Women are supposed to say “yes.”
That’s what society seems to always expect of us: say yes to more responsibility, say yes to less money, say yes to fewer rights, say yes to whatever a man asks you to do, say yes to your elders, say yes to your children, yes yes yes. Women who say “no” are just, ugh. Lesser-than and problematic and uppity and bitches. Know your place. Shut your mouth.
So whenever a female character in a movie this year said “no”—whenever a girl or a woman stood up for herself, prioritized her own needs over others, and refused to let anyone push her around—goddammit, I wanted to stand up and cheer. Hell, a few times I did! It’s been a rough year, and it’s always been rough to be a woman. Let us have some catharsis any way we can.
[SPOILERS for a number of female-centered films from this year follow; BE AWARE.]
Think of Michelle Rodriguez’s Linda in Widows, affirming her commitment to their $5 million heist so that her children would know that she didn’t just “take it,” didn’t let her deadbeat husband and his irresponsibility derail their whole lives. Think of Elizabeth Debicki’s Alice standing up to the wealthy real estate developer she’s been sleeping with, realizing that she doesn’t need him to have a “nice life.” Think of Viola Davis’s Veronica Rawlings rejecting her husband’s desperate tears — remember that she reached for his hand after shooting him to grasp it not in tenderness, but to plant a gun that would incriminate him and let her go free. Liam Neeson’s Henry Rawlings thought only of himself; Veronica Rawlings, in her strongest moment, thought of herself and the women she came to trust with her life, too.
Cynthia Erivo appeared in both Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale this year, and in both films, she was a pillar of black female strength, of continuing to stand up and stare defiantly into the face of injustice. Think of her in Widows, not only realizing the depth of the Mulligans’ corruption and acting to save her friend from their predatory recollection practices, but also telling Davis’s Veronica to speak to her instead of around her. “I don’t require a vouch,” Erivo’s Belle said, because she doesn’t need anyone to make excuses for her. She can stand on her own.
The same goes for her turn in the underappreciated Bad Times at the El Royale, too, in which Erivo plays the soul singer Darlene Sweet, who ends up at the rundown hotel after saying no to the sexual advances of a nefarious producer played greasily and convincingly by Xavier Dolan. A flashback shows that he promised her a lucrative career if she spent a night with him; the fact that she is at El Royale, though, practicing her songs in her room and traveling out of her car, makes clear what her answer was. “You must be one hell of a singer,” Chris Hemsworth’s cult leader smirkingly says to her during the film’s climactic conclusion, and his look of surprise when she confidently replies “I am” is a realization that this is one woman he can’t control. And Darlene just keeps going: “I’m not even mad about it anymore. I’m just tired. I’m just bored of men like you.” It’s Darlene who survives while Billy Lee dies, performing later at a gig in Reno, in a sequined mini dress and in her natural hair. Bad Times at the El Royale is her story, even though Hemsworth’s gyrating hips are the image so many remember.
Saying “yes” usually keeps you out of harm’s way, at the cost of your soul and your selfhood; saying “no” is dangerous. Saying “no” can keep your dignity and your pride intact, and it can get you killed. So it goes for Andrea Riseborough’s Mandy in Panos Cosmatos’s same-named film, who is kidnapped by Linus Roache’s cult leader Jeremiah Sand (so many evil cults this year!). When he tries to impress her by playing an embarrassing vinyl record of his that has swayed others to his cause, all Mandy does is laugh and laugh and laugh.
There are many gorgeous, disturbing, metal-as-fuck moments in Mandy (Nicolas Cage downing that bottle of vodka, forging a battle ax, and fighting those metalhead demon things), but it’s Riseborough’s laugh that still haunts me, her body in that eerie red light, her hair swaying around her as she refuses to acquiesce to what Jeremiah Sand wants. The camera switches between Riseborough and Roache during those scenes, and slowly their images meld together, and at first it seems as if Sand’s face will superimpose upon Riseborough’s, blotting her out. But it’s her humiliation of him that gives her power, that makes her the focus of that moment, that means eventually the fade favors her face instead of his. By the misogynistic logic of so many men, she has to die for that, and she does — burned alive, like a witch. But before then, Mandy said no.
