The cinema of 2011 offered a long overdue news flash. While our brains have been programmed from years of Kate Hudson and Katherine Heigl vehicles to think that all women wanted was a husband and a hot pair of Manolo Blahniks, this year's movies germinated the notion that things aren't quite that simple. Or simple-minded.
Much of this year's Oscar attention will no doubt focus, and deservedly so, on the showy female roles — the exquisite Meryl Streep in Iron Lady, Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn, and the ever-versatile Jessica Chastain (Tree of Life, Take Shelter) in everything — but there were just as many under-the-radar performances that offered some remarkably contrarian, subversive, and crazy-as-hell portraits of women.
Melissa McCarthy, as the on-the-make singleton with a gooey soft center in Bridesmaids, was her own special effect, free of digital intervention. You couldn't take your eyes off of her. Finally, here was someone playing a plump, wild-eyed lady and it wasn't Tyler Perry or Adam Sandler in drag. With its strong ensemble cast of funny women, the subtly girl-power based Bridesmaids was a multiplex sensation very different from the feminist buddy flick Thelma & Louise, which so galvanized female viewers in 1991. Bridesmaids goes down so easy, and is so funny and so rude — but also tender — that many viewers barely noticed they were witnessing a middle finger to decades of chick-flick drivel. Instead, the movie flouted nearly every regressive stereotype about women: That mothers were demure doormats. That newlyweds are nothing but blissed-out over the fact that someone finally put a ring on it. That fat girls should just fade into the woodwork and never dare play sexual aggressor. That women live for the thrill of putting on their bridesmaid gowns. And that the transition from single woman to married one is easy, natural, and the coveted finish-line for every female on the planet.
But Bridesmaids was just one film in what often felt like a mini-trend in 2011 cinema. In a rare alignment of the gender stars, female characters this year often equaled male ones in their complexity. They were narcissistic, shallow, vulnerable, marriage-averse, sex-crazed, ambitious, depressed, jealous, defiant, obnoxious, and a mess. In other words, far from the chick-flick standard of beautiful young women with great careers and great apartments living in great cities with a close circle of friends terminally dissatisfied because their only real aspiration in life is to get a husband.
Female film characters this year were, in a nutshell, losers. But not the hapless drips of the Bridget Jones ilk trying to get their work and love life straightened out while struggling to drop a few stones. Instead, this was the year of the Judd Apatow-worthy female sad sacks with failed businesses and anger issues, and fast approaching middle-age as they indulge in the American birthright of navel-gazing misery. In the cringe-inducing, brilliantly funny Young Adult, they were husband-stealing creeps, immature, petty, and, frankly, thrilling to watch. Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) in Young Adult makes the Hollywood "tough chicks" played by Demi Moore and Sharon Stone look like cyborgs. She is both mercenary and vulnerable, defying every race-to-the-altar chick flick standard by being ruthless and narcissistic enough to go after a married man with — double yowza — a newborn baby girl. Treading a difficult road, and forcing us to empathize with a woman who would have been written off in the reality TV vernacular as a skank, Diablo Cody's smart, convention-busting script finds something resembling a soul even within Mavis' self-interest and hard-candy coating. For once, female characters were allowed to be as loser-esque as any of Knocked Up or Superbad's dick-flick protagonists, winning our hearts despite their bad attitudes.
This appeared to be the year of women contending with motherhood in ways both terrifying and cathartic, from Take Shelter to Poetry to We Need to Talk About Kevin. This year, film gave mothers their props; it's a hard job and sometimes the kids turn out lousy no matter how faithfully you wipe their bottoms. That was certainly the case in the psychologically labyrinthine We Need to Talk About Kevin, in which mother Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) tries mightily to win the love of a son who appears to have despised her since toddlerhood. A subversive female character on many levels, Eva reverses the usual formula of domesticity-crazed wives by resisting her husband's efforts to move the family from gritty Manhattan to the bland suburbs. There her isolation and sense of powerlessness seems to only intensify as she contends with a sociopathic son. Naturally, when the son acts on his anti-social impulses, society's full wrath comes down on the mother for nurturing a monster.
And in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher revisited the chronically difficult genius Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) from Stieg Larsson's bestselling thriller, offering another admirable take on a very different female action hero archetype. Outdoing both Batman and Spider-Man with her troubled back story and grim sensibility, Lisbeth has been brutalized, raped, and shunned from polite society but nevertheless remains steadfast, faithful, heroic, and resourceful. She is an action hero for the ages, as apt to use her brain as her mad motorcycle racing skills to do good.
In 2011 you could be a pissed off and pierced female heroine, a reluctant and depressed bridesmaid, and a closing-in-on-middle-aged woman while being more than a little self-absorbed, needy, and economically strapped — and still command audience sympathy and identification. And that, more than anything, felt like remarkable progress.