The portrayal of women on screen has progressed since the introduction of cinema in the 1890s. From humble beginnings as mothers, housewives, mistresses and femme fatales to mothers, housewives… wait, has anything changed?
While we have moved on from the days of almost exclusively one-dimensional character tropes, women still struggle to find success in roles of everyday women that stray from the glamorized on-screen versions of real women. It seems that no matter how “normal” a female character may be, their purpose is related to serving their male counterparts.
“I’d like to be an optimist and say that there has been a radical overhaul of the depiction of women and of women’s bodies,” said Dr. Chelsey Crawford, visiting assistant professor of English and professor of film and screen studies. She goes on to say, “To some degree, that’s accurate. Or the representation is perhaps more multifaceted in a lot of ways. But it’s not the progress we might have hoped for.”
With the recent success of female-empowering films like “Wonder Woman” and “Battle of the Sexes,” it is clear that the desire to change is there. We have women of color and of all ages being represented, but that is still not the norm. While the way toward a new norm is being paved by women, that wasn’t always the case.
The Mother, The Housewife, The Mistress
Mothers, housewives, mistresses… what more could a woman want to be? Successful, independent, single? Not just yet. Before modern female characters, women were frequently cast in roles that existed to support their male counterparts. They were not there to add anything to the plot, not there to have their own storylines — only to be a nurturing mother, an obedient housewife or the submissive mistress. They were either a June Cleaver, Lucy Ricardo or an Elvira.
In the mother and housewife roles, a woman is shown as being the ideal, stay-at-home caretaker and all-around perfect specimen. Even today there is a disconnect with these roles: of course, women can be any of these things, but to present the experience of motherhood wrapped in a neat little bow is troubling.
“The problem is what we don’t want to watch is actually close to our own lives, because the actual day-to-day life of being a parent isn’t sensational enough for reality television,” Crawford said. “We have to almost always invent a certain class of mom. What motherhood has to look like is apparently everything — having social conscious, having time to care about your appearance and pay attention to your children and work, if that can fit in somewhere, but notably so many of these women don’t have traditional, if any, jobs.”
Even before the humble beginnings of the Mother, the Housewife or the Mistress, the Femme Fatale was born first dating back to 1913’s “The Vampire” to as recent as 2014’s “Gone Girl.” These women are sexualized, but only to show that a liberated woman is dangerous. Often portrayed by vampy, foreign women, the Femme Fatale must be balanced by a wholesome good girl to offset the way a woman could be with how the media wanted a woman to be.
Man-haters and Manolo Blahniks
From matronly housewives to the “Real Housewives,” all the way to “The Bold Type” and “Younger,” women have expanded their on-screen roles to ones more representative of real life. Two popular albeit controversial HBO shows, “Sex and the City” (1998-2004) and “Girls” (2012-2017) followed female friend groups living in New York City.
Both shows tackle serious topics, like abortion, women’s rights and sexual liberation. It is not a competition, though media outlets have been turning the shows against each other since 2012 — before “Girls” even hit the screen.
The comparisons between the two are obvious and overdone, but both HBO shows offer a different approach to female empowerment. “Sex and the City” shows four glamorous, single 30-year-old women living in Manhattan drinking cosmopolitans and romanticizing hook up culture. Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw was a mess, and we loved her for it.
On the flip side, the ever-polarizing Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath was a mess and we hated her for it. “Girls” shows four uncomfortably real 20-year-old women struggling to live in Brooklyn and trying to navigate life with no sense of direction. The women of “Sex and the City” are what we aspire to be while the women of “Girls” represent the not-so-pretty reality we live in: broke, unfulfilled and without a designer wardrobe.
“The idea that they had to be unlikable, or that they didn’t seek to make them likable characters, is a difficult question before I find it commendable, like why do women have to put on this front of being sweet and likable and endearing but they’re not likable characters in their representation?” said Crawford.
