When someone broaches the topic of women in film – female stars on our screens – it’s easy to think of our contemporary golden girls: Saoirse Ronan, Meryl Streep, Olivia Coleman, Emily Blunt, the list goes on. These women are the leading ladies in Hollywood right now. They are best of the best, talented beyond belief. These women are icons, but can we forget who made it possible for these women to be who they are today? Can we forget about the leading ladies in the 20th century who reshaped the film industry – and showbiz – with their fiery independence and determination to prove themselves?
Think about the actresses that dominate our favourite flashback movies: Audrey Hepburn in her svelte black dress, Judy Garland with her sparkly red shoes, Vivien Leigh and the twinkle in her eye, and Katharine Hepburn, simply for being her. All these women had dazzling careers and have come out having truly made a place for themselves in the Hollywood Hall of Fame. But what’s most striking about them is not their triumph in film, or their achievements during award seasons – it’s their work for feminism. These women all challenged the natural image of women, all of these ladies refused to be the housewives they may have been expected to be.
Audrey Hepburn dedicated years of her life to UNICEF, eventually earning her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Garland battled against negativity for her appearance and her lack of conventional attractiveness – despite a brave fight, this eventually led her to a taking her own life. Leigh fought against constant attention which focused on her beauty and not her skill. She felt that the lack of acknowledgement of her talent – as supported by her husband Sir Laurence Olivier – hindered her ability to develop as an actress, and she spent years being publicly vocal about how this was not the same for men. Katharine Hepburn simply rejected all expectations of her as a woman. She was everything a woman at the time wasn’t: she had opinions, and she voiced them. She was openly athletic, and was often seen donning trousers, as opposed to a skirt, or dress. She knew what she wanted, and she was determined to achieve her dream. She essentially didn’t care which men she angered in the process, she knew she was a talented actress, and she knew what she deserved. These women are all inspiring, not for their roles in movies, not for the images we remember them by on posters. These women leave many awestruck for their defiance against what they were expected to do. Each of those mentioned, and more, should be remembered for their work outside of film, as well as for their talent behind the camera.
So, yes, it’s easy to focus on those who grace out screens today. Every time I go to the cinema, and see a woman play the lead, I am chuffed. Every time women in showbiz use their platform for more than paid partnerships and adverts, I smile. And I watch on screen, at those astonishing ladies I mentioned at the start and feel proud about the world we are living in. Don’t get me wrong, they are all fighting for gender equality and they are all inspiring. But I look back these other actresses, along with Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, and I can’t help but think that these women are Hollywood’s true leading ladies. I believe that cinema, and women in film, would be a whole different playing field without these incredible names. I believe they started their own version of the butterfly effect.