Hollywood’s War on Women

While Hollywood’s marginalization of women may not yet have reached the scale of the Republican Party’s, a study released today reveals that the top-grossing films of 2011 were far from gender-equitable. The study, “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World: On-Screen Representations of Female Characters in the Top 100 Films of 2011,” conducted by San Diego State University‘s Martha M. Lauzen, reveals that women accounted for only 33 percent of characters. Given that women are 50.8 percent of the population, this in itself is problematic. More worrisome, though, is how that 33 percent are represented.

They’re not leading the action: Women made up only 11 percent of film protagonists. This statistic rings true when you consider 2011’s box-office champions: Number 1 was the boy-vs-man Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2; number 2 was the girls-on-the-side Transformers: Dark of the Moon; and number 3 was the MMF-love-triangle The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1. While each of these films has one female lead character, Bella is arguably the only true protagonist among them, and she, sadly, falls into the other traps for women characters identified by the study: “Female characters remain younger than their male counterparts” (Bella is 17 to Edward’s 107) and “Female characters are most likely to be in out-of-workforce positions such as homemaker or student” (Bella goes from the latter to the former).

To be fair, Hermione could be considered part of a leading trio, but Harry is the real center of the saga–look no further than the titles. That being said, at least Hermione is the same age as her male counterparts, is not defined via marital status (as 59 percent of all female characters are) and is portrayed as a leader (unlike a whopping 86 percent of female characters). However, Twilight aside, age differentials are less common in films featuring teens and marital status is rarely a defining trait for pre-adult characters. And, though Hermione is a leader, she is not the same type of recognized leader that male characters most often are, in fields such as government, religion and business.

The number 5 film of 2011, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, does give us a woman pirate as a leader, and does so with refreshingly little focus on romance. Alas, other films in the top 100 include the typical array of female stereotypes: women as domestic or mom-figures (The Help (#13), War Horse (#41)), women as hyper-feminine creatures who love shopping, frilly clothes and boys (Smurfette in The Smurfs (#19), Mary in The Muppets (#34)), women as hypersexualized creatures who tolerate or “ask for” male sexual violence (Water for Elephants (#57), Footloose (#67), Red Riding Hood (#80)), women as either absent or alien (War Horse, Cowboys & Aliens (#30)). Then, of course, there is Sucker Punch (#89), the “girl power” brand of faux-feminism that suggests all sorts of dubious paths towards “empowerment.”

A number of the top 100 films also have either no lead women characters or have the typical token semi-strong woman amongst a gaggle of male characters, as in The Hangover Part II (#4), Cars 2 (#8), X-Men: 1st Class (17), Super 8 (#21), Rango (#22), Cowboys & Aliens (#30) and Happy Feet Two (#54). Overall, the majority of the top 20 films are male action/adventure stories that keep women on the sidelines. But the gender problem isn’t just one of genre: Most of the films on the top 100 list represent women in one of a few typical ways–as partners or “booty” for men, as mothers, or as damsels in distress. Whether the film is animated, an action-adventure or a comedic romp, women are either peripheral or virtually non-existent. Few of the 100 would pass the Bechdel test.

Thankfully, there are some exceptions. The much-lauded Bridesmaids (#14) proved what we feminists have known for a long time–women are funny. And Hugo (#49), though led by a male protagonist, gave us the savvy wordsmith Isabelle, while Soul Surfer (#72) supplied us with a rarity indeed: a lead woman athlete. The Iron Lady (#100) granted us a rare portrait of a woman head of state while Hanna (#75) presented an iron girl capable of holding her own against a mass of baddies. That brings me to possibly the strongest woman lead of the year–Lisbeth Salander of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (#28). While not a problem-free feminist heroine, she is about as far from a damsel in distress as you can get. A code-cracking computer genius who refuses to abide by gender, sexuality and beauty norms, Lisbeth rejects playing the victim–in fact, she is stronger and more intelligent than the men that surround her.

Alas, characters of Hermione’s and Lisbeth’s ilk are still all too uncommon in film, a problem that works to normalize the sidelining of women in real life. Let’s hope that 2012 brings us more truly feminist heroines, leaders, and role models–both on screen and off.

Comments

  1. To say the female cast in harry potter weren’t very strong or vital, is a bit off. Without them, the whole plot would be lost :) I’m glad they went on into the fact that many of the screened movies are action flicks, although the listing of movies like cars and happy feet is a bit silly. Oh well. It’s not like there is a deliberate war against women for hollywood roles. They (women) frequently are the keystone that holds the whole movie together and people tend to forget that and focus on the main. This coming from someone who is completely neutral. I dislike both extremes. Women are just as important as men, if not more, even though they don’t typically take on the same roles. Without one, there is no other.

