Jan. 1, 1992
Sharon Stone became an overnight star for playing a sexually aggressive novelist suspected of murder in this thriller. Stone’s character’s carnal relationships with men and women led to the film being lambasted by gay activists and critics who said it portrayed lesbians in a negative light. Although the character stabbed at the deviant side of feminist equality (women can be psycho murderers too), the infamous scene of her crossing her legs in interrogation with a tight skirt and no panties straddles the line between liberation and objectification.
Jan. 1, 1993
'The Joy Luck Club'
The film based on Amy Tan's bestselling novel is set in modern-day San Francisco but flashes back to 1930s and 1940s China, when women were held in low regard. The tales of Chinese immigrants transplanted to America explored the relationships between mothers and daughters, arranged marriages and polygamy through vignettes that unfolded universal themes. The film itself showcases the talent of Asian American actresses who had previously been marginalized in television and cinema. In fact, it was the men in the film who some critics felt were victims of stereotyping.
Jan. 1, 1994
Newspaper readers in New Zealand in 1954 thrilled to read the account of two teenage girls conspiring to murder one of their mothers. The press at the time depicted them as monsters. But director Peter Jackson’s critically acclaimed film insisted on looking at the women through the prism of their friendship, bringing an enlightened humanity and sympathy to two girls whom a previous generation had written off as depraved.
Jan. 1, 1995
In this contemporary take on Jane Austen’s classic novel “Emma,” Alicia Silverstone plays Cher, a wealthy, confident Valley girl whose efforts to match-make and make over those less fortunate (and less popular) than herself reveal how little she understands about the world. Though Cher, like Austen’s Emma, is strong and self-assured, the movie is no more progressive than the novel, written nearly a century earlier. Shallow Cher relies on her father’s status and wealth for her comfort and confidence and on her step-brother-turned-boyfriend’s perspective for her moral makeover and happy ending. Despite this, the film was a hit with teen girls and spawned short-lived TV and book series.
Jan. 1, 1996
Demi Moore plays a former FBI secretary who, after losing her daughter in a custody battle to her ex-con husband, raises $15,000 in six weeks to continue fighting for custody of her daughter. The catch? She did it as a stripper. Moore herself was paid a record-breaking salary of $12.5 million to act in this bomb that went on to win multiple Razzie Awards. Despite the huge payday, some felt Moore was degrading women by baring all. She questioned the negative reactions,
saying, "Why should I limit myself to being politically correct? A man wouldn't. A man wouldn't even be asked to."
(Castle Rock Entertainment)
Jan. 1, 1997
Ridley Scott pulls a military coup in “G.I. Jane” by enlisting the first female soldier in the U.S. Navy Special Warfare Group. Lt. Jordan O’Neil (Demi Moore) shows true grit through every grueling torture-like task and even shaved her head. Many applauded O’Neil for challenging patriarchy and pushing for gender equality in the military, but tangible real-world results were minimal (the Navy Seals, of course, are still a boys club).
Jan. 1, 1998
Cate Blanchett received an Oscar nomination playing Queen Elizabeth in this biopic showing the queen’s rise to power, despite opposition from the male-centric leaders of her time. Though the events depicted are nothing new, it’s remarkable that a film about a powerful woman rejecting marriage in favor of political power could be seen as the product only of the modern era and not the classic Hollywood of the past.
Jan. 1, 1999
'Boys Don't Cry'
Hillary Swank plays Brandon Teena, a transgendered male born with female anatomy, in this heart-wrenching drama focusing on gender identity and society's sometimes troubled convictions. When the truth comes out, Brandon is the target of violence and sexual abuse. The film was a frightening reminder of the horrors that can happen when gender specificity strays from the cultural norm. The film itself received a much warmer welcome, with many critical raves and awards, including a lead actress Oscar for Swank.
(Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Jan. 1, 2000
Julia Roberts won a lead actress Oscar playing the film’s title role, an unemployed single mom who lands a job at a law firm and uncovers the industrial poisoning of the town of Hinkley, Calif. Through her ambition (even when she had to bend the rules), creative problem-solving (like hiring her boyfriend to watch her kids) and unabashed embrace of her sexuality (check out those low-cut dresses), Erin was seen as a strong modern female role model.
Jan. 1, 2001
'Lara Croft: Tomb Raider'
This video-game-to-film adaptation stars Angelina Jolie as the title character, an adventurer on a quest to find ancient artifacts. The movie was widely panned by critics, but it helped popularize female action heroes on the big screen. Though many derided Lara Croft as little more than a male fantasy, blaming her scanty outfit and exaggerated bra size, some embraced the character as a girl power icon - a gun-toting, butt-kicking female version of Indiana Jones.
Jan. 1, 2002
“The Hours” follows the struggles of three generations of women, dealing with repression and depression, tied together by a common thread: Virginia Woolf’s (Nicole Kidman) “Mrs. Dalloway.” Despite strong acting performances, critical acclaim and an Oscar win for Kidman, the film came under fire for its weak and weepy portrayal of women.
