If the best lead actress nominations from this year’s Academy Awards are anything to go by, audiences want to see strong women on screen. That is exactly what ACMI’s new exhibition Goddess is delivering, celebrating the defiant disruptors and headstrong heroines of film through costumes, original sketches, interactive experiences and cinematic treasures.
The women of Goddess are the ones who unapologetically occupy space both on and off the screen, challenging gender roles and social conventions. Some of them are household names—Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis, Pam Grier, and recent Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh—while other women’s stories and careers are little known. Like Fearless Nadia, the Australian actress who became Bollywood’s leading stuntwoman in the 1930s, and Cheryl Dunye, director and star of the 1997 landmark New Queer Cinema film, The Watermelon Woman.
Britt Romstad, ACMI’s director of experience and engagement, describes the exhibition as “a celebration of the screen goddess and all of her complexity”. Women in film are often positioned as victim or villain, but Romstad believes there is more nuance. The show “reclaims the agency and power of these women, rewriting them as something more than just a beautiful object to look at”.
When describing the gender fluidity of 1920s actress and singer Marlene Dietrich, Romstad observes that “progress isn’t always a straight line” This is reflected in the design of the exhibition, which rather than being linear is an “interplay between women across time and space”.
Despite having historical resonances, the show is teeming with contemporary relevance. Roughly four years in the making and delayed by the pandemic, the first seeds were sown in response to the #MeToo movement, and what Romstad describes as “the sense that the whole screen industry was going through a real reckoning around gender and power”. It may have taken a while to get here, but Goddess is no less fierce.