Having women behind the camera makes all the difference
There’s a scene in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women that goes down in history as one of my favorites in all of cinema.
In it, Saoirse Ronan, who plays the spirited and independent Jo March, gives a monologue about how women are expected to be one dimensional — either opinionated or loved, smart or pretty, dedicated to her career or to her husband.
In her frustration, she says: “Women … they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they've got ambition, and they've got talent, as well as just beauty. I'm so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for.”
It’s a powerful scene, carrying a powerful sentiment, but it doesn’t end there. After her triumphant declaration, Jo breaks down, revealing what she’s ashamed to admit to herself: “But I'm so lonely.”
This monumental scene is both emotional and political. Her poignant but vulnerable musings express the central tension of the film: the desire to be seen as a complex, capable individual while society tries to pin you down as the opposite.
What’s so special about that scene — besides Saoirse’s acting masterclass — is that Jo is putting language to something that so many of us can’t name. Although this is super relatable to most women, it’s difficult to accept that despite the advancement of women over the years, so much of this is still true today. Socially, women are taught to view themselves as less deserving and when they assert that they’re worth more, they’re often punished.
In most cases, sexism is so ingrained in society that it takes years to apprehend the unconscious biases that plague our daily life. This sexism gets reinforced by the media because until recently men created the representation of women.
This is why the presence of women in media is so critical. Telling female-driven stories help reshape how women see themselves outside of the strictures of the male gaze.
Directors like Greta Gerwig are more and more common — women telling dynamic, well-rounded stories about the diversity and expansiveness of the female experience.
In Gerwig’s podcast conversation with Barry Jenkins for A24, she discusses the monumental importance of being mentored by female directors. “I'd never met a young woman who said she wanted to be a director … I had fallen in love with film, but it just still felt out of reach. And all of a sudden I was like, Oh, wait, are we allowed to say we want to do this?”
From her undergrad days as a fledgling director to now, Gerwig notes how much has changed for female directors. And how revolutionary it is.
In the podcast, Gerwig continues: “People are like this year of “women in film.” And I’m like, not only do you have Sofia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow, you also have Maggie Betts and Dee Rees and Valerie Faris and me and Patty Jenkins and Angelina Jolie. And those are all very visible films.”
It’s not just the number Gerwig is impressed by, but also the variety. She continues. “There's thousands more. And that is an extraordinary moment, I think. And those are all such different films from each other. It's not like, “Here is the kinds of films women make.” It's like, I can't think of two films more different from Battle of the Sexes to Mudbound to Wonder Woman.”
Gerwig is right. All these films vary greatly, but they’re equally reflective of a moment where women are rapidly gaining agency.
Here are just a few of the best female-directed films that are streaming now:
Lady Bird, Netflix
Because of my affinity for Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan, it’s no surprise that Lady Bird is first on my list. In the podcast, Jenkins describes its magic saying: “you're watching this movie … and everybody's laughing their heads off the first 45 minutes and then you start to hear a few people sniffling in the back and on the side and then you realize, I'm watching a very, very heavy, sad kind of film. And it all coalesces into this very hopeful kind of thing that feels earned.”
Every emotion you’ve ever felt is perfectly rendered in the award-winning feature, Mudbound. Director Dee Ross places the audience in the post-war South, watching the splintering of two families — one white, one Black. It’s more than worth all the heavy feelings it evokes.
Run, don’t walk, and see this unforgettable film. Miranda July’s feature is about many things — con artists, California living, a bubble factory, and waiting for The Big One. But mostly, it’s about tenderness. It’s likely the strangest movie you’ll ever see, but it’s one that will stay with you forever.
Promising Young Woman, HBO
One of the buzziest dramas in recent years, Promising Young Women is not another trite take capitalizing on the political moment. It’s a real meditation on pain, morality, revenge, and the worst parts of ourselves and the people around us. This is another heavy watch, but its fast pace and provocative questions will remain in your mind long after.
This nostalgic 90s classic is the perfect example of what happens when women are in the driver’s seat. Based on Jane Austen’s Emma, this whimsical adaptation is as charming as Cher — based on the novel’s titular Emma Woodhouse — is handsome, clever, and rich. There’s a version of this film in which Cher is merely a shallow object built for our ridicule and to serve as comedic relief. However, Cher is complex, redeemable, and the center of a film ultimately about female friendships.
Chloe Zhao is one of the industry’s best and brightest. She shot to fame after the success of Nomadland, a startlingly beautiful exploration of the American West. This award-winning feature made history when Zhao won best director. It’s the perfect balance of sweeping landscapes and displays of personal emotion.