By Michael Francese for English 101: Writing & Research at Westchester Community College, Fall 2014
The way women are represented in media reflects how society values women compared to men. Women are often cast in roles that demean and dehumanize them, turning them into either sexual objects, male-dependents, loners, sexually unthreatening best friends (“one of the guys”), the “Fighting Fuck Toy” (women in action films who are so highly sexualized that their power is secondary to their image), or “bitches” in constant competition with other women. It is rare that a young girl will find a strong female role model that is equivalent to a role model young boys have. Women have not had a dominant or important role in some of the most well-known and well-loved films of the last decade. In fact, most roles given to women are over-exaggerated characterizations indicative of a patriarchal Hollywood. There is a clear correlation between the media and the sociology of society’s views of how women should be portrayed and how they should act. The stratification by a patriarchal society causes people to view men in a position of power more normal than a woman being in control. A very noticeable problem that arises is the birth of an exponential increase in misogyny and a willingness to comply with it. The more acceptable it is to see women as these trope-like characters as opposed to people creates an idea that women can – and should – be used as props in films.
The Bechdel test, created in 1985 by Alison Bechdel in her comic Dykes to Watch Out For, has three basic requirements to it. Bechdel based these requirements off of a passage from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. The film has to have at least two named women in it, that have to talk to each other, about something other than men (Siede, 2). These three requirements may seem ridiculous to some people and almost insignificant because it’s not readily apparent to those unaware how often a film or television program doesn’t fit these criteria. However, for a staggering amount of contemporary films, this is exactly the case. The fact is that some of the most popular media from the past 29 years, exactly how long ago the test was created, didn’t pass even the first two requirements; this is a clear indication that people are more okay with a catty female character who is obsessed or dependent on men rather than a strong competent female that can survive and thrive without male influence.
In Dykes to Watch Out For, the two main characters of the comic strip discuss the movie Alien as being the last movie they could sit through as it passed the most basic requirements yet the main character jokes that “the two women in it talk about the monster” (Bechdel, Dykes to watch out for). The joke hidden in that sentence is that Alien barely passes the requirements and that the movie itself received a lot of criticism from H.R. Giger’s art style. H.R. Giger, a surrealist painter, is famous for his phallic and sexual symbolism in his work. His work often depicts biomechanical nightmarish creatures used to symbolize humanities obsessions with sex, technology and consciousness. However, the film itself was revolutionary at the time for having a strong female lead that saves the day and having all of the male characters emasculated the men in the movie by making these phallic creatures impregnate them and kill them. Then again, this was produced in the late 70s to early 80s, where the media pushed for a strong female lead due to the Feminist movement..
An often-overlooked point about the Bechdel test is that the movie may in fact pass the three requirements, but the characters in them do not present any sort of complexity or importance. For example, 2008’s Sex and the City is the epitome of misogynistic entertainment that is aimed at women. Sex and the City was one of the most popular television series for its entire six season run and when the movies were released, they were no different from the rest of the show. Sex and the City follows the lives of a group of white upper class women chronicling their materialistic values and their promiscuity. The show was created by Darren Star, a man. According to “Women: The Misogyny of Sex and the City,” Sex and the City had been criticized repeatedly for not showing a true female perspective, but more of a bland tasteless show catering to the idea that women are untamable, materialistic, and non complex (Carter 1). The movie was no different than the show and continued with the same exact problems, even with it’s sequel in 2010.
There are even some films that fail the Bechdel test, yet present a strong capable female character. For example, 2013’s summer blockbuster Pacific Rim, written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro, created a character that even inspired an alternative test to give media, Mako Mori, and the Mako Mori test, according to “The Mako Mori Test: ‘Pacific Rim’ inspires a Bechdel Test alternative” by Aja Romano. Mako Mori’s character in Pacific Rim was not a stereotypical female role. In fact she did not seem to fit into any common tropes at all. She has a fleshed-out backstory, meaning that instead of just being a character thrown in for diversity or eye candy, she can give viewers something to relate to and allow them to view her as a person. She can handle herself and has always done so. She doesn’t emulate a man. She’s not a catty character. She’s a genuine character with an important role and isn’t left behind for being a woman. She doesn’t become a love interest nor does she have one. Her story is about getting revenge against the Kaiju, giant alien creatures that attack Earth, for killing her family and most of the Human race. She trained for years to become a Jaeger pilot, operators of the giant mecha used to combat Kaiju, and can hold her own in one with the movie’s other main character.
