The Problem With Women In Film

A few years ago, Jack and I went to see Bridesmaids in the cinema. Afterwards, when I asked him what he thought of the film, he replied: ‘I actually liked it, it was good. It was actually funny. It actually made me laugh.’

Hmm, I thought as I lamented the fact that my heavenly popcorn and maltesers mixture was no more, that’s a lot of ‘actuallys.’ The use of ‘actuallys’ suggests that he must have had preconceptions about this film.

‘What do you mean “actually”?’ I asked him, genuinely intrigued.

‘Well, you know.’

There was silence. I can only assume he was worried about the proximity of my feet to his testicles. He continued:

‘Come on. You know those chick flicks that are marketed as comedies but are actually as funny as chlamydia. Which I wouldn’t know about, obviously.’

Sexually transmitted diseases aside, I understood what he meant. I had a whole plethora of so called ‘chick-flicks’ that I had bought, hoping against hope that they would transcend stereo-typed genres and actually surprise me. Usually though, they didn’t.

First, there was The Women with Meg Ryan, Eva Mendes, Jada Pinkett-Smith and a few others that I’m too lazy to google. It was as clichéd as a kiss in the rain and featured so much Eva Mendes being sultry that it was hard to concentrate but besides all that, it was a contrived tale of a middle class woman with decidedly middle class problems that did nothing to evoke my sympathy, least of all any laughter.

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Then, there’s the Sex in the City films which feature characters I basically have zero in common with. Do I live in a bustling city? Nope. Am I inexplicably wealthy? Erm, no. Have I been naked and covered in sushi? Only once, and that was because I was drunk at my annual nudist/sushi convention and fell through a buffet table. My point is, I just couldn’t relate to these materialistic and shallow women and if they are whom the female population should aspire to be, then we are in trouble. Not to mention, these films are a funny as receiving a colonic while at the dentist.

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And finally, I’m going to talk about any chick-flick Katherine Heigl has starred in. It seems her main purpose in any film is to be as miserable and buzz-killy (actual word) as possible. She basically reinforces every negative stereotype about women: she nags, she complains, she’s reluctant to do anything remotely fun. In 27 Dresses, she’s basically a neurotic, egocentric and vindictive singleton whom we’re supposed to be sympathetic towards. The problem is, she’s an utterly detestable character. Maybe that’s slightly unfair, given the fact that we’re probably meant to take this film as seriously as Rob Schneider’s back-catalogue, but I thoroughly disliked this film. Think I’m exaggerating? Try and endure the film and decide for yourself. Then there’s the woeful The Ugly Truth in which she again plays a woman whose primary talent is inane nagging. And don’t even get me started on Knocked Up (which is a film I actually quite like) where even Katherine Heigl herself complained that her character is seriously irritating (even though, in principle, her character has a right to be a bit miffed: the boys in that movie are quite immature and irresponsible but she doesn’t need to be so damn smug about it all).

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By now you probably think I’m being a cranky b**ch with too much time on my hands (which is partly true) but the constant misrepresentation of women in film is something that seriously irks me. We’re consistently portrayed as attractive but dim, shallow, selfish, materialistic and boring. The ones that happen to be funny are usually overweight. The ones that are attractive have all the moral decency of a Kardashian. The ones that are intelligent own several cats and are being constantly nagged by their friends to “loosen up” and give the Vince Vaughn character a chance. It is lazy stereotyping and one dimensional characterisation at its worst. By contrast, male characters are often fun, witty, intelligent and charming all at once. In simple terms, male characters are given more depth and more substance.

Adding to this, my favourite films are mostly directed by, starring and centred around men.

The Godfather? Men in the mafia.
No Country For Old Men? Greedy men.
Goodfellas? More male mafiosos.
The Departed? The Boston police force and the Boston criminal underworld (and you’d better believe they’re all men).

While you can argue that many of the male characters in these films are morally bankrupt, inherently flawed and not exactly aspirational figures, at least they have depth. They are characters that interest us and provoke thought and discussion. They’re not arguing over Jimmy Choos.