Jan. 1, 2003
Quentin Tarantino took an icon from a female rite of passage, the bride, and turned it into the Bride, a revenge-minded assassin out to murder the people who ruined her wedding day. One of the feminist themes of "Thelma and Louise" - the freedom to act outside of society’s defined roles - is all over the this over-the-top two-part action flick. Uma Thurman as the Bride takes on a masculine role to become what she truly wanted to be: a mother.
Jan. 1, 2004
This satire of high school cliques, written by Tina Fey, puts the girls front and center and reduces the boys to the supporting roles traditionally filled by the girls in teen comedies. Lindsay Lohan became a star playing a well-meaning teen ensnared in high school social status games.
Jan. 1, 2005
Just as depictions of gay men and women were finally becoming more common in mainstream cinema, this independent film starring Felicity Huffman took another step forward by depicting the difficult lives of transgendered people. Huffman earned an Oscar nomination playing transgendered person Bree Osbourne.
(The Weinstein Company)
Jan. 1, 2006
'The Devil Wears Prada'
The film based on Laura Weisberger's 2003 novel-memoir juxtaposes formidable women in power with their underlings. It focuses on a caricature of Vogue editor Anna Wintour, an imperious editor of a glossy fashion magazine played by Meryl Streep. Anne Hathaway portrays a young, bright journalist who essentially sells her soul to the seemingly glamorous world and is transformed into a high-functioning, highly polished, back-stabbing alpha assistant, in order to obtain a good recommendation on which to build her career. The film packaged the cattiness of Weisberger's protagonist neatly into a redeemable, and ultimately likable, heroine who returns to her wits and friends groveling for forgiveness.
(Twentieth Century Fox)
Jan. 1, 2007
Judd Apatow's comedy about how an unlikely couple's one-night stand leads to parenthood was well-received by moviegoers but less so by star Katherine Heigl. The actress plays a career-oriented woman who she believed comes off "a little sexist. It paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys. … I had a hard time with it, on some days. I'm playing such a bitch; why is she being such a killjoy?" But despite its quasi-happy resolution, the unlikable Heigl character is happy only after becoming a mother and a wife rather than following her original career path. And her nagging sister (whose character earned the film a spin-off) only softens after being "put in her place" by Heigl's baby daddy.
Jan. 1, 2008
'Sex and the City'
The hit HBO show on which the film is based spawned several generations of women who identify themselves on the sexual spectrum as a Charlotte, Carrie, Miranda or Samantha based on the characters originally written by author Candace Bushnell. The show enjoyed six seasons chronicling the exploits of the single women and showed how women can behave as men without jeopardizing their femininity. However, the highly anticipated big-screen adaptation illustrated their post-single lives and its compact form forced the modern women into traditional gender roles of girlfriend, wife or mother, all of which were steered by the decisions of the men in their lives in the film rather than themselves.
(New Line Cinema)
Jan. 1, 2009
"Precious," the Oscar-winning tale of an overweight girl from the ghetto caught between motherhood and a physically and emotionally abusive home life, might seem as far away from "Thelma and Louise" as Beijing and Burbank. But the issue of female empowerment in society connects them. Outwardly, "Precious" is more about a woman and her climb to self-worth than about society's feminist definitions.
Black feminism is central, as is the theme of a "girl avenger." But, aided by the experience of being taught by a helpful mentor, Precious walks away from her social worker and her mother at the end of the film in an act harking back to the female empowerment message shared with "Thelma & Louise."
Jan. 1, 2010
Before “Black Swan,” you’d be hard-pressed to find a movie dedicated to the not-so-prim-and-proper side of ballet. In it, a repressed, toe-pointing ballerina (Natalie Portman) discovers her dark, psychotic side in the process of trying out for the lead role in an elite company production of “Swan Lake.” In the process, a sensual duel of wits pits her against her understudy (Mila Kunis), whose dark side is the ultimate complement to her naïve good nature. For Portman’s character, the challenge of exposing the darkness inside her to become the perfect dancer is a blessing and a curse. The movie’s feminist undertones highlight how a character’s emotional dance between good and evil can be the most explosive form of female depictions in cinema.
Jan. 1, 2011
“Saturday Night Live” actress Kristen Wiig’s comedy, starring an ensemble cast of funny women, showed them barfing and, um, defecating all over the sort of designer gowns that ingénues are expected to drool over. The bawdy film became a rallying point for a woman’s right to puke on-screen and for her place in gross-out comedy - territory usually reserved for the guys. Though the film was praised as a milestone for feminism in the cinema by some, others argued that it was misogynist (Wiig’s character is debased and humiliated), and that its success as the highest-grossing Judd Apatow-produced movie was won only by embracing a man’s role in comedy, instead of on its own terms.