“A working-class hero is something to be,” said John Lennon. But for Hollywood, it’s more likely to be a working-class heroine — at least when environmental issues enter the picture.

Charlize Theron in North Country.

Photo: 78th Academy Awards®

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This year, Charlize Theron’s crusading miner-activist in North Country garnered an Oscar nomination, following in the footsteps of such Academy-lauded turns as Sally Field’s in Norma Rae (1979), Meryl Streep’s in Silkwood (1983), and Julia Roberts’ in Erin Brockovich (2000). While Theron didn’t win (in part because it’s been only two years since she took home a statue for her portrayal of another kind of working-class activist, murderous prostitute Aileen Wuornos), the nod still raises the question: What does Hollywood see in poor women fighting the establishment to save the environment?

The women in these four films are themselves forces of nature, righting man-made wrongs, with the emphasis on “man.” All inhabit the American heartland, from Oklahoma to Minnesota, from Alabama to small-town California. Each is based on a real woman: in Silkwood and Erin Brockovich, without a name change; in Norma Rae and North Country, with thin fictionalization. And all embody a lefty version of the American dream, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and their idealism, ennobled while ennobling through their fights.

The struggles of Silkwood and Brockovich were, of course, directed against forces of pollution and contamination. But even the fights of Field’s character — toward union organizing, with an emphasis on ensuring better working conditions — and Theron’s — against sexual harassment, but, significantly, in a strip mine where the assault on human dignity is multidimensional — wind up being environmental in both literal and larger senses.

North Country, the most recent of these films, offers a good read on where we stand as a culture. It suggests that three-quarters of the way through the Bush years, a mass audience can still identify with a woman taking on environmental, social, and economic issues, albeit in a relatively restrained manner. The only one of the four movies directed by a woman — New Zealander Niki Caro, whose previous feature was the immensely successful Whale Rider, another tale of female empowerment — North Country is set in the not-so-distant past, the ’80s, making its heroine’s struggle seem simultaneously historical and immediate.

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The film — which is, in many ways, completely safe, since few would want to defend sexual harassment — finds its greatest resonance in imagery that has little direct connection to Theron’s character’s struggle, and everything to do with her impoverished state and environment. Its bleak northern landscape, emphasized in a long opening helicopter shot, is a natural correlative of its dominant human-made image, the wintry iron mine in which Theron’s Josey Aimes struggles so hard to work.

The mining company’s corporate pantheon, whom we encounter with Josey in a Minneapolis boardroom, takes but a few minutes of screen time to reveal themselves as suit-and-tied monsters, humiliating Josey and her modest idealism as fully as the working-class stiffs who overturn women’s port-a-potties (with the women in them) or scrawl the rawest of cartoons on their lockers. Ultimately, North Country flashes back to the literal rape mirrored in each of Josey’s subsequent instances of sexual harassment, yet these acts are themselves mirrored on a larger scale by the company’s rape of the land. Though the suits and their complicity are little more than stereotypical stick figures here, their sliminess oozes over the landscape by implication, almost making North Country an overtly environmentalist film — though the subject is never directly addressed.

The personal is certainly political in North Country, and the reform embodied by Josey — as with her big-screen predecessors — is a necessary corrective, not merely to injustice but to men meddling in the realm of the traditionally “feminine”: the earth, Gaia, nature. North Country and its movie sisters express an attitude that’s at core deeply schematic and split, dividing male from female, artificial from natural, rich from poor. (That split might be reflected in Hollywood’s male counterparts to Josey and company as well — if there were any. Male social crusaders tend to get their own movies, directed by and starring themselves; see Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me, and even an early ecologically minded predecessor, Bill Mason’s Waterwalker.)

If that, in turn, seems to be just “how things are,” an embodiment of natural forces that can’t possibly be questioned, perhaps it’s really just an indication of what a profoundly conservative — not in the best meanings of the word — culture we currently inhabit.

The same Oscar show that included Theron’s nomination also included a montage of scenes from past Hollywood “issue movies” in this, a year of multi-issue nominees. The message was clear: Hollywood’s always led a progressive, reformist agenda. But Hollywood’s most truly radical films, those of the late ’60s and ’70s, had more in their sights than mere reform.

The analyses of American society — including attitudes toward greed, environmental devastation, and yes, women’s roles — posited by films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967, directed by Arthur Penn), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971, directed by 2006 honorary Oscar winner Robert Altman, still heroically defiant after all these years), and Chinatown (1974, directed by Roman Polanski and anticipating North Country‘s linkage of personal and landscape assault) speak to a vastly more far-reaching vision of the need for transformation of American society. It’s a vision in which mere reform is both insufficient and impossible.

Norma Rae and Silkwood fit that pattern, the former climaxing with the galvanizing image of its heroine’s defiant “Union” placard waving — clearly intended as a modest call to arms — and the latter leaving us with the unsettling ambiguity surrounding its title character’s death, and the question of whether she was killed by those she opposed. By contrast, Erin Brockovich ends in an atmosphere that led the New York Times‘ A.O. Scott to sarcastically brand it “the feel-good movie of the year,” and North Country wraps up on a modest note of domesticity and reconciliation.

The more recent heroines are compromised figures, but Hollywood has made sure they are still “successful.” They and their movies aspire to a kind of safe, middle-class respectability. An understandable goal, perhaps — but it’s hardly enough to inspire the social change needed to combat global devastation.