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“Free Range Women” are finding their place in film, but are 2015’s breakthroughs trend or fluke?

Atlanta's Film Fatales group . Front row, left to right: Phoebe Brown, Lane Skye, Nancy Thanki, Carrie Schrader (on carpet), Melissa Palmer, Angela Barners Gomes, Kathlene Rose Kelly and Danille Bernstein. Midde row, left to right: Jen West, Fran Burst, Laura Asherman, Ebony Blanding. Back row, left to right: Linda Burns, Robyn Rebecca Hicks, Katie Orr, Shandra Lynn McDonald, Brantly Watts, Molly Coffee, and Charlene Fisk.
Atlanta's Film Fatales group . Front row, left to right: Phoebe Brown, Lane Skye, Nancy Thanki, Carrie Schrader (on carpet), Melissa Palmer, Angela Barners Gomes, Kathlene Rose Kelly and Danille Bernstein. Midde row, left to right: Jen West, Fran Burst, Laura Asherman, Ebony Blanding. Back row, left to right: Linda Burns, Robyn Rebecca Hicks, Katie Orr, Shandra Lynn McDonald, Brantly Watts, Molly Coffee, and Charlene Fisk.

As the controversy surrounding the upcoming Academy Awards has illustrated, 2015 was a mixed blessing. The underrepresentation and recognition of black artists both in front of and behind the camera remains a sad reflection on our times. 

All 20 nominees in acting categories in 2015 were white and in 2016, the Academy has reprised its salute to the unbearable whiteness of being (#OscarsSoWhite, #OscarsStillSoWhite). There was a clear theme running through this year’s films: the resilience and ingenuity of the White Man in The Martian, The Revenant, Spotlight, The Big Short and Bridge of Spies. For an Academy composed predominately of middle-aged white men — 94 percent white, and 77 percent male according to a 2012 Los Angeles Times study — recognizing realities beyond the pale has been a challenge. 

But then again, the Oscars have never been a place where innovators and status quo testers are rewarded. Take as just one among countless ludicrous examples: the 1959 Oscars when the original screenplay award — in a batch of contenders that included Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest — was handed over to the Rock Hudson and Doris Day light sex comedy Pillow Talk, amidst audible gasps from the audience.

For women, however, 2015 was a bit of a bonanza. At least if you measure the year by the presence of an array of fascinating, iconoclastic heroines, both fictional and real, ass-kickers and trouble-makers, who defied the hackneyed convention of the chick flick lie factory: that every woman’s ambition is marriage and, in lieu of that, a wardrobe of Manolos.

Carol, Ex Machina, Far From the Madding Crowd, Trainwreck, Mad Max: Fury Road, Amy, Tangerine, Iris, What Happened, Miss Simone?, Diary of a Teenage Girl, Chi-Raq, Room, Inside Out, I Smile Back, Brooklyn, 45 Years and Grandma, all deal with, in some way, women breaking out of the confines of a popularly defined idea of femininity. 

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Carol.
Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Carol.

These “free range women” as I like to call them, are married or single, but all exist as entities unto themselves, defined by their own drives and desires, which have more to do with emotional and philosophical journeys than the trip to the alter. Untethered from the straight jacket of Hollywood typecasting, they compel us because of their defiance and attitude and refusal to stay inside the boundaries.

The feminine “ideal” is overshot to an absurd degree in these films, resulting in robot ladies, perfect 1950s housewives who happen to be lesbians, transgender hookers, drug-addicted and, in the case of Far From the Madding Crowd, catnip to men because she so defies the usual gender norms. That the heroine of a 19th century novel by Thomas Hardy could be one of the most subversive illustrations of a woman’s depth and complexity, grit and fierceness illustrates how impoverished so many contemporary film representations of women can be. 

Or as Clementine Ford wrote in The Telegraph of Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan) in Thomas Vinterberg’s 2015 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, “We need women like Bathsheba precisely because they are real, instead of artificially imagined versions of women as many male writers would like them to be … Flawed female characters are perhaps the most feminist literary expression of all, because they tacitly recognize the multidimensional landscapes that exist inside the women reading them.”

In many cases, the contemporary free range women of 2015 pay a price for thinking outside the box. But just as often, there’s not only a happy ending, but a morality tale afoot, in the leading-by-example rewards of big screen heroism and female characters with precisely the kind of nuance and multidimensionality that Ford identifies as the true measure of a complex female heroine equal to any male one. 

