by Tessie Riggs
Sometimes life imitates art and at other times, art imitates life. It’s cool when you’re watching a movie about a magical school of witches, wizards and butter beer and then find out they exist in real life at Universal Studios. But it’s more of a bummer when you turn on the TV, surf the net, read magazines or go to the movies and all you see is women playing two dimensional roles – usually, bimbos and bitches.
This stereotyping of women is most predominant in horror films. The majority of horror audience members are thought to be heterosexual adolescent boys. So women are reduced to screaming, sexual objects who are then punished for their sexual freedom – a trend the torture porn phenomenon sadly exemplifies. The only girl allowed to survive (with major physical and psychological wounds) is the “final girl”: she is usually a virgin and only seems to stay alive by adopting stereotypically masculine characteristics, until she finds her man.
It seems women across film genres are usually stereotyped into one of two sexually defined roles: that is, the “madonna” or the “whore”. The “madonna” is a virgin – virtuous and loyal, and paradoxically, maternal. Her intelligence and strengths are usually given in service of helping others and proving their worth to male characters. The ”whore” on the other hand, is promiscuous, catty and jealous. A whore’s skills is usually exclusive to luring virtuous men away from their “madonna” and subsequently ruining these fine men (for no real apparent reason).
Yet, gender stereotypes are never one sided. Men are also given less than a fair shake in many films and television shows. Men are either stupid, inept husbands or boyfriends trapped by a cunning wife or girlfriend, or their characters are often reduced to stereotypical cruel businessmen who care little for the dainty or destructive female caricatures in their lives. The latter male archetype is primarily focused on winning financial or professional success over other males. It also seems that a recent response to the stereotyping and sexualisation of women is to do the same to men. Chris Pratt (in both Guardians of the Galaxy and more recently Jurassic World) and Aidan Turner (in his television show Poldark) immediately spring to mind, as examples of men we’ve felt righteous in sexualising.
Chris Pratt: Source https://www.flickr.com/photos/minglemediatv/14529003358/
But the answer to ending this stereotyping and sexualising isn’t to turn around and stereotype or sexualising a different group of people (whether they be male, LGBT or from other minority groups) even if it seems positive or praising. The answer is to treat all characters, whether villainous or heroic, as the people they are – each one motivated or deterred by their individual needs.
For the moment, at least, it seems that the mainstream media in North America, in small doses, is learning some lesson when it comes to women. We seem to be allowed access to the voices of more empowering and talented women. Actresses and comedians such as Melissa McCarthy, Laverne Cox and Amy Schumer immediately spring to mind. Well-rounded female characters are also on the rise, with equally strong men surrounding them. In television, we’ve got Orphan Black, a show where one woman plays upwards of five roles. Some are similar archetypes we’ve seen women play before: the angsty alternative rock chick, the cold brutal businesswoman and the anxiety ridden soccer mom. But many are roles women rarely get to play: the psychotic assassin, the transsexual drifter and -an audience favourite- the nerdy lesbian scientist who declared to general applause, “my sexuality is not the most interesting thing about me”.
We’ve also got Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a show that won great acclaim for its depiction of a woman who had been victimized but refused to be labelled as a victim. The character Kimmy Schmidt broke conventions with her love life, choosing the poor Asian immigrant over the rich white aristocrat. The show used humour to show off the ridiculousness of both sexual and cultural stereotypes without spoon feeding its audience lessons through unrealistically perfect women and men. “You know Disney lies to little girls” one of the show’s women declares, “Stepmothers aren’t scary, and nannies aren’t magical and dwarves do not let you sleep in their house without expecting something”.
Tina Belcher from Bob’s Burgers is a hilarious example of the destruction of female archetypes. Tina declares “I am sick of acting like a dumb, helpless girl just so a hot boy who dances his feelings will notice me. That’s not who I am. I’m a smart, strong, sensual woman” to which her crush eventually replies, “Strong girls are hot”.
In terms of tearing up female stereotypes on the big screen Mad Max: Fury Road was an unexpected crusader. What everyone expected to be a testosterone-fuelled two hour car chase turned out to be an estrogen-fuelled two hour car chase that was actually pretty damn awesome. Mad Max kept the action, the cars, the guns and the general badassery of its genre but (gasp!) added women, without I might add, messing with the integrity of the story. Charlize Theron rather than getting shunted into the role of the gorgeous blond bombshell (which she is more than equipped to play) got to play a role that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in an action movie. She was a shaven, greased up, badass amputee truck driver, sharp shooter and what’s more, was not the heartless bitch most active female characters are in action movies (see: Hitchcock’s icy blondes, James Bond villainesses and in more modern movies MaMa in Dredd and Gazelle in Kingsman Secret Service).
What I loved about Mad Max was that it demonstrated what I think is feminism’s most important (and sadly usually forgotten) aspect: the lesson that men and women are stronger when they work together as equals. Despite what many people (including the film’s rabid critics) seem to believe, feminism is not about declaring women the best sex and outlawing the rest. Rather, feminism is about saying women are equal to men. Some people are pretty, some are ugly, some are smart, some are stupid, regardless of gender.
While there is still a way to go to eliminate gender stereotypes and sexaulisation in television, films and the media, I’m hoping that things are changing. If we consider more carefully what we watch and listen to, we can have a life-art exchange we can be proud of.
What movies, television or radio shows do you think challenge gender stereotypes and provide role models that break the typical character mould?
This conversation is missing your voice. Comment below.
Tessie Riggs – I’m a white girl who was born and raised in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world (Toronto) and now am getting an even larger picture of the world. As far back as I can remember my parents would read to me everyday and planted a seed of bibliomania, the growth of which I don’t think even they could have predicted. I love books (the idea of carrying around another dimension in your pocket, to be peeked in and out of at your leisure) and thusly find myself in a major that I’m told laughingly will not in a million years land me gainful employment (English). As for beliefs, I believe that a sense of humour is essential in living one’s life, because if you can’t laugh you just might have to cry.
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