You asked for it: the chick flicks of Rose Woodhouse

Recently, I asked for topics on which you might like to hear my thoughts. In my dual roles as recovering film nerd and Resident Ordinary Gentlewoman, Patrick suggested a list of top movies that deal with women’s issues. So here are my chick flicks. Not necessarily the best movies, but ones that strike me as gynically interesting in one way or another. (I note with interest how completely male-oriented movies of the 1970s are.)

[Update: I feel compelled to state that it should be obvious that this nothing close to an exhaustive list of either movies or issues women face. I am obviously more interested in psychological issues than cultural issues.]

In no particular order:

All About Eve (1950) Captures with no small degree of sympathy the pain for a woman of getting older and losing her looks. Bette Davis risks losing everything – her job (actress) and her younger husband – to a younger, prettier up-and-comer and becomes terrified that the younger woman is deliberately sabotaging her. Really gets at that jealousy of the younger woman, and the viewer is on Davis’s side. Contrast with another movie of the same year, Sunset Blvd., where the aging actress jealous of a younger, prettier up-and-comer is painted as a monster.

The Apartment (1960) One of my favorite movies. Really a movie about a man (Jack Lemmon), but the interesting quality of this man is that while he allows himself to be taken advantage of by men who simply use women, he himself can’t use women. He idealizes them. One of the more moving and unusual moments in the movie is the moment when Lemmon realizes the idealized woman of his dreams has been sleeping with a married man.  You see him assimilate that information and still be in love with her, not reject her. Also interesting is the ending. (spoiler alert) Girl of his dreams ends up with Lemmon, but she seems almost contemptuous of his continued respect for her.

Dirty Dancing (1987) All right, all right. Nobody puts Baby in the corner. Not the world’s best movie. But thematically, this movie is really interesting. Not only does it have the young girl’s sexual awakening, which is not all that uncommon (I’m guessing a google search would turn up a few hits). But there are other things going on at the same time which complicate the sexual awakening. Jennifer Grey’s father’s insistence on infantilizing and desexualizing her as the price of his paternal love and trust, her lying to him, her learning about abortion and how men can use women for sex.

The Awful Truth (1937) Totally adore this movie. But something is really striking about it. This is a screwball comedy about a marriage gone wrong. Of course you know will they’ll get back together in the end. However, the wife’s infidelity is treated with just as light a touch as his. Just sort of with a wink-wink, you-know-how-it-is. I can’t think of another movie, including recent ones, where this is the case.

Vertigo (1958) An unusual sympathy from Hitchcock toward women. Lots of the movie is about how it’s problematic for women when men in their lives have some sort of idealized woman vision. First, Midge, the Jimmy Stewart’s female-just-a-best-friend-but-who-is-totally-in-love-with-him, paints her own face on the painting of a woman Stewart has been fixating on. He rejects her and the painting, and she gets so upset she tears at her hair. Not many moments in Hitchcock that you really call moving or that ring emotionally true, but that is one of them. Later, Stewart tries to remake Kim Novak into the image he wants, and get pretty violent in the process.

His Girl Friday (1940) Another awesome Cary-Grant-gets-remarried comedy. It’s singular in that Rosalind Russell, newspaper reporter, is ready to marry someone else after her divorce from Cary Grant and settle down and just be a wife. Cary Grant tempts her away and back to him by encouraging her to follow a great scoop and showing her she does not want to give up a career. He’s the guy who won’t ask her to.

Breaking the Waves (1996) Really affecting movie that raises the question whether the somewhat simple-minded Bess (Emily Watson), who gives up everything for her husband, is kind of pathetic or capable of the truest kind of personal/religious love. The movie itself suggests the latter, the other works of Lars von Trier perhaps suggest the former, but it’s an interesting question. Women in general tend to err on the side of too much sacrifice for love, or at least more sacrifice than men.

Mildred Pierce (1945) Not the greatest movie, but certainly worth seeing. An outsized clownish version of the fear of being abandoned by your children. Mildred, who has two kids, gets divorced. One kid dies, so Mildred clings all the harder to her living child, who becomes a rotten spoiled brat who cares only about social status. Mildred builds up a huge successful business in an attempt to satisfy her rapacious daughter, but nothing can make her daughter love her back. (spoiler alert) And in the end, her daughter ends up seducing husband the second and ruining the business, and Mildred is left with nothing. Children really do take a lot out of you, no?