The Virgin, The Whore and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl
Beyond their roles as the Mother, the Housewife and the Mistress, and after the “Awkward Best Friend and Hot Girl She Wants to Be” duo peaked in the early 2000s, women still have the option of being the Virgin, the Whore or the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
The Virgin and the Whore are most prevalent in the horror genre, while the MPDG lurks in the corners of hazy, poster-clad bedrooms in indie flicks. Each of these three tropes is dangerous — they portray women as romantic creatures existing to either tease, tempt or change the lives of men.
In horror films, it is clear to see who the Virgin, the Whore and the Final Girl are from the beginning. Who is wearing a headband and polo, who is wearing the low-cut top and who is not like the other girls? One will survive because she is innocent, one will be punished for her impurities and the other will live on because of her otherness. Get the picture?
The MPDG is harder to detect. Crawford describes the MPDG as “someone that is disturbed and therefore atypical, and sometimes they’re just eccentric.” She is elusive, yet despite how little we know about her, we are drawn into her charm just like her male admirer.
“And that goes back to the problem of patriarchy. We’re not admiring someone because they’re being true to themselves, for instance, we’re admiring them because they’re just unique and different and they spice up the life of the depressed, bored male character,” said Crawford.
Films like “American Beauty” (1999), “Crazy/Beautiful” (2001) and “Garden State” (2004) feature disturbed women who ignite the savior complex in bored men who believe they can fix her life, and in turn, he will fix hers. And she will be totally fine with that because she is a shallow character who exists solely to improve his life.
While their on-screen roles can be degrading, nothing compares to the scrutiny and sexism that females in Hollywood face. The most recent example dates back to 1984, the beginning of a continuous string of allegations and accusations of crimes ranging from sexual harassment to rape against film producer Harvey Weinstein. With up-and-coming actresses, models and assistants working for him, Weinstein used his position of power to sexually harass and assault countless women, including Rose McGowan, Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow.
On a smaller but equally disgusting scale, the creator of Screen Junkies, Andy Signore, has also come under fire for sexual harassment allegations. Both situations involve a powerful man and vulnerable women trying to begin their careers — and this is not uncommon in the industry.
Beyond being portrayed as hollow characters on-screen, the women acting in these roles are treated differently than their male colleagues. How many times on a red carpet have you heard a male asked who he’s wearing, how comfortable his suit is, what brand the shoes are… and how many times have you heard an actress explain who she’s wearing, how “beauty is pain” as opposed to what projects she is working on?
Embracing feminism in films
Take graphic novelist Alison Bechdel and Liz Wallace’s self-titled test to determine whether or not a film fairly portrays women. To pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test, a film must have:
1. at least two named women in it
2. who talk to each other
3. about something besides a man.
According to the official Bechdel-Wallace Test website, 57.5 percent of the 7407 movies in their database pass all three tests. Why is it so difficult to answer these simple questions, and what does this say about the media’s portrayal of women? Why does any of this matter?
“As much as I like to resist the idea that things that are not designed to be educational are thought of as instructive, they are,” says Crawford.
What the media shows and says of female characters and actresses has an impact on the way that women, especially of a young age, view themselves. Over the last decade, women’s roles on-screen have taken a step in the right direction — but that step is still freshly pedicured and donned in the trendiest shoes.
There may not be a female comparison for Daniel-Day Lewis’ character in “There Will Be Blood” just yet, but with the number of female directors coming into the spotlight — namely Kathryn Bigelow becoming the first female to win the Outstanding Achievement in Feature Film in 2008 for “The Hurt Locker” — progress is being made.
Creating genuine female characters on-screen is important for women in the industry, as well as for women consuming the content. The issues surrounding the portrayal of women on screen may be far from being fixed, but awareness of these problems is growing.
People have realized a pattern in who is creating these characters and narratives, and it is slowly beginning to change. As Crawford asked, “Who gets to tell stories about who? It really is a one-dimensional street, apparently, there’s only one type of person that’s in mastery to tell stories about everyone else.”