Elementary school nights were filled with my brother and I routinely plopped down in front of some boys’ movie playing on a Sony black box TV screen. The dirt-covered “Goonies” squad made their way through booby traps in dark caves as our hands fumbled for popcorn bowls in the dark. Our eyes were glued to the bubbling static of four friends searching for a dead body, grappling with grief and friendship in a purple, boyish haze in “Stand by Me.”
“Indiana Jones.” “Big Trouble in Little China.” “They Live.” I would run my finger across the DVD cases lining our bookshelf, deciding what frontier-trekking story we would watch that night. The aftermath of our school nights was decorated with adventure, chaos and fists flying through the air, all of it sizzling on a screen 5 inches from our runny noses.
The movies we watched were full of strong male characters taking the reins of life, starting on grand journeys and licking the concrete to mark their paths to greatness. I was a little girl growing up on the stories of boys –– amazing cinematic ventures, beautiful coming-of-age stories that ultimately left me feeling very alone.
I consumed movies, but I never connected to them. The characters fluttered by like the taste of chocolate leaving your tongue after a cup of milk. The stories would eclipse through my dreams in fuzzy strips of film on the back of my eyelids, powerful yet unfamiliar. Watching movies was a detached ceremony for quite some time.
Finally, I watched a movie that slapped me white-hot across the face and sent me reeling into reflection. Finally, my mother sat with me on the couch, eating Ben and Jerry’s “Half Baked” from the tub, and we watched “Grease.”
“Grease” wasn’t a magical movie for me. I didn’t even like it that much. But there was one unforgettable thing about the movie that tattooed my thoughts for weeks to come. That was Rizzo (Stockard Channing). She was powerful and dauntless in the face of ostracism. She was unapologetically flawed, a chariot racer setting fire to feminine expectation. Rizzo was the femme fatale I had been waiting to meet. I watched her vulnerability and in return, she took my hand and introduced me to a world of amazing female characters.
Suddenly, I was sitting cross-legged in the eye of a storm — stark red lipstick twisted out of bullet casings, slipped across soft lips, white teeth flickering in the light of a candle. Everywhere I looked, the most beautiful women I’d ever seen waltzed around me, filling the air with the scent of honeysuckle and lavender. Cigarettes smouldering in hand, filters kiss-printed, they winked at me in unison and showed me a new spectrum of cinema that I could connect with.
Maxine (Catherine Keener) in the unbelievably funny “Being John Malkovich” was cool, sexy and in charge. In between gut-wrenching spurts of laughter, Maxine would flash a smile and take hold of the entire scene — clever, spicy and evocative all in one click of a heel.
Mal Cobb (Marion Cotillard) seductively batted her eyelashes, delivered mellifluous, alluring lines and sent the entire mission in “Inception” crumbling, the fearless kryptonite to the male lead.
Watching “Mad Men” had me combing through poised, dynamic females that deftly challenged their male counterparts. Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) scraped her way through discrimination, evaded the objectifying male gaze of coworkers and took charge of her life. Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) cunningly used her looks to get what she wanted and her wit to solidify her place at the top of the food chain.
Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in “Alien” was strategic and brave while confronted by imminent danger. She had the action scenes of a soldier, the problem solving of a scientist and the screen was illuminated by her navigation through the threat of a terrifying alien none of her male crew members could vanquish.
I love a wild, male-driven film, don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind that the lead of “Mad Men” is the philandering, cocky Don Draper (Jon Hamm). I would take any opportunity to watch Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) save a bunch of women from the reign of David Lo Pan (James Hong).
But now, my archive of cinema is no longer simply filled with male heroes and cowboys –– boyish adventures with rascal charm. Those stories share space with the tales of ambitious and unsatisfied women, of honest narratives, sticky with relatability.
Female characters who parallel Elizabeth Taylor, Joan of Arc, Yoko Ono and Maya Angelou in their plights as femmes fatales are the numbers that fill my Rolodex. I know the women that men sing about in heart-wrenching ballads of scorched earth, lust and longing. These women challenge the altar of systemic expectations. I know the women whose red kisses leave unwashable stains on the tapestry of society.
Whose red kisses have made me into a woman myself.
Maisy Menzies writes the Thursday arts & entertainment column on milestone moments experienced through art. Contact her at [email protected].