Heroine or Housewife? The Representation of Women in Film and Television
Today Lucy Barrett is back on the blog, discussing the representation of women in film and television.
I want to start this by asking three simple questions:
When was the last time you watched a film where the female characters had larger bodies?
Can you recall five films where females have taken the role of Professor, Scientist or Doctor and their characters have not been sexualised in some way?
Are you able to list three female film directors?
If you are anything like me, I struggled with all of these. I could think of a few, maybe. On the flip side, try asking yourself these:
Can you name a film where the male characters had larger bodies?
Can you recall five films where males have taken the role of Professor, Scientist or Doctor and their characters have not been overly sexualised in some way?
Are you able to list three male film directors?
Once again, if you are anything like me, it was much quicker to reel off answers to the second series of questions than the first.
But why is this the case?
This is something that has had me pondering for a while. Time after time, I watch television programmes and films where women are being presented one dimensionally. The characters often seem so unrealistic and unattainable. After reading more about the television and film industry, it became very easy for me to understand why there was such a lack of diversity in women on screen; we are watching females from the perspective of men, for a male audience.
It can be sometimes easy to forget that before a film reaches our eyes, it begins as a story, an idea which through the help of producers, directors, photographers and film crews, become the end result you see on screen. But you may be shocked to learn the statistics in relation to the proportion of males and females in these roles. In a study spanning over 20 years, the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film reported that across the networks studied, a whopping 97% of the programmes had no women directors of photography; 86% had no women directors, 76% had no women editors, 75% had no women creators and 74% had no women writers.1
Just let those numbers sink in for a moment.
What does this mean for the viewer?
This means the majority of film and TV we are exposed to, is created through a male vision. Is this perhaps why women are shown to live ‘happily ever after’ once they marry a man? Maybe this is the reason we only see female bodies that are typically described as the male fantasy; usually thin, caucasian women with curves only in the ‘desired’ places. Perhaps this is why a man’s perfect woman is portrayed as funny, cute, smart, sexy, confident, and not forgetting an interest in sports. And maybe this is the reason that women on our screens are always presented ‘perfectly’, by this I mean they are usually heavily made up with make up and hair coiffed into place.
Are we not allowed to see women unless they are, what is considered to be, visually pleasing? Is the explanation for the lack of diversity in women on screen due to the fact characters are primarily envisioned by men?
Arguably, it could be said that we cannot overlook how far female characters on screen have come from a period in time when they would have been shown to be primarily housewives. It is true we now have female lead characters playing superheroes, politicians, leaders. But I encourage you to take a closer look; when you think of the female superheroes, are they young or old? Are their body types diverse? When you think of female politician characters, are they primarily shown to be younger or older women? My point is this, it seems that although roles for women are more diverse than they have ever been, the way we assign certain roles to types of women appear to lack imagination. When do we see a superhero in a larger body? Are we being subliminally told that women in larger bodies are not strong enough to play a superhero? The types of women I see playing politicians are usually older women; is this sending a subliminal message that only when you reach a certain age as a woman you are then allowed to be taken seriously in such a profession? How many times are female characters presented in a way which does not place a primary focus on their physical attributes and ‘sex appeal’? I personally would love to see an older woman or a woman in a larger body playing a superhero, similarly, I would also welcome watching a young female playing a politician. I would welcome being able to watch females on screen who are not overly sexualised. I want the message for women to be that no matter what your size, race, sexuality, social class, age - you can be whoever you want to be. You do not have to fit a certain criteria to be told you’re beautiful and you do not need to be in a smaller body to be considered strong.