When I went to see The Departed in the cinema, I was surrounded by mostly males. My female friends didn’t want to see it. I genuinely don’t know why. I’ve also frequently been met with surprise when I cite these as my favourite films. I suppose many people can’t believe that The Notebook isn’t up there for me. Is it fair to say that the majority of woman like schmaltz and cliché and we’re just being provided with what most women want? I refuse to believe that’s true. Am I on my own in thinking that ‘chick flicks’, while providing mindless entertainment, are actually damaging to the perception of females in general? Is it too much to expect female protagonists to have the depth of characters like Jane Eyre? I’d even take Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz for crying out loud; she had balls.

What I’m trying to get across is that female characters can be funny AND intelligent AND attractive AND all the other positive traits that seem to be constantly reserved for their male counterparts. Bridesmaids was a step in the right direction; the characters were relatable, funny and endearing. They were also realistic looking (not botoxed to within an inch of their life) and Kristin Wiig, Melissa McCarthy and Maya Rudolph weren’t afraid to portray women in a more unflattering light than audiences are used to.

What did bother me about the overwhelming positive response to this film was, well, just that: the overwhelming positive response. It was a funny film. But should we really get so excited when a film with a predominantly female cast and written by women actually manages to be good? Is it really so inconceivable that a female cast can actually be funny? This should happen more than once a decade, but, alas, it seemingly doesn’t. So when it did happen, we got more excited than Tom Cruise on a three-seater couch.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel. The talent is out there. Look at the likes of Katheryn Bigelow, director of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty.These are two great films that I think manage to appeal to both male and female audiences (particularly the latter film). The Help is another film I like to allude to when I’m promoting the female cause in cinema: the performances are fantastic and I don’t think any men would disagree or label it a chick-flick.

There are some great female actresses out there at the moment- I liked that Jennifer Lawrence received the Academy Award for best actress this year because she turned in a great performance in Silver Linings Playbook but remember the male recipient? Daniel “I’m so amazing at acting I’m probably not even a human being” Day Lewis. The Best Supporting Actor gong went to Christopher Waltz, for his fantastic turn as Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained. And then Anne Hathaway won Best Supporting Actress and made possibly the most simperingly pathetic acceptance speech in all of Oscar history. Damn it, Hathaway. My point is that I think it’s fair to say that most people would view the male recipients with more esteem and respect.

It will be a while before a woman’s place in a film is not *mostly* (I know there are plenty of exceptions) confined to fulfilling a preconceived expectation: eye candy, love interest, nagging wife, etc and someday, there’ll be less Ilsa ‘from now on you do the thinking for both of us’ Lund and more *insert timeless and inspirational quote from strong, admirable female character* It would be great to see a theatre packed full of men and women to see a female led cast in a movie that is not a clichéd and contrived mess and that actually centres around WOMEN and not women in terms of their position in a man’s life. It would also be great to see films like this deserving of awards. It has happened, albeit not as frequently as I would like, and it will happen again, just keep Nicholas Sparks and Meg Ryan locked away somewhere.

16 thoughts on “The Problem With Women In Film

  1. Trent Lewin says:

    Great post, my friend. Honestly, I was also surprised about Bridesmaids, I had preconceptions about what it was about, and it was completely an eye-opener.

    I have a particular problem about gender, in that it is irrelevant to me. Especially in the blogging sphere, I often don’t know or think about the gender of who I’m talking with. It doesn’t seem to matter.

    Have you seen Sucker Punch? It’s an odd movie with a female-centric cast and an undercurrent theme of fighting and perserverance that I loved. Cool that you like movies by men.

    • janeybgood says:

      Thanks!

      It’s just something that gets to me because I think it reinforces that terrible misconception that women aren’t as funny as men. If you think of film comedies, you could list several ‘male’ comedies like The Hangover films, Stepbrothers, The 40 Year Old Virgin etc whereas female comedies are much less common.

