Herstory on Film

Each month, the Herstory Club curates a selection of films that complement our monthly theme. This collection will be female-focused – both in front of the camera and ideally behind too – and range from fiction to biopics of real women in history. The films we’ll be recommending aim to both entertain and educate, showcasing cult classics, new hits, and movies you may never have heard of.

In lists of the depictions of disability on screen, the majority of protagonists – be it in biopics or fiction – are male. There are an abundance of films exploring the lives of disabled men, but much fewer featuring their female counterparts. However, this month has given us the perfect opportunity to shine a light on those stand out films presenting women and disability. In terms of biopics of pioneering disabled women, Salma Hayek channels the celebrated Mexican artist Frida Kahlo in Frida; Clare Danes has a Golden Globe winning turn in the made-for-television movie Temple Grandin, as the eponymous autistic scientist; and AnnaSophia Robb portrays teenage surfer Bethany Hamilton, who lost an arm in a shark attack, in Soul Surfer.

Disabled women are front and centre in a number of romantic comedies, with Drew Barrymore enduring date after date with Adam Sandler while living with short-term memory loss in 50 First Dates, Rachel McAdams suffering amnesia following a car crash in The Vow, and Anne Hathaway having Parkinson’s in Love and Other Drugs. Jennifer Lawrence won the Oscar for Best Leading Actress playing a woman with bipolar disorder in 2012’s Silver Lining’s Playbook. When female characters are at the heart of a film featuring disability, they are regularly presented with Alzheimer’s, as shown in films such as Iris, Beautiful Memories, A Moment to Remember, and Away From Her. Indian film Margarita with a Straw charts a young woman with cerebral palsy leaving her home in India to study in New York; and a young Scarlett Johansson deals with trauma and injury in The Horse Whisperer. Finally, notable mention has to be given to everyone’s favourite blue tang with short term memory loss: Dory in both Finding Nemo and the sequel, Finding Dory.

Our top five films for this month feature romance – both human and otherwise – from France to New Zealand, all with a large smattering of awards won by the women on screen and off, thrown in for good measure. Without further ado…

Children of a Lesser God

(1986, Dir.: Randa Haines)

Adapted from the stage play of the same name, the critically acclaimed Children of a Lesser God charts the story of a new teacher (William Hurt) at a school for deaf children falling in love with a deaf former-pupil-turned-janitor (Marlee Matlin). This was the first film directed by a woman, Randa Haines, to be nominated for an Oscar. Demonstrating inclusive casting, the film hired deaf or hearing-impaired actors in all roles depicting a deaf or hearing-impaired character and was the first major motion picture since 1926’s silent film You’d Be Surprised to cast a deaf or hearing-impaired actor in a major role. In her debut film performance, Marlee Matlin – who had been deaf since infancy – won Best Leading Actress at the 1987 Oscars, becoming the youngest woman to ever win in her category, and accepting the award with the aid of a translator.

Children of a Lesser God is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video

Rust and Bone (original title: De rouille et d’os)

(2012, Dir.: Jacques Audiard)

French film Rust and Bone follows Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) – a killer whale trainer – and Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts), depicting their unlikely romance against a backdrop of a tragic accident at Marineland in which Stéphanie becomes a double amputee. The remarkable film received a ten-minute standing ovation at the 65th Cannes Film Festival and was celebrated with a slew of César award nominations.

Rust and Bone is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video

Still Alice

(2014, Dir.: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland)

In Still Alice, Julianne Moore plays a Columbia University linguistics professor who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The film sensitively follows the harrowing challenges this presents to both herself and her family – including her three adult children who she fears may be genetically predisposed to the condition too. Moore won the “Quintuple Crown” of Best Leading Actress awards for her moving performance: the Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, and Critics’ Choice. This was co-director Richard Glatzer’s last film, as he died of ALS in March 2015.

Still Alice is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video

The Piano

(1993, Dir. Jane Campion)

Set in the mid-19th century, The Piano follows a mute woman, Ada, (Holly Hunter) who is sent from her native Scotland to New Zealand, with her young daughter Flora and beloved piano, for an arranged marriage. Director Jane Campion broke glass ceilings as the first woman to win the prestigious Palm D’Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival (but she could not accept the award as she was due to give birth) and was also the first woman to be Oscar nominated for Best Director for a Best Picture nominee. Of the seven Oscar nominations the film garnered, six were received by women, with three going on to win their respective categories – both Lead and Supporting Actress (Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin) and Screenplay (Campion).

The Piano is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video

The Shape of Water

(2017, Dir. Guillermo del Toro)

Winner of Best Picture at the 2018 Oscars, The Shape of Water is director Guillermo del Toro’s exceptional twist on the monster movie. Sally Hawkins plays a mute janitor, Elisa Esposito, at a 1960s top secret research laboratory who strikes up a relationship with an amphibious creature at the facility. The Shape of Water is ambitious, magical and deeply romantic, challenging expectations and stereotypes at every turn.

The Shape of Water is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video

About the Author: Emma Forth


I’m a first year History PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. My research combines my passions for the First World War and film by exploring the development of early cinema, 1909-1918, across all four nations of the United Kingdom. For the last six months I have been producing the first database and maps of British and Irish cinemas in 1914, showcasing the position of cinema at the outbreak of the Great War. In a four-year hiatus from education prior to postgraduate study in 2018 I worked as a risk analyst; ran the admissions department in a high school; and was a receptionist and volunteer at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden. I am an avid reader, theatregoer, and cross-stitcher, and when not frantically Marie Kondo-ing my possessions and renovating my flat and during a pandemic, I can be found watching superhero films and dreaming of museums.

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