You may be wondering that as film and television are not real life, why does this even matter? While it is correct that film and television do not portray real life, research is showing the harmful effects as a result of the way women are presented in the media and on screen. A research paper looking at the effects of sexual objectification of women in the media shows the extent of the impact this is having on the mental health of women. To clarify, the term sexual objectification is defined as ‘when a woman’s body/body parts are separated from her as a person and she is viewed primarily as a physical object of a male sexual desire’. 2 The paper highlights how we, as human beings, we are vulnerable to the messages we receives on a daily basis. With the growth of visual social media platforms such as Instagram, so too has our society’s fixation with beauty and appearance. As a result, more of us are using “these standards [to] define our own self worth’.4 If we are constantly being sent the message that in order to be desirable or successful, we need to adhere to a certain body type or beauty standard, then we begin to internalise these beliefs and evaluate ourselves on the basis of appearance alone.4 Research has demonstrated how this leads to an “increase in ‘body shame, appearance anxiety…body dissatisfaction and disordered eating symptoms’. 3
What is the answer?
Female director Jane Campian explains her reasons for why we need more female representation; she writes ‘I would love to see more women directors because they represent half of the population, without them writing and being directors, the rest of us are not going to know the whole story’. 5 This is so true, how can there be diversity only seeing it through the vision of one dimension? Fortunately, all is not lost. There is growing recognition that females voices need to be heard, which has led to new initiatives encouraging large corporations to employ more females behind the scenes in both film and television. Initiatives such as the Indie Film Project helped launch the ‘4% challenge’ in January 2019; large film making corporations including Universal pictures, Focus Features and Dreamworks Animations have committed to hiring at least one female director in the next 18 months. The title of this initiative is derived from the fact that only 4% of the county’s top grossing movies over the past decade had a female director 6; it is clear through the introduction of such initiatives that action needs to be taken if women are to have the same opportunities as men.
But screen writer Sarah Jane Inwards still feels there is much more progress needed before there will be true diversity in what we see on screen. She states, there is still “a way to go before I can feel comfortable openly sharing my experiences of misogyny with our worry that it might negatively impact my career’.7 Is this truly the reason why female diversity has been so slow to evolve over the past 50 years? On the one hand we are being given more rights than ever, yet we continue to find our voice in a world that is still predominantly dominated by men. Female director Jane Campian helps explain this unsettled position we found ourselves in, she argues ‘women today are dealing with both their independence and also the fact that their lives are built around finding and satisfying the aromatic models we get up with’. 5 Until the world around us changes, it is unlikely we will witness significant changes in the industries which profit from our lack of representation.
Will this be an issue to quickly resolve? Are we caught in a vicious circle of needing men’s approval in order to be successful in this industry, and if this is the case, will women ever feel able to tell their true story and show their real self on screen, or will women continue to be marginalised on the basis of their age, race, sexuality, and appearance?
On this note, I encourage you to reflect on the movies and television series you have watched; be curious and reflect on who has written them? Why have they been written? Do you feel they display an honest representation of women?
The longer the diversity of women continues to be unrepresented, the longer we will feel marginalised by society. Perhaps if we were exposed to more images and screen time for women who were from diverse backgrounds, of various sexuality, those who are disabled, or classified as non binary - would we feel those people are ‘abnormal’ or would we all finally feel accepted?
2 Bartky, S. L. (1990) Femininity and domination: Studies in the phenomenology of oppression. New York, N.Y: Routledge, as cited in, Szymanski, D. M., Moffitt, L. B and Carr, E. R. (2011) Sexual Objectification of Women: Advances to Theory and Research Sage Publications
3 Gordon, M. K. (2008). Media contributions to African American girls’ focus on beauty and appearance: Exploring the consequences of sexual objectification. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32, 245-256 as cited in Szymanski, D. M., Moffitt, L. B and Carr, E. R. (2011) Sexual Objectification of Women: Advances to Theory and Research Sage Publications
4 Frederickson, B. L., & Roberts, T. (1997) Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21, 173-206 as cited in Szymanski, D. M., Moffitt, L. B and Carr, E. R. (2011) Sexual Objectification of Women: Advances to Theory and Research Sage Publications
Thank you so much for this blog post Lucy!
You can connect and get to know Lucy better her website www.thecuriousbeing.com and Instagram handle @thecuriousbeingblogger.