The Cracked Screen

“Barbie,” “Women Talking,” and “Promising Young Woman” are three recent films that harness the power of female rage and the female gaze to entertain — and crack open the patriarchy that still runs Hollywood.

Cracked movie theatre screen with pink curtains. On the screen is two girls in pink dresses.

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When Barbie came out during the summer of 2023, videos flooded my TikTok “For You” page. At first, they were positive reactions about how Barbie addressed societal issues women face daily. Then something changed, and I was on the other side of the Barbie conversation. I saw nothing but bad reviews. People were saying the movie was terrible, too feminist, too woke. I knew I needed to see it for myself. So, on a hot Tuesday night in August, my sister and I dressed in pink, put bows in our hair, and made our way to the theatre.

The smell of butter and popcorn filled the air, and people played games in the arcade. There was a weird but happy buzz in the theatre that I couldn’t put my finger on at the moment, but looking back, it felt like I was in Barbie Land. People were happy, dressed in pink, and saying “Hi Barbie” to people they’d never met before.

While films provide enjoyment, they can also serve as tools for writers and directors to critique culture, sometimes by holding a mirror to society and reflecting it back in a new way that helps us see our culture differently and other times using their creativity to imagine new or different ways of being or seeing the world. Whatever the case, movies can reveal societal issues and get viewers thinking. They can shift our way of viewing the world through attention-grabbing storylines and relatable characters. Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, and Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman incorporate elements of female rage and use the female gaze to engage viewers and spark conversations about women’s agency and place in the world — these movies got people talking about feminism.

Greta Gerwig’s 2023 Barbie is a comedy adventure starring Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, and America Ferrera. The movie follows Barbie’s journey as she ventures beyond Barbie Land into the real world to uncover the identity of the girl who has been playing with her, leading to a journey of self-discovery for both Barbie and the girl involved. The film received nominations at the Academy Awards, Critics’ Choice, and Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture, Best Supporting Roles, and Best Screenplay.

Women Talking, directed by Sarah Polley, is a powerful drama about a group of women in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia. When they uncover the truth about men drugging and sexually assaulting them, the women must come together to decide their next steps. It tells the story of their journey to self-preservation and their commitment to their faith, children, and the other women in the community. The 2022 drama — adapted from Miriam Toews’ novel of the same name — stars Claire Foy, Rooney Mara, and Jessie Buckley. Women Talking won Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards and Critics’ Choice and received many nominations at the Academy Awards, Critics’ Choice, and Golden Globes Awards.

Promising Young Woman is a 2020 film directed by Emerald Fennell and stars Carey Mulligan. The drama thriller is a rape-revenge movie about Cassie (Carey Mulligan) trying to get justice for her friend Nina, who took her own life after a sexual assault by a male classmate when she was in medical school. The film received nominations in many categories at the Academy Awards, Critics’ Choice Awards, and Golden Globe Awards and won Best Writing (Original Screenplay) at the Academy Awards and Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay at the Critics’ Choice Awards.

One way these films got people talking about feminism was by showing women’s anger. Rage — a feeling of intense anger or an intense feeling of passion — can be felt by anyone. But, female rage has emerged as a special classification that women use to define rage in certain circumstances. 

But female rage is not just about angry women. It comes from gender oppression and serves a purpose. Doro Wiese, assistant professor at the department of languages and cultures at Radboud University Nijmegen, writes in her essay “Female Desire and Feminist Rage: Ana Lily Amirpour’s Reworking of the Vampire Motif in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” that female rage is an “agential tool for understanding and changing patriarchal destructiveness.” Within film, female rage is a narrative device that critiques and dismantles cultural norms and societal issues created by the patriarchy. It also serves as a tool for storytelling with no right or wrong way to display or feature it.

“There are different kinds of female anger, and rage looks different with different kinds of women,” says Laina Brown, a cinematographer and co-owner of Folks Films, a Manitoban brother and sister-owned film company.

Polley’s Women Talking uses female rage as a narrative device to drive the story forward. The women deciding the next steps for all women in the community are angry about the decision they are forced into as a result of the abuse and living conditions created by the men of the colony. The conversations at the centre of the film happen while the men are in town. One got caught trying to climb through a window to sexually assault a sleeping woman. Now, the women must choose between staying and doing nothing, staying and fighting, or leaving.

