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26 Responses

  1. Tim
    Tim March 3, 2014 at 6:10 pm |

    … for her role as a cripplingly self-conscious and naïve co-ed in An Education; in 2010 …

    Whoa … srsly, you are using the word co-ed as a noun meaning “female college student” on a feminist website, in a post about women’s roles in film? Try “college student.”

    1. pheenobarbidoll
      pheenobarbidoll March 3, 2014 at 6:44 pm |

      YOU’RE DOING FEMINISM WRONG!!! THIS DOOD SAYS SO!!! Oh look. There go my eyes. They just rolled out of my head.

      1. Tim
        Tim March 3, 2014 at 7:55 pm |

        So, the words we use for people don’t matter?

        1. tigtog
          tigtog March 3, 2014 at 8:01 pm | *

          That’s not what pheeno said. Stop leaping in on the nitpicks and engage in a discussion instead, please.

  2. Brian
    Brian March 3, 2014 at 6:45 pm |

    @Tim: That’s your takeaway point? Nice trolling. (Also, An Education is set in 1960, and the use of the colloquialism is therefore topical.) The author makes some very nuanced points here, and your misguided nitpicking is damaging to the conversation this piece ought to have sparked.

    1. Tim
      Tim March 3, 2014 at 7:53 pm |

      The film in question may have taken place in the 60s, but she is writing now. The noun “co-ed” is an unacceptable way for anyone to refer to a female college student.

      1. tigtog
        tigtog March 3, 2014 at 7:57 pm | *

        Tim, this is a discussion of characterisation in films, so using the vocabulary of the characters’ era seems perfectly appropriate to me. Your point has been made, let it go now.

    2. Tim
      Tim March 3, 2014 at 8:25 pm |

      On reflection, you are right. The comment was a topic derail and probably expressed inappropriately. I apologize to the OP and to the blog and the readers for the derail.

      1. tigtog
        tigtog March 3, 2014 at 9:08 pm | *

        Thanks for disengaging the derail, Tim. Welcome to the discussion.

  3. EG
    EG March 3, 2014 at 6:45 pm |

    I’m interested by what this piece has to say, but I find myself questioning the writer’s assessments of the movies I know a little about, which leads me to wonder about the ones I know less than that about.

    It seems to me that introspection, psychological complexity, internal struggle, have traditionally been allowed only to men and male characters, while female characters have been flattened. If this has turned, I’m not sure it’s a negative thing at all.

    I also think there’s some cherry-picking happening in the examples and how they’re described. Couldn’t one just as easily and accurately describe Portman’s character in Black Swan as an artist pursuing perfection and professional achievement at any cost, thus highlighting a more masculine aspect of her character? And couldn’t you describe Jean Dujardin’s role in The Artist as an actor struggling with depression and aging, thus putting him with the female characters dealing with mental illness (I certainly would not put that character in a list of male characters who do not struggle with their identity)?

    I also think you do a real disservice to the character of Lisbeth Salander to describe her only in terms of her sexuality and refer only to her strength as a rape survivor. She’s incredibly violent, a genius detective and hacker, saves the male protagonist’s life, and deals out rough justice on her own terms. Ignoring all that to make her a minor point in an argument…really makes me question the writer’s judgment of characters I know less about.

    1. EG
      EG March 3, 2014 at 6:48 pm |

      Damn. Italics should have stopped after “The Artist.” I’m sorry. I would be grateful if a mod fixed it. [Mod magic done!]

      Another point: I would’ve thought that “strong characters” meant strongly-written, strongly-developed characters, referring to the characters’ strength with respect to their fullness.

      I also have no understanding of what is meant here:

      If “strong” is a reference to force (some kind of on-screen dominance), we should be more critical of characters whose presence swells from stereotypically female crises; if “strong” is a reference to moral fiber – to strength of character as in nature – then we should be more critical of characters who find strength out of stereotypically female challenges.

      1. Lolagirl
        Lolagirl March 3, 2014 at 8:02 pm |

        EG, my take on the mention of strong characters was the same as yours. Historically, Hollywood has relegated women to one flimsy, one dimensional portrayals that lacked any real depth into which an actor could sink her acting chops. See also, women characters being limited to their utility as a sexy plot device and/or plaything for the male characters.

        That seems to be changing and improving. Although there is still plenty of room for improvement on that point. Of course,

  4. birdie
    birdie March 4, 2014 at 1:22 am |

    From an older person’s perspective, I’d say we have a long way to go before recovering the dimensionality of either gender in good 1940s films. This can be a separate question to that of gender disparity, and mostly reflects the shallowness of an effects driven Hollywood.

  5. Tony
    Tony March 4, 2014 at 1:07 pm |

    I think a lot of this is pretty simple – it just goes back to the basics of who is default and who is not.

