Alan and I have been talking a lot about women, women’s rights and power, and #YesAllWomen recently and perhaps some of you just want to throw your hands up and say “Why is everything about women lately?”. To that I say “Seriously?” and then I say “Half the planet is comprised of women and female members of species so you had best start getting yourself acquainted with their fantastic qualities and innate power because otherwise you will be 50% less fulfilled in life and have 50% fewer people to enrich you and show you the way, man”. (And I would also like to note that yesterday I encouraged you to read a short story about a pit full of spiders and that had nothing to do with women and everything to do with sadism, clearly.)
Not every discussion about women need be hand-wringing over the lack of equality and safety inherent in being a woman in what is still largely a man’s world. I know, I’m veering off into that topic again but heigh-ho let’s head it off at the pass and have a different discussion about women. One that is rooted firmly in pop culture where I have made my home and laid down roots and from whence I draw my enviable powers. Let’s talk about women in film and television.
This will definitely be another one of my haphazardly assembled lists of great import and very little actual research. Let’s hand out some capital letters to denote word importance, shall we? This is a Haphazardly Assembled List of Great Import and Very Little Actual Research. Pulling from my vast storehouse of completely random pop culture facts and the ever-growing ocean of things I am obsessed with, I now present to you - without defined boundaries and in no particular order, just off the top of my mind, completely biased and slanted towards things I prefer - a list of awesome women in film and TV.
Caps me, Kanye.
A RANDOM LIST OF AWESOME WOMEN IN FILM AND TV.
1. Eleanor Zissou in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Eleanor Zissou is played by Anjelica Huston and this entire list could be comprised solely of Anjelica Huston characters because I fucking adore her (yes mom, the ‘fucking’ was entirely necessary in that context) and because she is made of amazing. I won’t do that, though, I’ll be selective. I pick Eleanor Zissou out of Anjelica’s arsenal of formidable females because The Life Aquatic is so frequently overlooked and under-appreciated. Eleanor is a towering empress of a woman. She is physically impressive with long dark hair streaked liberally with royal blue, wearing statement jewels while casually smoking in that off-hand manner that seems to say ‘I’m quitting in an hour’. She is coveted by two brilliant oceanographers - her husband Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) and her former lover Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum) - and yet she is clearly entirely in control of her own destiny. Eleanor is always referred to as “the brains of Team Zissou” (with Steve being “the Zissou” in case you were wondering) and she not only provides the common sense, the financial backing, and much of the actual scientific research behind Steve’s work, she is the immovable rock against which the waves of his whim and emotion crash and roll. Without her Steve is untethered and the team fractured. She is frequently imperious and seemingly indifferent but in the crush of the hour of need she appears and lends her whole support to the task at hand. And in her own private moments she reels from the impact of loss just as much as the others. She is a beautifully rendered towering woman of strength and smarts so Eleanor rightfully takes her place as my Anjelica entry on this list of great women.
2. Ellen Ripley in the Alien franchise
If there is a signature role for an actress as versatile and commanding as Sigourney Weaver I believe it has to be Ellen Ripley. Sigourney has created some impressive women but Ripley is something else entirely. Ripley is on another plane of existence. Ellen Ripley is the quintessential reluctant hero but she is also far too complex to be drawn so simply. She is a survivor, a nurturer, a ferocious warrior, a tortured lone wolf. She proves to be fantastically strong but the essence of Ripley’s strength is that she discovers it out of necessity. She could be any one of us. As more crew members die or more aliens appear, instead of dissolving in her fear she reaches deeper into herself and discovers greater resolve and ferocity than she expected to find. She is drawn with real lines, she feels genuine, somehow relatable even though she is so far beyond our scope. She is absolutely badass. Ripley alone survives the xenomorph through countless ships and worlds and timelines. Ripley is the one with the iconic “Get away from her, you bitch” line. Ripley is the one who takes on a Queen in a power loader. And, as a special added bonus, Alien and Aliens both pass the Bechdel Test. Ellen Ripley, ladies and gentlemen. Women want to be her. And, honestly, men want to be her too. Don’t even kid yourself about that.
3. Catherine Willows in ‘CSI’
I was going to pick KC Kolowski from ‘China Beach’ for Marg Helgenberger’s entry but I settled on Catherine for two reasons: she annoys my brother-in-law far more and she’s much of the driving force behind my ‘CSI’ addiction. In Marg’s hands Catherine Willows is a woman with a sketchy past who rises beyond the tragically-drawn lines of her youth to achieve a singular kind of greatness. Catherine worked as a stripper in the Vegas club scene and battled her way out of a drug addiction and an abusive marriage to put herself through medical school and earn a place on the graveyard shift of the LVPD crime lab forensic team. She is uniquely sassy - a quality that endears her to me so much that I named her the Queen of Sass - and walks the fine line of both being greater than and readily inhabiting her sex appeal. She is willing to step completely away from men’s attraction her or use it depending on the circumstance. She is unapologetic about her opinions, incredibly driven, witty, and unerringly strong. Second only to sass, however, is her loyalty. She routinely goes above and beyond for her friends, for her team, and frequently for the victims she feels a burden to speak for. In the cacophony of procedurals, Catherine stands out as a woman unafraid of owning her past and thus being able to live beyond it to greater potential while also being unapologetically feminine. I know my brother-in-law’s mileage on this front varies but it was Catherine who kept me riveted for twelve years and Catherine I miss the most out of all the departures ‘CSI’ has seen. Marg Helgenberger is an incredible talent. Somebody amazing hire her, stat. ‘American Horror Story’? ‘Hannibal’? Come on...
