The F Word

Arts & Culture Editor Ruth Ní Leannachain examines the way women are presented in cinema today.

Long gone are the days when the word feminism struck fear into the hearts of the public – now it it seems to be everywhere. Newspapers and magazines like The Guardian, Vice and Elle are giving the topic 2 page spreads, blogging sites like Tumblr are inundated with ‘Femblogs’ questioning women’s roles in society, and the once shocking Lena Dunham is on the cover of Vogue. Even mainstream musicians, who may have shuddered at the thought of being pigeonholed as ‘hairy men haters’ are jumping on the bandwagon. Suddenly being a feminist is kind of cool. While the version of feminism we’re exposed to, the kind that comes flashing on our televisions and computers may be simplified and problematic in itself, the fact still remains-feminism is no longer an outdated word for burning your bra. It seems like every aspect of our liberal society is joining in, but in the last few months, with the impending releases of a plethora of critically acclaimed films, one cannot help but notice an alarming trend. While the rest of the media wants to utilize feminism, film just can’t keep up.

The film industry has never been overly concerned with gender equality. The  majority of blockbuster movies and cult classics are based around white, western men, with minorities and women as their sidekicks, there simply to fill in whatever gap has been left by the handsome, strong, and all round admirable lead. If this sounds extreme, look at the arguments and statistics. While a poor representation of women in video games has long been blamed on a majority male fan base but  men make up only 35% of the cinema audience. Despite this fact, it’s men who were cast as protagonists for the 25 biggest movies of 2013. Unfortunately, the outlook doesn’t seem much better for the future, because while the last few months have already been praised for the high standard of film, with The Oscars, The Globes and The Screen Actors’ Guild awards struggling to choose between indie romance, hard hitting , and simply outrageous, most of the nominees are still lacking dimension when it comes to strong female roles.

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The film industry has never been overly concerned with gender equality. The majority of blockbuster movies and cult classics are based around white, western men, with minorities and women as their sidekicks.


For lack of female roles and a poor depiction of women, look no further than The Wolf of Wall Street, praised as one of the best films of the season, has somehow avoided the public outcry that Robin Thicke made famous. Women exist in the film only as accessories to further enhance their male counterparts’ stories. It’s 3 hours of wife replacing wife, disposable hookers and one sided characters who are simply incapable of saving their husbands from drug abuse and excess and as a result are portrayed as almost helpless. Even the single female broker with lines, who works alongside the boys appears only to talk about the great deed Jordan Belfort did for her, saving her from her poor life and giving her everything. The Wolf of Wall  Street is fast, exciting and amoral, and because of that, the misogyny seems ‘of the time’ and acceptable even though it’s set in the early 90s, however, The Wolf of Wall Street succeeds in making women commodities and celebrates gender stereotypes.

All is not lost, however, because not all of this seasons award grabbers are void of female roles. Jennifer Lawrence has been widely praised for her role in American Hustle, almost stealing the show from her cast mates, not only is Lawrence a critically claimed actress who has been grabbing strong female roles left right and centre, but she’s a feminist herself, having discussed at length, the dangers of the media. Despite this, however, American Hustle too falls short, creating female leads who are concerned primarily with men and who are portrayed as back stabbing and catty.

The most famous dissection of sexism in film comes in the form of the Bechdel test, which states that to pass, a film must have at least two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. The Bechdel test sounds like it sets the bar low, but when one considers that The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Star Wars movies, and all but one of the Harry Potter movies fail this test, it’s painfully obvious that there is something rotten in the state of Hollywood. In fact, this is a tactic currently being used by the Danish government to cut down on misogyny in movies.  The Danish government have even attempted to introduce the test as a way of rating popular films and as a way to encourage writers, directors, and producers to examine their work more closely for sexism and dangerous female stereotypes.

At any rate at which the movie industry is going, it seems that equality in ‘real life’ will come faster than it will in the cinemas. While society seems to have moved away (even if only ever so slightly) from sexism of the past, films are much slower to lose their roots and the depiction of females as man obsessed and one dimensional characters are still being excused because it’s what we’ve become so accustomed to, desensitised to, and most worryingly, used to. While it seems extremist to ask for a total overhaul of the industry or quotas to ensure women are portrayed as human beings. But the fact is, women are more complex than just crying into their ice-cream after a break-up, or spending their lives as ‘cold hard bitches, who get shit done’ only to be later ‘saved’ by the love of a good man and this should be reflected in the cinema. Without strong female role models we risk teaching generation after generation that women are not leading roles, their support acts.