The White House Gate-Crashers Need To Get A Life — And Bravo Needs To Smarten Up

The White House (Washington DC)
Not just another reality TV location...Image by ~MVI~ via Flickr

It’s hard to find the words — bad news if you’re a journo — to express my visceral disgust with the morons, Tareq and Michaele Salahi, who thought the White House’s first state dinner would make a great backdrop for their bid to get onto a Bravo reality TV show.  The pair, who seem to have an insatiable appetite for attention, blustered their way into the White House and posted photos of themselves with Vice-President Biden, and others, on Facebook.

She’s skinny, blond and wore a red sari. Would she have even made it in without the trophy wife look and the snotty attitude to go with it?

Beyond the heads likely rolling at the Secret Service for the security breach that allowed them in, what’s it going to take for this insanity to stop? Do you really hunger deeply for yet another reality TV show about skinny-rich-vapid-overspenders? Or do you admire their chutzpah?

The idea that a state dinner at the White House — like some Hawaiian beach or Tuscan terrace — is just one more scenic backdrop for a pair of social-climbing assholes who want to be on TV is so deeply offensive to me. In their world, Narcissists-‘R-Us, it’s just another pretty room filled with people in fancy clothes useful as a rung on their aspirational ladder, a piece of stage scenery, even as the President of the United States welcomed Manmohan Singh, prime minister of India, a nation with whom  good political and economic relations actually matter.

And why, exactly, does being “famous” mean so much to these people? If you’re broke and it might bring you wealth, it’s a tempting means to an end.

If you’re “just” addicted to attention, you need a shrink. And you really need to get a life.

Patrick Stewart's Childhood Lessons — In Domestic Violence

Patrick Stewart and his motherPatrick Stewart as a baby with his mother Gladys. Photograph: Collect

Domestic violence, as the recent Rihanna drama made clear(er), can quite literally hit even the most celebrated. In a new series run by the British aid agency Refuge, designed to raise broader awareness of DV and its caustic effects on its witnesses, actor Patrick Stewart speaks out about his brutal childhood:

My father was, in many ways, a man of discipline, organisation and charisma – a regimental sergeant major no less. One of the very last men to be evacuated from Dunkirk, his third stripe was chalked on to his uniform by an officer when no more senior NCOs were left alive. Parachuted into Crete and Italy, both times under fire, he fought at Monte Casino and was twice mentioned in dispatches. A fellow soldier once told me, “When your father marches on to the parade ground, the birds in the trees stop singing.”

In civilian life it was a different story. He was an angry, unhappy and frustrated man who was not able to control his emotions or his hands. As a child I witnessed his repeated violence against my mother, and the terror and misery he caused was such that, if I felt I could have succeeded, I would have killed him. If my mother had attempted it, I would have held him down. For those who struggle to comprehend these feelings in a child, imagine living in an environment of emotional unpredictability, danger and humiliation week after week, year after year, from the age of seven. My childish instinct was to protect my mother, but the man hurting her was my father, whom I respected, admired and feared.

From Monday morning to Friday tea time he worked as a semi-skilled labourer, and was diligent and sober. Often funny and charming, he was always rich in the personal stories of warfare and adventure that thrilled me. But come Friday night, after the pubs closed, we awaited his return with trepidation. I would be in bed but not asleep. I could never sleep until he did; while he was awake we were all at risk. Instead, I would listen for his voice, singing, as he walked home. Certain songs were reassuring: I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen; I’ll Walk Beside You . . . But army songs were not a good sign. And worst of all was silence. When I could only hear footsteps it was the signal to be super-alert.

Our house was small, and when you grow up with domestic violence in a confined space you learn to gauge, very precisely, the temperature of situations. I knew exactly when the shouting was done and a hand was about to be raised – I also knew exactly when to insert a small body between the fist and her face, a skill no child should ever have to learn. Curiously, I never felt fear for myself and he never struck me, an odd moral imposition that would not allow him to strike a child. The situation was barely tolerable: I witnessed terrible things, which I knew were wrong, but there was nowhere to go for help. Worse, there were those who condoned the abuse. I heard police or ambulancemen, standing in our house, say, “She must have provoked him,” or, “Mrs Stewart, it takes two to make a fight.” They had no idea. The truth is my mother did nothing to deserve the violence she endured. She did not provoke my father, and even if she had, violence is an unacceptable way of dealing with conflict. Violence is a choice a man makes and he alone is responsible for it.

