Female Anxiety Movies: The Overlooked Genre
It's not easy being a woman. Hell, being alive in general isn’t easy either, but being of the female persuasion comes with a layer of neuroses that is hard to shake. We are at least lucky enough to have a plethora of movies that delve and tear into the slow insanity known as existing-while-female in our modern world. This genre of movies, that ease our journey through this state of anxiety we call life, I have aptly coined “Female Anxiety” cinema.
There’s a difference between female anxiety movies and movies that simply feature crazy female characters. Actually, more often than not, movies that have generic “crazy bitch” women are more films about male anxiety – think Gone Girl or Body Heat. Usually a femme fatale taking the reins is more about men and their fear of being betrayed by a variety of things. Mainly, being betrayed by women and / or their own penises. For female anxiety, it’s more honed in on outside pressure from a male-dominated world, as well as the fear of being stripped of their autonomy.
External forces can be manifested in a multitude of ways, depending on the individual character being portrayed. Take for instance one of the leading female anxiety movies A Woman Under the Influence (1974), starring the untouchable Gena Rowlands. Not only is this a film that handles mental illness with concern and accuracy, it builds a lead female character with depth that feels authentic in every way. Gena Rowlands plays a slowly crumbling wife and mother who goes off to a hospital for rehabilitation, but when she returns she is thrust right back into her place by her well-meaning husband (Peter Faulk), starting her problems all over again. There is the feeling of being trapped in her role; that even after she cracks and comes undone, she is expected to be fixed and preparing dinner as soon as possible. It’s a remarkable movie and it is sometimes used by therapists to explain to the families of people who are going through a breakdown that when their loved one emerges from their rehabilitation, they are still working on their problems. You wouldn’t ask someone who just got a cast off to run a marathon, right? Same idea.
A more ultra-modern example is Always Shine (2016), a movie about competition between friends and the underlying societal pressures that make women believe they need to compete with each other for men, jobs, and perfection. The movie takes place in Big Sur, beautiful and isolated, where two aspiring actor friends Anna and Beth are spending a weekend. Beth has had more success in her career than Anna, though Beth constantly downplays it by saying that her roles are all in dumb movies and she’s always asked to get naked for them. In one tense scene, she is reading through a script her agent sent her and when she tells Anna she has to take her clothes off again, Anna responds coldly by asking, “Do you ever feel like a whore?”
While the movie pits the two against each other in an isolated setting, the topics being brought up are wider than their friendship, they seem like a microcosm of the real world in this remote place. We see them interacting with men: Anna is outspoken and dominant while Beth is more reserved, yet Anna is still dismissed by men once they decide she’s too “inquisitive.” We also hear about them interacting with the strange world of filmmaking: Beth admits that Anna is more talented than her, but thinks she is too pushy which is why people don’t want to work with her. All this would be enough, but then there’s a switch around the third act where we are privy to what it’s like to be the quiet, shy one; it’s clear that even the “good girl” feels trapped and judged for being too reserved. One male character claims he thought Beth was snotty the first time he met her, proving that you really can’t win.
Both of these movies are two very different examples of female anxiety but they share similar threads: the pressure of doing what’s expected, the anxiety of not understanding the point of what’s expected, or being forced into a mold and then being judged for how well you fill it. These are the societal pressures that many female anxiety movies use and the only thing more frightening than them is the internal fear that comes from the loss of autonomy.
Autonomy is a loaded word when it comes to women. Not just because female bodies are often thought of as public property but because of what the mechanisms of said bodies imply: they are here to give life and by giving life, you are required to share your autonomy. Pregnancy is, by nature, a relinquishing of one’s own space. For people who are into it and excited about the prospect of growing a parasit–uh, I mean, baby, they don’t consider it an encroachment. Many people in a girl's or woman’s life will tell her that she will have a biological urge to get pregnant, those who are not too keen on the idea will most likely identify with the more internal female anxiety movies.
Safe (1995) stars Julianne Moore as Carol, a woman that could knock the socks off any Stepford wife. She lives in a perfectly maintained home, takes immaculate care of herself, doesn’t drink, works out, and basically does what her husband wants. One day, she collapses and nobody can figure out what’s wrong with her. She gets weaker as doctors shrug their shoulders, unable to find something they can point to as the culprit. Carol begins to think that she’s allergic to her environment and that it is corrupting her internally. What is interesting about the movie is how the characters around Carol blame her for her sickness, an interesting metaphor for mental illness as well. Even when she seeks treatment, the strange spa that she goes to is run by a man who reminds her over and over again that she is causing her problems and that the malady is all in her head. The oft-repeated mantra of “you’re your own worst enemy” takes on a far more insidious tone as you watch someone struggling as their body falls apart and people blame the victim for their state.
Compare that to a movie like Rosemary’s Baby (1968), a perfect combination of external and internal horrors. Rosemary is a woman who wants to get pregnant and looks forward to being a mother. However, when her pregnancy progresses with immense pain, she’s falls to the mercy and manipulation of the untrustworthy people around her. We as the audience can see how trapped she is and how hard everyone is trying to convince her that they know best. Her husband Guy (played by John Cassavetes, who wrote and directed A Woman Under the Influence) responds to her decision to switch doctors by saying “it wouldn’t be fair” to the doctor, never mind the fact that he isn’t doing anything for the agony Rosemary is in. Throughout the movie, Rosemary is used as a means to an end and though she’s a woman who was willing to give up part of her freedom in order to have a baby, she is completely robbed of her autonomy because of what the others around her want. It’s all the societal pressures plus the fun of not having control over one’s own body.
Female anxiety movies are complex, the more of them you find, the more varieties and layers you’ll begin to notice. No two anxieties are alike but at least we can rest assured in knowing that we’re all going crazy together and there’s plenty for us to watch while we do.
Veronica’s favorite female anxiety movies: All That Heaven Allows (1955), Always Shine (2016), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Gloria (1980), Imprint (2007), May (2002), Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Safe (1995), Teeth (2007), The Brood (1979), The Handmaiden (2016), The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2014), The Woman (2011), Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), and Young Adult (2011).