Raising Arizona (1987) In the midst of being a totally hilarious comedy, there is a real story for Holly Hunter’s character here. She simply wants a life with husband and children and can’t seem to have either. She is infertile and they cannot adopt. Her husband loves her, but chafes at being tied down. I actually never fail to choke up at the end of the movie.

Auntie Mame (1958) Seriously, how can you not love this movie? So a woman is thrust into adoptive motherhood when her brother dies and she takes in her nephew. She breaks every single rule, especially by 1950s standards. She drinks, sends him to a ridiculous experimental school, gives no consistency, etc. etc. Yet she is obviously a wonderful, amazing mother.

Imitation of Life (1959) Whole buncha stuff going on here about moms and daughters. One daughter can’t get enough attention from mom, who is focused on her career. The daughter feels closer to her nanny. This daughter ends up with a crush on mom’s boyfriend. The nanny, who is black, has a daughter who is light-skinned enough to pass for white. She does pass for white to her mom’s dismay. She rejects her mother and her race.

Johnny Guitar (1954) This is an odd duck of movie in several ways. I wouldn’t say it actually deals with women’s issues except that it is a Western, and the protagonist and antagonist who end up in the final showdown are both women. Can’t think of another where that’s the case.

Juno (2007) I found the main character annoyingly and implausibly precocious. But it was nice to see adoption from both sides – the birth mother and adoptive mother. I was really taken aback by something specifically. Jennifer Garner’s character is seen obsessing over paint colors. I was expecting this to end up in a criticism of her superficiality. This happens a lot in movies (e.g., American Beauty), and I think it’s something of a misogynistic trope. But it’s the husband who is superficial – she is just obsessing because she cares.

Heavenly Creatures (1994) Really nice movie, and interesting about how just how obsessive teenage girls can get. These two get more obsessive than most, of course (based on a true story, though).

Silence of the Lambs (1991) Forget the girl suit made out of real girls. Lots in here about women and work, but it is all very subtle, which is nice. Jodie Foster is picked for the job initially perhaps because she is attractive. There is an affecting scene where her boss dismisses her in front of a room full of men and they all stare at her. There are relatively few movies where a woman who solves the case isn’t a total hottie. I mean, she’s very attractive, but we’re not really supposed to be ogling her.

Casino Royale (2006) I think this movie tried to expiate previous sexism sins of James Bond films. It poked fun at the objectification of Ursula Andress by objectifying Daniel Craig, M is a woman, Bond’s feelings for the Bond girl seem actually sincere.

Men’s movies that think they are about women’s issues but are not: Repulsion, Belle de Jour

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. 1) It is almost unfair of you to include that picture, in that I had a hard time wrenching my eyes away from it and reading this excellent post.

    2) I respectfully disagree with you re: the ending of The Apartment. (Also one of my all-time favorite films.) I do not read her interaction with Jack Lemmon’s character as near-contempt. I read it as mock contempt, which she is playfully expressing because she’s never been in love with someone who loves her in a way that allows for such playfulness. She doesn’t have to fear losing him like she did with her married lover, because he truly loves her and she doesn’t have to be “nice” with him. She can tell him to “shut up and deal the cards” because he loves her enough not to need her swooning for him.

    3) I have the same reaction to the ending of Raising Arizona. (In fact, it chokes me up just thinking about it.) One of the most truly beautiful moments in cinema.

    Anyhow, I gotta run to a meeting, but I looooooooove, looooooove, loooooove this post.

    • 1) It’s interesting, because I never use pictures of hot guys in my posts. Ever.

      2) You know, I always go back and forth how to read that line. I’ve been so cranky lately. But I certainly have read it the way you do, and probably more frequently. I just asked my husband, and he agrees with you.

      • FTR, Rose, as she was the mother of 7, I have never thought of Elizabeth Anscombe as anything but female—or for her brains and moral courage, anything but the equal of any male and better than most all of them. Nor you. A mani-pedi and a cigar would work well for me, albeit I’d prefer a ballgame over a chick flick. Peace.

    • > I actually never fail to choke up at the end of the movie.

      >> I have the same reaction to the ending of Raising Arizona.

      It’s the, “Gimme that baby, you warthog from hell!” line, isn’t it? Gets me, too. Right (thump) there.