Charlize Theron is the gender-bending true action hero.
Charlize Theron is the gender-bending true action hero.

Could there be a better poster girl for 2015’s particular breed of fiercely free range and complicated women than Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road? The film was a representative female call to arms featuring a high-octane, but soft-at-the-center heroine searching (with the aid of a coven of badass grannies … on motorcycles), for an Eve Ensler-worthy Green Place; a regenerative and healing oasis from male warmongering. A worthy, soulful counter to every pumped up action figure, the haunted, angry, redemption-seeking Furiosa (Charlize Theron) came with a backstory and a fierce forward momentum.

Hidden inside George Miller’s blood-soaked fireball and titular masculine action hero was a feminist parable and a woman-centric road movie notable for its gender-bending true action hero: Furiosa.  

Another apparent guy-centric fantasy caving in underneath the weight of its own perversity, in Ex Machina, the perfect robot ladies crafted as a rich man’s intellectual and sexual playthings turned out to have a very HAL objective at heart. Don’t turn your back on a robot, science fiction has often taught us, and that truism informs writer-turned-director Alex Garland’s nimble film. 

Better still, don’t turn your back on a robot woman, the film darkly insinuated, because the perfect woman you crafted in a lab and plan to dismantle for parts may turn out to have a will, and an agenda of her own. Create sentience in a woman, and don’t be surprised if she uses it.

And in everyone’s favorite 2015 girl-on-girl melodrama, Carol, a film that reduced male film critics from Cali to Manhattan into soupy, gushing puddles of Sappho support, men were an often tedious distraction from the tortured love affair of an older, well-to-do suburban Hitchcockian ice queen and an Audrey Hepburn ingénue discovering her own nascent desires. 

Spike Lee's Chi-Raq, a modern take on Lysistrata.

Less heralded, but also girl-centric and sex-obsessed, Spike Lee’s overlooked Chi-Raq brought a ribald sense of fun to a modern-day retelling of Lysistrata with a scene-stealing Teyonah Parris as a no-nonsense female crusader. This Lysistrata in an afro and short shorts enlists a girl army long before Beyonce’s Black Panther back-up dancers as comrades in arms to fight gun violence among their menfolk by cutting off sex. 

Critics seemed bamboozled by Lee’s thrilling collage of carnivalesque comedy and tear-jerking real-world tragedy in a parade of Chicagoans felled by gun violence. But Lee proved his mettle yet again, in tackling the cant and mendacity at the heart of American life, while using a fiercely defiant, militaristic heroine, Lysistrata, to do it.

Even Disney in 2015 exhibited a light version of girl power in Inside Out, a rare non-princess centered Magic Kingdom drama which plumbed the vagaries of the human heart and mind in the beguiling form of a feisty, lovable little girl. Inside Out was the metaphor of much female-centric cinema this year: a peek into the nooks and crannies of the female mind and heart. Who knew what lurked there?

For a film culture often lamented for its shoddy representation of women and the paucity of multidimensional roles for actresses, 2015 was a surprising, thrilling festival of riches. Gay women, transgender women, old women, iconoclastic women, creative women, don’t-give-a-fuck women, angry women, political women, these films were a shot in the arm to a common Hollywood tendency to cast women as the secondary love interest, the hellbent singleton desperately seeking matrimony or the hausfrau with smothering octopus apron strings begging her crusading, ambitious husband not to follow his dreams. 

One of the most blessedly crush-worthy exemplars of this year’s new/old breed of woman was Iris Apfel in Albert Maysles’ documentary Iris, about the fashion plate and no-nonsense old school New York gal who has spent her twilight years engaging in the kind of brazen honesty and candid wit that exposes the lie of toothless, docile and sugar-sweet grannies.

The 93-year-old fashion icon in the hoot-owl glasses, Iris’s adventure-filled old age, of style lectures and modeling gigs is a thumbed nose at both the notion that life post-50 is not worth living and the revenge of a woman whom society told in no uncertain terms wasn’t quite pretty enough to cut it. As much as Amy or Miss Simone, Iris rejects the prevailing norms of society and of proper female behavior, proving an unwitting role model in the process.

Liz Garbus’s documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?
Liz Garbus’s documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?

Tragedy tends to haunt iconoclasts in life and in film and the heartbreaking documentary Amy showed the dark secret behind celebrity and beauty culture, in a paparazzi-hunted woman who spent her waking hours trying to remake her body and mind via bulimia and drug abuse, a project she pursued with the same avidity as her love of music. 

