From Cinderella to Spider-Man
Five sexist stereotypes in modern-day films that get to the heart of gender inequalities.
Last month, Campus Progress reminded readers that despite a recent New York Times article which dubbed a successful group of female screenwriters the “Fempire,” Hollywood is still a male dominated town. Female directors, writers, and producers are few and far between and they are often held to a higher standard.
Less than a week later, Karina Longworth’s Stout blog documented the continued prejudice against women in Hollywood. After a screening of The Hurt Locker, an action film about the Iraq War directed by (gasp) a woman (Kathryn Bigelow), the moderator of a Q&A session in Dallas, Gary Cogill, suggested Bigelow’s highly acclaimed film was somehow a particularly miraculous achievement for a woman. Longworth wrote, “He asked Bigelow a question that essentially amounted to, ‘Isn’t weird that The Hurt Locker is so good, since you’re a girl and all?’ Bigelow deflected the question, but the issue came up again when an audience member who introduced herself as a member of Women in Film gushed that it’s ‘almost miraculous’ that Bigelow has ‘embedded’ herself in the making of ‘big boys movies.’”
It’s worth remembering that problems for women in Hollywood are as bad on screen as they are off. For decades the movie business has helped legitimize anti-feminist stereotypes. In childhood, Disney brought us Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. 1991 brought us Father of the Bride, 1997 brought us My Best Friend’s Wedding, 2001 brought us The Wedding Planner, and last year graced us with 27 Dresses. This year we saw the likes of Bride Wars and He’s Just Not That Into You. All peddle the themes of love, relationships, marriage, and weddings. Hollywood seems to think that all women are interested in are those tired old tropes.
“This over-simplified and exaggerated view of women chomping at the bit to tie the knot is not only silly but also offensive. It suggests women need men and marriage in order to be happy,” wrote Alice Klien in a recent Telegraph blog post. “If Hollywood continues to make out that the [Kate] Hudson, [Anne] Hathaway, and [Katherine] Heigls of this world are the norm, anyone who chooses to pursue a more independent, creative or alternative lifestyle will seem like there’s something wrong with them.”
This isn’t a new problem. In 1973, Molly Haskell wrote that the “big lie perpetrated on Western society is the idea of women’s inferiority, a lie so deeply ingrained in our social behavior….In the movie business we have had an industry dedicated for the most part to reinforcing the lie.” More than a decade later, Haskell updated her groundbreaking analysis in her book, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. Haskell explained how Hollywood films help emphasize and perpetuate sexism and gender stereotypes. Today, Haskell’s book is 36 years old, but, unfortunately, the book still has tremendous currency. The following passage that described the state of the movie industry over 50 years ago could also describe many of last year’s blockbusters:
Audiences for the most part were not interested in seeing, and Hollywood was not interested in sponsoring, a smart, ambitious woman as a popular heroine. A woman who could compete and conceivably win in a man’s world would defy emotional gravity, would go against the grain of prevailing notions about the female sex. A woman’s intelligence was the equivalent of a man’s penis: something to be kept out of sight. Ambition in a woman had to either be deflated into the vicarious drives of her loved ones or to be mocked and belittled. A movie heroine could act on the same power and career drives as a man only if, at the climax, they took second place to the sacred love of a man. Otherwise she forfeited her right to be loved.
Hollywood also has a long history of portraying women in a relatively small scope of roles; women play the damsel in distress (Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane in Superman Returns (2006) and Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) and Snow White (1937), the virgin (Drew Barrymore as Josie Geller in Never Been Kissed (1999), Reese Witherspoon as Annette Hargrove in Cruel Intentions (1999), the bad girl (read: whore) (Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (1990). Women are almost never smart, confident, and are often not even the lead character.
The big problem is that we rarely even notice the stereotypes. The portrayal of women and girls in children’s movies is particularly worrisome because children can be so impressionable. Harvard University psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint is critical of Disney’s portrayal of women. In 2001, he told the Boston Globe:
They all have big eyes and tiny waists, they’re beautiful and seductive and they all look Caucasian even when they aren’t supposed to,” says Poussaint, director of the Media Center at Judge Baker Children’s Center.
For preschoolers trying to understand what it means to be a girl or boy, the message they get is appalling, he says: “Girls, you have to be beautiful and sexy to be loved and, by the way, you need a boy to rescue you, no matter how capable you are. Boys, only a girl like this is worth loving and, by the way, she needs you to protect and rescue her.
The images and ideas portrayed in films penetrate many other aspects of life; they stick with viewers long after the popcorn has been swept off the floor. For example, a 2006 study conducted by the University of Southern California and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that women are often portrayed as hyper-sexualized in films. They are more than five times as likely as males to be shown in sexually revealing clothing and three times more likely to be shown with a thin figure. The 2006 report quoted psychologist Sarah Murnen who stated, “‘The promotion of the thin, sexy ideal in our culture has created a situation where the majority of girls and women don’t like their bodies … And body dissatisfaction can lead girls to participate in very unhealthy behaviors to try to control weight.’”
