There is a lot of conversation about ending the marginalization of women in Hollywood. Historically, Hollywood’s representation of women has been through her relationship to a man as mother, temptress, or wife. The early 1930s saw a pause in this standard and since that time a handful of women have risen above it but Hollywood is still imbalanced and patriarchal in its representation of women. I want to see Hollywood produce films showing women and men defining themselves through their individual struggles, successes, joys.
In the early 1930s Hollywood produced films where women set their own value apart from a man and found independence in their desires and goals. They were showed in a sympathetic light when faced with the struggles that a modern world brought upon them. Heroines like Garbo in Queen Christina, Mae West in She Done Him Wrong, and Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus all defined themselves through their actions.
In this era of Hollywood, women were less likely to be defined by association with a man. Molly Haskel, author of From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, sums up the freedom of the female in this time. “[In films before 1934] Women were entitled to initiate sexual encounters, to pursue men, even to embody certain ‘male’ characteristics without being stigmatized as ‘unfeminine’ or ‘predatory'”. The patriarchal lens which women were viewed was briefly set aside and female led films dominated the box office.
However this changed in 1934 when a code of ethics was strictly enforced inhibiting any lewd or immoral content to be shown in a positive light. And women, particularly the sexually emancipated woman, were considered every sort of immoral. The value of a woman was in her role for a man: wife, mistress or mother. Since that time women have risen above this standard, women like Oprah Winfrey in The Color Purple, Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice, and Sigourney Weaver in Alien to name just a few. These women paved paths for more women to reset the standard of the representation of women on screen.
Yet despite this forward movement Hollywood still follows a patriarchal standard. “As an actress”, Jessica Chastain said in an interview after her 2014 Golden Globes win, “you’re used to being defined by a man…you get scripts where you are defined by the man [where] you’re the girlfriend”. There have certainly been exceptions to this and more and more of them are emerging in Hollywood. Recent films have seen strong female centered performances such as Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl, Julianne Moore in Still Alice, Reese Witherspoon in Wild, Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night, Amy Adams in Big Eyes, Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games, Shailene Woodley in Divergent, and Angelina Jolie in Maleficent.
Even with this list, a recent study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film shows that the variety and number of women’s roles in Holywood has actually dropped. “In 2014, females comprised 12% of protagonists, 29% of major characters, and 30% of all speaking characters in the top 100 grossing films. Gender stereotypes remained abundant in last year’s films. Female characters were younger than their male counterparts, and were more likely to be identified solely by personal life-related roles such as wife, mother and girlfriend”, writes Dr Martha M. Lauzen. Although there is discussion about the need for more diverse female characters, it doesn’t seem to have affected the actual number or quality of women’s roles in film.
Women in Hollywood are continuing to speak out to reset this archaic viewpoint. Cate Blanchett, in her 2014 Oscar acceptance speech, said, “…and perhaps those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films, with women at the center, are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them and in fact the earn money. The world is round, people!” And Patricia Arquette’s acceptance speech at the 2015 Oscars was met with overwhelming applause, “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America”.
Yet let us understand that men are not the enemy to be conquered nor are they are each to blame. In this frame of mine, let us create opportunities in film for women to show their kaleidoscope of emotions, strengths, talents and dreams. There are certainly obstacles in the way to resetting the standard, yet we can support and educate and help one another along the way. I want to see Hollywood set a standard for films that allow women and men to define themselves through their actions and character.
Ways to become involved in resetting the representation of women in Hollywood:
Follow and get involved in the Dove Campaign for Girls Self Esteem
Plug into the Women’s Media Center for news, articles and stats on Women in Media
Become involved with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
Chime for Change is an organization co-founded by Beyonce Knowles, Salma Hayek and Frida Giannini with partner Gucci parfum that seeks to change the lives of women around the world. On their site you can educate yourself on the many ways to support and change the world for women.
Check out this brief list of upcoming and current films directed by women:
Pitch Perfect 2 directed by Elizabeth Banks with Anna Kendrick out May 15
Selma directed by Ava DuVernay. In Theaters Now
Serena by Susanne Bier with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper out February 26
Hot Pursuit directed by Anne Fletcher with Sofia Vergara and Reese Witherspoon out May 8
Demain co-directed by Melanie Laurent. French release in December 2015