Top 5 Feminists Films from Old Hollywood

Although Classic Hollywood films leading up to 1960 weren’t the most feminist in the history of cinema, there were still some stand out roles by women who were trailblazers on the big screen. Even when most Hollywood films were written and directed by men who wrote female characters as misogynistic tropes, the careers of the women in Hollywood consisted of much more because they were a force to be reckoned with. With the rise of film noir and femme fatales, the roles for complicated, and often, unlikable women were plentiful and Hollywood legends like Bette Davis took them on eagerly.

Here are some of the most memorable feminist roles from Old Hollywood:

5. Lily Powers from Baby Face (1933)

Via YouTube

Barbara Stanwyck stars as Lily Powers who is fed up with being sexually exploited by men. One of the iconic scenes in the film is Lily casually pouring hot coffee on a man who tries to feel her up and then saying, “oh, excuse me, my hand shakes so when I’m around you.” She gets the name Baby Face, but later in the film she changes her name and has a few men she calls ‘baby’ herself. She also follows strict girl code by making sure her best friend Chico, played by Theresa Harris, is by her side stating, “if she goes, I go” to any man who tries to break them up.

4. Hui Fei from Shanghai Express (1932)

Wikimedia

Anna May Wong plays Hui Fei in this romantic drama alongside Marlene Dietrich who plays her good friend Shanghai Lily. Hui Fei stabs and kills the man who violated her and was going to take Lily as his own in exchange for another character’s life. Wong’s snarky comebacks and serious demeanor make her a good match alongside a scene stealer like Dietrich. She is the first Asian American Hollywood star and a dignified person who rejected roles that played Asian tropes or that she felt were exploitative.

3. Lorelei Lee from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Wikimedia

Marilyn Monroe’s iconic role as Lorelei Lee, which inspired Madonna’s “Material Girl”, was not only one of her funniest roles, but also one of her most feminist. When Lorelei is confronted by her future father-in-law about only marrying her son for his money, she lets him know that she’s as not dumb as people say. “Don’t you know that a man being rich is a like a girl being pretty,” she says as she refuses to accept any bit of shame he throws at her. Monroe wasn’t just a sex symbol, she was one of the best actors of her time.

2. Janet Frobisher from Another Man’s Poison (1952)

via YouTube

“Well, I’m not a nice woman” Janet Frobisher said to the man who thought she would be docile and sweet like other women. In this thriller the role of Janet is played by the one and only Bette Davis. She was known for taking roles that may have been unflattering or not sexy, but told a story of a woman that may not have been told otherwise. Davis once said, “when a man gives his opinion, he’s a man. When a woman gives her opinion, she’s a bitch” and the women she played were not afraid to state their opinions.

1. Tira from I’m No Angel (1933)

Wikimedia

The original provocateur Mae West plays one of the most feminist roles in cinema as Tira in this comedy that she wrote herself. West was one of the few female Hollywood icons who got to write her own story. She even wrote and starred in a play titled Sex in the mid-20s. Her famous one-liners included quips such as “is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?” In I’m No Angel Tira is a woman who is not afraid of anybody or anything and is a confident sexual being.