  2. It’s true that most of what I read and watch features disproportionately large casts of male protagonists. I would like to point out, though, that there are quite a few young adult shows and books that feature not only heroines but female leads who actually aren’t defined in relation to males AND get to be leaders.

    A prime example of a girl-driven story is The Legend of Korra, a rare gem of a show in Nickelodeon that continues the story of Avatar: the Last Airbender. The latter also featured female leads who often ended up saving the guys and more often than not ended up besting the bad guys that the male heroes could not fight on their own. Korra maintains the tradition of excellent, three-dimensional, heroines who are as strong as if not stronger than the male characters. What’s truly wonderful about the series is that we don’t really think twice about Korra being headstrong, competitive, rebellious, or aggressive because these traits are not seen as unique to either men or women.

    As part of a generation whose imagination was captured by adventure and action superheroes more often than super-heroines, I think I understand why certain series feature better heroines.

    Characteristic of many fantasy-fiction works, series like Harry Potter and The Legend of Korra, create a level playing field for men and women, as well as for children and adults in their stories. If we think about the reason men serve more in the army, or the reason sports teams are divided into men’s leagues and women’s leagues, we run into the fundamental problem with any action or adventure featuring a female lead. In real life, women are usually not as physically strong as men. By introducing magical powers or bending, we have an interesting new world in which the traditional power struggles no longer hold as much sway.

  3. Great post.

    Proving that women are funny? What about the legacies of Margaret Dumont, Gracie, Moms Mabley, Phyllis Diller and Lucille Ball? A large part of the problem is that women feel that they have to prove themselves. My issue is that the proof doesn’t translate. I.e., big numbers for Sex and the City, Hunger Games, et al. doesn’t translate into more support for women writers and directors.

    Sadly every day is a new day.

  4. Goldmarx says:

    Those who weary of Hollywood’s war on women should find “Dark Shadows” a welcome respite. Johnny Depp’s Barnabas Collins is the only major male character in the film, alongside four strong female roles – Angelique, Victoria Winters, Elizabeth Collins and Dr. Julia Hoffman. (I’d have added Caroline if Tim Burton gave Chloe Moretz more to do).

    Great moment in the movie – Elizabeth asks Victoria during her job interview where she stands on equal rights for the sexes. Victoria responds that she is opposed because the men would become unmanageable.

  5. I’ve written a few articles about this problem on my blogs:

    reading Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story: http://thegreatkh.blogspot.com/2012/05/philadelphia-story.html

    The Bechdel test – what it is and how to use it to assess the representation of women in film:
    http://thegreatkh.blogspot.com/2012/02/bechdel-test.html

    Avenging Women: a look at how women are portrayed in The Avengers and other super-hero movies:
    http://margaretperrymovies.blogspot.com/2012/05/avenging-women.html

  6. I don’t think Holloywood movies proving that “women are funny” is really such a great accomplishment. I personally haven’t seen ‘Brides Maids (and can’t comment if there’s only Bad Stereotypes of women to laugh at),’ but I know that part of the negative attitude towards Women’s Issues is the ‘not taking women’s issues’ seriously, part.

    I sadly stopped watching movies as much as I used to, because movies, in general, haven’t been of the high quality that I’m paying the ever-rising bill for, regardless of the issue.

    And even of the few movies I’ve seen at home. I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the last Harry Potter movie, I watched with my family. Which I was hoping to be watching a “Family Movie,” but the Rules of the Media indicate that the “bad word to refer to women,” B!tches, may be used to refer to women, and hearing the bad female villain character being referred to as such (I think it was Rated PG-13, which still shocks me, as that’s still child-age), and with my sexist-mouth sister praising it to death, RUINED the fantasy experience of a world where the playing field and its characters were apparently equalized. But, alas women are only fair-game for any world to screw over, personally.

    We seem to be in the ‘Women are B!tches’ Era and with the new GCB (Which, originally, stood for ‘Good Christian B!tches’) & ‘Don’t Trust The B—- In Apartement 23,’ both on ABC. And with such a Dismissive Term becoming more Popular, as it seems, Coincidentally, as Women’s Issues are being Dismissed Constantly in Politics, I feel the last thing women need is to be LAUGHED AT.

  7. RIght on!! Keep up the good work.

  8. Annalena says:

    While I’m in full agreement with the idea that we probably need more strong females in hollywood, I think the race issue is even more glaring. The majority of the movies mentioned that have strong women tend to all be white, with a few exceptions. So if there are good female roles, they tend to exclude women of color. And men of color are essentially non-existent in the majority of these top movies, again, outside of a handful. I’m not as interested in watching movies anymore because here we are in 2012 and I can think of at least 3 romantic comedies I’ve seen that were made within the last ten years that had absolutely no person of color. That’s a HUGE problem. And then there are a few more movies I’ve watched over this last year, also movies made within the 2000’s, where the people of color tend to be way in the background or domestic or gardner’s or door holder’s. There certainly is a LOT of work that Hollywood needs to do to show me that movies are showing equality. Remember? The 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s had more diversity, albeit a lot of bad stereotyping, which I’m not condoning in the least, but you could find good shows on TV that were more diverse than they are now and there were movies that weren’t completely white-washed, like they seem to do more of now. Anyway, just my two cents.

