care about conforming. This was new territory for me. It was also the earliest account of me hearing the word ‘feminist’. And then there was Jodie. The only minority in the school who felt like she had to be an ambassador for her entire race. With Daria and Jane it’s about gender but with Jodie it’s a package deal. Race and gender go hand in hand and it sets the tone of how she was approached. Different aspects of a woman can influence the discrimination she experiences. One of the quotes of Jodie’s that stuck with me was, “at home, I can say and do whatever feels right. But at school I'm queen of the Negroes, the perfect African-American teen”. Jodie was never a token sidekick character to Daria that would maybe occasionally get a sassy one-liner, but she was a stark reminder of the marginalisation women of colour face in feminism. Many of us never see our intersectional identities reflected on screen. I think I did with Jodie but I was too young to understand.