Collage of women from Barbie, Promising Young Woman, and Women Talking showcasing rage in different forms.
Women’s rage is powerful. (Neely Hammerberg)

Through the intense conversations, the film captures how female rage can be a powerful force in fighting for change. As leaders and followers weigh their choices, the film uses compelling dialogue and emotion to pull viewers in. Characters like Mariche Reimer, her daughter Autje, Salome Friesen, and her niece Neitje, display the anger, turmoil, and questions that are at the heart of the film and contribute to the decision-making process that pushes the plot forward.

In one scene Mariche asks “What if the men who are in prison are not guilty?”

“Mother?” says Autje.

“Yes, I know, Autje,” Mariche snaps.

“Then why are you asking —” Autje responds before being cut off.

“We caught one of them. I saw him,” Neitje says, filled with alarm and distress.

The film then flashes back to a scene of darkness with a man climbing up a ladder, and the sound of female screams — and rage — fills the silence.

The women’s conversation from the barn fades back in. As the conversation progresses, their voices raise in anger.

“But what if he was lying?” Mariche’s image fills the screen.

Salome stands up. There is a moment of silence.

“But the point —” Salome says with a mix of anger and sadness.

“We must consider this,” Mariche interrupts.

“No! That is not our responsibility! Because we aren’t in charge of whether or not they are punished. We know that we’ve been attacked by men and not ghosts or Satan as we were led to believe for so long,” says Salome.

The women in this scene are fighting for what is best for them, their children, and their grandchildren. They are finally exercising their agency, which is their right to pursue goals and make their own decisions without someone controlling them. The scene also gives viewers insight into the characters’ personalities, inner thoughts, and feelings.

In Promising Young Woman, Fennell uses rage to provide a deeper understanding of Cassie’s journey, to propel the storyline forward and to reveal the double standards created in patriarchal society. Fennell breaks the usual rules women have to follow in films. She flips the narrative by showing Cassie channelling her anger in surprising ways and in doing so, opens up new possibilities to the women (and others) who are watching.

In one scene, Cassie’s simmering anger turns into violence.

“Hey! HEY! What are you doing,” the man screams as his truck stops next to Cassie at the stop sign. He starts clapping and waving his hands. “You’re sitting in the middle of the road, are you retarded or something?”

Cassie ignores him.

“Hey! I’m talking to you, look at me when I’m talking to you,” he says casually as Cassie gets out of her car. She walks to her passenger window.

“What are you…”

She leans into her car, grabs a tire iron, walks over to his truck, now stopped in the middle of the intersection, and begins smashing out his taillights, moving towards the front of the truck.

“What the hell are you doing?”

Cassie continues smashing. He is yelling at her to stop.

“You crazy fucking bitch!”

“What did you call me?” She replies with a smile on her face.

At first glance, Promising Young Woman may appear to display a simple revenge narrative through an angry female character. However, the film dives deeper, revealing that her anger stems from frustration with the systemic issues created by the patriarchal structure. It’s not about seeking revenge; instead, her anger is a response to men’s constant excuses and lack of accountability for their terrible actions.

“Women have never been allowed to be angry,” says OurToba Film Network’s President, Kat Gallagher. “[Promising Young Woman] really highlighted many things that have happened in our society that it does happen, and going to an extreme really helps an audience understand the severity of the situation.”

Echoing this perspective, if women’s anger is not objectified, it is either suppressed or follows the narrow constraints outlined in America Ferrera’s character’s Barbie monologue, “[women] have to be a boss but you can’t be mean…You’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you’re supposed to be a part of the sisterhood.

While women have experienced the paradoxes at the heart of the monologue many times before, hearing it spelled out in a film is confronting. By saying it out loud, it makes it harder to ignore and also makes viewers wonder why we’ve had to learn these same lessons about feminism over and over again.

These narrow constraints can be further illustrated by a 2019 email campaign email in which Elizabeth Warren, a 2020 presidential candidate, wrote, “Over and over, we are told that women are not allowed to be angry. It makes us unattractive to powerful men who want us to be quiet.” Highlighting the societal issues surrounding female rage and the suppression of female anger to conform to traditional gender roles, and further showing that there is a double standard for genders expressing anger.

