The ridiculous and inadequate nature of the vast majority of female film roles has never been more visible, thanks to the vital and increasingly loud protests of performers such as Viola Davis and Emma Thompson; of filmmakers such as Maria Giese, Lexi Alexander, and Paul Feig; and of organizations such as the MDSC Initiative, ARRAY and Women In Film. The undeniable and inescapable fact is that most female film roles are sparse, poorly written and stereotypical, and generally serve to facilitate the male characters in the story – even those female characters that are the ‘lead’ in a movie.
Regardless of the perceived size of the role, or the status of the actress playing the part, women on film are usually focused entirely on ‘finding a man’, ‘choosing between two men’, being ‘rescued by a man’, or ‘begging a man not to do the brave thing’. Quite often, they are ‘brutalized by a man’, and are occasionally seen ‘killing a man’ in a femme fatale type of situation that involves sex and seduction. The point is that, in general terms, the role of women on film is entirely defined by their relationship to men on film – and that’s a problem.
It’s a problem, because it centres men – usually white men – and that’s not an accurate depiction of the population of our planet. “But, it’s just entertainment!” comes the reply (funnily enough, mostly from white men) “What’s the big deal?” Well, the big deal is that the white male makes up only a small percentage of the world’s population, in reality, and yet he is centred in a vast majority of the output of Western film industries. This output then permeates our culture and creates a skewed view of the world. It is in this way that the centring of white men in cinema contributes to the perpetuation of an inherently sexist, racist society.
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It is also this issue that leads to hyperbolic reactions when a better female role actually unfolds on a cinema screen. The exaltation of characters such as Katniss Everdeen and Ryan Stone are reflections of the desperate thirst that exists for portrayals of realistic women. Regardless of setting – you could have one riding a dragon across clouds made of rainbow-colour marshmallow, if you like – female characters just need to be as fully-fleshed out as their male counterparts, that’s all. It’s not exactly rocket science.
Instead of creating a false impression of what a woman is, female characters in film should take into account the fact that we do actually talk to other women all the time, without conversing solely about men and shopping. We don’t instinctively hang back to see what the menfolk are going to do before dealing with a crisis situation. This may burst a few bubbles, but we’re not all waiting patiently for our male best friend/co-worker/fellow divorced parent/fleeting connection to realize what he’s missing and sweep us off our feet, in the rain, in a street, after lots of hilarious and charming misunderstandings. As is the case with men, the problems women experience in their daily lives cannot be solved by marriage and children, and – gasp! – some women actually aren’t attracted to men at all.
On the contrary, just like the majestic, all-powerful white male of cinema, real women are – more often than not – their own hero and romance can be nice when it happens. The majority of filmmakers that get the chance to have their stories on cinema screens (funnily enough, mostly white men) seem to have a problem understanding this, however. That being the case, and in the interests of providing some examples, let’s take a look at some of the most well-written female characters in cinema – some written by women, and some written by men.
These are female characters that have their own lives, and their own agendas. Just like women in the real world, many of them are affected in various ways by the misogynist society in which they inevitably live – but that is neither the centre of their existence, nor their only motivation. They are complex, flawed, and experience a full range of understandable and justified emotion – from righteous anger, to fear and vulnerability. Most importantly of all – regardless of situation – these women are autonomous beings, making informed decisions and choices, and dealing with the consequences.