No one came to help. No adult stepped in and took charge. I needed someone else to take over and tell me everything was going to be all right and that it wasn’t my fault. I wanted the anger to go away and, while it stayed, I felt responsible. The sense of guilt and loneliness provoked by domestic violence is tainting – and lasting. No one came, but everyone knew. Our small houses were close together. Every Monday morning I walked to school with my head down, praying that I would not encounter a neighbour or school friend who had heard the weekend’s rows. I felt ashamed.

Very occasionally one person would come to our aid – Mrs Dixon, our next-door neighbour, the only person who would stand up to my father. She would throw open the door and stand before him, bosom bursting and her mighty weaver’s forearm raised in his face. “Come on, Alf Stewart,” she would say, “have a go at me.” He never did. He calmed down and went to bed. Now I wish I could take Lizzie Dixon’s big hand in mine and thank her.

Such experiences are destructive. In my adult life I have struggled to overcome the bad lessons of my father’s behaviour, this corrosive example of male irresponsibility. But the most oppressive aspect of these experiences was the loneliness. Very recently, during a falling-out with my girlfriend, I felt again as though I were shut out and alone, not heard or understood. I was neither, but it was such a familiar isolation that it was almost a comfort and consolation.

I managed to find my own refuge in acting. The stage was a far safer place for me than anything I had to live through at home – it offered escape. I could be someone else, in another place, in another time. However, whenever the role called for anger, fury, or the expression of murderous impulses, I was always afraid of what I might unleash if I surrendered myself to those feelings.

Susan Boyle's New CD — Great Rendition of Wild Horses!

Susan Boyle in pastels - Because of ongoing di...
Susan Boyle. Image via Wikipedia

I didn’t expect that much, but her new/first CD is lovely. I played it over and over this morning. If you followed her trajectory from frumpy spinster to exhausted Instant Celebrity, you may wonder if the fuss was worth it. I think the CD is great.

So do the more than 150,000 people who pre-ordered it.

Stephen Holden wrote in The New York Times:

The selections blur the line between sacred and secular, as Ms. Boyle invests torch songs (“Cry Me a River,” “The End of the World”) and hymns (“How Great Thou Art” “Amazing Grace” and “Silent Night”) with the same attitude of faithful perseverance against the odds. The closest thing to an uptempo number is a slowed-down rendition of the Monkees’ hit “Daydream Believer.”

In the most striking cut Ms. Boyle turns the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” into a starkly beautiful declaration of tenacity and resolution. Her “Cry Me a River,” the least vengeful version I’ve heard, makes this gloating crow of emotional payback a reflection on cosmic balance. Or as Ms. Boyle puts it in her footnote: “a release of tension and a greater insight into the human condition.” Madonna’s hit “You’ll See” is about much the same thing; in Ms. Boyle’s words: “My way of getting rid of the labels which have been unfair.”

The hushed mood of it all recalls Celine Dion’s blockbuster hit “My Heart Will Go On,” without the Celtic inflections and drier eyes. On an album without humor or melodrama, a devotional spirit reigns.

Canadian Woman Journalist Freed After 15 Months Of Somali Captivity

Qableh Ruins of Sanaag, Somalia
Somalia; her cell had no windows....Image via Wikipedia

Here’s something to be thankful for — after 15 months of imprisonment and torture. Canadian journalism Amanda Lindhout was freed yesterday in Somalia and is finally headed home to Alberta.  The 28-year-old was taken captive while heading to a refugee camp to conduct interviews. She was freed only after a ransom of $700,000 U.S. was paid to her captors. She was held separately, but for the same length of time, with Nigel Brennan, a Australian photographer who was working with her.

Visions of running through Vancouver’s idyllic Stanley Park sustained her through in her darkest moments, she said.

