We’ve all been there. We’re patiently sitting in the movie theater as the lights begin to dim. Then, as the trailers come out, our eyes start rolling so far back in our heads that you feel they’re never coming back to their place. This is brought on by the onslaught of simplified stereotyped female characters from movies coming out. Despite growing up with these constantly sexist portrayals, what’s shocking to us is not only that they continue to exist and be shown, but the fact that they’re seen as a huge part of the fun.
Most summer blockbusters contain at least one female character in full stereotype (hint: it’s usually the protagonist’s love interest). I’m not even exaggerating. Think about it: here’s this catastrophic, apocalyptic, disaster happening. Yet, instead of having the female lead wearing something as normal as jeans or pants, they’re most likely to be wearing something that is uncomfortably short, constricting, or (for some bizarre reason) white clothing that never stains or wrinkles. They’ll be wearing high heels while running away from some gigantic monstrosity, but manage to never stumble. If this were the extent of the problem, we could then blame it on the fantasy aspect of movies. After all, it’s not real life. However, the issue is that this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Each year the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film releases their findings of how female representation and portrayal in popular culture in their report titled “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World.” The most recent one is based on the releases of 2016 and, while the odds are starting to favor women, we’re still quite far from equality. Of the 100 highest grossing movies to come out in 2016, 29% had female protagonists. This is a far cry from the pitiful 12% of 2014, but this means that not even half of highly commercial films chose to have a woman at the forefront of the action. However, you can even be more outraged by the fact that only 32% of speaking characters in movies were women. This means that female characters were either non-existent or just mannequin-like in plenty of our silver screen choices.
While these appear to be empty statistics, the truth is that this goes beyond the movie theater. If we see a particular behavior perpetuated in popular culture, we slowly begin to believe there’s some truth to it. Or, what’s worse, while we continue to fight against them we’re constantly pushed back by these massive demonstrations of how people are supposed to behave and look like based on their gender. Women are not seen as equals to their male counterparts in terms of being able to fight back or stand their ground. They’re seen as victims, sex objects, and sometimes it even looks like they serve the same purpose as furniture.
Ultimately, the women who appear in most films are not based on actual women. They’re male fantasies that actresses are forced to portray to keep their jobs and get ahead in the industry. Megan Fox is one celebrity that seems to constantly find herself in this position. When speaking on the issue, she explained how there’s not that many choices for women in the industry:
“In terms of what’s available for women to play in general in Hollywood, it’s pretty scarce. You have these stereotypes that still dominate films: the nag, the trophy, the escort,” she said. “I haven’t been sent a nag script yet, but I do get plenty of, like, ‘interesting stripper.’ Or, ‘She’s super funny, but she’s also an escort, but that’s what makes it funny!’”
Another reasoning for this situation could be the lack of women behind the camera. Hollywood is a boys’ club, and for a woman to be able to finally make it past the foyer as a screenwriter, director, producer, etc., means overcoming several obstacles. This means that, by the time they get to where they want to be, they might realize early on they have to play the same game to keep up.
So what does this mean in the real world? It means that we end up falling into patterns without necessarily seeing or realizing we’re doing exactly that. Representation matters because it shapes the way we interact with the world. Our psyche is a collection of information we acquire over time, and even if you might laugh off the fact that you only see these women screaming for their male rescuer (who is often scrawnier that they are), eventually you could begin to adopt certain sexist attitudes. Young viewers, regardless of their gender, could be confused about how they should act because of these misrepresentations. They might feel pressured to show themselves in a particular way rather than being who they already are.
While it’s difficult to see a solution to this problem, the more we realize how this occurs, the easier it is to notice when it happens. We can’t actually change the film industry, but we can have dialogue about why certain portrayals are incorrect or stereotypical. We can begin to support films not because they’re telling us they’re feminist, but because they present female characters as real people rather than just ideas.
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Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film