    White men are the default- most people will not define a protagonist as a white male- he’ll be James Bond, he’ll be Batman, he’ll be Frank Underwood. Women or minorities on the other hand, are more likely to be defined by their race and gender. That affects audiences’ ability to empathize, because now there’s this block between them and the character. If male audiences start to think a movie is about “a female spy” instead of “a spy” that becomes a detracting distraction. The extreme version of that is where you get the whole “chick flick” categorization where men won’t even go to see it and would be embarrassed to admit seeing it to other men.

    Movie “studios” are looking for the films that have the widest possible demographic appeal and that means universal appeal. It’s the irony that what this has led to is disproportionately white male protagonists.

    I think a well written woman character is one in which the film is aware that the character is a woman (it’s not just a role that could be written for a man, because being a woman is a very different experience in the world), but which never explicitly acknowledges it or even makes the audience think about it. The audience should not ever stop in the film and think “oh yeah, this is a woman’s story”, they should just be carried along “oh, this is a good story”- the protagonist’s demographic will seep into every aspect of a well written story naturally- it’ll be invisible without being invisible. A strong female character is one in which a white male or a black male or a female from a very different culture can really identify with that character and how she thinks- and think, “oh yes, that could be me”.

    1. Tony
      Tony March 4, 2014 at 1:30 pm |

      And by the way, great article and I completely agree with the point about holding the creators (writers, directors) accountable. I’m probably going to stop commenting now because I hate it when these threads are dominated by male identifying voices & now I’m doing it. :-(

  6. emily
    emily March 5, 2014 at 7:41 am |

    Oscar-winning women are more likely to receive their Best Actress in a Lead Role awards for having been leads in nonetheless supporting capacities – as wives, girlfriends, sisters, or daughters – while Best Actor winners are more likely to win for having been the stars of their own stories (Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln; Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Milk; Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote in Capote). Admittedly, this statistic has shifted in recent years (in 2011, Meryl Streep won her second Oscar for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady; in 2006, Helen Mirren won for her title role in The Queen), and this year, three of the five best actresses nominees were also the protagonists of their respective films (Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, Sandra Bullock in Gravity, and Judi Dench in Philomena)

    I think I want to see more statistics on this, but that would probably require me watching a lot more movies. I know I can think of a lot of examples (both in nominations and winners) where this isn’t the case (winners: 1999 Hilary Swank for Boys Don’t Cry, 1951 Vivian Leigh for A Street Car Named Desire. Nominations: 1940 Joan Fontaine for Rebecca, 1990 Julia Roberts for Pretty Woman, 1991 both female leads in Thelma and Louise) Or movies where the winner or nomination went for a character where it may not have been her own story but she was not a wife, girl friend, sister, or daughter (winners: 2004 Hilary Swank for Million Dollar Baby, 1990 Kathy Bates for Misery.)

    And I feel like these statistics need to be set against what you were saying against the roles of women in film over time. Is it the fault of the academy that the best actress award goes to women in supporting roles or the fault of the industry for not making more movies with female leads?

    1. emily
      emily March 5, 2014 at 7:44 am |

      Just found a typo and wanted to correct myself. I think this: “And I feel like these statistics need to be set against what you were saying against the roles of women in film over time” Should read something like “And I feel like these statistics need to be set against what you were saying about screen time and/or the roles of women in film over time.”

      Sorry for that.

    2. Caroline
      Caroline March 5, 2014 at 12:42 pm |

      Hey, Emily: I think this infographic is really helpful, and speaks to a lot of what the author is getting at. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/16/best-actress-winners_n_4596033.html

      1. emily
        emily March 6, 2014 at 7:37 am |

        Wow. Thanks. That’s very close to what I wanted to see.

        But it puts Vivian Leigh and Joan Fontaine in the family category. Yes, Blanche was Stella’s sister and Mrs. de Winter was Max’s wife. The stories were still about them, even though they had family members (the fact that Joan Fontaine’s character has no name does not change that!). They weren’t supporting roles like the author of this article was talking about.

        Anyway, thanks. Very neat information!

      2. emily
        emily March 6, 2014 at 7:44 am |

        whoops. I’m wrong about Joan Fontaine. Sorry. She won for something else, not Rebecca, that I didn’t see, so I have no knowledge of it.

        1. EG
          EG March 6, 2014 at 8:36 am |

          I’ve seen Suspicion. Fontaine is the main character, a woman who fears that her husband is trying to kill her in order to inherit her money.

        2. emily
          emily March 6, 2014 at 9:49 am |

          Thanks, EG! Sounds interesting! I should rent it!

        3. EG
          EG March 6, 2014 at 10:31 am |

          It is! Hitchcock had to slap an ending on it that was different than the one he wanted (Hayes Code) (also, Hitchcock, what a horrible creep), but it is a great movie!

  7. Bitch Flicks’ Weekly Picks | Bitch Flicks

    […] “Strength” of Character: How the Silver Screen Perpetuates Gender Stereotypes by Emily Layden at Feministe […]

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