Indie Dramas Challenge the Role of Women

A distraught, always-the-bridesmaid 30-something; a callous, breast implant-seeking teacher; and young, urban singleton with a bevy of exes were among the women protagonists that prevailed onscreen this year in movies such as “Bridesmaids,” “Bad Teacher” and “What’s Your Number?”, respectively.

To many critics, insiders and filmgoers alike, 2011 has solidified itself as the Year of Women in Comedy, aided by the strength of the women-centric television shows premiering this fall to positive reviews and full season orders. A once uncharted territory for leading actresses has been conquered, according to Fox News, by comediennes with “funny bones” and “banging bodies.”

Or, as the “Jersey Shore” cast members would surely hashtag, middle-class, white-women problems.

Sure, it’s about time Hollywood acknowledges that women can have a function in comedies outside of Rachel Harris’ uptight, puritanical girlfriend in “The Hangover.” But even with this superb comediennes helming box-office gold, these films hardly contribute, content-wise, to the demolition of the Glass Ceiling. On the contrary, they very much continue to conventionalize the so-called woman’s story, albeit with a bit more edge, sex and vulgarity.

And drama-at least in the mainstream-remains a barren wasteland for compelling actresses looking for equally as compelling characters.

There’s much left unanswered in writer-director Sean Durkin’s “Marth Marcy May Marlene,” the Elizabeth Olsen-starring Sundance winner that opened in limited release in October, but there was no question about women’s fledgling role in dramas: There are women’s stories that exist outside the confines of love, marriage and white picket fences. Numerous, actually.

Hollywood has come to know women in limited roles. They are wives, mothers and victims, the latter of which is frequently viewed through an exploitative lens rather than an introspective one. So when a stark psychological drama centered around a young woman sexually, emotionally and physically brutalized by a warped, misogynistic cult pummels into theaters, it strikes as more unbelievable than Cameron Diaz’s “Bad Teacher” embezzling money from her students for a new set of double D’s.

Unlike the women in their comedic counterparts, who bemoan the stereotypical shallow troubles that plague modern-day women, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and fellow religious cult film “Higher Ground,” which was directed by Academy Award-nominee Vera Farmiga and released last summer, portray a deeper, problematic part of being a woman in contemporary society. These are women struggling with their faith, the patriarchy and their morals–so impressionable that it’s hard to determine what is right and what is wrong; what is sexism and what is scripture; what is abuse and what is faith.

Reality shows such as “Sister Wives” and “19 Kids and Counting” (both air on TLC) expose lives in perceived religious and patriarchal cults as alternative, justifiable and even relatable, refusing to delve into their consequences and often long-lasting and damaging effects. But as America finds itself in battles over issues such as traditional marriage and reproductive rights, intense depictions –no matter how gritty– of the women damaged provoke a dialogue more fleshed out than the one’s that rely on the status quo.

When the dust of “Bridesmaids” finally settles, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Higher Ground” become the most important films to see in this so-called year of female protagonists.

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