“Strength” of Character: How the Silver Screen Perpetuates Gender Stereotypes

Guest Post Bio: Emily Layden is a writer living and working in upstate New York. You can follow her on twitter: @emilylayden


“For those of us in the audience who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences,” Cate Blanchett chided in her Oscar acceptance speech, “they are not. Audiences want to see them, and in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people.”

These are the numbers: Male-centered films are more likely to win the Academy Award for Best Picture; only one woman has won the award for Direction; Oscar-nominated actors record more screen time than Oscar-nominated actresses (among this year’s nominees, lead actors averaged 85 minutes on-screen to lead actresses’ 57, which was nonetheless an improvement from last year’s 100 minutes to 49); this year, lead actors collectively earned two-and-a-half times their female counterparts (the highest-paid actors raked in $456 million, while the highest-paid actresses banked $181 million).

There is more subjectivity to Hollywood sexism, though, than a numbers game – and perhaps the more uncomfortable observations lie in an examination of female roles. At the Golden Globes, Amy Adams thanked American Hustle writer/director David O. Russell for writing “such strong roles for women” – but it is exactly Adams Sydney Prosser (with her 46 minutes of screen time to Christian Bale’s 60, for the record), with her shaky vulnerability and exploitative sexuality, that helps to define and perpetuate the notion of the modern female lead as little more than a mere accessory. The problem here is two-fold, and the first we should get out of the way at the outset: Simply because a woman is a lead does not mean that she is the lead, i.e. the protagonist. This is an important distinction. 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) – but it was just last year that Jennifer Lawrence won for her role as Tiffany Maxwell in Silver Linings Playbook: A recent widow whose mania and neuroses may or may not be a result of overwhelming grief, Lawrence’s character exists to inform the growth of the film’s true protagonist (Bradley Cooper as Pat Solitano). We conflate “lead” with “hero”, and the two are not necessarily synonymous.

The second problem lies with Amy Adams’ use of the word “strength”. What do we mean when we define a female character as “strong”? 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. When an actress is the protagonist, her conflict is decidedly different than the average male protagonist’s: In literary terms, we often see the female protagonist engaged in a “man vs. self” struggle, while male protagonists wrestle with outside forces. In 2008, Anne Hathway earned her first Oscar nomination for her role as a young woman battle addiction in Rachel Getting Married; in 2009, Carey Mulligan was nominated for Best Actress for her role as a cripplingly self-conscious and naïve co-ed in An Education; in 2010, Natalie Portman won for her portrayal of a ballerina battling a multitude of mental health disorders in Black Swan; in Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett’s title character seethes, “there’s only so much a person can stand before they take to the streets and start screaming!” – but the dramatic irony of the story lies in Jasmine’s conviction that it’s the world that is out to get her. Similar roles among male nominees are hard to find: There is Mickey Rourke in 2008 in the title role in The Wrestler; Jeff Bridges in 2009 for his demon-addled Otis “Bad” Blake in Crazy Heart; Bradley Cooper’s bipolar lead in 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook. The winners, though, are white men (often in historical roles) who struggle valiantly against outside forces: Matthew McConaughey toes legal lines to provide AIDS medication to the masses in Dallas Buyers Club (2013); Daniel Day Lewis fights slavery and civil war in Lincoln (2012); Jean Dujardin finds his talents are rendered obsolete as technological advances drop the curtain on silent film in The Artist (2011); Sean Penn fights for gay rights as Harvey Milk in Milk (2008). While men are secure in their identity and sure of their convictions, women are neurotic, addled, manic; dangerously sexual (Amy Adams in American Hustle), ambiguously sexual (Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), self-consciously sexual (Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn), or struggling with their sexuality (Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs).

Life, of course, is messy, and it is art’s job to work out that chaos. None of this is to say that the stories mentioned here aren’t possible, plausible, or worth telling; certainly none of this is to say that the performances referenced aren’t outstanding. It is instead to wonder why we automatically conflate “lead” with “hero”; it is to question what we mean when we define a character as “strong”. It is a cliché to say that strength comes in all shapes and sizes: Certainly, Lisbeth Salander has strength as a rape survivor; Albert Nobbs has strength to live as a transgender man in 19th-century Ireland. As Amy Adams’ Sydney Prosser says, “we all do what we gotta do to survive”, and this gets at the complicated nature of the thing. The point is not at all that any one iteration of female “strength” is more admirable – more worthy of depiction on-screen – than another, but rather than our female characters consistently demonstrate one kind of strength while our male characters demonstrate another. Furthermore, when our female characters demonstrate stereotypically “male” strength – a kind of steely nerve and focused drive in the face of outside adversity, like Jessica Chastain’s CIA operative in Zero Dark Thirty or Sandra Bullock’s lost-in-space Ryan Stone in Gravity – they do not win the awards, which are again reserved for renditions of stereotypically-female hysteria (in these cases, Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook and Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, respectively).

These complications of storytelling are all exacerbated by Hollywood demographics : Overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly male (94% of Academy voters are white, and 76% are male). It is men who hold both the production and voting power, and so it is men who dictate the lives of these women-centered stories from conception to red carpet (this year, of the three films featuring female protagonists – Blue Jasmine, Gravity, and Philomena – all were written and directed by men). What results, then, is a man’s interpretation of a woman’s perspective – something that is in the best cases resultant of simple gender difference and in the worst cases informed by problematic personal relationships with women. Woody Allen – the elephant in the room at this year’s Oscars, particularly during Blanchett’s speech – consistently creates women in his own likeness (neurotic, flaky, cripplingly self-deprecating), a narrative technique reflective of his own deeply troubling relationship with the opposite sex; Martin Scorsese made a movie this year that – while claiming to be satire – repeatedly reinforced archetypes paradigmatic to rape culture (The Wolf of Wall Street was directed by Scorsese, written by Terence Winter, and among the five producers there was just one woman). It is not only that we should critically assess the roles, but that we should also scrutinize the writers and directors that produce them.

The conversation is difficult to navigate – and this is before we even delve into issues of race (Halle Barry remains the only black woman to win a Best Actress statue) or sexuality (Jodie Foster won both of her Oscars before coming out, and for portrayals of straight women). When we talk about feminism today, the popular dialogue is one oriented around choice and accountability – a woman should have the freedom and right to choose the direction of her life, but we must be held accountable for the feminist implications of our decisions. The mantra should extend to show business, where as both producers and consumers we should collectively seek more diverse roles and representations of women on-screen, and we should be constantly aware of the ways current depictions perpetuate both the gender gap and gender stereotypes. It is a matter of wondering whose story we’re really telling.


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26 Responses to “Strength” of Character: How the Silver Screen Perpetuates Gender Stereotypes

  1. Tim says:

    … 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.”

  2. Brian says:

    @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.

    • Tim says:

      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.

      • tigtog says:

        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.

    • Tim says:

      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.

  3. EG says:

    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.

    • EG says:

      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.

      • Lolagirl says:

        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 says:

    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 says:

    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”.

    • Tony says:

      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 says:

    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?

    • emily says:

      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.

    • Caroline says:

      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

      • emily says:

        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!

      • emily says:

        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.

      • EG says:

        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.

      • emily says:

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

      • EG says:

        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!

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