Twenty Legendary Women I'm Thankful For

Portrait of Marie Curie (November 7, 1867 &nda...
Mammos, thanks to her, Mme. Curie.Image via Wikipedia

Over the millennia, there are thousands of women whose lives, talents and hard work have smoothed the path for others, thanks to their political bravery, their devotion to the needs of those they do not know and will never meet, their care for the earth and its resources, their skills in medicine or music or architecture or design.

As we sit down for turkey, stuffing and giving thanks, here’s my highly edited short list of cool women, any one of whom I’d love to have had lunch with — some of whom maybe I still can!

And, of course — my Mom. She met my Canadian Dad in France when she was 17, married him and moved from New York City to Canada, followed him and his film-making career to London, then back to Canada where she became a radio, television, film and print journalist. She traveled the world alone for years, from Afghanistan to Singapore, Fiji to Chile. We lived and traveled in Mexico, the first place she taught me the need to pay careful attention to other cultures. A multiple survivor of various cancers, and still kicking my butt, she taught me to be feisty, frugal, fearless and have fun.

I’d love to hear your votes!

Marie Curie. Everyone who’s ever gotten an X-ray owes a debt of gratitude to Pole Madame Curie, who, sadly died of leukemia from overexposure to radiation. Only four people have won two Nobel prizes; she won in 1903 for physics and 1911 for chemistry.

Susan B. Anthony, who helped win American women the right to vote.

Nellie McClung, who won Canadian women the right to vote. She’s on the Canadian $50 bill and a bronze statue of her stands outside the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, Canada’s capital. I dedicated my first T/S post, July 1, 2009, to her.

Lena Bryant, who emigrated from Lithuania in 1895 at the age of 16, and who founded Lane Bryant, by 1950 one of the U.S.’s most successful and earliest makers of clothing for larger sizes.

Virginia Apgar, a New York City physician and professor at Columbia University whose Apgar score for newborns, has since 1953, measured five key indicators of health within a baby’s first few minutes of life. She never married because “I never found a man who could cook.”

Suze Orman, who candidly admits she learned firsthand what it’s like to wear the leg-irons of consumer debt and who teaches women, especially, to take better financial care of themselves.

Alice Munro, a Canadian treasure, winner of this year’s Man Booker International Prize, and one of the world’s greatest living writers. I have met her, and she was as lovely and gracious as I’d hoped.

Jane Austen, who bequeathed to us some of the most enduring stories that still resonate centuries later.

Babe Didrikson Zaharia for being such a ferocious and multi-talented athlete long before anyone had heard of Title IX, civil rights or the Williams sisters.

Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize who was fighting for the land years before it became fashionable to do so.

Sylvia Earle, aka Her Royal Deepness, whose passion for the oceans has made her the female equal of the much better-known late Jacques Cousteau.

Dian Fossey, one of several accomplished women (Jane Goodall, Birute Galdikas) who made saving monkeys a powerful and compelling argument, devoting her life to them.

Billie Jean King, for her many tennis accomplishments, and for taking on the impossibly sexist-chauvinist Bobby Riggs and kicking his ass. Young women today have no idea how prevalent his brand of contempt was for women athletes.

Emily Roebling, whose name should be legend. Her father-in-law John Roebling won the contract, but died of tetanus. Then her husband, Washington, was severely injured by having descended too many times into the caissons to watch the progress of the Brooklyn Bridge, the 8th wonder of the world, as it was known at the time. While he had to sit in their Brooklyn home watching construction of it out their windows, it was Emily — unheard of in the 1880s — who, without any engineering or mathematical training, took over heading up this complex project. She defended her husband publicly, also unheard of at the time, and went on to become one of New York State’s first female lawyers.

Nellie Bly, a crusading journalist who chose to spend time in an insane asylum to report on its appalling conditions, then did a wild round-the-world journey in record time, also to write about it. Bold, brave and way ahead of the days when “embeds” or other forms of immersive reporting were considered cool.

Rosa Parks, who had the guts to take a stand for civil rights when so few others dared.

