10 Films About Sexism, Women’s Fight for Equality

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Chances are, if you’re a moviegoer, you’ve heard a little something about women’s fight for equality in Hollywood. According to Women and Hollywood, a nonprofit organization that educates and advocates for the cause, women remain poorly represented behind the camera, making up just 10% of directors and 19% of writers. It’s no wonder that women, so often boxed out of sharing their stories on screen, would distill that pain into their filmmaking, creating powerful stories of how sexism and misogyny continue to oppress women from all walks of life.

In these ten movies about sexism, women struggle for equality everywhere from iron mines to NASA to the Supreme Court. They also rail against the intersections of bigotry, seeing their fight for gender equality inflected by racism, homophobia, and other shameful prejudices. For women, these films will ring as validations of a shared struggle. For everyone else, they’ll be an education, an exercise in empathy, and a rousing call to arms. If you feel galvanized to take action by any of these films, don’t just sit there—explore what you can do in your community, and how you can be an ally in the long project of achieving gender equality.

On the Basis of Sex

Felicity Jones stars as the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in this stirring biopic about how Ginsburg made history, from her early days at Harvard Law School to the landmark gender discrimination case she argued in federal court during the early 1970s. On the Basis of Sex traces Ginsburg’s experiences of sexism everywhere from Harvard, where she was one of just nine women in a class of nearly 500 students, to the working world, where she became a college professor after no law firm would hire a young female lawyer.

The film charts Ginsburg’s battle to establish a constitutional theory dismantling gender discrimination; to this day, her brilliant legal strategy continues to inform the feminist fight for social justice. Asked to comment on the film’s accuracy, Ginsburg had just one quibble: when she argued her case in court, she, unlike her fictional counterpart, was never at a loss for words.

Colette

Much like Beetlejuice, if you say “historical feminist biopic” three times fast, Keira Knightley comes running. How lucky we are that she devoted her talents to portraying Colette, the French writer and bon vivant whose eighty-plus books paved the way for French women to live and write as audaciously as she did. Colette opens with twenty-year-old Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette’s marriage to Henry Gauthier-Villars, better known as Willy, the fin de siècle writer who employed an army of ghostwriters to pen his commercially popular novels.

When Colette joins their ranks by penning a semi-autobiographical novel at Willy’s behest, its instant financial success transforms her into her husband’s creative captive, with Willy quite literally locking her away to write three ensuing bestsellers. Colette traces its namesake’s battle for ownership over her own work, as well as her sexual liberation via a series of extramarital affairs, most importantly with Missy, a transgender man. Over a century later, Colette’s quest for autonomy and self-actualization continues to resonate.

Hidden Figures

In this Academy Award-nominated film based on a true story, a star-studded cast pays tribute to three pioneering Black scientists, who together played a central role in the 1960s space race while facing brutal misogyny and racism from their colleagues at NASA. At NASA HQ, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) are employed in dead-end data processing jobs, denied professional advancement and segregated to different facilities.

As NASA scrambles to send an astronaut into orbit, the women fight to be heard and valued, culminating in a triumphant achievement that owes everything to their brilliance. Uplifting and inspirational, Hidden Figures celebrates accomplishments that too long went ignored, while also excoriating the white male establishment for its myriad failures.

The Life and Death of Marsha P. Johnson

In this gripping documentary, director David France explores the exuberant life and mysterious death of Marsha P. Johnson, a trans icon, drag queen, and tireless LGBTQ activist who played a prominent role in the Stonewall Riots. In July 1992, Johnson was suspiciously classified as dead by suicide when her body was found floating in the Hudson River; over twenty-five years later, France documents the efforts of New York City Anti-Violence Project activist Victoria Cruz to investigate just how Johnson died, and who might have wanted her dead.

Cruz’s investigation gives rise to a careful study of the epidemic of violence against trans women of color, which ended Johnson’s life and continues to prove fatal for thousands of trans women today. At once a true crime whodunit, an illumination of injustices still going unredressed, and a celebration of a bygone New York City, The Life and Death of Marsha P. Johnson exalts the shoulders on which the modern LGBTQ movement stands.

North Country

When Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) returns to her Minnesota hometown after the dissolution of her marriage, she finds work as one of the first women to roll up her sleeves in the local iron mine. Offended at the notion of working with women, male miners subject Josie and her cohorts to brutal sexual harassment, hoping to drive the women away. Against all advice, Josie takes her complaints to court, moving the film out of the mines and into a riveting courtroom drama. Loosely based on the true story of the first class-action lawsuit filed on the basis of sexual harassment, this stirring drama features winning performances, infuriating behavior, and a galvanizing verdict that continues to protect American women in the workplace.

Confirmation

Confirmation dramatizes the events of Anita Hill’s explosive Congressional testimony, unspooling the perfect storm of discrimination and national media scrutiny that consumed Hill during her brave appearances before the Senate Judiciary Committee. For those not old enough to remember: in 1991, George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Hill, a young civil rights lawyer and academic, was called before a committee of white male senators to testify about the sexual harassment she alleged Thomas exacted upon her.

What followed was a circus of mockery, cruelty, and toxic masculinity, with Hill bullied and denounced by a committee that went on to confirm Thomas to the highest court in the land. Confirmation unpacks the thorny intersection of race, gender, and power at the heart of this shameful episode in American history, while reminding us of the unforgettable debt that American women owe to Hill.

Set It Off

Set It Off transforms the trappings of the familiar heist movie structure into a soulful, socially conscious thriller about a tight-knit group of four working class Black women in Los Angeles, who turn to robbing banks when misogynoir and homophobia push them over the brink. Starring Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Vivica A. Fox, and then-newcomer Kimberly Elise, Set It Off sensitively explores the systemic obstacles preventing these women from making an honest living, painting a damning portrait of the forces conspiring to oppress women of color.

A League of Their Own

In this seminal classic, director Penny Marshall fictionalizes the rise of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, founded in 1943 to keep professional baseball alive while men were overseas fighting in World War II. Geena Davis, Madonna, Lori Petty, and Rosie O’Donnell star as players recruited to form the Rockford Peaches, an underdog team that rises all the way to the World Series, albeit with some troublesome bumps along the way, like sexist assumptions about female athletes and friction with their has-been coach (played by Tom Hanks). Sentimental and sassy, A League of Their Own will make you laugh, tug at your heartstrings, and remind you of the eternal power of sisterhood.

9 to 5

Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda star in this screwball comedy about a group of women working in the same office, who conspire to overthrow their “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” boss. Their plan quickly and comically gets out of hand, with a kidnapping plot revealing an embezzlement scheme and a complicated chain of blackmail. Though the film was made in 1980, the social issues it tackles continue, disappointingly, to animate our discussions about the American workplace, from childcare to equal pay to clear paths to advancement.

In A World…On the Basis of Sex, Colette, Hidden Figures, The Life and Death of Marsha P. Johnson, North Country, Confirmation, Set It Off, A League of Their Own, 9 to 5, In A World…, Sexism

Writer-director Lake Bell is also the star of In a World…, an alt-comedy about Carol, a vocal coach and dialect expert who longs to emulate her father’s illustrious career in voiceover work. Carol’s father dismisses her ambitions, insisting that a woman’s voice has no place in the voiceover boys’ club, but when Carol and her father’s male protegé are up for the same high-profile gig, events soon devolve into a hilarious pissing match. In this winning and wise story, Bell takes aim at institutionalized Hollywood sexism, while broadening the lens to consider the role generational differences play in shaping how we use our voices.

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About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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