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From ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ to ‘Mary Poppins Returns,’ this year’s movies celebrated a spectrum of female strength

From ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ to ‘Mary Poppins Returns,’ this year’s movies celebrated a spectrum of female strength
Emily Blunt stars in "Mary Poppins Returns" with an impossible self-confidence and inner resolve — two traits often deemed "difficult" when discussing women. (Disney)

Strong women have seized the big screen in 2018. Finally, right?

That optimistic sentiment makes headlines year after year after year. Whenever a few female-centered films galvanize awards-season buzz or box-office numbers, it’s pitched as a newfound phenomenon. It awakens new hope that Hollywood might accept, once and for all, that storytelling led by and about women can secure both critical and commercial success.

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We’ve heard all that before, but 2018 stands out as the year that introduced a slew of stories led by female characters who embody a different definition of "strong."

"We're not holding up a banner for all of womanhood, and I certainly don't know how to do that," Karyn Kusama, director of "Destroyer" (starring Nicole Kidman), tells The Times. “It's important for men and women alike, but in this case, particularly women, to see characters who struggle with the same torments that we all do.

"I do hope there's an increasing awareness about what it does to our larger human consciousness to see interesting versions of ourselves reflected on the screen: specific, authentic, weird women who do things in their individual way," she adds.

This year's highly praised heroines, as the stars of their own narratives, each flex different muscles. It's not in how her action-movie physicality compares to that of a man’s. Nor is it in how sexually attractive a man sees her, or how integral she is to a male protagonist’s plot lines. In fact, it's not qualified in relation to a man at all.

Instead, this year’s movies collectively showcase a diverse spectrum of female strength. This gamut spans in age (from the adolescents of "The Hate U Give" and “Madeline's Madeline” to the after-middle-aged ladies of "Book Club" and "The Wife"), in racial background ("Crazy Rich Asians," "Support the Girls," "Annihilation,"), and even in interpretations of motherhood ("Wildlife," "Tully," "Private Life").

Whether tackling the humors of college campuses (“Life of the Party”), the antics of accidental espionage (“The Spy Who Dumped Me”) or the horrors of webcam pornography (“Cam”), each story presents, accepts and even celebrates each female character for the specific and complex human being she is.

This year, the female-driven fare on the big screen is rich, with more listings than this piece has space to include.

Some entries are exemplary how-to's, such as the portrayals of civil-rights icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg ("On the Basis of Sex") and Belle Époque novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette ("Colette"). Like the awards-contending biopics that came before them, these origin stories see Felicity Jones and Keira Knightley, respectively, prevailing over patriarchal systems and the men who exemplify them.

Felicity Jones portrays Ruth Bader Ginsburg in "On the Basis of Sex."
Felicity Jones portrays Ruth Bader Ginsburg in "On the Basis of Sex." (Jonathan Wenk / Focus Features)

"She's not a superhero, she's a real-life person," says "On the Basis of Sex" director Mimi Leder. "We look to real people's stories to inspire us and to tell us that our voices matter as well, and we can also make a difference on this planet."

Other narratives this year could be seen as cautionary tales. Hollywood isn't necessarily condoning the ruthless manipulations of Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz's social climbers in "The Favourite," the fatal mind games of Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively's suburban mothers in "A Simple Favor," the intriguing techniques of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s educator in “The Kindergarten Teacher” or the questionable choices of Melissa McCarthy's literary forger in "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"

"It's not just about telling the pure, clean journey with the likable woman and the monologue at the end," says "Widows" actress Elizabeth Debicki of the year's range in female-starring roles.

"Movies should go to other darker, less palatable places, with complex women who are not necessarily likable but are confronting an ugliness that's part of the female experience," she continues. "It's just simply about having the space opened up for women to be able and capable to tell these stories."

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Michelle Yeoh, left, and Constance Wu star in "Crazy Rich Asians," along with Henry Golding.
Michelle Yeoh, left, and Constance Wu star in "Crazy Rich Asians," along with Henry Golding. (Sanja Bucko / Warner Bros. Entertainment)

These female-skewing films have been favored at the box office too: "A Star Is Born," "Crazy Rich Asians," "Halloween," "Ocean's 8," "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again" and "A Wrinkle in Time" are among the top-25 domestic-grossing movies of the year so far. Additionally, “Suspiria” and “Eighth Grade” each broke the year’s records for highest per-screen average in their opening weekends, and “Hereditary” became A24’s top-grossing title.

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"Ultimately, the industry is driven by economics more than anything else," says box-office analyst Karie Bible of Exhibitor Relations. "If female-driven films keep making money like this, they will keep getting made."

A macro view of 2018's big-screen tableau reflects the realities of its audience: women who are verbally and legislatively scorned for, well, being women. This year in particular, amid whatever wave of feminism we're in, a single definition of a strong woman is far from universal.

For some, strength is best expressed when standing up for sexual-assault victims, shouting about gender parity, marching in the streets in protest and running for officeand winning. Strength is in numbers, strength is change, strength is loud and rhythmic in chant. Strength is, regardless of circumstances, refusing to ever see the glass as half empty.

For others, strength is painful, rooted in endurance instead of exertion. It's speaking your truth and, despite dismissal, discrimination and defeat, getting out of bed to face another day. Strength is solitary, strength is inaction, strength is quiet and confusing inside. Strength is acknowledging that “strength” is not, in fact, synonymous with “power” or “influence” or “success.” It’s seeing that the glass is indeed half-empty, and pushing on nevertheless.

No one approach is better than the other, off or on-screen. Female strength is relative and specific to the individual, varied in expression but equal in value.