Equally tormented and fascinating, Nina Simone — in Liz Garbus’s documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? — balanced musical genius and inner demons, but the kind of demons fueled by a world founded on inequality and discrimination. All the Beyonces and Gagas pale in comparison to the furious, self-lacerating wrath of Simone, raging against racial injustice, and nearly damning her career in the process.

Some of these women — Amy Winehouse, Nina Simone — destroy themselves in the process of living, but isn’t that what full-fledged personhood is, after all, as Clementine Ford suggested? To make mistakes, to set a course no matter what, to rage and ruin oneself and make audiences pay attention, because female achievement and female suffering both demand acknowledgement, because they are and will continue to be. 

And the free range female icons weren’t restricted to art house fare either.

What these movies had in common were women who in every case live outside the narrow confines of their typecasting. Women like the anti-rom com heroine played by Amy Schumer in Trainwreck who, rather than assert her life’s ambition is marriage, runs from relationships like rats from a burning building. The 19th–century answer to Schumer, the fiercely independent Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) in Far From the Madding Crowd found herself stalked by no less than three men, but resisted the confinement that marriage signaled. Forging her own path, this happiest of Thomas Hardy heroes (not hard when you consider his Judes and Tesses) turns out to feel like a very au courant lady-farmer who finds that marriage without passion in the 19th or 21st century, is still entrapment.

While 2015 was an embarrassment of riches, when it came to films with strong female characters, one couldn’t deny a very real embarrassment that lurked beneath the surface of these pro-women films: With only a handful of exceptions, they were all directed by men. So while Hollywood might be expanding its gender horizons on a philosophical level, it remains an almost-exclusive boys club when it comes to actually making movies. Fortunately, a move is afoot to try and repair the gender gap in the industry.

Carey Mulligan in Far From the Madding Crowd.
Carey Mulligan in Far From the Madding Crowd.

A study released this week by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism has found an abysmal representation of women and minorities in film, television and digital platforms. The study found that only 15.2 percent of all directors and 28.9 percent of writers in film, television and digital series were female.

“This is no mere diversity problem,” says professor Stacy Smith, the study’s author. “This is an inclusion crisis … it is clear that the ecosystem of entertainment is exclusionary.”

Fortunately, a move is afoot to try and repair the gender gap in the industry.

2015 was a banner year for locals concerned with the onscreen representation of women too. Recognizing a need for more stories featuring and made by women, in 2013 director Leah Meyerhoff launched Film Fatales, a group of women film directors including well-known auteurs like Rose Troche and Debra Granik who meet regularly to share moral support, and resources and opportunities in the film industry. 

Atlanta's Film Fatales brings together women directors.
Atlanta’s Film Fatales brings together women directors.

Over time, Film Fatales has spread to numerous cities, including Los Angeles and Austin, and now has over two dozen chapters worldwide. Its Atlanta chapter launched this year. Members include Katie Rowlett, whose feature Poor Jane centers on a 40-something wife falling out of love with her husband, and longtime Atlanta producer and director Linda Burns, who has also operated as an unofficial spokeswoman for the group. 

“For the past 15 years, there has been no perceptible change in the proportion of women working behind the camera in the entertainment industry,” notes Burns. “The film business is still run by good ol’ boys, who control the purse strings, and they seem to have forgotten that study after study shows that white males are not the dominant box office audience.”

She says that women can not only be forces in front of the camera, but behind the camera as well in male-dominated technical jobs. “Diversity in filmmaking is important in front of and behind the camera, as everyone has a story to tell and a contribution to [make to] the art of filmmaking,” Burns says. “It’s time the industry reflects the diversity of the country.”

Already in the timbre of Atlanta Film Fatales projects, it’s easy to see the remarkable change brewing when it’s women in the director’s seat: films about women of color, older women and other unconventional representations of female experience are the norm, not the feisty aberration.

The Atlanta Film Festival has also moved in recent years to spotlight films directed by women, inaugurating its New Mavericks program in 2015, which continues in 2016 and highlights female directors. Echoing the model of Film Fatales, with its regular meetings and moral support to female creatives, the program is now supplemented by year-round workshops, social events, meetings and film screenings beyond the Atlanta Film Festival, including one featuring Film Fatales’ founder Leah Meyerhoff’s film work.

What such strong representations of indelible women on the screen (directed by both men and women), and a growing realization that to support women filmmakers is only to grow more such projects, proves is that if such trends continue, it could soon be 2015 all over again.

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