Ghandi for Girls?
May 20, 2011 10:43 AM   Subscribe

Looking for movies with a female protagonist who fights back in a controlled way. In other words, someone who stays within the rules of the system and is always considered a 'good girl' (even exemplary) even during and after fighting back. Personal info inside.

My 13-year-old stepdaughter is very passive, to the point of sometimes even refusing to answer questions like "do you like this skirt?" or "what do you want to eat tonight?" Post her mother's remarriage and move to a different community, she is currently in a pretty awful situation - she doesn't want to change schools, but her mother wants her to change because of convenience. Her older brother already said "no way" and is staying at current school. She just says "I dunno," or makes dismayed squeaking noises, and as a result is about to be railroaded into the school she doesn't want, because she won't speak up to her mother in any way. She has told me, privately, that she wants to stay where she is, and I've let my husband (her father) know, but if she's not willing to fight for herself I fear it's a losing battle. Problem is, her older sister was a classic temperamental teenager who had screaming tantrums on an almost daily basis to get what she wanted, and ended up dropping out of school and alienating a lot of people, including family members. I am almost certain that part of what is going on with my stepdaughter is not wanting to be seen as acting badly or in any way like her sister. She's a really good kid.

I would love for her to see a counselor (even one at school), but that doesn't seem to be in the cards. So as a poor substitute, are there any good examples of films where the main character stands up for herself in a quiet, strong way that doesn't make her a rebel or a rule-breaker? Basically looking to find a subtle way to show her that passive but firm resistance (for lack of a better term) is also a way to get what you want. Needs to be pg-13 or below.
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (40 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Rebecca. Great, great Hitchcock movie from 1940, with Joan Fontaine in the role you're describing, and also starring Laurence Olivier. I can't think of a better example of the kind of thing you're looking for. Oh, and did I mention it's a really great movie?
posted by John Cohen at 10:49 AM on May 20, 2011

I just watched Field of Dreams a couple days ago. The movie as a whole isn't really what you're looking for, but there's a scene in the middle where Amy Madigan's character stands up and defends freedom of speech in a PTA meeting about banning books at the school. In the movie, she's a sweet, happy-go-lucky character, except for this one scene where she gets really fired up about something that she knows is wrong. So, for your stepdaughter: not everything has to be a fight, but you should stand up for yourself and for what's right.
posted by phunniemee at 10:49 AM on May 20, 2011

Maybe not exactly what you had in mind, but I love, love, love the documentary Double Dare, which you could see as being about two women going after what they want while working within the system. Zoe Bell, especially, seems to me like a great role model as she learns to speak up for her own talents (there are scenes where she gets coached in not underselling herself) and gains confidence.
posted by Orinda at 10:53 AM on May 20, 2011

Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter books and movies is a fairly classic example of that kind of heroine. She's a well-respected student that strives to stick to the rules even as Harry and Ron push her to break them.
posted by ignignokt at 10:57 AM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Matilda is a great movie. The titular character stands up to bullies and speaks her mind clearly through out the entire film. It is really funny and cute too.
posted by ian1977 at 11:00 AM on May 20, 2011 [5 favorites]

Hermione was my first thought as well. She's a good role model.
posted by warble at 11:01 AM on May 20, 2011

Spirited Away fits the bill, I think.
posted by clockwork at 11:03 AM on May 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

When I was a little person, I really related to Belle from Beauty and the Beast. Also, Lisa from The Simpsons.
posted by kat518 at 11:08 AM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Jane Eyre is a fantastic character—meek and quiet as she is, she knows herself and what she wants, and asks for it.
posted by peachfuzz at 11:12 AM on May 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

I was going to say "Spirited Away," but clockwork already said it. So let me add: "Alice in Wonderland." Excellent book too, btw.
posted by Alizaria at 11:12 AM on May 20, 2011

There is a teensy bit of white-lying to the parental units on the road to eventual parental acceptance for a girl fighting for her right to play soccer Bend it Like Beckham, but it's so positive, upbeat and sweet.
posted by sestaaak at 11:17 AM on May 20, 2011 [5 favorites]

