Summer is almost here, and Americans across the country will be taking in the latest action, drama, romance, and horror films.
While movies are generally meant to entertain audiences, make them laugh or cry, or scare them, some industry critics raise questions about stereotypes that frequently show up in films, even today.
When enough films show female characters in roles in which they are helpless or constantly need to be rescued, or lack any life goals other than waiting for a prince to save them, some critics find this problematic.
Repeated viewing of such character roles furthers negative stereotypes of both women and men, and places impossible standards on men.
“I haven’t noticed a lot of change in the direction we want to go,” says Melissa Houghton, the director of Washington, D.C. – based Women in Film and Video. “The way women are depicted is not changing. It’s largely demeaning, largely sexualized.
“And roles are frequently hypersexualized for men, too,” Houghton continues. “But what we’re really talking about is – how do we have better depictions of everyone? Why do we have to default to stereotypes?”
Max Foizey, who is a film critic, BFCA member, host of Max on Movies, and He-For-She supporter, believes that it is due to the fact that historically, fewer women held executive director or producer roles.
“I think the main reason for this is that there are fewer women in creative roles. It was traditionally an ‘old boy’s club’ and a lot of them write women as elusive items to be bought, attained. It’s all very shallow – a lot of male screenwriters forget to create an actual character,” Foizey says. “That’s what’s spectacular about the movie Wild….it was written by a woman, starring a woman.”
Wild, a 2014 movie starring Reese Witherspoon as the main character and Laura Dern Co-starring, follows a 26-year-old woman as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail alone to deal with grief and other issues she was facing in her life.
The movie is based on a memoir by Cheryl Strayed.
Houghton mentions that the Sundance Film Festival, which this year celebrated the “year of the woman,” supported the film. Other film supporters say the industry needs to work to set better trends of women in movies.
“Filmmakers do set trends, and a lot of it could be subconscious,” says David Ackerman, a UNL graduate who majored in filmmaking.
As for movies that are marketed to the most impressionable of the population – children – there’s definitely a difference between Merida, the strong, independent lead in the 2012 Disney movie Brave and the main character from the 1937 feature film Snow White.
“All the early princesses were “damsels in distress,” Ackerman says. “With Frozen, you have a character like Elsa, who was not motivated by a man.”
The key difference between Enchanted, Brave and a few other 21st Century Disney films, in contrast to classics such as Snow White and Cinderella, is that the main female characters are smart, ambitious and have real-life goals beyond waiting helplessly for a prince to come save them so they can ride off into the sunset (which is literally the ending to the original Snow White).
Even though she doesn’t even know the prince, Snow White’s stay at the dwarfs’ cottage is simply a way to bide her time until the Prince rides in.
With Frozen, Houghton applauds the deeper character role and storyline but laments some of the clothing Elsa wears as she sings the movie’s signature tune.
“Whenever the one who has all the freezing power starts dancing, she becomes very sexualized,” Houghton says. “But owning that power, having that power doesn’t mean that you have to do that. It is a richer story than they usually tell. One of my favorites is Enchanted. It’s a very empowering women’s story right through to the end.”
Different Disney movies sexualize women in different ways, she says.
“[Enchanted] is a pretty subversive film for Disney. I haven’t seen many more come out that are that flipped,” Houghton explains. “As for Brave – I’m glad I saw it. It’s a more compelling story, and Merida’s interaction with her mother is closer to reality. But shortly after that, they came out with the Princess and the Frog.”
The Twilight movies, which were marketed largely to a still somewhat-impressionable teenaged audience, featured a girl who was torn between two men.
“I don’t know Twilight, but from what I’ve heard, she’s such a ‘damsel in distress…’ from everything I’ve heard, she’s a terrible role model for girls. She’s very weak minded, people have said that they have worried about her character having a negative impact on girls,” Ackerman says.
The Bechdel test originated in 1985 thanks to Alison Bechdel, a cartoonist whose work regularly deals with gay and lesbian issues, according to Bechdeltest.com.
While it’s good for measuring dialogue, equality-minded film critics, such as Foizey, consider it to be just one of many tools to evaluate gender roles in a movie.
“I invoke the Bechdel Test, and I’m happy that we have a yardstick to keep screenwriters honest…but there are horrible movies that do pass the Bechdel test. It’s a good way to get the conversation started, but not a be-all, end-all,” Foizey explains.
“Anytime I see a movie, regardless of genre, I’m looking for all characters really, but whenever I see a woman on screen, I want her to be a character. Way too often, she’s just a love interest. You have the hero’s accessories – their car, their hat, and far too often, the woman is an accessory,” Foizey says.
“I want to be invested in the story. I want men to be held to the same standard – not just for their looks. Joss Whedon does that very well – portraying women as real people,” Foizey says.
Foizey says few filmmakers in history have portrayed women as real people.
“Going back to John Hughes -- women were independent, and allowed men to be vulnerable. You wouldn’t know that from a lot of other ’80s movies,” Foizey says. “The ’80s comedy was kind of the invention of the R-rated ‘raunchy comedy,’ frat-boy comedy stylings.”
Foizey noted the difference in many of the films and the fact that many of the starring roles included both women and men, addressing real issues that teenagers face.
“John Hughes was not coming from a certain point of view, except as an outsider. He moved a lot as a kid, and didn’t have a chance to make a lot of friends. He was writing about his experiences. Most teenagers feel like outsiders, and he was the first mainstream filmmaker that dealt with that,” Foizey explains.
Women in Film and Media aims to help would-be independent film producers get the skills and funding they need to produce their movies.
“When you have more women, more minorities behind the camera, you have a more diverse cast,” Houghton explained.