Rosamund Pike portrays war journalist Marie Colvin in "A Private War."
Rosamund Pike portrays war journalist Marie Colvin in "A Private War." (Keith Bernstein / Aviron Pictures)

Most intriguingly, a handful of female-led releases hitting theaters throughout the holiday movie season zoom in on characters who source their fortitude in traits that are connotatively feminine. These are characteristics that women have historically been scolded for possessing, let alone expressing, yet are now being lauded on the big screen.

Take "A Private War," in which Rosamund Pike portrays the late war correspondent Marie Colvin. The drama highlights how her empathy and sensitivity equipped her to report on the innocent victims of the conflicts she covered in ways that others in the male-dominated field did not.

"I hope that when women see this movie, they're able to look at Marie and say to themselves, 'I can make a difference, and I don't have to be something that I'm not to do it,'" says screenwriter Arash Amel. "'I don't have to adopt a masculine cloak to get to the career and life that I want, and I don't have to compromise myself' — and I do see it as compromising — 'to achieve my goals.'"

A few performances turned female tropes on their heads this year: In “The Favourite,” Stone and Weisz’s characters use their sexual appeal as tools of manipulation, but their efforts are targeted toward another woman: Queen Anne (played by Olivia Colman).

Likewise, "Mary Poppins Returns" marks the big-screen return of the magical nanny, portrayed this time by Emily Blunt. With an impossible self-confidence and inner resolve — two traits deemed "difficult" when discussing a woman — she remains beloved in her generous endeavor to uplift the Banks family.

"She's someone who is not kind in a 'sugar and sweetness' kind of way — we love that she's so stern," explains David Magee, the sequel's screenwriter. "But there's no question that in Mary Poppins lies the biggest heart of all. Her goal is not to show it, it's to share it. So she helps others experience wonder and joy, and lets them own the experience rather than taking anything for herself."

Julia Roberts plays a determined mother (to Lucas Hedges) in "Ben Is Back."
Julia Roberts plays a determined mother (to Lucas Hedges) in "Ben Is Back." (Mark Schafer / LD Ent. / Roadside Attractions)

A few movies — such as the “Transformers” franchise movie “Bumblebee,” starring Hailee Steinfeld, and the post-apocalyptic adventure entry “Mortal Engines” with Hera Hilmar — highlight women whose capacity for compassion is not a fault, but an asset.

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Two titles center on mothers who will do whatever it takes to save their kids. In “Bird Box,” a determined Sandra Bullock tries to accompany her children to safety from a mysterious apocalyptic nightmare. And in "Ben Is Back," a tenacious Julia Roberts heroically and heartbreakingly goes to great lengths to help her drug-addict son (Lucas Hedges).

"Her superpower is that unconditional love as a parent, even for a kid who, from what it looks like, there's not a lot to love," says “Ben Is Back” writer-director Peter Hedges.

"She doesn't do everything right, but she does do everything from a place of love. I hope people who will see this and think about those who have been fighting for them hardest — oftentimes, it's their mothers,” he adds.

Teyonah Parris, left, KiKi Layne and Regina King costar in "If Beale Street Could Talk."
Teyonah Parris, left, KiKi Layne and Regina King costar in "If Beale Street Could Talk." (Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Pictures)

This spectrum of strength is especially widened by two performances, both by fresh faces: "If Beale Street Could Talk," (with notable newcomer KiKi Layne as a pregnant black woman trying to free her beau from jail) and "Roma" (with first-time actor Yalitza Aparicio as a family's longtime caretaker).

In a time when black men continue to be gunned down by police officers, and asylum seekers remain under attack at the U.S.-Mexico border, these two films delicately celebrate the bold choice made by women of color to exist and persist in the face of adversity.

And because these characters, people who are so often left improperly unseen in America, are played by actresses at the beginning of their careers, the audience can even envelop themselves in the subtle narratives. Through the performances by Layne and Aparicio, we see the journeys of their characters, and everyone in our own lives who have similarly soldiered on: silently, but still with so much perseverance.

"This woman sacrificed so much and, in a way, is also invisible," says "Roma" producer Gabriela Rodriguez of Aparicio’s character Cleo. "Regardless of her own turbulence, she gives so much to these people who are not her actual family, but whom she considers her family. The acknowledgment of her strength, and how important she is to that family and that home, is so beautiful."

Yalitza Aparicio plays Cleo in "Roma."
Yalitza Aparicio plays Cleo in "Roma." (Carlos Somonte / Netflix)

All of these holiday releases — including “Vox Lux,” which stars Natalie Portman as a problematic pop star; “Destroyer,” in which Kidman embarks on a rampage of revenge acts; and “Second Act,” featuring Jennifer Lopez embellishing her professional credentials for a promotion — present offbeat portrayals of female strength without any kind of blanket judgment.

Even "Mary Queen of Scots," which juxtaposes the feminine compassion of Saoirse Ronan's Mary Stuart with the practiced masculinity of Margot Robbie's Queen Elizabeth, doesn't end the movie with an endorsement of a side.

"These are women who have to be unbelievably strong because they're ruling at a time when many people considered the idea of a female monarch to be against nature and against God,” says director Josie Rourke. “So what you see is two women being driven to extremes in order to try to keep hold of their power as it's under tremendous threat. The key thing is actually to get to the humanity of these choices they were making."

Viewers might end up rooting for a specific queen anyway. But the drama purposefully portrays the woman-on-woman rivalry to push female viewers to question their own vein of vigor.

"What we really need, and what we're really owed, is some deep and honest reflection into what we mean when we say 'strong women,’" Rourke says. "Until we do that, I don't think we'll really see the change we're all so desperate for."

Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan co-star as monarchs in "Mary Queen of Scots."
Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan co-star as monarchs in "Mary Queen of Scots." (Liam Daniel / Focus Features)
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