Coraline: she wins her parents back by carefully following the rules of the games her other mother likes to play.
posted by bonehead at 11:17 AM on May 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

A League of Their Own! Dottie Henson (Geena Davis) is more restrained, mature, and a better leader than her hot-headed sister Kit. It's also a delightful movie about women's baseball (note: you do not have to like or know anything about baseball to watch this film - it is to the sport what Friday Night Lights is to football)
posted by hepta at 11:20 AM on May 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

Sense and Sensibility: Much of the stroy is about Marianne's misadventures and Elinor picking her up and setting her right again. The climax of the film, however, turns on quiet Elinor finally winning her love, Edward.
posted by bonehead at 11:33 AM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Legally Blonde.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:53 AM on May 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

The Sound of Music has a strong, but not jerky or tantrummy, female main character.

The African Queen features Katherine Hepburn as a strong, but obedient and uptight, woman who uses her determination to launch a daring plot.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:53 AM on May 20, 2011

Does she like to read?

Because the best heroine I can think of is in a book, not a film. It's Tiffany Aching from Terry Pratchett's book, The Wee Free Men. She's not Ghandi, but she's a nine-year-old heroine who is smart and careful. And she learns how to be a really powerful (good) witch by thinking about her own thoughts instead of acting impetuously on them and by choosing to take responsibility for her world and the people she cares about. It's also a really good book and completely hysterical. There's also a good audiobook if your step-daughter might find that more interesting.
posted by colfax at 11:54 AM on May 20, 2011 [5 favorites]

Continuing on the Jane Austen route, Persuasion also has a heroine who quietly stands up for herself.

Paikea in Whale Rider is another example.

My personal favorite? Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables although she demonstrates more a more active resistance.
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 12:15 PM on May 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I was going to suggest A League of Their Own, but someone beat me to it. I was also going to suggest the Tiffany Aching books, but someone beat me to that too. Consider them seconded.

How about Whale Rider or Bend It Like Beckham? I haven't seen the first one, but everyone freaking raved about it. I've seen the second and I thought it was pretty good.

Clueless? A modern re-telling of Emma (which also might work). Cher/Emma's meddling is not always appreciated, but she definitely is an assertive figure playing for the good team.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 12:15 PM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I got on to say Jane Eyre too.
Also: I think one thing that so many generations of girls have loved about Little Women is the way it demonstrates so many different ways to be a strong girl or woman, to stand up for yourself while still being ethical within a community -- not just the obvious example of Jo but also Marmee, Meg and Amy. The modern movie version (with Susan Sarandon, Winona Ryder, Samantha Mathis) should appeal to a young contemporary adolescent.
posted by Tylwyth Teg at 12:29 PM on May 20, 2011

My main recommendation is for a book because it is so perfect for your stepdaughter's situation. A Girl of the Limberlost is about a fatherless girl with a cold, depressed, irrational, angry mother who does not want her to go to school. Worse, all her city-born classmates laugh at her for being a country bumpkin. She overcomes these problems through sheer niceness, perseverance, and her incredible love of nature. The most "rule-breaking" thing she does is learning to play the violin against her mother's wishes. Trust me, this is exactly what you are looking for.

If I Stay is an incredibly moving YA novel about a girl who is the sole survivor of a car crash that kills her parents and brother. While she is in the hospital, hovering between life and death, she has an out-of-body experience allowing her to walk around the hospital, watch her friends as they wait for news, and think about the past as she decides whether to stay or go "on" with her family. She is a very explicitly non-rebellious character as someone who adores classical music in opposition to her boyfriend and parents who are all rock musicians. This may give your stepdaughter some food for thought as it deals with the theme of loving a parent while letting them go.

