When it comes to feminism, there have been tons of discussions about its definition and what it means to people. Yet, what many agree on is the fact that it has been a historical movement that seeks the establishment of equal rights and opportunities for all genders.
Since feminism is a social movement, phases of it generated within it over time, marking the development of key ideas and actions in a certain period. These stages are known as the waves of feminism.
Since these surges of feminism are historical benchmarks that comprise the movement’s achievements and difficulties, it’s important to recognize what defines each wave.
With that being said, here are some films that have managed to portray aspects of the four waves of feminism.
Films about first wave feminism
According to Human Rights Careers, the first wave, developed in the late 19th-century, was not the first appearance of feminist ideals, but it was the first real political movement for the Western world.
The first wave’s goals:
This film follows the development of the UK Women’s suffrage movement throughout the protagonist’s story, Maud Watts. Though Watts is a fictional character, she portrays working women of that time, whose working conditions were deplorable.
Suffragette shows groups of women who were fighting for equality and the right to vote, risking their jobs, homes, and lives for their cause. Some historical characters appear in this film, either as such or as an inspiration.
For instance, Meryl Streep portrays Emmeline Pankhurst, the English political activist who organized the UK suffragette movement. On the other hand, Helena Bonham Carter’s character, Edith, is loosely based on Edith Garrud, one of the first female martial arts instructor, and Edith New, one of the first suffragettes to use vandalism.
One Woman, One Vote (1995)
One Woman, One Vote is a PBS documentary that looks at the history of the women’s suffrage movement. Narrated by Susan Sarandon, the documentary features historical photos and video clips, from the Call for Suffrage at Seneca Falls to the passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment.
The film also delves into the divisions within the suffrage movement, such as the regional differences within the movement and differences over whether to use militant tactics.
Sadly, though the first wave of feminism advocated for the abolition of gender inequality, it failed to focus on all women’s rights, thus excluding the role of female minorities.
Films about second-wave feminism
The second wave of feminism occurred in the 1960s and 70′s. During this time, women felt empty because of the social role they had, that of mother, wife, and housewife. Hence, this wave challenged what women’s role in society should be, evolving within a framework of anti-war campaigns, civil rights movements, and a growing awareness of social minorities beyond gender or race.
The second wave’s goals:
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014)
This is an American documentary that highlights some of the women involved in the second-wave feminism movement, from 1966 to 1971, in the United States. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is the first documentary that covered the second wave.
It was directed and produced by Mary Dore, who was herself active in the Women’s Liberation Movement during the mid-70s.
In addition, this film includes testimony from Linda Burnham of Black Sisters United, showcasing the critical importance of women of color in these movements.
Left on Pearl (2016)
This short film documentary is about a group of women who were marching in Boston’s International Women’s Day Parade on March 6th, 1971. These marchers detoured by turning left on Pearl Street in Cambridge, ultimately occupying a Harvard building at 888 Memorial Drive, where they stayed for 10 days.
Left On Pearl tells the forgotten story of these Boston women activists that drew media attention at the time, wondering why these women of diverse backgrounds wouldn’t go back to their homes or classrooms.
The building was a former knitting factory owned by Harvard University. Hence, the marchers proclaimed it for a women’s center and low-income housing for the community in which the building stood, embodying the hopes and tensions of feminism’s second wave.
What’s great about Left on Pearl is that director Susan Rivo interviewed some of the women who were involved, vividly detailing what went on inside the building.
Films about third-wave feminism
The third wave of feminism began in the 90′s, when women enjoyed more rights and power. Yet, there were groups who were still living some hard times during this decade, like the LGBTQ community.
Therefore, this phase focused on deconstructing the universal notions of womanhood, body, gender, sexuality, and so on.
Third wave’s goals:
The Punk Singer (2013)
This 2013 documentary film explores the feminist punk movement of the early ‘90s, Riot Grrrl. To do so, The Punk Singer focuses on the life of feminist front singer, Kathleen Hanna, of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre.
Riot Grrrl was a cultural sub movement of the third wave, though some consider it of the fourth, that combined feminism, punk music, and politics. In spite of its idolizing point of view, the film’s footage and original interviews allow the audience to understand the faction’s beliefs through one of its central figures, a.k.a. Kathleen.
Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)
This 1991 American comedy-drama film was based on Fannie Flagg’s 1987 novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. It tells the story of Evelyn, an unhappy housewife who befriends an elderly lady named Ninny in a nursing home.
Ninny enthralls Kathy with her fantastic anecdotes of herself and the people she knew during her youth. The movie explores different themes, such as how women are trapped in society’s expectations, the dehumanizing effects of racism, and LGBTQ romance.
The latter topic is shown through the relationship between tomboy Idgie, Ninny’s sister-in-law, and Ruth— although, some point out that the movie didn’t explore their romance as the book did.
Films about fourth wave feminism
There has been discussion on whether we’re currently in the third or fourth wave of feminism. Yet, with the start of the 21st century and noteworthy activists, like MeToo, supporters have recognized that we are in a new phase.
Fourth wave goals:
4th Wavers (2008)
4th Wavers is a short documentary about the fourth wave of feminism spanning 2008 up to the start of the #MeToo movement.
Directed by Ruby Fay Wray, this film gathers the perspectives from various Toronto-based feminist artists and social media through a compilation of viral hashtags and commentary from online social media users via Twitter and Instagram.
4th Wavers examines how art is used as a feminist art tool for change, defying the current views of feminism and social patriarchy.
Miss Representation (2011)
Miss Representation is a 2011 American documentary film that explores how mainstream media has contributed to the under-representation of women in influential positions by usually broadcasting stereotyped portrayals of women.
The film not only interviews distinguished women of the media, such as Jane Fonda, Rachel Maddow, and Rosario Dawson. It also recorded the statements of teenage girls as well as female activists and political figures.
The movie brought along a lot of positive movements by encouraging its viewers to take the pledge against gender misrepresentations.
In addition, Miss Representation led to a social action campaign (#RepresentHer, #DisruptTheNarrative, and The Representation Project) to address change in policy, education, and call for socially responsible business.
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (2012)
This four-hour PBS primetime documentary film and national was inspired by the widely acclaimed book, of the same name, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Half the Sky was filmed in 10 countries, following celebrities, like America Ferrera, Diane Lane, Gabrielle Union, and Olivia Wilde, on a journey to tell the stories of inspiring people.
The film addresses critical current issues, such as sex trafficking, gender-based violence, and maternal mortality, by showing how the individuals of these stories are trying to confront them with meaningful solutions, from economic empowerment to education for women and girls.
The documentary is part of the Women and Girls Lead initiative, and its main goal is to “present to us the single most vital opportunity of our time: the opportunity to make a change. All over the world women are seizing this opportunity”.