Margaret Bourke-White, whose photograph graced the first cover of Life magazine, and who became one of the U.S.’s best-known and most-respected women photographers.

Margaret Sanger, who in the early 1900s fought for the rights of women to have access to and to use birth control, a phrase she is said to have originated.

Pema Chodron, a Buddhist teacher and writer, an extremely rare female leader in that world, whose books, and wisdom, have helped millions. A graduate of Miss Porter’s, a prep school in Connecticut, and Berkeley, she began her career as a schoolteacher and now runs Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia.

Annie Oakley, for escaping a crazy, impoverished childhood thanks to her guts and self-confidence. She learned to shoot so accurately because she initially shot game birds and sold them to local hotels for food, needing the money even as a teenager to survive. She met her husband, Frank Butler, when she beat him at a shooting competition. She became one of the nation’s best-known and widely-admired performers — until William Randolph Hearst, deciding to ride on the coat-tails of her fame, published articles in his newspapers slandering her. She took three years away from her career to fight every single one of them, and won. Here’s a biography of her by one of my favorite female historians, Glenda Riley. I also wrote about her in my first book.

Best/Worst Presents Ever — And A Few Ideas

Presents Under the Tree
Image by di_the_huntress via Flickr

As most of us, eagerly or reluctantly — (I love buying presents!) — start holiday shopping, if you work retail you can feel the gift anxiety level rising, like a low-grade hum in the background.

In my part-time retail job, I see this panicked insanity launch like some toxic stink bomb on Black Friday. By Christmas Eve, the last refuge of the utterly disorganized or desperate, people are almost vibrating with stress over whether their presents will find favor. I literally had a guy come in last year, Greenwich-elegant, and start pawing through the racks in a fugue state of frustration. “Can I help?” I asked.

“I need a present for a pain in the ass!” he spat. Poor bugger. I calmed him down, found him something and watched his shoulders drop with profound relief.

Some people, sadly, are almost impossible to buy for: fussy, spoiled, eccentric, unfocused tastes, already have everything. Which is why so many of us love to give, and get, cash.

The secret to the absolutely best gifts — within reasonable range (i.e. not a Mercedes) — is finding out what your recipient is utterly passionate about, no matter how obscure. What color(s) do they love or hate? Allergic to wool? A huge fan of motets or Chinese calligraphy? People who know me well know I am mad for Paris, so almost anything with a French or Parisian theme would be welcome. Ditto lush cashmere.

A lukewarm gift radiates blah, boring, I-couldn’t-be-bothered. Avoid whenever possible. Few gifts are as precious as someone paying careful attention to what you most crave and maybe can’t even say out loud. (Maybe, for a worn-out new Mom or Dad, a months’ worth of free babysitting or housecleaning services, from you or a service.) The very best presents often don’t come from any store or wrapped in a box.

Here are (I think) a few fail-safes for many adults, all available through on-line resources:

gorgeous soap (Roger & Gallet, Fresh, Lafco); thick towels (Williams-Sonoma), lovely linen or cotton napkins (Pottery Barn, Anthropologie and Sferra always have good options); fantastic cheese/condiments/chocolates/cookies (Crate & Barrel’s peppermint bark); a fabulous cookbook or coffee table book on a topic they adore; really good wool or cashmere socks.

My go-to bargain choice? Buy a bag of lavender ($10 or so), some vintage or antique fabric and a needle and thread — whip up some home-made sachets people can tuck in their linen closets, suitcases or drawers. But I’m obsessive enough I already have those things in my home, ready to go.

Here’s are some presents that, over the years, truly gladdened my heart:


An antique Japanese chest with mirror, gray pearl earrings, Times Atlas of The World, skis, boots, poles, a new toaster and colander when I was really broke, a fuchsia leather Filofax (still going strong after 10 years), a gift certificate for Sephora, gift certificate for Saks, gift certificate for Barnes & Noble and one for Posman Books (a great New York city independent bookstore.)


Anything that said “not for individual resale”, books clearly off the remainder table, snowshoes (perfect for someone else, I know.)

What’s the loveliest or most thoughtful gift you ever received? Or gave? The worst?

