Breaking the stereotype
There will always be stereotypes in film. However in recent years female artists have called for something previously unheard of in the media industry; equality. And on it the face of it, it seems to be working. We’ve all seen some incredible progress since Tarana Burke first coined the phrase “Me Too” in 2006.
In the decade since, we’ve seen a wave of films with main roles for women who aren’t simply relegated to foolish damsels or nagging wives. Films such as The Hunger Games trilogy, Red Sparrow, Atomic Blonde, and Beauty and The Beast all feature women in the lead roles in a way rarely explored.
Women in lead roles
These big budget features have been received with a sigh of relief and it seems that the powers that be in the arts are responding to the need for women in lead roles. And whatever the other flaws of these films, I tended to agree. However, in my research for this piece I started looking at the way these female characters are written. They check the box of the most publicly paraded traits a women should have; the need for independence, strength, and an unwillingness to have a man make their decisions. Ultimately however, their lives still revolve around male characters. Even in Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron’s self-aware character is still defined by her gender in ways that wouldn’t have even been a question if she were male; a male lead wouldn’t have a same-sex relationship for viewer’s titillation for example.
Ostensibly the fact that these women lead the show means progress, but the problem here is that roles are being written for women because they’re women. And, although generally the amount of speaking roles for women has increased, the statistics for them taking lead roles are still hugely disproportionate. In 2016 29% of the 100 highest grossing films had female protagonists. Even with the amount of media attention surrounding the need for equality in the arts, this dropped to just 24% in 2017. Combine this information with the characters they’re churning out; Belle (Beauty & The Beast), Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), Dominika Egorova (Red Sparrow) are all still limited in their scope and development. They’re built as recipients of the male gaze, just with a few more lines.
It’s a fallacy to think women in film need to be stronger and smarter than men to be their equals. Women are allowed to have flaws, vices and act out. Let me take one of the massive hits this year; The Black Panther. Let me also caveat these next statements by saying I enjoyed the film immensely. It’s a movement towards racial equality in film previously unheard of, a primarily black cast with no negative historical connotations. However, at no point do the women make their own contribution to the storyline or development. Their hardships and trials, whilst many, revolve around the men in their life. The men propel the plot; we move with them through their struggles and focus in on their hopes. The female characters are sidekicks and stereotypes; the wise mother, the independent love interest and the ass-kicking best friend. We’ve seen them all time and time again and at times, it feels like the (male) writer and director have thrown in physical strength in order to bypass men and women sharing the screen with any real equal footing. As with Atomic Blonde and The Hunger Games, the main female characters are elevated to have the same physical strength and will to fight as the men. This feels like a quick, and unnecessary, fix to a more deep-rooted issue.
Of course, this isn’t always true. In the past few years the representation of black females in film has seen some beautiful, heart-breaking roles. Viola Davies in Fences and Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe as the three leads in Hidden Figures. (If you haven’t watched Hidden Figures, do so immediately. Trust me.) These roles have an honest strength in their characters, which doesn’t need to draw on artificially enhanced traits to paint a version of equality.
Is going gender blind the answer?
Part of the way we can address this is to employ a recent trend of the theatre; gender blind casting. There has been a spike in female actors taking on traditionally male Shakespearean roles of late; Fiona Shaw as Richard II, Maxine Peake as Hamlet and the magnificent Glenda Jackson as King Lear. This movement feels like a natural progression of staging Shakespeare in the modern age. Shakespeare rebels against any gender conformity by its nature; male actors playing female characters who dress up as men for fun or disguise. Well, now that we have real women on the stage, why would the reverse not work just as well?
Gender blind casting is becoming increasingly common in theatre, now extending beyond Shakespeare. What would happen if we brought this to the film industry? Gender blind casting doesn’t mean changing the role in anyway, it simply means casting without any thought as to which sex takes the part. The character stays the same, with the possible exception of the name and a few personal pronouns. Just imagine women had a crack at some of film’s greatest roles; it’s Norma Bates who terrifies in Psycho, or Harriet Potter as ‘the child who lived’?
The possibilities are endless, and perhaps women taking on some the roles originally written for men will draw attention to the limitations of current female roles. I’ve certainly got my fingers crossed.