Top Ten Secretly Feminist Films

It used to be that no filmmakers would advertise that their movie had feminist ambitions; even now, some directors sidestep the issue. Despite this unfortunate trend, the movies below are wildly entertaining proof of what happens when empowering agendas shine through (even in subtle and complex ways).

1. Heathers (1988)
Veronica (Winona Ryder) belongs to a popular clique before rejecting everything her peers tell her about how girls should act. Around the same time, her boyfriend—the sociopathic J.D. (Christian Slater)—begins offing her ex-pals. Though it might seem like she’s going along with it for a guy, she ultimately lights a cigarette and lets him burn, saving the school in the process.

2. Up in the Air (2009)
This film doesn’t show its feminist stripes until the final minutes, when Alex (Vera Farmiga) tells no-strings-attached frequent flyer Ryan (George Clooney) that she’s basically the female version of him. The gut-wrenching twist happens because Ryan—and viewers—don’t believe Alex capable of deceit due to her gender. Not that marital cheating is a feminist value. This movie simply forces us to face our acceptance of widespread stereotypes: men want sex and women want love; men cheat, women don’t.

3. Bull Durham (1988)
Susan Sarandon plays Annie, a minor league baseball groupie who selects one player per season with whom to have an affair. Annie sticks to her rules, even while deciding between rookie pitcher Ebby (Tim Robbins) and veteran catcher Crash (Kevin Costner). When she finally settles down, it’s on her terms and in her own time.

4. Secretary (2002)
This story could be interpreted as a fairy tale in which a damsel in distress (a depressed cutter played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) needs to be saved by a male hero who’s in total control (a boss with a BDSM streak played by James Spader). Look closely and you’ll realize that this is a woman who knows what she wants and how to get it, social norms be damned. In the final shot, Gyllenhaal places a dead bug in her pristine marital bed while her now-hubby is off at work—then looks directly at the camera. Wink, wink.

5. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
We’re not talking about the television mega-hit, but rather the low-budget flick that took itself far less seriously. The reveal that this is more than a silly action comic comes at the end: After Buffy saves her town from a vampire invasion, her bad-boy love interest says, “You’re not like other girls,” to which Buffy replies earnestly, “Yes, I am.” Ladies kick ass!

6. Legally Blonde (2001)
Some argue that Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is more of a post-feminist icon, what with her penchant for pink and passion for shopping. Then there’s the distinctly un-feminist moment when Elle follows her boyfriend to Harvard to try and win him back. Despite that, the film manages to make jokes while simultaneously examining sexual harassment, body image, and that dumb blonde stereotype.

7. The Piano (1993)
Many see this as an old-school bodice-ripper masquerading as a serious feminist work (partly because of that scene with the stocking and Harvey Keitel’s finger, implying that all the protagonist needed was a good ravishing). Others think of Holly Hunter’s Ada as the ultimate feminist icon: she literally has no voice and is sold off to a man, yet she is as strong-willed and expressive as any female character on screen.

8. Being John Malkovich (1999)
Loser puppeteer Craig (John Cusack) tries to step out on his wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz), with Maxine Lund (Catherine Keener), but Maxine gives him the Heisman. Lotte ends up falling for Maxine, and Maxine for her, but only when Lotte is inside John Malkovich’s body. (Just your typical chick flick.) All the male characters attempt to cheat on something: a spouse, death, whatever. But the women leave them behind to start over together.

9. Billy Elliot (2000)
Because 11-year-old boys can be feminists too. Set in a working-class, Northern England town during the 1984 Miner’s Strike, this feel-good movie traces Billy’s journey from boxing ring to all-girl ballet class to the Royal Ballet—much to the chagrin of his macho dad and brother. He ultimately proves that dancing is not just a girl-thing or a gay-thing.

10. Thelma and Louise (1991)
It’s easy to root for Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) in this iconic flick—even as they’re evading the FBI, robbing convenient stores and blowing up tankers. The feminist agenda is evident from the start, but it’s still refreshing to watch their tolerance for controlling men go from low to zero.