Following the premiere of “Elle” at this year’s New York Film Festival, the film’s star, Isabelle Huppert, shared her thoughts on her complicated character, Michèle. “She’s what I would call almost like a post-feminist character, building her own behavior and space,” Huppert said. “She doesn’t want to be a victim, that’s for sure, but she doesn’t even fall into the caricature of the revenge avenger. She’s somewhere else.”
The film’s controversial reception has not only centered around Michèle’s rejection of victimhood, but also the strange relationship she forges with her rapist following her initial attack. Mid-way through the film, following the reveal of the attacker’s identity, Michèle begins to play a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse, goading her attacker into a second encounter that some felt romanticized rape. However, it quickly becomes evident during the scene that Michèle’s intentions are to tip the scales in her favor. While she cannot physically overpower her attacker, she can strip him of his power by consenting to the experience. And indeed, her attacker is horrified by her demand to be slapped, telling her “it doesn’t work that way,” and recoiling in shame when Michèle finishes the experience with a manual orgasm.
It is Michèle’s decision to explore and unpack her sexuality in this manner, particularly her desirability as a woman on the cusp of becoming a grandmother, that affirm Huppert’s designation of Michèle as a new kind of post-feminist hero.
Post-feminism has become a blanket term for the evolution of feminism following the movement’s inception during the seventies. This expanded definition seeks to include intersectional feminism as well as post-colonialism as a larger and more lethal arsenal in the fight against inequality. However, much like “Elle,” post-feminism is not without its critics — the term implies that gender equality, the predominant goal of feminism, is a myth or that feminism is dead.
Regardless of the semantics, one important element of post-feminism is the celebration of sexuality, which encourages women to be empowered by sex in a variety of ways, including sex work, stripping and adult film acting. Seated within this context, Michèle’s actions, while uncomfortable for some, also become less perplexing; wresting power from her rapist reaffirms Michèle rejection of victimhood, which is all society will afford a woman in her position, and allows her empowerment, a far more acceptable return. In her own way, Michèle has transcended the avenging angel of past rape-revenge narratives and has instead become her own version of a post-feminist heroine.
Just what does a post-feminist heroine look like? The immediate image that comes to mind is Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, her blue eyes glittering from behind a smear of thick black grease paint as she rides across a post-apocalyptic wasteland in search of the matriarchal home she has left behind. The focus on Furiosa in George Miller’s Academy Award-winning “Mad Max: Fury Road” sparked outrage among (mostly) male fans and even led to the creation of the Furiosa Test, which gauges how angry internet commentators get over a film because it is feminist. Naturally, with these credentials under her belt, Furiosa is shoo-in.
But beyond this more obvious choice, post-feminist heroines are women who embody the complexities and contradictions of womanhood at various stages of life, who experience loneliness without shame, who seek out their own versions of happiness. Like Michèle, they find empowerment where they please, even when it runs contrary to what society might allow or expect.
Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, “Julieta,” explores the ways in which generational guilt can taint the relationship between a mother and her child. After a 12-year estrangement from her daughter, an older Julieta (Emma Suárez) reflects on the choices she made as a young woman (Adriana Ugarte) that led to her pregnancy and the guilt she carries over the loss of her daughter’s father.
While at first glance “Julieta” might seem antiquated by introducing a woman shattered by the loss of her status as a mother, the film makes it quite clear that Julieta bucks the idea of motherhood being her only and most important role. Following her daughter’s disappearance, Julieta erases every trace of her motherhood and it becomes clear that it is guilt, not a perceived loss of status or identity, that breaks her down in the end. “Julieta” masterfully unpacks the unnecessary guilt that women feel they must take on, often to the detriment of themselves and the relationships they value.
There’s often a misconception that a film can only be feminist if its female characters buck tradition, eschewing motherhood and marriage as if the two cannot be part of any true equation for happiness. But for Julieta, seeking fulfillment in her role as a mother doesn’t strip her of feminism, instead it affords her a complexity that might otherwise be stripped in a misguided pursuit of modernity. Julieta’s story, like Michèle’s, is one that must be worth telling to reflect the many faces that make up womanhood today.
The notion that women cannot have differing views, that there must be uniformity in their portrayal, strips women of their individuality and robs viewers of the reality that women carry a multitude of experiences and identities that quite often clash alongside each other. Settling for idealistic and comfortable depictions of women doesn’t just strip a sense of realism from films, it denies them a fully realized depiction of womanhood.
Rather than superheroes and action stars, characters like Julieta and Michèle truly are post-feminist heroines, offering honest depictions of what it means to be a woman today, in its multitude of forms, as the demands of society clash with the pursuit of one’s own happiness and the chips fall wherever they may.
This essay was written by a participant in the 2016 New York Film Festival Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring critics co-produced by IndieWire, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Film Comment.