She isn’t the one constantly in the spotlight but for a young girl or woman that wants a character to look up to, Mako is a very important character. So important that new test, the Mako Mori test, is being used by movie critics and feminist bloggers. The requirements for the Mako Mori test state that in order to pass there must be one female character, that gets her own narrative arc, that does not support a male characters story arc. The downside to Pacific Rim and Aliens is that Mako and Ellen, respectively, suffer from “The Smurfette principle.” According to “Troperville,” the Smurfette principle is given to a majority of media aimed primarily at a male fan base where, even though about half the population is female and the other half is male, there will usually only be one major female character present (“Troperville” 1).
This can be seen in male-driven action films like the testosterone-filled, mid-life crisis series The Expendables. Every Expendables movie features a full cast of primarily men and each has their own goals and backstory, and each main character has decent footing. There isn’t really a good action film equivalent featuring strong women in similar circumstances, except for the Charlie’s Angels reboot films, but even they are riddled with sexism and racism, as pointed out in Grace Plus’ article, “Charlie’s Angels by Grace + 7 Comments”. The entire premise of the movies are about three overly sexual woman, one Asian, which they constantly bring notice to, using their bodies to manipulate men into doing things for them, they make fun of “unattractive” women, and they are forced to do extremely risky tasks in the skimpiest of outfits. All of this is done for an overbearing, mostly anonymous, white male (Plus 3).
The problematic nature of Charlie’s Angels is that, what you have advertised sounds really awesome in nature, a group of three women, all of whom are friends, who hunt down the worlds biggest criminal and kick butt while they do it, but what’s being given is women being used as puppets and bullet sponges for a white man who, for whatever reason, won’t do it himself. Also, the name of the show/movie itself seems overly possessive. Charlie doesn’t own them; they can do whatever they want. They may work for him and they can have a certain level of respect for him, but shouldn’t he give that respect back to them in return? Of course not, why should the young women of America be taught they can be independent badasses when they can instead be taught that, to be valued assets, they must work for or under a man.
Charlie’s Angels, and many other female-led action films like Tomb Raider, Catwoman, and Electra depict what’s called the “Fucking Fuck Toy” trope; “Fighting Fuck Toys” or FFT’s are hyper-sexualized women protagonists who “kick ass” just as easily, if not sometimes more effectively, than their male counterparts, but the difference is that FFT’s always look sexy while performing.
FFT’s appear empowered, but their very existences serve only to please the heterosexual male viewer. FFT’s may seem like they exist for female viewers, but in reality they exist solely for the male gaze. This is problematic because while it shows young female viewers that they too can be powerful, it also emphasizes shallow materialism and ultimately because these FFT’s cater to male viewers, they are often not realistic or rounded representations of women.
In recent years, the “Fighting Fuck Toy” trope has been replaced by female characters that can be action heroes and not wear ridiculously skimpy outfits. Strong women in film are emerging and the contrast between the women of Charlie’s Angels and more well-rounded, nuanced female characters can be seen in how the characters are written. For example The Hunger Games series has a strong female lead that absolutely blow characters like Rambo and Jason Bourne out of the water. Katniss Everdeen was a 16-year-old girl living in a dystopian future where the country is divided into districts and each is distributed a certain amount of resources based on the districts wealth. Every year, two contestants from each district are chosen to fight and die for a chance to win their district extra food for the year in the Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen isn’t a stereotypical female character. When she is first introduced, she is shown providing for her family by hunting and taking care of her mother and sister.
When her sister is called to participate in the games, Katniss basically gives up her life for her sister by volunteering to take her place. From that point on she shows how tactical and strategic she can be. She kills other contestants to save herself and male partner, who she basically carries through the first book and corresponding movie, but their relationship is not her top priority. Her goals are to survive to provide for her district and family and honestly, their relationship is only played up for survival from the game masters and she feels she needs to help him stay alive based off of their past.
Marvel’s representation of the female character Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson, changed drastically from movie to movie. In Iron Man 2 she barely had a speaking role, fought her enemies with some sort of sexual martial-art that would be very impractical in real life, and she also was the target of many misogynistic comments by Tony Stark, the film’s lead character that dons a super suit and calls himself Iron Man. In her second appearance in The Avengers, Black Widow becomes an integral part of the team but she still gets barely any screen time.
