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.
In recent years, several films have attempted to give women the spotlight from time to time, but have never quite succeeded: Catwoman, Mystique, Poison Ivy and Wonder Woman are all comic book heroes and villains in their own right, but their hyper-sexualized costumes, painted faces, cleavage-hole suits and push-up bras are all surreptitiously meant to distract from their butt-kicking. In some cases, female leaders in the business or military world are illustrated as being “bitchy” or “humorless” and are sometimes given even more sexually degrading titles with storylines intended to “take them down a notch”.
The closest we’ve come in the past few years to unapologetic, powerful female protagonists are Marvel’s Sif, the bad-ass Asgardian pal from the movie Thor, and Black Widow, from last summer’s blockbuster, The Avengers. While she sometimes used her sexy wiles to lure the bad guys, it was her status as a master assassin and expert interrogator that helped solidify her place in the Marvel Good Guy’s Club. Scarlett Johansson’s exasperated responses to journalist’s sexist questions regarding her character’s costume were also pretty fun to watch.
It should be mentioned that additional, noble efforts have been made to portray women positively in movies and television: shows like Harry Potter, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, Firefly and Serenity, New Girl, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, ER, A League of Their Own, Girls and the mighty Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, all deserve a nod.
If you noticed a lot of Joss Whedon’s work in the previous list, don’t worry. He’s already addressed your query: during a Q&A session in May 2006, Whedon was asked, “Why do you write these strong female characters?” to which he replied, “…Because you’re still asking me that question.”
Women being portrayed positively by the media shouldn’t be something that catches our eye once in a while. It should not garner the occasional excited Tweet or Facebook post, it should be consistent. The next time you see a female character being depicted poorly in a movie, television show, commercial or piece of literature, don’t be afraid to speak up and call the producers out on their crime. Check out shows like MissRepresentation and visit Geena Davis’ very own SeeJane.org to learn how to make yourself heard.
Who are your favorite female characters or superheroes? Which shows or books do you think properly portray women? The candidate list may be shorter than you’d like, but don’t let that stop you. It’s time to reach through that television screen and make room for some serious butt-kicking.
Images courtesy of Marvel Entertainment