Women and men alike often laugh off feminist critiques of the mainstream media. “Can’t you just have a little fun?” my friends asked as we walked out of He’s Just Not that Into You. Sure, but it would be dangerous to ignore the broader social and political effects of sexist movies. Campus Progress examined a range of films from Cinderella to James Bond to expose the subtle and not so subtle anti-feminist stereotypes.
Walt Disney’s 1950 cartoon version of the famous fairy tale, first printed in the 17th century, is perhaps the best-known version of the classic rags-to-riches fable. The message of the film to young woman: Look pretty and dress like the rich and you will land Prince Charming. No intelligence or personality necessary.
In Cinderella, Walt Disney—known for his politically conservative beliefs —championed “traditional American values.” He reinforced stereotypes of a patriarchal society, heterosexism, and the glorification of material wealth—which he equates with happiness and the suppression of racial and ethnic minorities. In her Feminist Critique of Walt Disney’s Cinderella, Ellen Pandolofo offers a detailed analysis of the film’s shortcomings. She writes: “[Walt Disney] co-opted Cinderella in the mid-twentieth century. Since then, the story has…become cemented in the American consciousness as a mythical tale of absolute truth and righteousness, particularly one in line with oppressive gender mandates and their many patriarchal and racial/ethnic implications, heterosexism, and an ever-divisive capitalist economy.”
In her article “James Bond: Agent, Hero or Misogynist?: A Feminist Reading of the Film Dr. No,” Amy Madore put forth an in-depth assessment of the first James Bond film. Madore explains that Bond’s goal is to disempower women by putting them back into submission. “Each time Mr. Bond is confronted with a new female character who presents a threat to him, he immediately engages in sexual intercourse with her in order to strip her of her agency.” Madore argues that the film, released in 1962 during the beginning stages of the women’s movement, was meant to serve a larger political purpose. “It is no coincidence that this film, which uses women as objects throughout the plot, is released during a time when women are fighting for equality in society,” Madore wrote. “This film serves as a slap in the face to women, giving them a glimpse into the lives of the women with agency in the film and exactly what becomes of them due to their attempt to take power from Bond.” In fact, being a Bond girl is not only dangerous to a female’s independence, it’s deadly. Since the beginning of the Bond series sixteen of the 51 Bond girls have been killed after sleeping with 007.
He’s Just not That Into You
He’s Just Not that Into You turns a group of five otherwise successful, intelligent women into bumbling fools. It not only portrays females as needy and weak, but suggests that these stereotypes are biological.
A particularly problematic relationship develops between Neil (Ben Affleck) and Beth (Jennifer Anniston). The couple has been together for 7 years and lives together. Neil is opposed to marriage, because he adamantly believes that true love does not need to be cemented by spending thousands of dollars on a wedding. Beth is at first content with this situation, yet she eventually decides she needs “the ring” to symbolize Neil’s commitment. Beth leaves when Neil refuses to accept her ultimatum. The two wallow in their loneliness until Neil shows up to help Beth after her father is ill. He rescues the damsel in distress and helps her clean the house and deal with unsympathetic relatives. Beth and Neil reunite and despite Beth’s realization that she is ok living a life without a wedding ring, Neil shocks Beth by popping the question. While the film challenges the notion of marriage as the ultimate legitimizing factor in a relationship, it shies away from making this statement in favor of reinforcing the social norms –of course all women want to be a wife and walk down the aisle in a white dress. (The blog Feministing provides some more commentary on the pitfalls of He’s Just Not That Into You.)
Few would deny that the summer 2007 hit comedy Knocked Up is anything but hilarious. The film, which chronicles the relationship between opposites Ben (Seth Rogen) and Alison (Katherine Heigl), whose one night stand turns into a long term relationship when Heigl winds up pregnant, is filled with plenty of laughs, but it is also filled with plenty of sexism. Heigl told Vanity Fair that she often felt uncomfortable with the portrayal of her character. “[Knocked Up is] a little sexist,” Heigl said. “It paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys. … I had a hard time with it, on some days. I’m playing such a bitch; why is she being such a killjoy?" Slate movie critic Dana Stevens echoed Heigl sentiments. While Stevens admitted to enjoying the film, she left feeling uneasy about the movie’s depiction of cotemporary gender relations. She criticized director Judd Apatow for failing to portray the films female characters with the same depth of humor and humanity given to male characters.
Action films are notorious for their bold, daring, and intelligent male heroes and their female love interests. In the Spider-Man series, Mary Jane Watson fulfills this typical “damsel in distress” role. Independent filmmaker Benh Zeitlin is critical of the lack of three dimensional women in mainstream movies. He wishes to see female characters with personality, a sense of humor and humanity to them, but what he often finds are characters like Mary Jane Watson, the love interest of more complicated male figures. “These women are total nonsense,” he wrote, “even if you’re just going to write a damsel in distress to motivate your dude hero, you got to give him something to fight for with a little personality.” Spider-Man is just one of the many examples of how females are often forced to take a back seat in the entertainment industry. According to data available on Women and Hollywood in 2008, only six of the top grossing 50 films starred or were focused on women. And from 1977-2006 less than one-third of the 6,833 single speaking characters in the films nominated for best picture were female.
Sarah Karlin is an editorial intern at Campus Progress.
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