        • Adam Carolla has long advocated that we start a “Pass the Hat” fund for Nic Cage. The idea is that whenever Nic Cage is on the verge of doing a terrible movie for the money, we all pass the hat, drop a few bucks, and send it his way to prevent him from doing so, allowing him to make good movies without worrying about a paycheck. He is likely too far gone at this point but it might still be worth a try…

  2. His Girl Friday is a brilliant reimagining of The Front Page. Take a very tough-minded, if funny, story about the difference between what we think we want and what we really want and how work helps define a person, change the protagonist to a woman, add a romance, and don’t lose any of the toughness. That would be amazing nowadays, let alone in 1940.

  3. With the exception of Juno (I can’t stand that movie), this is an excellent list. Thanks for it.

  4. I’ve only seen a smattering of these, but will look into others. Zazzy loves classic films and I would be well-served to find a way to better identify with female protagonists, something I tend to struggle with and am not proud of.

    I had similar feelings about “Juno” and found Jennifer Garner’s character the only redeeming one out of the main troika. Bateman was not only skeevy, but skeevy in a way entirely too familiar and real.

    • Well, tell Zazzy from me that I actually think that’s something you can’t force.

      But for you and Chris – these aren’t necessarily the best films of all time. Just that they all either seemed to have a ring of truth about what it’s like to be a woman that other films don’t, or just treat its female characters differently from other films.

      • Oh, she doesn’t push it on me. It’s something I recognized about myself, moreso with literature than with films, but I tend to struggle with female protagonists because I either can’t or perceive that I can’t identify with them, so I don’t form the connection necessary. The one exception I can remember was in a novel written by a man, Nick Hornby’s “How to Be Good” (a great book, by the way, and probably up your ally in terms of the themes it deals with).

        I do better with movies, but I tend to do better with visual mediums anyway. Perhaps the more realistic and/or differing presentation offered in these films will shake me loose from whatever my gotz is.

    • For classic films, the Hepburn / Tracy films are pretty good. She tends to be his equal, or better. Plus they are just fun to watch.

      Or “The Lion in Winter”. To watch Hepburn and O’ Toole go at it, hammer and tongs and the whole blacksmith’s shop is just so damn much FUN. If you know the history of the combatants, it’s even more fun.

  5. Have you seen “Saving Face” with Joan Chen? It deals with a lot of issues, including women in the workforce, sexuality, assimilation and more. Plus, it’s a GREAT film.

    I would say that Hitchcock is usually pretty good with women. It’s Ingrid Bergman who breaks the case in “Spellbound” . Neither she nor Eva Marie Saint are viewed as sluts by the end of “Notorious” and “North by Northwest”. Even Janet Leigh isn’t killed because she’s a thief, but because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    “All About Eve” is one of my favoritist movies of all time. “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” (My favorite is “My Favorite Year”, but that has nothing to do with the topic under discussion.)

    • I was in film school for so long that the topic of Hitchcock in women is just an unbelievably fraught and overargued one for me. I don’t even know the truth anymore!

      I mean, yes, I don’t think he’s misogynist. But I don’t think he’s insightful (into women or men), nor do I think that’s what he’s usually going for.

      It did occur to me to put the relationship between Charlie and Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt on the list.

  6. This is certainly a list compiled by someone who studied film. I’d love to see your list for a Film 101: Intro to World Cinema course and compared and contrast notes and choices.

    Interesting way to view Juno. I largely can’t stand the movie because of the dialogue and I am a person who normally likes stylized dialogue but the film lost me once we got the rhyming couplets from the Goth at the Abortion clinic. “We need to about every sore and every score”

    How do you feel about Francois Truffaut and Eric Rohemer portray women in their films?

    • Re: Truffaut and Rohmer, I much prefer Truffaut.

      I honestly was so focused on American cinema always. Of coure I had to study a lot of French, esp. New Wave but also earlier, some Italian, and I took a Spanish and Argentine cinema class along the way that I loved. I took a world cinema class that was a mish mash – one from Iran, one from South Africa, etc.

  7. ” note with interest how completely male-oriented movies of the 1970s are.”

    Based on the criteria inferred from the post, I would huumbly suggest adding Alien to the list.

  8. Thanks for the list/reply!

    As you can guess, I’ve seen a bunch of these, and I expected some of them, but there’s some neat surprises here that I haven’t seen.

    • Really? I’m surprised you’re surprised at all. I thought it was all sort of basic and obvious. And I know you haven’t seen the Apartment, and you should, and now I will have oversold it.

