Beyond Pretty Women: Gender Studies Through Film

Author: Vera Kobalia

I met with Carlos during my visit to Taipei as he kindly offered to take me on a tour of the city. Living and working in the city for over a year, his knowledge of places to eat and catch a live performance was exponentially better than mine. As we walked through the night market we talked about his research at the University of Taipei and the imminent return to Brasilia to teach in the fall semester. “what course?” I asked. “International Politics of the 20th Century through Film”.

After the trip to Taipei, as my fellowship at the University of Hong Kong was coming to an end, I found myself thinking more and more about gender equality and female-led movements taking place across the world. The #Metoos and #GlassCeilings. It was the little things, comments overheard around the campus or at dinner tables that got my mind racing. Comments such as “How convenient for her to remember the rape 30 years later” or “this has gone too far, you can’t even flirt with a colleague any more”.

As a reaction, I started a series of interviews titled “conversations with women” and found myself with women that on the outside emitted so much power and success, and often, internally, were struggling with so many expectations put on their shoulders. “Good for you, only a 2-week maternity leave. What a powerhouse.”

Going back in my mind to the conversation with Carlos, I thought, wouldn’t it be great to teach young girls and boys from an early age the concept of equality. And to do this through movies, through visuals they can relate to.

I clearly remember the three movies that we were shown in high school. It’s a Wonderful Life, in my ESL class when I just moved to Canada. Schindler’s List, in history class and Basketball Diaries, as an attempt to warn us of the dangers of drug use.

What movies does one show to illustrate “what it feels like for a girl”? And what is a feminist movie anyway? Is it one that passes a Bechdel test (The test, created by comic artist Alison Bechdel, asks whether a film has at least two female characters and at least one scene in which they talk to one another about something other than a man) or a Mako Mori test (based on Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim character, the test asks whether a film has at least one female character who gets her own narrative that is not about supporting a man’s story). To me both tests can act as good indicators on how to pick a movie over the weekend, but too narrow to classify all movies of all time into good or bad categories.

The point for this course is to illustrate that we are all equal. And it is by character, and not sex, that we should be categorizing people. But life is not that way, yet. So my movies on this list start with girls in their adolescence, trying to figure out what it’s like to be a girl (periods and breasts and all), to the day when they start thinking about their rights and rights they don’t have, and to the day when this will all pass, and we will all be on equal terms.

Of course, nothing is stopping you to join my imaginary class now, from your own home and screen.

Girlhood, 2014, France
Hollywood movies portraying the life of a teenager tend to congregate around the same territory. Girl meets boy, there are some challenges, all ends well. Feel-good movies that feel flat. Girlhood is different. Set in a poor neighborhood of Paris it tells a story of a gang of girls. But it could be any neighborhood of the western world. The street fights, hotel room parties, girls roaming aimlessly through shopping centers, all flawlessly played by first-time actress Karidja Touré.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, 2014, USA
Music is essential when you are growing up. A 4-minute track can explain more about the world to a teenager than a 400-page textbook. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night tells the story of a skateboarding teenage vampire that roams the streets of an unnamed Iranian town punishing men that mistreat women. Shot in black and white, with a killer soundtrack, this is a much better teenage vampire movie.
Roma, 2018, Mexico
Only after watching Roma has it dawned on me that Alfonso Cuarón must be a feminist. Roma is a story of a domestic worker in an affluent neighborhood of Mexico City in 1970s. Cuaron tells the story of his real-life childhood nanny, an indigenous woman from Oaxaca. This is a story of one and a story of so many at the same time. A story of domestic workers be it from the Philippines, Indonesia or Georgia. A story full of women from all walks of life – complex, raw and powerful at the same time.
Faces Places, 2017, France
You should watch all the movies by brilliant Agnes Varda, Belgian born French queen of New Wave Cinema. Most people would start with “Cleo from 5 to 7”. But in this class, I reverse the frame and start at the end. With her last documentary, Faces Places, that depicts her adventures with artist/muralist JR. As they go about France turning ordinary people into wall murals, a bigger picture of today’s world emerges. And once you meet the dock worker’s wives closer to the end of the film, you realize why Varda has always been a vital voice for women.

The other seven movies that will be shown, discussed and dissected in this class:

Plus, other movies and tv shows that didn’t make it into the class curriculum but can be enjoyed in your free time.


  • A touch of Sin, 2013, China
  • Revenge, 2017, France
  • Anything by Canadian Director Sarah Polley

TV Shows: Anything by Shonda Rhymes (for giving us tough, complex, leading female characters on TV)