I'm Working Retail Black Friday — Here's Some Shopping Tips

Facade of Shoppers' Center The Gateway
Image via Wikipedia

Last year, a stampede of crazy people killed a sales associate working on Long Island on Black Friday. This year, fractured foot and all, I’ll be safely stashed behind a heavy, fixed metal sales counter working the register at The North Face, in a fancy White Plains mall called The Westchester. Come say hi!

If you’re heading out this week on a mission, a few things to keep in mind:

1. Pre-shop on-line or using our catalogue first, if possible, to determine the name, size, color and prices on items you want to find fast within a busy and crowded bricks-and-mortar store. If you wander in, as many do, asking for “that jacket, the one with the belt”, we  can’t do much for you. The more detail you can offer, the more quickly and easily we can help.

2. Build in plenty of extra time for finding a parking spot and/or standing in line to pay. Please don’t roll your eyes or sigh or curse or threaten to call corporate if things don’t run perfectly smoothly. We’re dancing as fast as we can.

3. Please, please, please bundle your requests: if you want to see something in black, brown and blue, or two different sizes, ask us once. We’d rather bring them all at once than run and schlep to the stockroom over and over. It’s only once for you, but it’s dozens of times in our long day.

4. Don’t throw tantrums over items we don’t have, whether gift boxes or a certain object you crave. Almost every retailer this year is hedging their bets with much smaller, tighter inventories.

5. Eat, drink, pee. Bring water, energy bars, aspirin, Pepto-Bismol — whatever it takes to keep you relaxed and comfortable. Stay hydrated. Take breaks and sit down. It will significantly improve your stamina and your mood. Ditto for anyone shopping with you.

6. Don’t freak out or take it personally if we’re watching you more closely. Shoplifters love Black Friday and holiday shopping — lots of crowds and, ideally for them, distracted associates. We have to keep a close eye on everyone. It’s our job.

7. Say thank you and please to the people trying to help you. Really. We know you don’t have to, but it makes the day a lot easier and so much more pleasant for everyone.

8. If at all possible, leave the kids at home, especially smaller ones who get bored, noisy and run all over the store, worrying us, if not you.

9. The store is actually not a garbage can. It’s not like going to the movies, no matter how entertaining — so do not dump your half-eaten pretzels and cookies on the floor or your loose-lidded soda cups filled with sticky fluids high on a shelf where someone is going to knock it all over the clothing/items.

10. If you are truly getting nowhere with an associate ask, nicely, to speak to the manager. Don’t abuse the help. In most instances, no matter how bad it can get, many of us are really trying our best to help you.

11. Get off your cellphone/Blackberry while we’re cashing you out or speaking to you. It’s rude, slows everyone down and makes it difficult for us to communicate with you in order to accurately and quickly fill your needs.

12. Have fun! Shopping can indeed be an exhausting and overwhelming ordeal. Remember it’s a great blessing if you still have the health, strength, mobility and income to even head into a store these days.

Told She Had A Tumor, She Was Actually Six Months Pregnant: Q and A With Memoirist Alice Eve Cohen

Cover of "What I Thought I Knew: A Memoir...
Cover of What I Thought I Knew: A Memoir

It’s a story you can’t quite believe — a 44-year-old woman, told for years she was totally infertile — is told by a series of Manhattan doctors she’s in menopause, then that she has an abdominal tumor. Only after having a CAT scan does she, and her doctor, discover the truth.

Wait, no, that’s not a tumor. It’s a baby! Alice Eve Cohen suddenly faced a high-risk pregnancy after discovering she was six months pregnant after unwittingly taking medications that could well have severely harmed her baby.

Life, after a tough divorce, was looking pretty good. She had a fiance 10 years her junior, Michael, and was making decent money teaching.

Her daughter, Eliana, has a Hebrew name. It means “My God has answered me.”

Her book about this crazy ride is a terrific read. It feels like you’ve sat down for a long lunch with a good friend.

What reaction if any, have you had to the book?

I feel very lucky to have received tremendously positive responses from the press and from readers. I’m deeply honored that What I Thought I Knew just received the Elle Grand Prix award for best nonfiction book of the year; Oprah Magazine selected it for their 25 Best Books of Summer list; and Lifetime recently optioned the book for a television movie!