      It’s great to hear that gender is irreverent to you. I wouldn’t consider myself an ultra-feminist by any means if the word, I just think we get a hard time on screen because of lazy stereotyping (kind of like Irish characters haha).

      No I haven’t seen that film but I like the sound of it, I’ll check it out. Thanks!

      • Trent Lewin says:

        Unfortunately, I think the movie-based stereotypes reflect real stereotypes that are held in the real world. I don’t understand after all this time how we can evaluate gender and minimize women. I hope it’s a tendency that will just go away, and shortly. I certainly try to teach my kids not to judge on such things as gender, race, etc. It’s so unfair, and we as a people should have managed to grow up by now. But I suspect Hollywood will be one of the last places to change those stereotypes.

      • janeybgood says:

        I agree. And I think it’s great that you’re teaching your kids to be so open-minded. I’ve encountered some great male students, but I’ve also come across those who are definitely uncomfortable with a female authority figure.
        The reason I get so irate with Hollywood is that it has such an influence on how people perceive others. Young girls are also highly influenced by the films they see and if these negative stereotypes are enforced through a constant stream of mediocre chick flicks then these girls are left without strong role models.

  2. Ashley says:

    Bridesmaids is great. I have to admit though they Sex And The City is a guilty pleasure. The movies were toned down I think, though. The shows were funnier. The movies were like PG 13 versions of the show.

    I thought Easy A and Mean Girls was surprisingly funny for teen girl flicks. Most men I know of who have seen those thought they were funny as well.

  3. Sean Smithson says:

    When you mentioned the annual nudist/sushi convention, I was like ‘I think we could become good friends’. But then you blew it by ragging on 27 Dresses, which is right up there with Mean Girls and the remake of 90210 for me…

    Though I do like your favourites list so maybe there is still hope for our blogship.

    • janeybgood says:

      Katherine Heigl’s chronic misery ruined that movie for me but Mean Girls is great.

      I’m glad we can agree on the favourites🙂 Otherwise it’d be like the time I used to go to the cinema with a friend and we could never agree on what to see so would go into separate theatres. I’ve just realised how much time would have been saved by decided that *before* we went. D’oh.

  4. Wordifull Melanie says:

    OK so i completely agree that as a gneral rule “chick flicks” tick me off. I do have a soft spot for a few… I have to admit I do like the Notebook😉 and Love, Actually….

    Oh and Mean Girls, yeah its a fav…as is Heathers (it’s predecessor)

    Most of my favorite films are as your more male-centric.
    Along with a couple you mentioned…Goodfellas, Godfather…
    The Usual Suspects
    Reservoir Dogs
    Full Metal Jacket

    As far a strong female parts…
    The Help you already mentioned…
    Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence I think) in Hunger Games
    Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest
    Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs
    The Color Purple most of the female cast!
    and Glen Close most of the time.

    • janeybgood says:

      I actually was going to mention The Color Purple and Silence of the Lambs is another favourite of mine but these films seem to be much more rare than male-centric films of the same quality. I also feel that when it comes to comedy, we are lagging behind too unfortunately buy like you mentioned, Mean Girls is great. As is everything Tina Fey does.

      Thanks for your comment!

  5. Aussa Lorens says:

    Oh, I loved everything about what you just wrote. Particularly what you said at the ending about how so many of these roles are written about women as they exist or are seen in relation to men. Bridesmaids was hella funny, that’s for sure. I’d be curious to know your opinion on the whole Catching Fire phenomenon of having a lead female action figure?

    • janeybgood says:

      Thanks Aussa, what a lovely comment🙂

      I actually think it’s a great idea. It’s certainly an improvement on the weak and dependent heroine that young girls were presented with in Twilight.

      At least with films like The Hunger Games, women and girls can feel slightly more empowered whereas the other films I’ve alluded to present quite a weak stereotype of women where our primary goals in life are marriage and babies.

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