The Hunger Games is a very popular trilogy with teenage girls that is currently being made into a movie. It is a futuristic dystopia about a 16 year old girl in a terrible situation: she has been randomly chosen to take part in a "game"/TV show in which she and 23 other children must fight to the death. Although she is an excellent hunter and breadwinner of her family, she is a somewhat passive and friendless girl, endlessly submitting herself to the authority of politicians, trainers, interviewers, and stylists. During the Games she basically learns how to have feelings again, all the while being a kick-ass fighter with plenty of compassion, loyalty, and love. She also has a mother who was passive to the point of horror after her father's death, which may show your stepdaughter that there is a good and a bad type of passive.

Also, has she read/watched Twilight? Because Bella is pretty much the ultimate passive character, for better or for worse. If you think about the message or plot of Twilight in real-life terms it is messed up and patriarchal, but within the world and constraints of the book Bella passively resists just about every emotion/demand Edward throws at her and in the end gets what she wants. She's also a daughter of divorce.

Last book recommendation is for Speak, which maybe every girl should read before going to high school. It's about a girl who suddenly becomes a mute outcast during her freshman year. Everyone hates her because she called the police to a party over the summer, but they don't know that she called them because she was raped by a popular boy. It's a very witty, thoughtful book with a good character who slowly regains her voice.

Legally Blonde has a strong, likeable protagonist in Elle Woods, a sorority girl who ends up at Harvard Law for all the wrong reasons and is initially intimidated by her professors and shunned by her classmates. She overcomes these challenges by studying hard and utilizing her excellent personality and instincts.

10 Things I Hate About You stars Julia Stiles as an outwardly rebellious girl (expressed in music and fashion taste) who is fundamentally, absolutely good. Throughout the movie her antisocial tendencies break down and she ultimately stands up for herself and her sister.

Never Been Kissed is an awesome Drew Barrymore movie about a lonely, always-unpopular, highly passive reporter who enrolls undercover at a high school to research a story (ok I guess that's breaking the rules).

I Am Sam is a fairly relevant movie with Dakota Fanning as a seven year old fighting to remain in the custody of her mentally retarded father.

True Grit. OK, it's a bit rebellious for a child to hire a U.S. marshall to track down her father's killer, but aside from that, the main character is stubborn but scarily calm and controlled. She uses words very well to stand up for her beliefs.

A Walk to Remember is the ultimate goody-good girl movie. Rebel boy falls in love with the cancer-stricken reverend's daughter who is so good it hurts.

She might also enjoy the classic 90s TV shows My So Called Life or Freaks and Geeks. Both are about extremely good girls who make friends with rebels out of almost anthropological curiosity. They enter the world of drinking, drugs, and sex while steadfastly resisting all three, and draw out the innately good and kind qualities of the rebels by being consistently wonderful, warmhearted girls.
posted by acidic at 12:48 PM on May 20, 2011 [7 favorites]

The Incredibles. Elastigirl is a strong character, and she and Violet have a great mother-daughter relationship that ends with Violet coming out of her shell, so to speak.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:49 PM on May 20, 2011

Also, has she read/watched Twilight?

Oh god no. Bella Swan is a ghastly potential role model for preteen girls.
posted by elizardbits at 1:45 PM on May 20, 2011 [8 favorites]

Legally Blonde!
posted by Windigo at 1:51 PM on May 20, 2011


And Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
posted by Windigo at 1:52 PM on May 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Twilight takes place in a world that rewards passivity. Bella is nothing more than a clumsy remora. Blerg.

Buffy would be precisely 3,452,343 times better.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:54 PM on May 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Not that you asked, but even if she does say something to her mother, will that change much? Maybe she'd be more comfortable writing her parents a letter? Could she talk to her father alone? Does she have a teacher or counselor who'd be willing to meet with the parental units.

