Circuit 10: Empowering Films for Girls from the Past Ten Years

***To celebrate the Awards Circuit’s 10 Year Anniversary, a new series is born.  “Circuit 10” is a column that will run every week (often times more than once) until May 2019. Any articles or listings will only cover film or television within the last 10-year time frame and can also tie into that week’s respective releases.*** 

In “Legally Blonde,” Elle Woods famously said, “You must always have faith in people. And most importantly, you must always have faith in yourself.”

Disney’s Princess Merida said, “Our fate lives within us. You only have to be brave enough to see it.”

And in “Whip It,” Maggie Mayhem told Bliss, “Well, put your skates on. Be your own hero.”

“Empowering” is a term that is sometimes thrown about too carelessly when it comes to films about women and girls. Read any male critic’s positive review of “Red Sparrow” for an example of this. Just because a movie puts a lady in the leading role doesn’t automatically mean it’s a beacon for feminism.

But there are a lot of stories that do celebrate women and girls. That tell their stories in positive ways, and show women who are independent and smart and brave. Last year alone, “Lady Bird,” “The Shape of Water,” “Molly’s Game” and more offered a range of amazing women taking charge of their lives. Some other recent releases include “Ghostbusters,” “The Hunger Games,” “He Named Me Malala,” and “Belle.”

For this week’s Circuit 10, and in conjunction with the release of, “Eighth Grade,” we are looking at ten films from the last ten years that are empowering for young girls. In deciding how to narrow down such a list, I selected a collection of movies that are appropriate for middle schoolers on up to adulthood. And there are a few that are suitable to even younger audiences as well.

10. “Easy A” (2010)

What starts off as a high school comedy about a fun and sassy teenager becomes much more. Emma Stone stars as Olive Pendergast, the focus of major slut-shaming when she tells a little lie to a friend that sends rumors flying around campus. Refusing to be a victim, though, Olive takes matters into her own hands and turns the tables on her classmates, while also skewering puritan principles by loosely adapting their current reading assigment: “The Scarlet Letter.” Olive’s story unfolds as she shares the salacious details via webcam to an unseen audience. And she raises vital questions about how boys and girls are treated so differently. If a girl has sex, she’s a slut. If a boy does it, he’s a stud. Stone’s performance especially sells this story, but ultimately, it is one about a girl reclaiming what belongs to her: herself.

9. “Frozen” (2013)

A year after Pixar’s first princess movie introduced the revolutionary concept that a princess could choose not to get married, along came two even crazier ideas: 1) rushing into marriage can be a really bad idea and 2) a queen is allowed to not even want to be married at all. But the girl power story doesn’t end there.

Elsa, in addition to being the new Queen of Arendale, also has magic powers. After a childhood accident that almost killed her beloved little sister, she suppressed her powers. But one side of the real story of “Frozen” is a woman learning not only to accept but to embrace who she is and what she can do. And once she accepts herself and her abilities, she gets to decide if she uses it for good or for bad. She is in control of her present and her future. The other half of the story is about a starry-eyed younger sister who just wants to love and be loved, which leads her to courageously do things that scare her. These are two very different sisters that each display strength in their own ways.

The other reason “Frozen” matters is that it was the first time a woman, Jennifer Lee, co-directed a feature film from Disney Animation. And it was just the year after another woman, Brenda Chapman, co-directed Pixar’s “Brave.”

Queen of Katwe8. “Queen of Katwe” (2016)

There are so many things to love about this true story from director Mira Nair. A young Ugandan girl named Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) discovers she is a chess prodigy and uses her skills to improve her life and her family’s circumstances. It is also a beautiful story about a daughter and her struggling, widowed mother (Lupita Nyong’o). They fight and get mad at each other like every mother and daughter. Fiona acts like a typical teenager sometimes, letting her ego take control while she’s learning what to do with her newfound opportunities. Fiona has help along the way, namely in the form of a teacher named Robert (David Oyelowo). But, as we see with many of the films on this list, no matter how much help you receive, true strength comes from within.

7. “Coraline” (2009)

Based on the book by Neil Gaiman, “Coraline” is the story of a fearless girl whose curious nature lures her into something dangerous. But her stubborn refusal to give up is what ultimately saves her. Coraline is a girl that is perfectly happy entertaining herself but also isn’t shy about interacting with others. She likes to do her own thing and knows when to do what she’s told. She’s respectful of her elders, even when they are very, very odd, and she refuses to give up because quitting is just not in her nature. One of the best things about this animated tale is that Coraline doesn’t need to be rescued. In a sea of movies where even the strongest women often have to be saved by someone at the last minute, it’s refreshing to see a movie about a young girl who saves herself.

