Imperfect women steal the screen: Bridget Jones, Thelma, Louise, Lola and other emancipatory milestones | Film | DW | 05.09.2016
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Film

Imperfect women steal the screen: Bridget Jones, Thelma, Louise, Lola and other emancipatory milestones

Renée Zellweger is back as Bridget Jones after 12 years of absence. DW discussed with film expert Sibylle Stürmer the movies that offered radical new representations of women, from good prostitutes to murderous lovers.

DW: Some actresses' roles have not only mirrored specific social relations, but have even directly influenced them. In which ways did the now 47-year-old Oscar winner Renée Zellweger reshape the image of women through Bridget Jones?

Sibylle Stürmer: I believe Renée Zellweger established a new image of women with the popular Bridget Jones series. It had a broad outreach. Many women went to the theater with their girlfriends to enjoy a nice evening and have a good laugh. It allowed them to make fun of certain aspects of their own life. Jones embodies the imperfect woman doing everything as well as she can in her chaotic life.

Weren't women previously allowed to be clumsy, chaotic and overweight?

I wouldn't put it in such absolute terms. There were other fat and clumsy role models previously, although the term "clumsy" is not really appropriate, because the Bridget Jones films' comedy works on so many different levels.

She is successful in her professional life; searching for a man, and love and recognition in her private life; she's a strong friend, etc. While dealing with these different roles in her life, she is automatically overwhelmed and ends up in funny situations.

Are you expecting changes in Bridget's role?

Prof. Sibylle Stürmer, Macromedia University, Film and Television department, Copyright: Silvia Bins

Film expert Sibylle Stürmer

I find the premise of the new movie very interesting, because the prospect of being a single mother is just about the worst social status a woman can get in today's society - although being old might be perceived as something even worse. In any case, being a single mother is such a "horror situation," such a big fall, that I expect strong comedy potential in this film.

Does every generation find its own influential role model among female stars?

I believe every generation has several. There will always be the image of the successful professional woman, of the sexually attractive lover, of the caring friend you can call day and night, of the entertaining woman to accompany you for a great evening, or of the unapproachable beauty. All these images, which are also transmitted through films, live on in our heads. We play with pieces of these different roles.

Along with these role models you've just mentioned, have new dominant women role models emerged which didn't previously exist?

Film still 'Thelma & Louise', Copyright: picture alliance/United Archives/IFTN

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in "Thelma and Louise"

Gender relations have significantly changed over the last century. This has mainly affected the lives of women. Men's lives have not changed as much. Therefore certain roles or behaviors that were unthinkable 20, 40 or 60 years ago are now possible. Movies have sometimes preceded theses social changes. Films offer depictions of reality and create new role models in the minds of female viewers. Films also create ideals that influence reality.

For example, "Thelma and Louise" was a real milestone for the representation of women. This film from 1991 depicts two women who commit robbery because they desperately need money. It showed for the first time women committing a crime together. I'm convinced that this role model for women was also interpreted, in extension, as one inviting them to take their life into their own hands, even if it was seen by some as committing a crime.

Which German films have influenced representations of women?

The film "Rote Sonne" (Red Sun), coming from the 1968 movement, is a good example. In this film, the lead role was played by Uschi Obermaier, who was then a member of the commune K1 [Eds.: the first politically motivated commune in Germany] and longtime partner of Rainer Langhans [Eds.: a Germany writer and filmmaker, renowned member of this commune].

In the film, she depicts a woman who brings her different lovers to the apartment she shares with other female roommates. The roommates decide on a rule for the house: every man who has a sexual relation with them should be killed after a week. This is celebrated as the most natural thing. The very pretty Uschi Obermaier, whose looks made all eyes turn in Germany, was killing men without any afterthought.

This representation was so bold that it left a lasting impression. Just the fact that someone could come up with such a story! It freed women from always being nice and caring. In this film, they are very selfish and criminal. And this was told in a very light tone.

Film stille 'Run Lola Run', Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa

Franka Potente in "Run Lola Run"

The film "Run Lola Run" by Tom Tykwer also had a very strong female lead character. The film made German cinema internationally renowned again, because it came out at a time when US filmmakers were not telling such stories. They didn't trust a woman to be able to carry a film as a lead star.

The bosses of US studios started recognizing that films with a female lead role could be commercially successful only a couple of years ago. "The Hunger Games, part 2" starring Jennifer Lawrence was one of most successful films worldwide. And the animated film "Frozen" by Jennifer Lee was the highest-grossing film of 2013.

When did female lead roles stop having to be beautiful?

One remarkable aspect of Bridget Jones is how the two first films commented on the representation of "the seductive woman." And this will certainly be pushed to the extreme in this new movie, with a baby coming.

Actress Hildegard Knef in film 'Die Sünderin', Copyright: ullstein, Thomas & Thomas

Hildegard Knef in "Die Sünderin"

In German film history, a movie from 1951 changed the representation of the sexually attractive woman: "Die Sünderin" (The Sinner), which established the international success of actress Hildegard Knef. In this film, she plays a woman who prostitutes herself to allow the man she loves to get an operation to regain sight.

This film sparked controversy, because it was the first German post-war film to show a naked woman. It also influenced the role of women in a deeper way, because her reasons to sell her body were good ones. This film offered a multilayered role model for women. That's what makes it so significant.

When did women's roles stop being determined by a male perspective?

There have been many discussions surrounding the female perspective that women filmmakers can exclusively offer, revealing the character's interiority. The male perspective is defined per se as more hostile. Feminist film studies departments have developed a long academic discussion on this topic. I however believe that men have also managed to depict women with a "female" perspective. "Thelma and Louise" was directed by Ridley Scott, who is renowned for his action movies. There are different filmmakers who have succeeded in this aspect.

The film "24 weeks," directed by Anne Zohra Berrached - the only German movie competing at the Berlinale this year - told the story of a woman considering abortion after discovering her child would be heavily handicapped, six months within her pregnancy. Does this film feature the female perspective pushed to its extreme?

There were already very progressive films in the 1920s - even some of the very first films to be made ever. In the Lumière Brothers film "Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory" primarily shows female workers leaving the factory. They are very confident, running towards the camera in their beautiful long dresses on their way home. The first film already provided an image of strong equality, with men and women basically acting the same way. Such films have existed since the beginning.

Still from film 'Toni Erdmann', Copyright: Komplizen Film/NFP marketing & distribution

Sandra Hüller in "Toni Erdmann"

Is there currently a fundamental type of woman depiction in German cinema today, such as Sandra Hüller's character in "Toni Erdmann" - who tends to be rather intellectual, confident, realist?

This would be a too strong reduction of the various depictions. This representation might rule in current art house movies, but there are many conservative depictions of women in current films as well.

Are there typical national differences among leading female stars? So much has been said about the elegance of French actresses or dramatic Italian stars, such as Anna Magnani or Sophia Loren. Or is this rather a question of generations?

If I were to generalize broadly, German women in film are the ones "getting things done." They act. They're not the pretty ones waiting in a corner. This can be seen with Sandra Hüller in "Toni Erdmann" too: she acts, despite all her doubts and contradictions; she takes things into her own hands. The acting woman: that could be one German theme.

Sybille Stürmer is the directing professor of film and television at the Macromedia University in Cologne.

The third part of the Bridget Jones series, "Bridget Jones's Baby" celebrates its world premiere on September 5. Unlike the two previous films, it is not based on a novel by Helen Fielding. The author however contributed to the script.

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