Surprisingly, I’ve seen a lot of the Oscar-nominated movies this year. Usually I’m lucky if I can even recognize one of the titles, let alone watching it. Unless it’s that year’s Disney nominated animated feature, I probably haven’t seen it. But for some reason I have and the one theme I’ve noticed from the movies I’ve seen from the best feature film nominees is this: at least half of them focus on women’s stories.
I have a hard time finding women lead films that interest me. I find most of them follow the tired old tropes of young romance and mean girls, the focus and message being that the most important thing for women is to find a husband, and to pit yourself against other women to get what you want.
Of course, it isn’t just movies that follow these tropes. Television shows do too, and books, and probably a lot of songs if I listened to the lyrics more. Women’s stories are often simplified, forcing women to see and make themselves as different from one another at the cost of hating our own gender. Women protagonists are not allowed to be Holden Caulfield’s, pretentious and spoiled and finding and discovering themselves through women and themselves, women can only discover themselves through men and by not being “ordinary” women.
I talk about this a lot. Maybe too much. Or maybe, I just talk about it a lot because it’s a topic that means a lot to me, and one I don’t think enough people are listening too, or maybe are just beginning to realize.
I get so tired of seeing the same narratives for women replayed over and over again in different books, in different films, with only the names and settings changed. I want something creative, something different, something where women have more agency, something that shows women as women.
In some ways, it makes sense how we got stuck telling these stories. Some of the earliest stories written with female protagonists, including ones written by female authors, feature these tropes, but these tropes were more a way of life. For some reason, I’m using Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen as an example because of the tropes it uses and for when it was written historically. Jane Austen isn’t my favourite author, but I respect her and her work. And now I’m rambling soooo…
Pride and Prejudice follows a lot of the tropes found in a lot of women’s media today. Girl meets boy, girl and boy pretend to dislike each other but actually like each other, they get over their mutual stubbornness and get married, the end. Okay, there’s a lot more to Pride and Prejudice than that, but the overlying theme of the book is that the five Bennett sisters have to get married because there are no sons in their family, and with five daughters the Bennett family aren’t making a great deal of money and are in danger of losing their home. By having their daughters get married, the Bennett parents get money for their dowry and allow their daughters financial stability based on whom they marry.
So it makes sense for the time why Pride and Prejudice and other books written by and about women during that time would concern itself with women falling in love and getting married. Marriage was the most important thing for women at the time, and love wasn’t always a guarantee. These stories with romantic plots and subplots gave women of the time (if they were lucky and privileged enough to read these books) a chance to hope for love in their someday marriage, because marriage was the one thing they could guarantee.
But I don’t understand why these plots continue and why they’re always marketed towards women. I mean, women are people now. We can vote, we can work, we can open a bank account, we can do a lot of things and marriage isn’t a necessity for our well-being anymore. And as people who have much more opportunities than our literary heroines of the past, the stories we tell about women should reflect that. We should be able to tell stories about women without romance, marriage, or children being end game. (Not that any of those things are bad, but they aren’t all that women are.) We should be able to tell stories about women whose life is their career, women who support other women, women who are nice, women who are bad, women discovering themselves without needing a man to show them how.
That’s why the only Oscar-nominated movie I really wanted to see this year was Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. I ended up seeing a trailer on twitter and completely falling in love with it from the little it told me. I learned that Lady Bird was a coming-of-age story following a teenage girl (Saorise Ronan) who calls herself Lady Bird as she navigates her final year of high school. The movie looked completely different and new to me, a story I had been waiting to see for a long time and luckily it came back to theatres for Oscar season so my sister and I got a chance to see it, and I fell in love all over again.
Without giving away spoilers, Lady Bird is every woman’s dream of a coming-of-age story. It shows Lady Bird as a girl full of her own struggles, her own dreams, trying to fit in and make herself unique and different in the world because she thinks she’s special and is just a touch (okay, more than a touch) self-absorbed with herself. And yes, the film shows Lady Bird falling for two different guys, but they aren’t the focus of her story. I wouldn’t even say they’re a chapter, just a few sentences, a few memories and experiences in her life that while important and definitely left impressions on her were not the focus of her coming-of-age narrative. Maybe I just have a lousy memory, but I can’t remember the last time I saw or read a coming-of-age story with a women protagonist that didn’t focus on her love life as a result of her growing up.
I’m glad that Gerwig and her film are getting the attention she deserves, and I hope that Lady Bird can be the start of changing how we tell women’s stories. There have been a few ways that people have attempted to start changing how women’s narratives are told, and right now it seems to be in the thriller genre like Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and others (though in my opinion, Flynn has done it the best by creating twisted female characters who actually feel real and mock the tropes usually fallen onto women) but there’s still a lot of work to be done.
We have a long way to go with how we tell women’s stories, and the only one who can tell it properly is us.
(Image taken from a screenshot of Greta Gerwig’s coming of age movie Lady Bird. Found in an article on An0ther Magazines article on the costuming of the film.)