In an era of equality, why are women still portrayed as damsels and whores?
Quentin Tarantino hit the headlines last year, not just for the highly anticipated film following in-part the Manson murders, but also because of his blunt response to a New York Times reporter asking why Margot Robbie has barely any lines in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.
That clever NYT sausage had done some research, as it turns out there’s a distinct lack of dialogue throughout Tarantino’s films.
Time took the…time to count every word of dialogue spoken by men and women in Tarantino’s films and the results speak for themselves; unless the main protagonists are female, there are few lines. Despite this, Kill Bill Volume 2, still had more dialogue from men, even with Uma Thurman cast as the central character.
If women aren’t being offered structured film dialogue, how are they supposed to break out of the misrepresentation of damsels in distress or seducers?
Hollywood has created a stage for unattainable standards, from beauty to superheroes, right through to simply being a mum. And the worst thing? These standards have not got any better over the years.
The ‘90s had a few good role models for little girls. Television had Sabrina the Teenage Witch (the MJH version), Dana Scully from The X Files, and most of the characters in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Then there were films; Now and Then, with Christina Ricci and Thora Birch. The Craft had four strong women in the leading roles. Even Josie Grossy in Never Been Kissed had her moments.
In an interview with Variety, Keira Knightley explained what’s wrong with the portrayal of women in films today;
I don’t really do films set in the modern day because the female characters nearly always get raped. I always find something distasteful in the way women are portrayed, whereas I’ve always found very inspiring characters offered to me in historical pieces… I’m suddenly being sent scripts with present-day women who aren’t raped in the first five pages and aren’t simply there to be the loving girlfriend or wife.
Knightley’s roles during the past ten years have been more focused on the female protagonist, rather than their portrayal as a sidekick. So these films are still being produced, but do they only exist in a world for Keira?
It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World: Portrayals of Female Characters in the Top Grossing Films of 2018 by Dr Martha M. Lauzen shows the lack of female protagonists in films.
In 2018, only 36% of women in the film industry were cast as major characters, and just 34% of women had speaking roles. Shockingly, this research also showed that only 57% of women were protagonists in films directed by women.
Katniss in The Hunger Games began the series of films as a strong young woman, who saved herself and her comrades multiple times. The revelation in the last film (and book) that she settled for someone she didn’t really want to be with because he was a ‘safe’ choice is a kick in the teeth. What lesson is this teaching little girls? Did the writer run out of ideas? Was it all a dream, Suzanne Collins?
In an age where superheroes are always in cinemas and on the small screen, they should be considered strong protagonists, but what have they done for feminism in recent years?
We saw Starlight in The Boys struggle with her new costume during season 1. She was told that it would be better PR if she wore a smaller outfit, and later she used her skin for seduction. What are the rules?
The only female lead who stands out, who has done anything for feminism, is Hela. Played by Cate Blanchett in Thor Ragnarok, Hela caused havoc and burned down Asgard, killing millions in her wake.
Her outfit isn’t seductive; it’s practical (for head to toe spandex), and her attitude takes no prisoners. But, is she a hero? We’re not supposed to think so but she was imprisoned for a long time, so she’s allowed to be angry. Cate Blanchett agrees;
“I think if you were locked under the Asgardian stairs for 5,000 years you’d be a little bit cross.”
We got Linda Hamilton back for her famous Terminator role, where we’ve seen her story evolve over the years, from terrified young adult to a strong warrior.
There’s Beverly Marsh in Andy Muschietti’s remake of It, whose attitude to life helps her defeat Pennywise. She’s abused by her father but her strength shines through and we see her grow, with the help of her friends.
But these are remakes and sequels — nothing new.
More recently, TV has begun to step away from the heroine idealist, and is instead opting for true crime shows such as 13 Reasons Why and Mindhunter, rather than easy viewing.
So perhaps we need to consider whether real-life struggle is more important than obvious heroism.
There are some exceptions, as there always are. Frances McDormand’s character in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is the tale of a woman struggling with loss and anger towards authorities for the lack of help in finding her daughter’s killer. Based on a true story, this is potentially more pertinent than Xena, warrior princess fighting a villain in a 45-minute episode.
McDormand’s character in Three Billboards is that much more important because we don’t see that strength very often. Maybe we need those real stories to shape ourselves, rather than Katniss and her band of merry men.
Perhaps the question is easier than that; Can we accept what we have to work with, as long as we don’t revert back to Wendy Torrance?