I'm not really convinced that watching old movies is going to give her any actual skills that are useful in real life. (Buffy's great, but she still got detention and grief from the monster/principal with no real way to get out of it, other than axes and martial arts.)
posted by Ideefixe at 2:15 PM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree that the Terry Pratchett young adult series with Tiffany Aching (several books) and the standalone book Nation would both be great. Good young-teen characters learning how to stand up for themselves, be resourceful, etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:49 PM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh god no. Bella Swan is a ghastly potential role model for preteen girls.
Yes but isn't it a valuable lesson to read an appealing yet deeply flawed character and realize those flaws, therefore understanding that the power of a certain brand of passivity is, in the end, a fantasy? I think a savvy young reader would be able to see that especially with a parent's guidance.
posted by acidic at 2:53 PM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Definitely check out Whale Rider, as already mentioned above.
posted by smokingmonkey at 3:15 PM on May 20, 2011

I'd nominate Soul Surfer as a model of a young girl who fights through a pretty awful shark attack and the loss of her arm, to get past body image, trauma, and social awkwardness stemming from changed appearance/capabilities, to return to a sport she loves, as a powerful example of a girl who learns not only to stand up for herself, but to reclaim her ability to direct her own life.
posted by paulsc at 4:33 PM on May 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Nthing Legally Blonde. It was the first movie that came to mind when I read the question.
posted by SisterHavana at 5:32 PM on May 20, 2011

Trouble With Dragons is a fantastic little fantasy about a girl who knows her own mind.

The Chronicles of Narnia have strong female protagonists - Lucy in particular comes to mind.

Little Women is very much about girls of strong character who are generally admired for it.

Island of Blue Dolphins is about a young girl marooned alone who manages to survive.

A Wrinkle in Time has a female protagonist who grows stronger throughout the book.

Anne of Green Gables is a frank character who speaks her mind but is always a "good girl."

Izzy, Willy Nilly is about a girl who looses her leg in an accident. She's always a good girl and her struggles are interior - it's a terrific book.

Nthing Matilda and Buffy.
posted by bunderful at 6:26 PM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh! Parable of the Sower and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.

Less good girl - very strong unusual characters and great reads.
posted by bunderful at 6:29 PM on May 20, 2011

Ever After, the Cinderella-story retelling with Drew Barrymore and Dougray Scott, might be a good one. For the most part our heroine plays by the rules, except for the white lie of using her mother's name instead of her own. And I really like that at the end she rescues herself instead of waiting for the Prince or anybody else to come along and do it for her. Many worse messages a young woman could be getting...
posted by Lexica at 6:47 PM on May 20, 2011

This may not send the exact message you're looking for, but Parks and Recreation (the TV show) is focused on a character who is just like what you describe: a strong woman who fights the problems she sees from inside the system and following the rules. In recent episodes she is portrayed as more and more of a hero.
posted by nondescript at 9:35 PM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

OH and a BIG BIG thumbs up on the "True Grit" suggestion above. The character may be rebellious but the story is an inspiring one of someone refusing to allow anything to stand in her way all the while maintaining her 'civilized' composure.
posted by nondescript at 9:37 PM on May 20, 2011

I think this a great idea. It's not easy to be a step parent, and this is a thoughtful way to approach a problem.
posted by theora55 at 8:55 AM on May 21, 2011

Seconding True Grit and Legally Blonde both.
And this is a great idea.
posted by SLC Mom at 9:09 AM on May 21, 2011

You're looking for the Yamato Nadeshiko with other shades of Proper Lady, including The Woman Wearing The Queenly Mask and Spirited Young Lady.

Heroine Tohru Honda of Fruits Basket is a perfect example: kind, polite, friendly, and self-effacing to a fault, but when it comes to standing up for something/someone Tohru cares about, do not mess with her. A lot of her development occurs over the series as she learns that sometimes it's okay to be selfish when it's important.

And Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice is eminently concerned with doing the right thing within proper social boundaries (as is Mr. Darcy!); note Elizabeth's freakout over her rebellious sister's elopement with a totally unsuitable man. All of Jane Austen's heroines are in fact like this, with Fanny Price of Mansfield Park the most extreme example.
posted by nicebookrack at 9:17 AM on May 21, 2011

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