Everyone loves an antiheroine, don’t they?
Narcissistic, manipulative, murderous, vengeful, and violent, bad girls doing bad things have remained one of cinema’s greatest obsessions since the very first vamps of early pre-Code cinema grew into the femme fatales of 1940s film noir. It’s hard to quantify exactly what makes the bad girl/evil woman such a figure of fascination, but I imagine the feeling of pure and unadulterated exhilaration they inspire has much to do with it. When so much of the social construction of womanhood depends on expectations of perfection—physical, moral, and otherwise—there is something incredibly freeing in watching a woman not only reject those norms, but specifically and intentionally defy them.
To be clear, this is not a list of ideologically perfect feminist films full of feminist characters we should all look up to—we can save that for another day. This is a flawed list of flawed films featuring flawed women who are dark and dangerous, rough and raw, and deliciously, delightfully rotten. As Women’s History Month comes to a close (although we celebrate it for all 12 months of the year here at Modern Girls), we present to you this list of films that—despite all their moral ambiguity—will make you say “damn, She Did That” every time.
So whether you’re snowed in, heading off to or recovering from spring break, avoiding midterms or celebrating their end, or just looking for new something to watch, get cozy, settle in, and be a little bad with us.
LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945)
DIR. JOHN M. STAHL
If you’re a fan of David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014), this Technicolor film noir is for you. Blending the generic practices of noir, horror, and melodrama into one highly saturated story, Leave Her to Heaven is the story of the jealous, possessive, and pathologically perfect wife Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) and the extreme lengths she will go to in order to remain the only person in her unsuspecting husband’s life. Come for the cold calculation, stay for the incredible 1940s shoulder pads.
DIR. JACK HILL
“They call her Coffy and she’ll cream you!” runs the tagline of this fun, campy Blaxploitation flick. Starring the inimitable legend Pam Grier, Coffy follows a nurse of the same name seeking revenge for her young sister’s drug-related death as she tackles widespread crime issues throughout her city. One of the first films to feature a black woman as a strong female lead, it also let black audiences indulge in the feelings of successfully kicking ass and winning against white world. Female rage and bell bottoms, what else could you ask for?
DEATH BECOMES HER (1992)
DIR. ROBERT ZEMECKIS
In this satirical black comedy, Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep discover the downsides to eternal life. Using humor to critique consumer culture, modern celebrity, and toxicity of societal beauty standards, Death Becomes Her follows two rivals—both equally as narcissistic, selfish, and scheming as the other—as they attempt to remain beautiful and one up each other for the entirety of their endless lives. And with the iconic Isabella Rossellini appearing as a seductive, all-knowing, pretty much all-powerful witch Death Becomes Her is a witty, wicked parody of girl on girl crime.
JENNIFER’S BODY (2009)
DIR. KARYN KUSAMA
Somewhere out there in academia, there is a 12-page essay about how Jennifer’s Body is a classic of queer feminist cinema that was completely overlooked and misunderstood by the culture… but this isn’t about that. This is about how when Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) says, “I’m not killing people, I’m killing boys”, she ripped my 12-year-old wig off. Only getting better with time, Jennifer’s Body’s tale of a closeted lesbian cheerleader getting almost-sacrificed by an emo band and then having to eat boys to survive is about the smartest critique of early aught’s hyper-femininity and the cultural expectations of teenage girls that has been made to date.
EX MACHINA (2015)
DIR. ALEX GARLAND
I’m not sure there’s anyone out there who hasn’t seen A24’s Ex-Machina yet, but in just case there is, this recommendation is for you. In this science fiction thriller that takes place in a future that only seems to be getting nearer, we meet Ava, an AI robot built to test the possibilities of connection between humans and technology who proves the boundaries between the two are thinner than we’d like to think. Questioning what it means to be alive, to be human and to be woman, get to know Ava and decide what you think for yourself.
Words by Chaia, who studies film and has made monstrous women pretty much the entire focus of her undergrad and who could’ve made this list much, much longer.
All images via Google.