For far too long, mainstream Hollywood has portrayed women as objects of desire, fodder for the male gaze, or matronly maternal figures whose only purpose in life is to care for others. We all know that women are far more multifaceted in the real world. We’re sexual, we’re nurturing, we’re bold, maybe even ruthlessly ambitious. We’re anything and everything we want to be. So why not reflect that on screen? Topic embraces stories that show the full spectrum of womanhood, and we’re not afraid to put the spotlight on all the ugly, uncomfortable, and awkward bits. Whether it’s the pains of adolescence, the rude surprises of pregnancy, or the many battles that women have to fight, we want to witness everything a woman experiences. Here are nine stories that show what being a woman is really like, not just the pretty parts.
Is a mother expected to give her life to her family? And if she doesn’t, does that make her a villain? Part noir whodunit, part dark comedy, with a sharp dash of absurdist tragedy, “Ema” follows Elsa, a small-town woman who’s assumed the role of 24-hour caregiver to her comatose son, Lauri. When the investigation into Lauri’s mysterious gun attack stalls, the town’s rumor mill starts churning and the people who knew Lauri best start revealing questionable motives, including Elsa herself. The more trapped she feels in her claustrophobic new reality, the more she strays from her role as dutiful wife and mother.
Part “Love Actually,” part “This Is Us,” but set in Sweden, “Love Me” is a multigenerational love story and family dramedy. At the heart of the series is Clara (played by the show’s creator, Josephine Bornebusch), a successful obstetrician who is starting to feel like a societal pariah because she’s 37 and single. The excruciating irony of her situation, and that of real-life women everywhere, is that, because of her age range, the dating pool is abysmally thin, making each blind date worse than the last. In the vein of traditional rom-coms, Clara has a meet-cute with a handsome stranger, but the show breaks from the mold in its realistic portrayal of their ensuing relationship. Clara will have to journey into her own emotional muck in order to let her guard down. Can she find love, in spite of herself?
Let’s get one thing clear: women think about sex—a lot. In this coming-of-age series, Cathrine is happily in love with her live-in boyfriend, Simon, but her intimacy needs aren’t exactly being met. Sexually frustrated, she finds herself drawn to a female coworker and the palpable chemistry between them. But the more she fulfills her sexual desire, the more instability she introduces into her relationship. Will chasing the one thing she’s missing cost her everything else? Ultimately, the show raises a question that countless women will likely relate with: what if your partner made you feel loved, but not wanted?
There’s really no decade like your 20s. It’s your first full decade as an adult, but you’re not quite ready to deal with grown-up obstacles. When Noemí Goldberg becomes unintentionally pregnant, she looks to her friends and family for support, naturally, but her roommate is scatterbrained, the father is not exactly stepping up to the plate, and her cousin is more interested in what to post next on Instagram. On top of that, she lives in a country that bans a woman’s right to choose. So what’s a girl to do? Noemí will have to learn to rely on herself, which might be the best lesson to learn in the spring of her 27th year.
Are women really free to choose their own roles? Actress Brandy Burre had a plum gig on “The Wire,” but she walked away from it to raise a family. Now, with her personal life in turmoil, she attempts to revive her acting career while fulfilling her role as mother, wife, and caregiver. But does she get to decide which role is most important to her, or is she expected to perform all of them? Using an experimental approach that combines cinema verité with stage direction, the documentary blurs the line between reality and performance and raises a question that likely resonates with most women: is life just a performance that we didn’t audition for?
Coming of age is tricky enough as it is, but coming of age in New York City is an entirely different beast. Filmed over three years, the documentary follows real-life sisters Ginger and Dusty and their friends as they discover their true desires, clash with parents, and navigate the mysterious course from childhood to adulthood. Growing up in Brooklyn has instilled in them a unique brand of independence and sophistication beyond their years, but no amount of subway rides and late-night city hangs will ease the insecurities, awkwardness, and pressures of being a teenage girl.
What happens when a pregnant vegan starts craving meat? In this philosophical drama, Lane is a strict vegan, self-admittedly the “obnoxious” kind who makes “people feel bad.” But when she becomes pregnant, her cravings for meat become so strong, and combined with an innate maternal instinct to do what’s best for her unborn baby, she decides to go carnivore. When she hires a butcher to teach her how to responsibly break down a lamb, she ends up going on an emotional roller coaster of fear, guilt, and, ultimately, self-discovery and -acceptance. Who knew that butchers could be such great therapists?
This short film gives new meaning to “sometimes it feels like vaginas have a mind of their own.” In the whimsically animated short, one girl is just trying to have a relaxing night in, soak in the tub, smoke a little weed, and take pleasure in, well, herself. That becomes a little difficult, however, when her vagina leaps off her body and starts running around her apartment and terrorizing neighbors. But when her new detached friend starts rubbing itself on a variety of pleasantly textured objects around the apartment, the night gets back on track and culminates in a kaleidoscopic...explosion, so to speak.
There is no time more confusing than your high school years, and that’s often especially true for teenage girls. In this drama, directed by Gia Coppola, April (Emma Roberts) is wrestling with hormones, under-age drinking at parties, and flirting with boys—you know, normal high school stuff—but when her soccer coach (James Franco) starts making advances and declaring his love for her, typical teenage drama is taken to another, far riskier level. Between the tawdry (and illegal) affairs, the alcohol and substance abuse, and the general reckless behavior, “Palo Alto” exposes the depths of teenage depravity that could be lurking beneath every seemingly upstanding affluent town.
In Tunisia, laws surrounding sexual assault are designed to protect the perpetrator while holding the victim responsible. In fact, until 2017, “marry-your-rapist laws” exempted rapists from legal consequences if he married his victim. There is perhaps no other film that exposes this egregious issue as harrowingly as “Beauty and the Dogs.” The film follows Mariam, a Tunisian woman who is raped by police officers after leaving a party and is forced to relive her trauma over and over again as she tries to seek justice. Her attack doesn’t end with the rape, but continues and changes shape when she is blamed for the crime, something that, sadly, countless Tunisian women have experienced throughout their lifetimes.
Even if she fulfills your sexual fantasy, that doesn’t mean you know anything about her. In this short film, a cam girl tries to entice her fans to purchase a more revealing private viewing, but when they don’t bite, she shuts off her laptop and resumes her “normal” self, who is a complete 180 from her online persona. Not only is the film an eye-opening exploration of the many identities we assume, but it’s also an important reminder that women should have full control over what they want to reveal and what they want to conceal, and that indisputably goes for sex workers too.
Oscar-winner Penelope Cruz is at the top of her game as Magda, a woman who is diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer as she meets Arturo, a man also struck by tragedy. As they each brave their respective battles, they form an unexpected bond, and through fighting her disease, Magda sees her life transform in positive, even miraculous, ways. The story is a poignant illustration of that funny trick that life plays on us sometimes, when everything that could possibly go wrong collides with events so happy you couldn’t have dreamed them up. And the best part is watching how a woman as vivacious as Magda handles it all.