I was recently watching a TV commercial on a popular movie channel in the Middle East. The commercial was advertising next months “Movies of the month” and included several clips from the films superimposed over each other. More than halfway through the thing, it dawned on me that I had not seen a single woman in the whole commercial; all the films revolved around the stories of men, whether superheroes, action stars, or dramas. The “month” did include one female centric film, the latest film on Marilyn Monroe, but no clips of it were used for the promotional material. The result? A romping, testosterone packed commercial devoid of a single damn woman- nary a love interest or damsel in distress in sight.
That really struck me, as it has been doing in increasing frequency. As a teenager, and before I became as aware of gender dynamics in media, the presence or absence of women did not register in my mind. I always considered myself a supporter of women’s equality, but I just… didn’t notice, and that really speaks to the power, and insidiousness, of the patriarchy. Sure, I enjoyed ‘chick flicks’, but I also really enjoyed action films, and most of the heroes were male. However, there were a couple of women that really blew my mind at that tender age, they became my heroes and my role models.
As a child I loved Disney movies, particularly those films with women/girls that were badass in one way or another, even within the usually narrow confines of their gender roles, and the predictably clichéd plotlines. At the age when I began to be aware of female protagonists character beyond their “prettiness”, I grew to love characters like Jasmine, Pocohauntas, Belle, Megara, Esmeralda, and Mulan in particular. Each of them had spirit, spunk, and intelligence, defying social conventions in some way with a great confidence in their selves. In the whitewashed, glossy Disney universe, I found them to be slightly subversive, and I loved that.
As a teenager, I was definitely riding the raging hormone wave, and I was looking for an outlet for this building aggression within myself. I found it through rock and punk music, later metal, but I couldn’t find strong female role models in the media; intelligent, tough, and yes- attractive women, who did not conform to gender roles. So when I first saw Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, with the amazing Angelina Jolie, my tiny little brain right about exploded.
She was… she was everything I could have aspired to be, an archeologist (my childhood dream job), a fighter, an adventurer; she was erudite, sarcastic, tough, sassy, determined and gorgeous in masculine attire (yes the ridiculous boobs and hot-shorts stand out to me now but I was 15 and dumb). I quickly modeled myself in her image, taking on her biting wit, tough bitch attitude and her quirky confidence. Angelina herself also became a role model, and I felt comfy enough to express my aggressive and darker sides more freely. This was compounded by the release of Underworld, with the cool steely character of Seline. She was a vampire warrior, with a goth’s flare for fashion and she was totally badass. Oh man, I was in love.
Women are underrepresented in almost all areas of media, its creation, production, and material. This infographic outlines how in the years 2009-2013 only 4.7% of major feature films were directed by women.
-Women represent a total of 30% of characters, 29% of speaking parts 15% of protagonists/leads.
-Women are younger than men onscreen. The majority of women on screen are in their 20s and 30s, while men are in their 30s and 40s. Males over 40 make up 55% of all male characters, while females over 40 make up 30% of all characters.
-78% of male characters have definable occupations compared with 60% of female characters, and more men are seen in the workplace.
-73% of female characters are white. African-American characters make up 14%, Latinas 5%, Asian 3%; otherworldly 3%; and other 2%.
-17% of all characters are leaders, but of those characters 21% were men and 8% were women.”
As a result, the majority of our media features male protagonists, with supporting roles for women, and often they are not very fleshed out. Yes, women protagonists and women centric movies exist, but what do they revolve around? Chick flicks tend to be “fluffy”, focusing on romance i.e. men, and women’s traditional role as wife/lover, dramas which are a bit more expansive (like Iron Lady), or action films. Even in those films, badass female action heroes are often portrayed as “masculinized”, they dress and act like males in order to be respected, but they’re still attractive. And what becomes of them? A lot of times the story ends in a love match.
“It’s a guy’s version of what a strong woman should be. It’s either this tomboy who acts like a dude, which I’ve played for a grand majority of my career, or she’s this completely dripping wet with sex creature, which is completely incredulous to profit. You just can’t believe there’s this individual just oozing sex with their outfit and attracts everything that walks. It’s just weird, I just feel like more women need to get in there and tell stories.”- actress Michelle Rodriguez
If you care about equal representation, or wish to see more stories about women, written and produced by women, then what can you do? So how can we become more aware as media consumers, and how can we “put our money where are mouth is”? Well, we can start by being a bit more critical about representation of women, and their presentation. A useful tool to start with, is the Bechdel test.
The Bechdel test is actually the craziest shit because at first you’re all like “two female characters discussing something other than men, alright, easy peasy, what a low fucking bar” and then you start to pay attention and you realize that like 80% of the films you watch don’t pass this simple test and it’s just- what the everloving fuck is wrong with our society
Three simple tools: does this film include more than one woman with a size-able speaking role, do the two women interact and converse, do they talk about things other than love/men. Try it, and you might be amazed. For example, the aforementioned Lara Croft does not pass the test! I don’t think Underworld does either. As for disney movies, Mulan passes all three! Many chick flicks contain tons of women, but the women only talk about love and men, which shows that while the test is far from perfect, it’s a good starting point for critiquing films!
Studies show us that the more diverse the media you consume is, the more open minded and accepting you are. So seeing a variety of women their stories actually does help expand our understanding of women’s lives, and the importance of their experiences. In the end, our media is just a reflection of our society, and even when it is fantastical (ala Fast & Furious), it can still reflect what we perceive as important, desirable, and ideal. So yes I think we need more badass and complex women in films, and I think we need to make sure they’re fleshed out and not always sexualized. I think its important to give these girls/women agency, and show them outside traditional gender roles.
In the end, capitalism must respond to our demand for more inclusive and balanced media, for the incorporation of more women both on, and off screens. Enagage, question and critique your media, and then call for the change you wish to see. Support the films you enjoy, support quality films by women, and eat lots and lots and lots of popcorn while you do it!