4. Corky and Violet in Bound
Bound was the first film offering from The Wachowski Brothers (I suppose they’re now properly called simply The Wachowskis) and it pre-dates The Matrix. I was going to just pick Gina Gershon’s Corky but in truth this film is a tour de force for the two leads and to envision Gina without Jennifer Tilly’s Violet or vice versa isn’t possible. They’re indelibly entwined in the delicious labyrinth of a script. Literally entwined. Bound is famous for its lesbian love scenes, the bedroom scene in particular, and they’re undeniably sexy. But more importantly, they’re undeniably vital. Corky and Violet connect and bond very early in the film, physically and emotionally, and if their connection didn’t read, if they didn’t have such immediate spark and honesty, the rest of the film would fail miserably. Corky is fresh out of prison for what she calls ‘the redistribution of wealth’ and Violet is the kept girlfriend of mafia money launderer Caesar. Once they find each other, the girls decide to steal $2 million from Caesar (and thus the mob) to finance their new life together. The rest of Bound is a gorgeously-shot noir thriller pitting Corky and Violet against Caesar’s desperation and the mounting body count. That their plan feels viable is a testament to the fantastic script but that they pull it off is a tribute to their appeal. Their loyalty to one another, against all odds and reason, is the most beautifully unifying thread in the story. As gritty, sexy, witty, conniving, clever, and bold as each of the girls is by turn, it is the vulnerability and ferocious devotion they share that makes the entire film so riveting. It should go without saying that this film passes the Bechdel Test with ease. Bound is the film that convinced the studio to let the Wachowskis make The Matrix. You owe it to yourself to see it.
5. Pizzazz, Roxy, and Stormer in ‘Jem and the Holograms’
Where is it written that all the women I name must necessarily be actual live humans? I never said they would all be actual people, I just said they’d be women. Look, the Misfits may be animated cells but they are fully woman and if you refuse to hear them roar they will hunt you down and destroy you with some half-brained scheme and the aid of Techrat. Pizzazz, born Phyllis Gabor, is the green-haired lead singer of the Misfits and head antagonist of the show. Roxy, born Roxanne Pelligrini, is the platinum-haired guitarist and Stormer, born Mary Phillips, is the blue-haired keytar player. Yes! A keytar! 'Jem and the Holograms' is an unabashedly 80s show. It is a show that could only have happened in the 80s and it is a marvelous, delicious, impossible confection of insane color and sound and themes brought to you exclusively by the 80s and my childhood. I know that Jem and her pastel-coiffed Holograms are the protagonists and being that they espouse virtues as opposed to the many vices embraced by the Misfits and being that they also run a home for orphan girls called the Starlight Foundation, they are probably who we’re meant to root for. And it’s not that I dislike Jem and the Holograms it’s just that I like the Misfits so much more. The Misfits are entirely selfish and crass and disruptive and often dangerous (to both themselves and others) but they rock and they rock hard. Their sound is edgier and their lyrics, being as they are the villains, far more fun. But despite their rather arbitrarily-drawn (literally) nature as the bad guys, the Misfits also manage to be kind of amazing women in their own right. They are loyal, in their own way, without the burden of sentimentality that so plagues Jem. They are driven, ambitious, and hungry for success. They write their own music and play their own instruments. They have a fiercely singular style. They are unafraid to champion their own rights and they are as equally unafraid to pooh-pooh the advice or necessity of a man or manager. They are unsatisfied with stasis, with mediocrity, and with boredom. They are strong and sassy and, okay yes, criminal in a lot of their schemes. But they don’t sit around waiting for life to come to them. They don’t plead for a man to take care of them. They refuse to acknowledge obstacles in their way and instead view everything as readily attainable. They have charts to top, films to make, Indy 500 races to win, awards to collect, secret Hawaiian vacations to destroy, and Himalayan musical quests to crash. They’re far too busy to bother with boy trouble. In the grand scheme of awesome women who go out and get things done for themselves, Pizzazz, Roxy, and Stormer are really pretty kick-ass examples.
I've barely scratched the surface here, people. There are a lot of women kicking ass and taking names in pop culture that we need to celebrate. And where women are missing, let's rise up and write them in ourselves.
- Corinne Simpson