Most films are judged using similar metrics: plot, dialogue, cinematography, pacing, soundtrack, and more. They’re buzz words that can be found in any critic’s review, or are nonchalantly and often clumsily used when trying to impress a listener with your critical eye and sound movie judgment. In the past decade, more so than ever, films are also evaluated on their commitment to advancing the representation of female characters and the inclusion of female filmmakers. This new measure, and the conversations it sparks, are essential for keeping in check powerful figures in Hollywood, ensuring they are keeping their promises for inclusive change.
Pieces of a Woman, released on Netflix in September 2020, checks the box for telling a new story about female experience. The film follows Martha Weiss (Vanessa Kirby) through a difficult birth and the loss of her child. Martha wades through her grief, coming to terms with her identity as a mother who cannot hold her child, while dealing with a crumbling marriage and pressure from her mother to sue her midwife for her choices during Martha’s home birth. Extensive scenes without dialogue lay bare the character’s loss: Martha stares off into space in an elevator and longingly watches young children playing with their mothers.
The character’s experiences enduring the difficulty of childbirth, motherhood, and the loss of her child don’t function in the plot as secrets to be kept or a tragedy that debilitates one character and paints another as a hero. Martha’s experience is laid out as a raw example of birth, parenthood, and female resilience. The 24-minute, one-shot labor and birth scene reveals the movie’s groundbreaking nature as it shows an experience rarely depicted so intensely and organically in film.
Over break I started listening to The Atlantic Interview podcast which was first released in 2017 as the Me Too movement was growing. The writers and creators who shared their initial reactions to women’s stories of assault in various industries were running through my mind as the story of Martha’s loss unfolded. Pieces of a Woman is a film that likely would not have been made in the years before the rapid growth of the Me Too movement sparked a widespread reckoning within the film industry and prompted the creation of organizations like the Time’s Up Foundation, which advocates for safe work environments so these stories can be prevented. Rather, the stories of corruption and inequities that arose during this movement led to additional conversations that articulated the lack of female-centered stories and the need for more complex female characters in film.
The film Ammonite, which arrived on streaming services this past November, also challenged and expanded upon the traditional forms of female characters by telling the story of Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), a self-taught paleontologist living in the early 19th century. Anning made significant fossil discoveries but received little recognition at the time due to her gender.
In one striking scene on the gray, rocky shoreline, Anning and her romantic interest, Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan), have their backs to each other, staring off across the sea and up at the cliffs. An image of a tragically isolated woman, often romanticized in film and literature, is broken with a quick cut to the pair examining a fossil lodged in the mud.
Not only does the film exemplify the evolving range of female stories being told, but it also shows how the process is changing for the actors on set. In an interview with The Independent, Winslet shared how she felt that it was important to refuse a body double for nude scenes and to show her real body, challenging ideas of what type of body is shown on screen. Winslet and Ronan were also able to choreograph their intimate scenes as they portrayed a same-sex relationship that isn’t defined by secrecy or rebellion.
Despite the emergence of films resisting past norms, there’s still significant distance to travel to achieve gender equality in the film industry. A quick dive into these two movies’ IMDb pages shows that both have male directors, and the producers of Pieces of a Woman are primarily male. In a recent study done by the Center for the Study of Women in Film & Television, the percentage of men and women working behind the scenes on the top 100 U.S. films released in 2020 are still far from equal. Out of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers, 21 percent were women.
Additionally, the bravery of women to speak out about sexual harassment continues to fuel change within the industry. Shia LaBeouf, who plays Martha’s husband in Pieces of a Woman, is being sued by FKA twigs for abuse, including sexual battery and emotional distress. LaBeouf’s presence doesn’t detract from Kirby’s powerful performance, but demonstrates that even when surrounded by progress, people must continue considering who is given a platform, a role, and authority in the movie-making business.
Pieces of a Woman and Ammonite can be added to the growing list of films and television shows that are resisting typical female roles and stories. The report, however, reminds audiences and filmmakers of the work that still has to be done. More stories of women and non-binary people must be told, adding to a catalogue of films that people can come to and witness their own experiences reflected in characters onscreen. The creators on-set, on-camera, and writing the checks must be more diverse to reveal that tropes and clichés are not necessary to tell the stories of women.
Graphic by Meegan Minahan / Heights Editor