  9. What does it say about our culture if half the population only makes up 33% of the characters and a measly 11% of the protagonists in modern films? When we do get female leads, it’s usually as a form of eye candy or in a romance.

    Are we still assuming that men and boys will neither read nor watch anything with a female as the main character? Is this genuinely the case? I think of J.K. Rowling, who not only made her main character a male but also felt the need to de-sex herself by publishing under her initials and last name rather than her full name. The clear assumption was that anything written by a female would automatically be “chick-lit” and unworthy of comment, while any book that featured a girl as the main character and hero would only be read by other girls.

    I wonder how many literary agents would agree with that belief?

  10. Women have a bad rap when it comes to the deepset beliefs about us generated from the earliest times, even before the biblical era. The idea that women could not be human is the age old issue that continues to hover in most human subsconscious beliefs. About the only woman today who has overcome that built-in expectation is Hillary Clinton: Like her or not (and I do like her), she has proven she can master any task assigned to her without being dragged down by her femaleness…and her femaleness was once characterized as her downfall but she has overcome it! So to all women out there: Your proof of acceptability and reliability in any field is coming soon!

  11. rose Orozco says:

    I think we need to see more feminist heroines in our every day tv shows and leading movies in theaters. As a feminist woman with a mom who is not a feminist or amazone woman, I need to see more leaders in action to learn from and give me courage to speak my mind. For instance right now I am doing business with a Dr. I find myself trully attracted to. But, my fundamental values are that I don’t Mix Business With Pleasure and I Don’t Date Married Men! But to vocalize this in front of him I feel weak. I am doing business with him and I know he is married but the tenssion is still there. So I force myself to only speak to him in a proffessional level when I ask question regarding my illness and my medications. But I think if I had a feminist heroine I watched on TV and looked up to, it would feel a lot easier fo me to speak my mind and just get it out of the way with out being affraid and feel happier in the business relationship. So on the personal level this is why I feel we should have more feminist heroines as lead charachters on TV and Movie Theaters.

  12. On the topic of “Bridesmaids” – while I liked the film’s message about hanging on while your life seems to be falling apart, I did notice when watching it Megan’s (played by Melissa McCarthy) sexual comments towards Jon the air marshall (played by Ben Falcone). I remember saying, “What if a guy said that to a girl?” My sister agreed with me.

  13. Red Cedar Cat says:

    Good information about an issue I am already well aware of. It’s primarily a portrayal of how women are “characterized” in our society via films.

    Funny, no mention of Salt! Angelina Jolie did a great job in that film and it was an exciting film to watch. Well-written as well.

    Women have strangely ignored their innate power and found it easier to get along with going along. Not all women, of course, and there is hope for further change. Women of the world, unite. Your power together is truly unstoppable force for good.

  14. I think right now a lot of this has to do with who goes to the movies. Teenage to 30 year old boys. Did you also notice that pretty much very movie made is spidersuperbatman VI? I’ve noticed that most women when they go to the movies they aren’t there to see the movie. They brought the kids or are on a date. Young men are really the only demographic willing to pay $12 to eat expensive crap and sit in sticky seats to see a movie because they can’t wait for it to come out on DVD. They also tend to to be the same guys in line 4 days before the latest iPod comes out and let’s not forget black Friday sales. Those are the people who go to see movies. Not exactly a ” Howards End” crowd you know?

  15. i have always been concerned about the lack of black girls and wimmin images on tv and motion pictures that are positve. it is not difficult to find white females in a diversity of images and roles, but not that of wimmin of color, and especially black wimmin, when there is a dearth of black wimmin who are creative talented and some damn good actors, yet one has to look very hard to find them, especially not in traditional, contrived roles or images.

  16. Hollywood stopped buying spec scripts around the time of the last writers strike, and with spec scripts, went important female characters.

    Hollywood executives decided that buying new scripts from writers competitively was not financially consistent enough.

    Instead, scripts are now written by writers hired specifically to write pre-determined stories. The stories chosen tend to be sequels, comic books etc. Anything that has a mass following already and will guarantee profit.

    So, there goes any characters with, well, character.

  17. It is sad that Hollywood is continuing this practice. I am working with an independent film company to make a movie which tells the true story of Nellie Bly, one of the most impactful woman in US history who no one has ever heard of. The thriller 10 Days in a Madhouse is being funded by an Indiegogo campaign, so if you’d like to help us create a powerful movie to inspire people to believe that they can indeed be the change they want to be in the world, please check it out and help us spread the word!

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