It has been a great pleasure to respond to letters and emails from readers—women and men, young and old—who have written to share their thoughts with me. They often say they deeply identify with themes in the book, from the complexities of parenting to the challenges of navigating our broken medical system. I’ve heard some wonderful stories from readers. I was very touched when a thirteen-year-old girl emailed me recently to interview me for her book report.

How is Eliana doing?

Eliana is doing great. She’s in fifth grade, she’s super smart, she has a fantastic sense of humor and a wild imagination. Last year she had a very difficult leg-lengthening procedure, so 4th grade was really hard. This year is much better. Next month she will be ten years old (It’s hard for me to believe she’s such a big kid already!), and we’re touring middle schools.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?

Starting it.

When and why did you decide to write it?

I knew that I wanted and needed to tell this story, even when I was in the thick of the experience, but for years I was unable to begin. Then one day I sat down and started to write. It was the Jewish New Year, exactly seven years from the day I found out that I was six months pregnant. I wrote for a year, at a feverish pitch, until I had completed a full draft that I felt ready to have other people read.
Was it difficult to find an agent or sell the book?

I was extremely fortunate in this regard. My friend Patty McCormick, a wonderful author, read the book and gave it to an agent she knew—Sally Wofford-Girand at Brick House Literary Agency. Sally read it overnight, called me the next day, signed me immediately, and sold the book in less than a month. I LOVE my agent!
Did you take notes throughout all these experiences or did you write mostly (all?) from memory?

I wrote almost exclusively from memory. I was writing very quickly, and I didn’t want to stop the flow to refer to my notes. After I finished a full draft, I looked through my calendars, as well as the copious notes I’d taken on medical and legal matters while the events were unfolding. My notes were quite useful for fact checking. They also reminded me of important incidents I’d forgotten about, which was extremely valuable when my publisher asked me to expand the book.
It feels like a cautionary tale about lousy doctors…what advice, if any, would you give to women who find their physicians ignoring them or overriding their concerns?

If your doctor is ignoring you, find a new doctor! Make sure your doctor takes your concerns seriously and has time to answer your questions.
Do you think women have a tougher time fighting for their needs within the medical system?

Historically this was the case, but I don’t know if it’s still true. In earlier decades, when the medical establishment was virtually all male, women were treated by their doctors in a patronizing way. In the 1950s paradigm, women were expected to obediently follow their doctor’s instructions and not to ask questions. For example, my mother was among millions of women who were routinely given DES (diethylstilbestrol) in the fifties and sixties as a “pregnancy vitamin” to prevent miscarriage—the drug turned out to be both ineffective and carcinogenic. Today, I think all Americans—men, women and children—equally face huge obstacles in finding adequate medical care and insurance coverage. I deeply hope that my book can contribute in a positive way to the national conversation about health care reform that’s going on right now.

Why did you wait so long to write this story?

It took me seven years to start writing this story. At the time, I thought I had a terrible case of writers block. But in retrospect, I believe I simply wasn’t ready to write about it before then. I couldn’t write the book until I knew that my daughter would be okay, and that my family would survive the crisis we’d gone through together.
Anything else you’d like to add?

I truly enjoy hearing from readers. You can email me through my website, at or on Facebook.

The 20 Coolest Film Roles For Women; DVD Ideas For Your Holiday

Cover of "Erin Brockovich"
Cover of Erin Brockovich

Always open for debate, of course, here’s my vote for the 20 coolest female characters in film; here’s the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ list of the top 100.

1. Alien, and its later versions, with Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, who got to say some of the best lines ever in her calm, patrician way, even as a clone. “I thought you were dead!”, says one. “I get that a lot,” she coolly replies. Whether wielding a big-ass flamethrower or her compassion, Ripley remains one of my favorites: the definition of sangfroid amid unimaginable terror, droll in the face of acid-spewing monsters.

