The depiction of women has undergone moderate changes over the decades since the silent era, but the core prerogatives that motivate female characters remain largely unaltered. Whether housewives, damsels in distress or seductive antagonists, women never experience adventures that transcend their immediate connection to the male lead. In the 1970’s, feminist writer Sharon Smith elegantly summed up her opinion of cinema’s failure of female representation in The Image of Women in Film: Some Suggestions For Future Research. Smith’s excellent consensus is found in her rhetoric: “Can you imagine a male hero confined to two categories, those who overstate their sensuality and those who suppress it?”
Jumping forwards to the 21st century, one might ask if things have at all changed. Optimistically speaking, yes, female characters have certainly become more layered and complex in cinema. Thanks to independent cinema, and female writers and directors, there has been a stronger focus on writing good female characters than in the past. However, female actors are still being unfairly represented and exploited in the film industry. What has changed in Hollywood isn’t the ideology that reinforces this trend, but much rather how studios take advantage of their female players.
In simple words: No, strong female characters are still underutilized, but Hollywood has found a way to play dressage so that audiences believe they are seeing progressive films starring female leads.
To clarify this argument, one must first put themselves in the shoes of a studio executive (big shoes to fill, right?). When making a movie, everything comes down to money, and with film budgets sometimes even exceeding 100 million USD, a studio will take advantage of every angle they can to draw in a larger audience. Mae West and Marilyn Monroe were screen actors that proved that a film could solely be marketed off of feminine celebrity. When looking at classic cinema, people rarely flocked to see a film because of its female lead. Films lived off of their Humphrey Bogart’s and James Dean’s for the most part. With film budgets increasing exponentially, advertisements would feature everything that could make a film appealing; this also included their female leads. Consequently, contemporary cinema does succeed in fostering more compelling female characters, however their sexual promiscuity is just as relevant as ever.
Smith said “who cares if the lead of The Conversation would be a good lay?” The argument can be made that this is something that has changed in contemporary filmmaking. However, it has changed for the worse. While 1974’s The Conversation stars a relatively unattractive Gene Hackman as its central character, who gets his fair share of sexual relief, contemporary cinema has streamlined both genders so that protagonists must both be attractive if we are going to see them have intercourse. The success of Ryan Gosling, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bradley Cooper and many others can be directly attributed to their sex appeal, much like their female counterparts. However, the representation of women in contemporary cinema has also had other, more drastic examples of objectification. Men and women are both objectified in modern Hollywood, however, unattractive women have been exploited in a far more inappropriate way than unattractive men.
A prime example how women are objectified in cinema can unfortunately be found in the success of Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson. McCarthy’s Oscar nominated performance in the (relatively progressive and forward thinking) hit comedy Bridesmaids catapulted her into mainstream stardom, and also created an oddly uncomfortable subset of misogynistic comedy. Wilson quickly jumped on board this train as well with films like Pitch Perfect and Pain & Gain. The inconvenient truth behind these films is the fact that the comedy is consistently presented from the perspective of a straight-male point of view, causing the comedy to rely entirely on how unattractive these women are. Coming back to Smith’s rhetoric, Wilson and McCarthy both represent a new trend of women who are conventionally considered unattractive, who “overstate their sensuality”. Although this might seem like a platform for overweight female actors to find a access into an industry with high beauty standards, it essentially results in nothing other than body shaming.
Think of it this way: when watching the trailer for Pitch Perfect 2 why do we laugh when Rebel Wilson says “I am obviously the most attractive one”? Why do theaters roll over laughing when McCarthy eats a sandwich off of a naked man in bed? Yes, these characters might be more than the empty, non-responsive shells that once plagued old Hollywood, but the sexist ideology has not changed one bit. Nobody laughs when Steve Buscemi is in a sexual relationship in Boardwalk Empire. John C. Reilly is never the butt-end of a joke when he’s in a romantic entanglement with a beautiful country singer in Walk Hard: The Legend of Dewey Cox. The exploitation of the female body and its sexuality is far more excessive than that of a male.
Female representation has changed in cinema, but not always for the better. Women (and men to a lesser degree) are exploited for their looks more in the 21st century than ever before, but for every body-shaming comedy comes a film like Young Adult, Blue Jasmine, Obvious Child, or Gravity, proving to us that women can undergo adventures that are just as interesting as those of men.