First Wives Club (1996) In this comedy-drama three women decide to take back their lives after their husbands abandon them for younger women. Their hilariously orchestrated plan includes dismantling the businesses they were integral in building for their husbands, and instead using their resources to start up an organisation to aid abused women. The film is a celebration of female solidarity, achievement, and liberation, and their closing sing-along to Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” is impossible not to join in with.
Girl, Interrupted (1999) is an intense portrayal of the experiences of women who are consigned to a mental institute for a variety of reasons, but find in one another a dysfunctional kind of comradery. Exceptions to the norms of society, these women are deemed dangerous threats to that same society and are made vulnerable to attempts to exert control over their gender, sexuality, and perception. Only through each other can they be seen as individuals and more than stereotypes of their mental health.
Legally Blonde (2001) Elle Woods might originally get into Harvard Law School (like it’s hard) to chase a man, but her ambitions soon extend to coming top of her class and ensuring a just end to a comically executed murder trial. This film refuses to endorse stereotypes and instead undermines them to emphasise that women are multi-faceted individuals whose potential is realised through embracing, and not being ashamed of, who they are. And it’s far more entertaining than it is cringey or predictable.
Real Women Have Curves (2002) The title at first appears a proponent of a flawed and prescriptive feminism, but Patricia Cardoso’s film instead inspires a confidence in bodies of all shapes and sizes. America Ferrara in the lead role insists that women are more than their bodies or sexual reputations, and refuses to allow any limitations on her freedom or self expression to impose upon her ambitions.
Bend it like Beckham (2002) Director Gurinder Chadha’s skill at expressing the difficulty for women in reconciling traditional and modern values drives this film. Defying her family’s customs and marital expectations, Jessminder instead pursues a career in football. The freedom of playing a sport she loves is marred by the need to hide her passion from her family, but the resulting hijinks are very entertaining and give the film its inspiring character. Look out for a surprise cameo from none other than David and Victoria Beckham themselves (sort of.)
Mean Girls (2004) One of the most often quoted films in teen pop culture, the trappings and heightened emotions of adolescence are translated to the big screen in this hilarious social commentary. A plea to young women to treat one another with more respect and favour solidarity over social hierarchy has only become more relevant over time.
The Princess Diaries 2 (2004) A woman does not need a man to succeed (or rule) but neither is it wrong for her to harbour romantic notions for eligible bachelors. Princess Mia is a role model for all women who refuse to be limited by injustice or inequality in her insistence that she be accorded the same treatment as any Prince. The magic of a Disney tale with a modern twist is almost irresistible, but the charming grace of Julie Andrews most definitely is.
Dreamgirls (2006) Trying and failing to sing along to Beyonce’s ‘Listen’ is the only incentive needed to watch Dreamgirls. The struggle women face to take control of their own careers and businesses, and whose success is so often dictated by their appearance and the will of the men around them, comes to a cheer raising resolution and gives a whole new meaning to the label ‘diva.’
The Secret Life of Bees (2008) A difficult exploration of what it means to grow up without a mother and in the midst of the brutality of the civil rights movement is countered by the close-knit family of bee-keeping women who provide sanctuary and nurturing. Neither idealised or sanitised, the film is nevertheless quietly beautiful and poignantly optimistic.
Whip It (2009) Ellen Page spurns beauty pageants for roller derby and joins Drew Barrymore (who also directs) in a bad ass girl gang whose team spirit is ultimately more important than their victories (or lack of them.)
Girlhood (2014) follows a gang of black girls (who director Celine Sciamma recognised as being under-represented in French film) who form a support system which helps them to face the realities of their impoverished and criminalised community, and to navigate the nature of their own gender, sexuality, and racial identity.
Obvious Child (2014) Abortion is not the usual topic of romantic comedies, but it is an obvious albeit apparently controversial truth that woman who have abortions go on to live happy and fulfilling lives. The central protagonist being met with support and affirmation of her capabilities to decide her future for herself is a welcome high note of the film, and the consistent humour (the abortion is scheduled for Valentine’s Day) normalises a subject which for too long has been mistakenly considered taboo.
Ghostbusters (2016) The all-female remake of the classic films is entertaining in its own right, proving that women can be both funny and heroic. It gives women the sci-fi action leads they have long been awaiting, and gives audiences a new generation of role models to rally around.
Queen of Katwe (2016) The true story of chess champion Phiona who dreams of bringing her family out of poverty through her skill is told beautifully. Mira Nair’s film is compelling and captivating, reminding us that just because a woman’s story has not been told does not mean that it should not be.