She is not overtly sexual in The Avengers either, which is great because instead of using the ridiculous fighting style mentioned above, she actually fights very well. Finally, her appearance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier makes her a co-star alongside Captain America and gives her a very important role in the movie that explores her character more. Her character has proven to be one of the most popular among Marvel fans, and her success has made her a vital piece of the Avengers puzzle in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and has led to Marvel announcing their first female-led superhero film Captain Marvel, which is set to bow in theaters in 2017.
Why has it taken so long for women to be properly represented in Hollywood? The unfair way women are represented in storytelling certainly isn’t a new topic. The reason behind why damsel in distress or where the male saves the *insert location here* stories are so common is because they are some of the oldest stories in history and are what the “basics of storytelling” are based off of. Classic fairy tales, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella all feature the chivalrous knight in shining armor or the prince of wherever having to rescue these women from situations that they honestly probably could have gotten out of themselves, and this is even more exaggerated and apparent in Disney’s versions of these classics. Disney had a tendency for a very long time to really play up the damsel in distress stereotype. Only recently has Disney changed their usual formula for a better and more supportive one. In Frozen and Maleficent the idea of true love was changed from love between star-crossed lovers to a loving family member or caretaker; the main characters didn’t need men to save them.
Maleficent was a flawed, powerful woman who many feared, but was ultimately presented as misunderstood. This reflects a common idea of women in general when it comes to Hollywood. Male writers write female characters, but don’t understand their complexities and as a result, end up creating stereotypical, one-dimensional women. Disney’s Maleficent proved that not only can women lead action films, but they can be just as complex as male characters if given the proper treatment.
The stories people have told throughout history, whether they be told by word of mouth, through paintings, film, television, or books, create a common narrative of the helplessness of women. Combine that with different religions and governments, where it can be shameful to be a woman in the first place, and this creates the belief that young woman can never be powerful because men will be too intimidated by that. They can’t be too attractive because then they will provoke men’s sexual behaviors and other women will be jealous. They can’t be too ugly because then they won’t be able to get a job or friends or a husband and eventually turn into the housewife government controlled media wants them to be. As if it even matters whether or not they got a job considering they won’t make nearly as much pay as their male coworkers and the only position they will actually be filling is “eye candy.” Don’t forget that they can’t even move out of whatever position they get in the first place because of the glass ceiling.
What government-controlled media wants more than anything is to maintain the power it’s had since the first real patriarchal government came into fruition. What it wants more than anything, so much so that it rewrote a religion and based a government off of it. is to keep those unlike itself down in the dirt, women, people of color, those of a different sexual orientation, anything that doesn’t fit into the category of rich, white, man. And the easiest way it’s found out how so far is to create a state of hyperrealism so intense that the Kardashian’s lives are more important than family members. It’s created inanimate sensation in place of experience. It’s created a way to maintain society in the easiest most effective widespread way possible and that is through our media. When parents don’t feel like dealing with their kids, they are placed in front of a television set where they learn that boys must show no emotion and can take what they want because, “boys will be boys!” and girls must fulfill their duties as the caretakers for their men. Ultimately, parents will, at the end of the day, sit down and watch the very same television shows that their children are influenced by and think to themselves that what is being shown to their children are the absolute only choices and must be reinforced. The television has become a teacher, a parent, and an authority.
As the idea that this society works is reinforced and shoved down the throats of every viewer over and over again they are forced to believe that the world couldn’t possibly function any other way. Society learns its values from the media and the media feeds off of what society pays the most attention too. It’s a cycle that has been repeated over and over again and will continue. So of course it’s easy to see that when all a child is allowed to grow up with is this single perspective, that women are useless and men are all powerful beings, and that white is right, there will be injustice amongst people at different levels of stratification.
Bechdel, Alison. “The Rule.” Dykes to Watch out for. Ithaca, N.Y.: Firebrand, 1986. Print.
Carter, Joe. “Weininger’s Women: The Misogyny of Sex and the City.” First Things. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.
Plus, Grace. “Charlie’s Angels by Grace 7 Comments.” Charlie’s Angels. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.
Romano, Aja. “The Mako Mori Test: ‘Pacific Rim’ Inspires a Bechdel Test Alternative.”The Daily Dot. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.
Siede, Caroline. “The Bechdel Test Is Fine Just the Way It Is.” · For Our Consideration · The A.V. Club. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.
“Troperville.” RSS. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.
Michael Francese is a former student of SUNY Purchase and a current student at Westchester Community College. He wants to become a screenwriter/director and focuses heavily on topics of sociology and media studies. Also he really enjoys producing music of varying genres.