In 2012, the OWN Network (owned by Oprah Winfrey) produced a documentary about women in the media entitled MissRepresentation. In the film, Academy Award winning actress Geena Davis was asked about the current status of women in film and television, to which she replied with the following: “All of Hollywood is run on one assumption: that women will watch stories about men, but men won’t watch stories about women. All the decisions are made based on this ‘concrete fact’. Nobody’s really proved that this is true. It’s a horrible indictment of our society.”
Most entertainment today runs this way: heroic, tough protagonists are often male, and the sparkly, emotionally stunted sidekick? Most likely a “she”. There is no room for two storylines. According to the traditional school of thought, men don’t want a second story arc. There’s the strong, macho superhero/good guy and by his side is a pretty face whose talents include being bitter about men and wearing a leather bustier and cheeky shorts. The female is there for one reason, and one reason only: to “stand there and look cute”; she should keep her mouth shut and kick someone in the shin when asked. Women in television and film are so commonly used as “body props” that it rarely occurs to many people that they, too, can carry a show on their own without added sexual undertones.
MissRepresentation asked several young people to examine the effects of gender stereotyping in the media, and one young woman, Ilian, offered up a jolting perspective: “Women,” she clamored, “are never the protagonists. The few who are usually are in some sort of drama about ‘getting the guy’. It’s rarely about their destiny or something. You know, in Star Trek? They said [of Captain James Kirk] ‘this is your destiny, being powerful, being the Captain’. But if that were a girl? They’d never say that. What’s weird is that it seems normal to us—we don’t question it. Why can’t a girl be powerful?”
Unfortunately for women, the same played-out generalizations about female sexuality have become so typical that seeing a bikini-clad supermodel on the arm of the hero doesn’t faze us; rarely does anyone take notice of the fact that a female sidekick’s sexy body armor wouldn’t hold off a pebble, let alone an arrow to the sternum. No one says a thing when a supporting female character pulls on a garter belt to run off and fight crime. The truth of the matter is that only about 16% of protagonists in cinema and television are female, and many are still pigeonholed into the same dolled-up image of a “woman in control”. M. Gigi Durham, PhD, an associate professor of Journalism at the University of Iowa, adds , “There are women [in society] who are empowered in lots of different ways, but you don’t see them; you don’t get the message that you don’t have to use your sexuality to attain empowerment in the world.”
Up until 1994, Disney, for example, had an image issue: the Princesses’ storylines were mostly similar: troubled life? Find a prince and marry him. Attain royal status. Other than Beauty and the Beast’s Belle, fans had little to look to when it came to teaching young girls how to be strong and independent.
Suddenly, in 1995, Disney introduced a new kind of princess in the form of real-life historical figure Pocahontas. She jumped off of waterfalls, embraced Mother Nature (quite literally), stood up for the people and things she cared about, and wasn’t afraid to put her life on the line for something she believed in. Then came Mulan with her true bravery, swordsmanship skills and her botched haircut. She put on a suit of armor to fight for (wait for it) someone who wasn’t a potential boyfriend, but her father. She loved China and physically defended it with her bare hands and a fan (talk about girl power). In the end, the guy didn’t “get the girl”, the girl attracted an equally brave friend who fell in love with her before he even knew she was female.