Women in Film

In order to examine popular culture and its reflection of American society, we must look at America’s most beloved form of media, film. Film historians and researchers have found out that men play a disproportionate amount of leads and heroes. They were also depicted as employed professionals, as opposed to the percentage of women who were depicted as unemployed housewives. In a study of 100 films released in 1941 and 1942, “eighty percent of films focusing on the love/hate problems of a man had a good bad girl as the main female character. In 50 percent of the films, the good bad girl successfully opposed a bad girl,” (Butler, 141). In a study of the films from the 1930s to 1970s, historians have categorized four dominant types of roles that women played. The first one is the “Pillar of Virtue” types played by Doris Day or Julie Andrews. This category also features mothers and mammies such as Hattie McDaniel’s character in “Gone with the Wind.” The “Glamour Girl” range from sex goddesses such as Marilyn Monroe in “Bus Stop” to femme fatales such as Marlene Dietrich in “Blonde Venus.” The “Emotive Woman” is the sexually frustrated Rosalind Russell in “Picnic” and the seductive Elizabeth Taylor in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Thus, the last category, the “Independent” woman or the Katharine Hepburn type, is Barbara Streisand in “Funny Girl,” or Jane Fonda in “Klute,” the liberated woman. Throughout much of film history, women have been depicted as manipulative, sexually repressed, or sexually overt. There was also a lack of sisterhood and films with women interacting with other women in a positive light. In the 1950s, especially, we witnessed an era of “reaffirming male dominance and female subservience; movies showed women as breasts and buttocks, again idealizing women who were ‘pretty, amusing, and childish,’” (Butler, 145). Much of this female contempt has endured and remained, although it may not be as obvious as the previous decades. Nowadays, we see more sensationalized sexual roles for women as the trend began in the 70s. Women now are also shown as waifs similar to the 60s trend, which was a severe contrast to the idea image of the 50s. All in all, women are becoming an endangered species in films and taking increasingly less leading roles.

Ever since the 1960s, the women’s movement has been concerned with media portrayal of women. Major studies of the most pervasive medium, television, and particularly its commercials revealed the same subordination of women we saw in film. In commercials, most voice-overs were done by men and overall, men were featured more often than women. The women who were featured were limited to family roles. Women were shown doing housework and men were the beneficiaries of their work. On the other hand, men were employed, had careers, and were doing something outside the home. More significantly, even though the age of the female population is bit higher than the male, commercials featured a disproportionate number of young women as opposed to men. “In commercials during children’s programming, women and girls were seen less than men and boys,” (Butler, 93). In television programs, such as soap operas, quiz shows, prime-time dramatic shows, and public-affairs programs, we saw similar trends as well. Once again, “men are more often employed than women and have higher status jobs. Also, the woman’s marital status is known more often,” (Butler, 93-94). She is marked by her relationship with men.

Some new discourse has been generated to the negative media portrayals of women as well. Let’s take the film noir genre for example. “These were thrillers made in the 40s and 50s, usually shot in dramatic black and white, with sensual stars who would use their attractiveness to manipulate luckless men,” (Root, 17). Film noirs such as “Double Indemnity” and “Sunset Boulevard” are such examples where the characters of Barbara Stanwyck and Gloria Swanson trap men into their evil ploys. “The women usually die too, however, punished for their relentless attempt to satisfy their own desires and the threat that they represent to the stable world of marriage, family and female submissiveness,” (Root, 18). However, of late, feminists have begun to have a new view of film noirs, suggesting that these films show women who are outside their standard role of femininity. Although they use their sexuality, they derive power from it and use their intellect to get what they want. They represent strong, active women and these virtues override the male-centered moral it is to enforce upon the audience. Another alternate approach to this is understanding some of the dynamics of the rock video, which embodies the opposite of the male gaze. Rather than omitting the possibility of voyeurism for the female audience, it almost works as a gender blind construct. “The rock star body, and in alliance with videos, is always coded to be looked at whether male or female,” (Brown, 105). For one thing, rock videos contain “performance, a direct address, which produces a different kind of gaze than those that pertain in film, and fantasy, in relation to dominant cultural definitions of pleasure and desire,” (Brown, 10). Although some videos highly objectify women, these are examples of studying oppression to draw new conclusions and findings.


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