2. Doctor Zhivago, 1965Julie Christie as Lara, a complicated, tough woman who starts out selling her body as a desperate teenager to the creepy Komarovsky and ends up living with her doctor and lover Yuri in the wilds of Varykyno. She’s forever the adaptable survivor, cool enough at 17 to stash a pistol in her fur muff and shoot the man who controls her. Heady stuff for the times.

3. Queen Christina, 1933, with Greta Garbo in the lead role. It’s not easy being Queen.

4. Terminator, 1984 Linda Hamilton, big guns, serious biceps.

5. An Education, 2009,  Carey Mulligan. This fantastic new film about a young British girl — based on a true story — who falls for a handsome older con man is as much about her education as that of her parents, eager to marry her off, out and up.

6. Brick Lane, 2007, Tannishta Chatterjee, from the terrific book by Monica Ali. The choices made by the protagonist defy conventional wisdom about docile, male-ruled South Asian lower-class immigrant women.

7. Water, 2005, Lisa Ray. A film so controversial that filming in India was shut down by protestors and moved to Sri Lanka. Directed by Canadian woman director Deepa Mehta, it’s a powerful look at the lives of widowed Indian women. An exquisitely beautiful film with a haunting soundtrack, it’s both joyful and despairing about women’s lives within the most restrictive constraints.

8. Whale Rider, 2002, Keisha Castle-Hughes. I love this New Zealand film about a feisty 11-year-old Maori girl, Pai, who desperately wants to be accepted into the male-only rituals of her people. She is so touchingly, stubbornly insistent and persuasive. Haunting visuals and a great performance.

9. Erin Brockovich, 2000, Julia Roberts. One of the few films in which she doesn’t play a ditz but a tough, funny, compassionate woman, a real-life heroine.

10. Norma Rae, 1979, Sally Field. Who can ever forget her standing on a table in that deafening textile mill, holding up a sign saying “Union”? Based on the real life of union organizer Crystal Lee Sutton.

11. Silkwood, 1983, Meryl Streep. Another profile of a real-life fighter,  killed while trying to reveal information about an unsafe nuclear power plant; one of Nora Ephron’s earliest screenplays.

12. Notorious, 1946, Ingmar Bergman. Alicia Huberman moves into a mansion and marries a Nazi in Rio while secretly spying on him. The scene where she is rescued does me in.

13. Million Dollar Baby, 2005, Hilary Swank. Not an easy film to watch, and the ending was deeply controversial. I love how this film shows the incredible power a coach can have on a female athlete, for better or worse.

14. Silence of The Lambs, 1990, Jody Foster. Another difficult film to watch. OK, terrifying! Clarice Starling is a compelling character, a young woman in a man’s world as a novice FBI agent chasing a serial killer. Her relationship with her boss is as powerfully revealing of her own vulnerabilities.

15. The Piano, 1993, Holly Hunter. A woman married to a brute breaks free in colonial-era New Zealand.

16. Out Of Africa, 1985, Meryl Streep. Writer Isak Dinesen had it all, on paper — a coffee plantation, a farm in the Ngong Hills of Kenya, an aristocratic Danish husband and a dashing British lover. A powerful portrait of love, independence and compromise.

17. Juno, 2007, Ellen Page. Many people found this film nauseatingly anti-abortion. I loved the character of Juno, joking her way through the physical and emotional madness of bearing a baby while still in high school.

18. Rachel Getting Married, 2008, Anne Hathaway. She totally should have won the Oscar for this searing role of Kym, the narcisisstic, needy little sister. It takes guts to play a character so annoying and memorable.

19. Cabaret, 1972, Liza Minelli. “Divinely decadent,” darling!” As a lonely American cabaret singer, Sally flashes her dark green fingernails and blusters her way through life and love in pre-war Germany.

20. Charlotte Gray, 2001, Cate Blanchett. No one seems to recall this film, about a British woman who goes behind enemy lines in France to work with the French Resistance and falls in love there. I loved it.

20a. The Reader, 2008, Kate Winslet. Based on a best-selling German novel, she plays a female you can’t ever forget, tough and vulnerable and terrifying.

Do strong female characters really scare away movie-goers?

Who are some of your favorite women characters of the cinema?