With roots laid during civil unrest and female rights marches in 1908 in the USA, International Women’s Day was established in 1911. After activism dipped in the years to follow it became less of an annual feature, but since the turn of the century renewed efforts worldwide, highlighting the inequality and dangers woman still face, has led to a resurgence for International Women’s Day, celebrated on March 8th. We take a look at how woman are portrayed in the movies, from stereotype to nuanced character.
Characters in fiction are one of the few ways that people can truly live out life in another’s shoes. Whether it’s the social nuances of the death industry combined with abandonment issues (Departures), the importance of acknowledging emotions (A Monster Calls, Inside Out), the madness of grief (The Others), teenagers developing maturity (MirrorMask), or fighting against stereotypes (Wreck-It Ralph): a well written character can make you feel beyond yourself.
But Hollywood, the movie making industry that still dominates globally, is still predominately male. Whilst is it not impossible for male directors and writers to create a well-rounded female character, being underrepresented in the industry has led many woman to struggle for fleshed out roles beyond plucky support or set dressing for the male character’s journey. Children need to see the full spectrum of the human condition on the big and small screens. To fail to do this runs the risk of a generation of boys growing up with skewed views on how to treat women and, perhaps worse, a generation of girls who have no role models worthy of aspiring to.
To put the problem into context; since the inauguration of the Oscars in 1929, only one woman has ever won ‘Best Director’ (Kathryn Biglow for 2010’s The Hurt Locker). A 2016 study by the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that over the past 17 years, for the top 250 grossing films only 11% of writers were women, 18% were editors, and an astonishingly low 7% female directors – a figure which has declined by 2% over the previous year to drop to the level last seen in 1998. Even with some strong efforts made to bring female leads to the blockbusters (congratulations to Star Wars for making not one, but both of their new entries female led in The Force Awakens and Rogue One), the statistics are frustratingly poor for the socially advanced times we live in. Which is why it is all the more important to celebrate movies that get female characters right – either by having female leads or by featuring strong female characters that exist beyond being defined only by the love interest or support of the male character.
That, in itself, can be tricky and subjective at times. When we examined movies we have reviewed previously we were drawn to such films as the rebooted Star Trek and Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, where both sides can be argued. On the plus, she’s shown to be strong-willed, she challenges male authority and she can separate her feelings from the task at hand. On the other, you could argue that after some initially punchy scenes (which could even have been pulled from the ‘how to create a strong woman’ Hollywood handbook), she ends the movie defined by the attraction of both Kirk and Spock and as resolution to their arc, rather than having any back story of her own. Both Kirk and Spock get background scenes to explain their personality. Uhura just has the default ‘tough’ setting. Yes, she’s tough, but she fails the infamous Bechdel test. She only talks to one other female character. And what do they bicker about? Men.
Ah, the Bechdale test. Once applied to a movie it is quickly apparent how often it isn’t met. For those who do not know, the Bechdel test asks whether a movie or book contains: 1) more than one female character, 2) who are named, 3) and talk to each other about something other than a male character. Of course, the test is very general and whilst it may not pick up on certain nuances of character it certainly highlights the importance of paying due respect to a female character that they can be believable and relatable outside of the male gaze.
The movies we have tagged with our ‘strong female character’ tag we feel meet these criteria or are written with enough depth to make them worthy of note: be they the mature beyond her years eponymous star, Coraline; the reluctant symbol of resistance in Katniss Everdeen; the brutally determined San in Princess Mononoke, or the fractured Grace Stewart in The Others. These are women or girls who are central to the story, lead the emotional core of the movie, and / or do justice to female characterisation. We’ve also tagged female leads for movies where woman are front and centre of the plot, driving the narrative.
We at Is This Movie Suitable raise a salute to International Women’s Day!
What do you think about the movies we have (or haven’t) chosen? Please let us know in the comments section!
Words by Mike Record