Jane Austen watercolor

Strong Female Film Characters

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Strong female film characters: Will they ever consistently appear?

Movies with strong female leads have proven exceedingly popular. Consider only the success and variety of The Hunger Games, Wild, Kill Bill, Gravity, and Frozen. Yet the entertainment industry has had to be dragged—if not kicking and screaming, at least whining—into making films about strong women.

Women in the field, including the respected Emma Thompson, complain that sexism is as prevalent today in the entertainment industry as at any time in the past. “Some forms of sexism and unpleasantness to women have become more entrenched and indeed more prevalent,” Thompson says. “When I was younger, I really did think we were on our way to a better world, and when I look at it now, it is in a worse state than I have known it.”

The situation has caused Hollywood actresses, including Jennifer Aniston, Drew Barrymore, Jessica Biel, Jane Fonda, Queen Latifah, and Reese Witherspoon to found their own production companies to create films with strong female leads.

“My daughter was 13, and I wanted her to see movies with female leads and heroes and life stories,” Witherspoon explains. She and her business partner, Bruna Papandrea, through their company Pacific Standard, have already produced Wild, Gone Girl, and Don’t Mess With Texas.

Though some film heroines have used moxie and physical strength to take on a hostile world, more often women use their brains and character to hold their own in a society set against them. The source for the one consistent line of such strong, thoughtful women? Jane Austen.

At least ninety Austen-based movies, miniseries, and television shows have been done, including twenty-five or so major movies/miniseries. Most are relatively recent. The only early major movie was the Olivier-Garson Pride and Prejudice in 1940.

The Austen breakout began in 1995 with four popular Austen adaptations. Emma Thompson, quoted above, won awards as both an actress and screenwriter for Sense and Sensibility. Alicia Silverstone won accolades for the Emma-based Clueless. Jennifer Ehle battled Colin Firth until he surrendered to her charms in a Pride and Prejudice miniseries. Gwyneth Paltrow followed as Emma in 1996.

Another two dozen major productions have come along in the next twenty years, including four scheduled for release in 2015. Sarah Seltzer provides a thoughtful look at most of them, ranking the Ehle-Firth Pride and Prejudice the best and the two 1999/2007 Mansfield Parks as the worst. Even Austen’s minor books are being filmed—Love and Friendship and Lady Susan.

Why would a traditional author such as Austen be so appealing to the modern age? Perhaps women find the quiet perseverance and hope of a Liz Bennet, Catherine Morland, or Fanny Price closer to their reality than an avenging female gladiator.

There’s also a life richness often missing in action movies. Emma Thompson captures the bittersweet essence of Austen’s books when she says, “In all the great stories, even if there’s a happily-ever-after ending, there’s something sad.”

On the twentieth anniversary of the 1995 Austen emergence in film, such roles resonate today with ordinary women who face many of the same issues: a lack of respect, general economic disadvantage, and less opportunity than their male counterparts.

The same thing, of course, that females in the entertainment business face.

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