International Women’s Day on March 8: Saluting strong women in movies this year

Cinema still from the movie Wonder Woman.
Cinema still from the movie Wonder Woman.PHOTO: WARNER BROS

Behind every great man is a woman, they used to say. These days, we know better.

From universal suffrage and Angela Merkel to "Girl Power" and Beyonce, strong, successful women have all but rendered this slogan obsolete.

This is something that the world celebrates at least once each year on International Women’s Day. On March 8, women in countries like Russia, Croatia, Vietnam and Kazakhstan are showered with flowers and gifts.

Yet perhaps the best way to acknowledge women is through representation. Just as Australian actress Cate Blanchett reminded the Academy Awards audience last year that women-centric films are not “niche” experiences, so too movies this year are full of women who not only aspire, but also inspire. 

In fact, at least two of this year's Best Picture nominees at the Oscars feature women who are strong in many ways.

One of them, Hidden Figures, throws the spotlight on three previously overlooked African-American women and their contributions to the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) during the decades-long Space Race with USSR that started in the 1950s.

Taraji P. Henson of Empire fame stars as physicist and mathematician Katherine G. Johnson, whose calculations were critical to the success of numerous space missions. Shining alongside her were aerospace engineer Mary Winston Jackson (played by Janelle Monae) and mathematician Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), whose genius gave computers back then a run for their money.

With so much of the Space Race narrative orbiting around male astronauts like Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin, the movie reminds us that none of this galactic glory would have been possible without these extraordinary women.

Celebrating women is incomplete without honouring heroes we're all familiar with at home - mothers. Rose Lee Maxson (Viola Davis) in another Best Picture nominee, Fences, is one such mum.

[SPOILER ALERT] 

She may be a victim of adultery and physical abuse, but she ultimately rises above adversity and displays true magnanimity, strength and love, raising the daughter of her husband’s dead mistress as her own.

[END OF SPOILER] 

Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, the movie's parallels to Davis’ own life are striking. She and her husband Julius Tennon adopted a daughter together, and Davis is also stepmother to Tennon’s son and daughter from previous relationships.

Davis’ performance in this movie also made history. By clinching the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role earlier this week, she became the first black thespian to win all three major accolades for acting - an Oscar, an Emmy (for How To Get Away With Murder) and two Tonys (for King Hedley II and the stage version of Fences).

Looking for a more conventional female superhero? Action film Wonder Woman will hit the silver screen in June, with the titular DC Comics character played by Israeli actress Gal Gadot.

After an American military pilot washes ashore on her island of Themyscira, the Amazon princess Diana Prince leaves home to put a stop to World War I, essentially saving the day.

Gone is the hackneyed rhetoric that women are the damsels in distress.

Gadot will also have you know that her character’s real wonder lies neither in her brawn nor her weapons, but rather, in her heart. 

“She has so many strengths and powers, but at the end of the day she’s a woman with a lot of emotional intelligence,” she told Entertainment Weekly.

“She’s loving… And it’s all her heart - that’s her strength. I think women are amazing for being able to show what they feel. I admire women who do.”

In the same vein of larger-than-life superheroes are Naomi Scott and Becky G in the upcoming Power Rangers reboot. The two star as teens Kimberly (Pink Ranger) and Trini (Yellow Ranger) respectively, alongside their three male counterparts (Ludi Lin, Dacre Montgomery and RJ Cyler).

Few plot details are available, but expect a lot of kick-ass action and camaraderie as the warriors take on the alien witch Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks).

Speaking of Banks, the American actress will also be acting in and producing the musical comedy Pitch Perfect 3, due at the end of this year.

Yes, everyone’s favourite a cappella sorority is back. From Anna Kendrick’s Beca to Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy, The Bellas have always shown that they have big voices when it comes to singing, but bigger hearts when it comes to sisterhood.

And while robots are not humans (unless you’ve been watching too much Westworld), it would be difficult not to consider Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of a cyborg in Ghost In The Shell as reflective of a powerful, smart and strong-willed woman.

Playing Major Motoko Kusanagi, Johansson and her para-military team thwart cyber criminals and villains in this cyberpunk fantasy based on the popular Japanese manga.
As cyber-hacking and terrorism continue to cast their shadows on us, one certainly wishes we had someone like the Major around in the real world.

So to all the powerful and wonderful women around us - young or old, hidden or famous, mother or daughter, perfect or flawed, on reel or for real - we salute you.