In addition to Warren’s observation, a study conducted at Arizona State University found that when “men expressed their opinion with anger, participants rated them as more credible,” yet when “women expressed identical arguments and anger, they were perceived as more emotional.”

Building on this, Brown says, “sanitizing female rage is an act of patriarchal society,” further highlighting the systemic suppression of women’s anger and the double standard within societal norms.

Timeline about the rise of females in film.
Female film roles over the years. (Neely Hammerberg)

Female rage emphasizes the systemic issues Ferrera speaks about in her Barbie monologue. After generations of downplaying women’s anger, seeing an angry woman on screen in a mainstream blockbuster is revolutionary. It’s like a sudden jolt, making you sit up and take notice because it’s not something you’re used to seeing. It serves as a wake-up call to make viewers pay closer attention to the deeper message behind her emotions.

Our society has let men have anger. It makes them more credible and influential, but it also causes them to behave more aggressively than women and have “aggressive fantasies.” Psychologists Allan Fenigstein and Ronald G. Heyduk blame this on the learned behaviour through socialization discussed in their work “Though and Action as Determinants of Media Exposure” in Selective Exposure to Communications.

However, because men behave more aggressively than women, does it excuse the 19 per cent of men found in a United Nations study who believe there are acceptable reasons to hit your partner? Would this excuse Nina’s sexual assault in Promising Young Woman as she was drunk, and the men were just acting on their aggressive fantasy? Or would this excuse the men in one scene in Barbie who catcalled her and slapped her butt when she was rollerblading around Venice Beach with Ken?

Gerwig, Polley, and Fennell use female rage as a narrative tool to drive their stories and show the gender double standard. They blend the rage with elements of imagination, allowing their characters to go on a journey and reach agency, just like the opening scene of Barbie.

“Since the beginning of time. Since the first little girl ever existed, there have been dolls,” says Barbie‘s narrator at the beginning of the film while young girls play with their dolls in a motherly way.

The narrator acknowledges how these dolls maintained gender stereotypes, confining girls to roles as mothers. The screen changes as a giant Barbie emerges, symbolizing a departure from these limitations and granting young girls the freedom to embrace any identity. This liberation is highlighted as young girls defiantly smash their dolls, rejecting traditional gender norms.

“Thanks to Barbie, all problems of feminism and equal rights have been solved, at least that’s what the Barbies think,” the narrator adds.

While Barbie‘s portrayal suggests a resolution to feminist and equality issues, the reality is more complex. It makes fun of Mattel and its corporate structure for consisting of all men when, in real life, the executive leadership team is made up of eight men and only three women.

According to Dr. Martha Lauzen’s “26th Annual Edition The Celluloid Ceiling: Employment of Behind-the-Scenes Women on Top Grossing U.S. Films in 2023,” in 2023, 22 per cent of directors, writers, producers, editors, and cinematographers from the top 250 films were women. Down two per cent from 2022. Brown and Gallagher admit there are more female cinematographers and directors in the industry than when they started, but the number still does not match the number of men in the same roles.

“As a woman, it still feels like a bit of an old boys’ club,” says Gallagher.

As of the 2024 Oscars, only three women have ever received nominations in the Best Cinematography category; in the Best Director category, there have been nine female nominations.

“In an industry that is male-dominated. There are some trends or some culture stuff that gets kind of stuck because it hasn’t been questioned very much,” says Brown.

The under-representation of women behind the scenes is so bad that there is even a term to describe it: “celluloid ceiling.” However, according to the San Diego State University Center for the Study of Women in Televisions and Film, over the past 21 years, the term “celluloid ceiling” has been used as a title in yearly articles about Dr. Martha Lauzen’s research behind Hollywood’s female employment and representations.

Gender equality in film may still be a wild act of female imagination, but Hollywood needs more accountability. The industry can learn from the women in Women Talking who step into their agency by learning to vote; from the Barbies, who can advocate for change and shape their narratives; or from Promising Young Woman‘s Cassie, who creates an elaborate plan to get revenge and justice for her friend Nina, even when it costs her life.