6. “The Breadwinner” (2017)

In Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, young Parvana takes it upon herself to provide for the family after her father is arrested and thrown in prison. Parvana finds freedom in disguising herself as a boy and running wild through the streets of Kabul, but caring for her mother and siblings is always her top priority. If discovered, her crime is punishable by death. And maybe someone so young doesn’t fully understand those consequences. But she does know enough to understand the danger, and makes the choice anyway. Even more, she makes the choice without hesitation.

Hidden Figures

5. “Hidden Figures” (2016)

This true story is significant for girls in general because the STEM field is awesome. But it is even more significant for girls of color who rarely see themselves portrayed as smart. And not only are the hidden figures at NASA smart, they are actual geniuses. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) are names most hadn’t heard until this production hit theaters. Their story is compressed and highly dramatized, but it is essential viewing. These women are exceptional at their jobs, but they have also fully realized women with families and lives away from work. They are shown balancing careers and families at a time when women simply didn’t have both. And they get to do all of this while being feminine and beautiful.

4. “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (2017)

The “Star Wars” franchise started out by giving us one of the best female characters in all of cinema. But it took 40 more years for them to give us an entire cast of great women that relegate men to more or less whining in the corner. We already loved Rey (Daisy Ridley) after meeting her in “The Force Awakens” in 2015. Now we witness her tenacity as she refuses to be brushed aside by Luke Skywalker, refuses to be seduced by Kylo Ren, and gets to be a fierce warrior without a sterling pedigree.

Parallel to Rey’s storyline, we also get General Organa (Carrie Fisher) putting people in their places in a way only Leia could get away with. Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) refuses to be pushed around by a cocky flyboy who assumes he knows what’s best. And newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) provides immense amounts of heart and optimism in a galaxy that has seen endless war and tumult. Good female characters have always been part of the “Star Wars” universe. But Rian Johnson and “The Last Jedi” gave them the real power.

3. “A Wrinkle in Time” (2018)

The mixed critical reactions to this adaptation were very noteworthy. Men and women clearly saw two different films here. What we have is another story about a brainy and beautiful young woman of color. Meg’s race isn’t identified in Madeline L’Engle‘s novel, but Storm Reid‘s race is significant to the story Ava Duvernay wants to tell. Presenting a young heroine who is also biracial matters. The film is beautiful and imaginative and often spectacular. But at the heart is a lonely girl who is deeply connected to her family, and will sacrifice everything for them. Going a bit further, the three ethereal beings who help are all brilliant women. So is Meg’s mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who showcases a wealth of intelligence and love, even in limited screen time. The boys aren’t useless here, but they certainly take a backseat to a cast of exceptional women.

2. Wadjda (2012)

There are several reasons “Wadjda” is such a significant and essential film. From Saudi Arabia, it is the story of a ten-year-old girl (Waad Mohammed) who lives with her mother in Riyadh. Unlike many of the women around her, who strictly follow the laws of the land, Wadjda questions everything. Her best friend is a boy. She longs for a bicycle. That longing only grows as she is repeatedly told that bikes aren’t for girls. Wadjda finds the bike of her dreams at a local store and decides to enter her school’s Koran competition in hopes of winning the prize money. This basic premise has been used many times before. But here, Wadjda must obsessively study her religion in order to gain the means to subvert it. This is a brilliant spin on a familiar plot.

Behind the scenes, “Wadjda” matters because it is the first Saudi film to be directed by a woman. And not only was Haifaa Al-Mansour able to claim that honor, her film was also selected as Saudi Arabia’s official entry into the 2013 Academy Award for Foreign Language Film. For a country that only began issuing driver licenses to women a few weeks ago, the significance of this film and its very existence cannot be overlooked.

1. “Wonder Woman” (2017)

Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman, has always been a great character in the comic world. Her story was told on television in the 1970s. But then we watched Batman’s adventures told and retold, and Superman’s and Spider-Man’s and a slew of superheroes and super spies, and more. All the while, Wonder Woman waited in the wings, her story begging to join the throng. And finally, Patty Jenkins got the chance to introduce a new generation to one of the world’s greatest heroes.

To understand the significance of this film, one must only scroll through pictures from last year’s global press tour to see countless girls of all ages, dressing up like Wonder Woman. One particularly moving photo went viral on Twitter, when a girl of maybe 6 or 7, dressed in full regalia, stood before Gal Gadot. The star tenderly put her hands on the girl’s tiny face, and they just looked at each other and smiled.

“Wonder Woman” gives us the character we have craved, told through a story that appeals to everyone. It is witty and action-packed, romantic, and sad. And it really drives home the most important tenet of Diana’s belief: “Only love can save the world.”

What are some of your favorite empowering films for girls over the past ten years? Comment below and add to our list!