Not every movie this year with a woman asserting herself ended in violence, thankfully; I don’t know if our hearts could have handled all that, not when so many proponents of domestic violence end up being mass shooters in the real world. We already have enough of that unsettling, persistent truth on the news day to day. But in film, we had teenage girls stepping forward as individuals in Eighth Grade and Leave No Trace.
In Eighth Grade, during an absolutely stomach-churning scene that had my best friend and I holding each other’s hands tightly while her newborn daughter slept next to us, Kayla Day (the fantastic Elsie Fisher) haltingly but ultimately firmly turns down a high school student’s attempts to hook up with her, to “teach” her how kiss, to take advantage of her unsureness. She knows she doesn’t want this, and we see her cycle through all the ways we as women let men down—not now, maybe another time, maybe in another place—until it’s clear, even to this manipulative boy, that she won’t go for it. Kayla breaks down in her bedroom after that moment, but it’s a turning point in her relationship with her father, whose speech to her about how much he loves her is growth for them both.
The relationship between father and daughter is primary in Leave No Trace, too, in which the off-the-grid pair of Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) realize that they want very different things. It clearly takes every bit of Tom’s willpower for her to tell her father that she can’t go back with him into the woods, that she wants a community and a permanent home, but she does it: “The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me.” I’m tearing up thinking about it right now! And yet Tom’s love for her father means she continues thinking about him after their parting, continues providing for him as she can, as she also navigates how to become her own person. It’s a “no,” but one that still means “I love you.”
That simultaneous message of “I can’t do this for you, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t care for you, but that I have to care for myself,” is what runs throughout the Regina Hall-starring Support the Girls. In that film, which has already garnered Hall much-due awards recognition, she plays the manager of a Hooters knockoff who has to juggle nearly everything about the running of the restaurant—scheduling, ordering supplies, planning promotions, helping her employees figure out childcare, working around the owner’s rule that no more than one black girl be on shift at a time, finessing regular customers and dealing with rude and handsy first timers—and about her marital life, too. She’s done the heavy lifting for so long, both professionally and personally, that when she says no to a employee who has chosen to return to an abusive boyfriend—a young woman Hall’s character spent most of the film trying to raise money for—you know she’s finally had it. When she goes to the roof of the restaurant to scream her frustrations into the wind, that’s release—the honesty brought on by finally standing up for herself.
There are, reassuringly, other 2018 films and characters I could talk about here, from a variety of genres. Let’s keep going!
Charlize Theron in Tully, who realizes that the domestic burdens put upon her are far too much. Cate Blanchett’s Mrs. Florence Zimmerman in The House with a Clock in Its Walls, who won’t end the world to exact revenge for the deaths of her husband and child during the Holocaust. The trio of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone in The Favourite, fighting over loyalty and love and political power. Alicia Vikander in Tomb Raider, giving up the Croft fortune to forge her own path. Lady Gaga in A Star is Born, punching a cop who got too into Jackson Maine’s face and later shutting down Maine himself when in a fit of drunkenness he calls her “ugly,” the very insult he knew would hurt her the most.
Sasha Lane and Chloë Grace Moretz in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, turning their backs on their families and fleeing their conversion therapy camp to explore their own sexual identities. Amandla Stenberg’s Starr Carter in The Hate U Give, standing up to the friends at her mostly white high school who fail to see the racism enacted every day by their wealthy parents and the police. Glenn Close in The Wife and Keira Knightley in Colette, each finally fed up after decades of diminishing themselves to support their husbands.
Every single one of them inspired me this year, and showed us the power of women saying “no” to others to say “yes” to themselves. Oh, and Carol Danvers clenching her fist and getting back up throughout the Captain Marvel trailers? Yeah, that has me excited for this theme continuing through 2019, too.
Image sources (in order of posting): RLJE Films Instagram, 20th Century Fox, Bleecker Street, Magnolia Pictures, FilmRise, Focus Features