Rage is a valuable tool in films, but so is the point of view that directors and cinematographers choose to shoot from. To illustrate, imagine two scenes:

Scene A is a club full of young, skinny women in tight, short dresses that fall off the shoulders. The scene is dark other than the club’s colourful strobe lights. Upbeat music plays, and close-up shots move up their bodies as they dance slowly.

Scene B is a club full of middle-aged men with beer bellies dressed in their best khakis and tucked-in button-down shirts. The scene is dark other than the club’s colourful strobe lights. Upbeat music plays, and close-up shots move up their bodies as they dance slowly.

Which scene is more cinematic?

If you think scene A is more cinematic than scene B, ask yourself why.

The male gaze dominates cinema. It shapes the angles, framing, and editing used on sets. In everyday life, the male gaze is referred to by the Oxford Reference website as the act of a man objectifying/sexualizing a woman. In cinema, the male gaze is what film theorist Laura Mulvey describes in her chapter “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” from the book Film: Psychology, Society, and Ideology as the perspective that prioritizes the viewpoint of the heterosexual male viewer, male characters, and male creator of the film.

Regardless of who is behind the camera or directing, no one is immune to the male gaze. It’s not something that will disappear overnight, given our culture and the culture film has been part of creating over the years.

“Even a woman [Director of Photography], if they are not thinking or have been brought up in a certain way, can shoot women in a way that maybe feels more objectifying,” says Brown.

Collage movie stills from Barbie, Promising Young Woman, and Women Talking.
Barbie, Women Talking, and Promising Young Woman see the world through women’s eyes (Neely Hammerberg)

The male gaze has a long history. As Mulvey continues in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” women have typically served two purposes in film under the male gaze: to be an “erotic object for the characters within the screen story” and to be an “erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium.” Mulvey emphasizes the expectation for females to present themselves in a way that represents the desires of male characters, viewers, and creators.

In Promising Young Woman, Fennell perfectly subverts the male gaze when Cassie wears a sexy nurse costume to a bachelor party. During the scene, there are slow-motion close-ups of Cassie’s lips and chest, shots typically used in films objectifying females, but Fennell also gives the male actors the same attention with the slow-motion close-ups over the chest and lips.

We do not need to objectify women to have a good movie. Though on the surface Barbie and Promising Young Woman have objectifying scenes and hyper-feminine clothing, fulfilling the men’s desire to be an erotic object is not the goal. Even in films like Women Talking, where the female characters wear modest clothing, the female characters are objectified by societal norms in the colony. These norms are characterized by the dominance of male authority, which is illustrated in the women’s inability to read. But as the women begin challenging this structure and fighting for themselves, the narrative shifts, and they start gaining autonomy. In this narrative change, the emergence of the female gaze becomes clearer as the women are no longer seen as objects.

All three films have elements of a “happy” ending if you consider the women’s goals and conflicts that are resolved at the end of the films. Barbie found the girl responsible for playing with her, and they resolved major issues in each other’s lives. The women in Women Talking decided their next step and left the colony — the younger children will have a different story than the previous generations of women. Although she died, Cassie achieved a sort of justice because the authorities finally arrested the man who sexually assaulted Nina.

All three films also leave viewers with questions and unresolved emotions, serving as a reminder not to ignore the societal issues behind the scenes. The films challenge us to look beyond the surface-level conversations and resolutions and address the deeper issues they portray.

Barbie, Women Talking, and Promising Young Woman provide entertainment and highlight the patriarchy that still runs society. These films take old lessons and turn them into moments for new viewers to learn from, think about, and talk through with their friends. Watching films is a way for the light bulb to go on.

While female rage and the female gaze are usually overlooked in Hollywood’s male-dominated landscape, these three recent films use the tools of female rage and gaze to shed light on issues that women face and to challenge traditional gender norms. Barbie in particular sparked a cultural conversation that brought well-established ideas about feminism to a new audience.

These films raise the curtain and open dialogue around about what it means — or could mean — to be a woman in today’s world.

Black and white head shot of Neely Hammerberg

Neely Hammerberg

Neely is known for her tiny writing and her quiet voice. She loves travelling, a good lip chap, and fashion. A fun fact about her: she's always caught up on the latest pop culture drama.