Growing up on HBO: The early feminist movies that inspired me

For several years now Hollywood has been engulfed in a trend of remakes, redoing the old movies we loved in our youth in hopes of giving them new life as modern-day classics for a new generation. Most of these remakes have fallen flat for me, but I have to admit I was pretty excited about the new Top Gun

My husband and I decided we should show our kids the original movie so they can see its greatness for themselves and note the differences. Old versus new fight scenes! Bigger, badder explosions! More beach volleyball! We knew they’d love the both versions.

Top Gun movie imageBut 20 minutes into the classic, my 12-year-old turns to me and says, “Mom, I can’t believe you like this. These guys are sexist jerks. This movie is awful.” I was totally caught off-guard. Yet as I continued watching, his point became painfully obvious: inflated male egos everywhere, a cocky student hitting on his female teacher, testosterone to the max. Afterward, my 9-year-old commented: “The only good part was the end when they finally started blowing things up.” 

How did I ever think this movie was great? As I thought more about it, I began to realize that Top Gun is a classic snapshot in time. It was, unfortunately, where we were as a culture in 1986. I loved Top Gun back then (and still love The Hunt for Red October now), but the basic message I got was that the men were out there doing things and in charge… and the women weren’t. 

My parents are foreigners; my Dad left early every morning and came home late, while my Mom worked to keep the home running smoothly. From my own house to the Brady Bunch, I saw the way the gender roles stacked up. Fortunately one day my parents invested in a new invention – The Home Box Office – and that’s where I connected with some key movies that helped me find my place in the world. So in honor of Women’s History Month, I’d like to share a few of the feminist movies that defined me.

Women dominating the working world  

9-5 movie imageThe number of working women has steadily increased since WWII, but there was a seismic shift in the 80’s with movies that portrayed women as taking control, rising through the ranks, or becoming entrepreneurs. 9-5, for example, tells of a gaggle of secretaries who scheme to transform their office into an inclusive workplace that offers flexible hours, equal pay, and onsite daycare. In 1980! Companies still struggle with those things today! 

And then there’s Baby Boom. Should women have to choose between having a kid and having a job? Not Diane Keaton and not me. Melanie Griffith was Working Girl, which postulates that just because someone starts out answering phones, doesn’t mean she’s going to end up answering phones. And finally, Selena, the biographical story of the Tejano mogul who sang, danced, and toured her way to a clothing line and cult following. 

Women breaking cultural archetypes 

Princess Leia imageThe movies of my youth also started to break the archetype of the frail, incapable woman. First there’s Private Benjamin, which shows Goldie Hawn join the Army on a whim and discover the value of inner strength. The lesson? The life set before us is not the one we have to lead; we are tougher than we think we are. And then there’s She-Devil, which portrays women not as helpless victims, but as clever and resourceful opponents. Perhaps a Vesta Rose is what the technology industry needs right now. And my absolute favorite, Star Wars, which created the ultimate feminist idol, the woman who took absolutely no sh*t and ruled the galaxy: Princess Leia.

Behold the power of female friendships

Waiting to Exhale imageOf course, there were plenty of feminist movies that depicted the power of friendships among women, like Waiting to Exhale, which shows how women watching out for each helps them build power. We all need those trusting relationships in our lives.

At the time, grief was still a matter largely kept private, but thank goodness for two classics – Steel Magnolias and Beaches – who opened us up to emotion. Those movies highlight just how much we need to rely on our friends when the going gets tough. Truly they both are tearjerkers that present the comic with the tragic in a beautiful way.

Inspiring a new generation of women

These old storylines, which were totally outnumbered by slapstick comedies and male heroes, came at just the right time to launch a new generation of feminism. We began to see what was possible, what could happen when women take charge. As a result, the women who watched those movies are now pushing for equal pay in Hollywood, amplifying the #MeToo movement, and working for greater diversity and more representation

They’re also bringing women into venture capital, helping women invest, leading companies, starting companies, and running for office in record numbers. And now that we have models for what these roles actually look like – on the big screen and in our very own world – the girls of today will know what’s possible. There is no limit to what we can do.

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