      • Basic and obvious if you’re a film studies major, maybe. I’m just a hack that watches lots of movies over and over again.

        • Ahem. Sorry, I have to say it, because I wasted a year and a half of my life doing it. I also have an MA in cinema studies. Sorry – I know how that sounds!

          But dude. The lists you put together? You have seen a healthy amount of movies that I have not. And I focused on American film.

  9. I note with interest how completely male-oriented movies of the 1970s are.

    While I agree with that statement, I’ll add the exception: Alien (1979).

    Not just a fantastic movie. The first and only movie I’ve seen that treated the female hero the same way Hollywood treats male heros. In the 70’s (very late 70’s for Alien), this was unheard of. It doesn’t look so strange now, but at the time it was a big deal. In fact, I’d say that Scott and Weaver made Ripley into a realistic woman, while also being a hero.

    Of course, there are reasons why Scott treated the female hero like a male hero, but still very brilliant.

    • Honestly, I haven’t seen it in so long that I don’t feel qualified to comment.

        • When the screenplay was originally written, Ripley was a man, as were all the other characters. At the time they pitched the screenplay (mid 70’s) the writers heard that 20th Century was looking for scripts with strong female leads. The writers originally wrote the script so that all of the characters could be either male or female, except Ripley. They never thought about having Ripley be a female, but when they heard about 20th Century looking for strong female leads, they changed the script when they pitched it. And, it was accepted, partially because of that change. So, originally, it was just a way to get a studio to back their film, not out of some greater purpose.

          After Walter Hill was dropped as director (and after his rewrite making two of the characters female) and Ripley Scott took over, Scott only changed minor things in the script to accommodate a female lead. He basically left everything as it had been written – for a male lead. To test his idea, he brought in a number of women to watch Weaver’s screen tests, to get a female perspective on the casting. The women thought Weaver was excellent, and compared her to Jane Fonda (a big star at the time).

          So, it was somewhat accidental that Scott treated the female hero like a male hero, but was also somewhat by design.

          • JHG – thanks, that’s really cool info. It always amazes me how many ‘happy accidents’ it takes to make a great film.

          • WHich makes the question of authors’ intentions when interpreting a fraught one.

          • Rose – especially in film where there are so many ‘authors’. When it comes to less- collaborative artforms like prose I find myself far more inclined to give primacy to author intention when interpreting.

          • Ripley Scott s/b Ridley Scott. Funny typo.

            Well, he is talented.

          • I’ve written (professionally, that is) on the problem of multiple authorship and intention.

          • I’ve written (professionally, that is) on the problem of multiple authorship and intention.

            We should do a joint paper on that.

          • I was going to mention this in the thread about Big Bang Theory, but one of my favorite female cop characters of all time is Claudette Wymms from The Shield. It’s notable that she was originally written to be Claude Wymms and they changed that when they decided they really wanted CCH Pounder in the roll.

            I’m not sure what it says about me, or Hollywood, that I think they do female cop characters the best when they’re using a man as a template, but it sure seems notable.

          • Well, I never tried to get it published, and it was a million years ago, so I’m game!

          • I liked Betty Thomas as Lucy Bates a lot too; I’m pretty sure that was always a female part. Though I do recall a number of TV critics wondering why the writers didn’t just admit she was gay. (She wasn’t, nor was she unfeminine, just hard-nosed.)

  10. I don’t remember Vertigo well and don’t recall thinking it was all that great. Its interesting how you describe it since Hitchcock was a royal jerkwad towards women in general. He really hurt Tippi Hedren’s career.

  11. The only two of those I’ve seen are Juno and Casino Royale; the latter is one of my favourite movies, largely because of the way it does deal with the “Bond girl” idea. Actually, Quantum of Solace is decent in that respect, too. In both of them, the main Bond girls have their own objectives and goal and agendas apart from Bond, are competent in their areas of expertise, and have relationships with Bond that are more significant than sex. (There are other issues with Camille, primarily that they used a Russian actress with a fake tan to play a Latina.) But Vesper’s especially well done. The scene where they discuss her necklace and he says her boyfriend is “a very lucky man”, indicating he’s giving up his pursuit of her, is especially powerful, given that he’s previously as good as said that he sees women as a means of one-upping other men. And he never succeeds in seducing her; they only actually get together after he’s genuinely fallen in love with her and straightforwardly said so.

    It always makes me want to pretend that the movie ends right after their arrival in Venice, and everything else doesn’t actually happen.

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