The Year Women Found Their Voices
Last year was a revolutionary year in films. I’m calling it now.
It’s not because the COVID-19 pandemic delayed releases and halted productions. It’s not because Christopher Nolan figured out how to invert time or because Steve McQueen blew through the crumbling movie/television barrier. This was a subtle revolution, a slow and steady movement that has been building since Florence Lawrence graced the silver screen in 1906. Its gravity will not be reflected in the statistics published about the past year in film; you won’t find it by applying the Bechdel test or counting the number of women on a cast or crew. You can see it on the faces of the women watching. Mine included.
For the first time I can remember, I looked back at the last year in cinema and could count more than ten movies with leading female characters who felt real. Not just because the part was well acted or the dialogue convincingly written, but because the content of the story reflected a reality that is generally underrepresented in film. These were movies about women, not just movies with women in them; and they told stories women could connect with on a “yep, I’ve been there” level.
In 2020—the year of a lot of bad things—this felt like a miraculous breakthrough. Like all the women hidden in the back rooms of Hollywood stood up and said “I’m making this goddamn movie whether you like it or not.”
Women weren’t portrayed just as faithful housewives, mothers, sexy sidekicks. No no. We were accidentally pregnant, traumatized by assault and loss, ageing and lonely, living lives we wanted to escape, fighting injustice without losing faith. We kicked ass. We made bad decisions. We overreacted. We tried to paper over pain. We put ourselves out there—only to fail.
Many of the stories told were the kind that we know women experience but are rarely discussed or shown. Those were the ones I appreciated most. A pregnant teenager travels to New York to get an abortion—she couldn’t get one in Pennsylvania without parental consent—after having tried to induce a miscarriage by punching herself in the abdomen and swallowing pills (Never Rarely Sometimes Always). A med school drop-out copes with the trauma and fallout of a rape by creating her own flavor of revenge (Promising Young Woman). An entrepreneur fights for her husband’s release from prison—and watches her children grow up without him (Time). A mother tries to escape an abusive husband who still has visitation rights with their children (Herself). A playwright on the edge of “making it” wants to devote her time to a new passion, much to the chagrin of her agent (40-Year-Old Version). A woman’s life falls apart after her baby dies in a home birth (Pieces of a Woman). A 60-something woman takes to the road and learns how to live again after losing everything that once grounded her (Nomadland). A homemaker searches for meaning outside her suffocating home life (Mare).
The careful detail with which these women’s lives were portrayed were evident in even the briefest of moments. One woman wears a diaper and leaks breast milk through her shirt a few weeks after pregnancy, as her body slowly adjusts to being alone again. Another tells a judge that the relevant question in an abuse case isn’t “why didn’t you leave him?” but rather “why didn’t he stop?” A third rhymes that her midlife transition is about “FYOV”—finding your own voice. Not pandering.
That was what the 2020 revolution was about. Women finding their own voices, writing stories that resonated with their experiences, seeing themselves on screen. Making that goddamn movie.
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I’ll end by sharing my Top 10 Films of 2020, with special shoutouts to the extraordinary women who helped make them.**
Promising Young Woman (directed and written by Emerald Fennell)
Nomadland (directed and written by Chloé Zhao)
Boys State (co-directed by Amanda McBaine)
Shirley (directed by Josephine Decker, co-written by Sarah Gubbins & Susan Scarf Merrell)
**note: I saw Portrait of a Lady on Fire, And Then We Danced, and Bad Education in 2019, so those films are not included on this list (though they otherwise would be, please watch them). For more, check out my Letterboxd page.