The Evolution Of Female Characters In Media
By Amber Topping
From the perception of female characters as sex objects (albeit with great power) in Greek mythology, the amalgamation of the ideal angelic figure mixed with the sexual deviant of medieval, the inferior representation of women in the Elizabethan Period, the layered characters of Victorian and the turn of the century (notwithstanding their oppression in society) to many of the independent female characters seen now, the representation of women in media has continuously evolved and will continue to do so. So where then do we stand today?
In the world of media, whether it is in literature, film, or television, female characterization is nowhere near the level it should be in a modern world where equality should no longer be an issue. Male characters have always come in a variety of types with no limits. With women, that’s still not always the case. Oftentimes, women play the girlfriends, the best friends, the exposition roles, the femme fatales, etc…But how often do we see female versions of the un-ambitious Vince Vaughn character types for instance? Not to mention the gender bias still permeating media, particularly in film.
What we often see are cute-as-a-button funny women, female characters who are merely sex objects, the outdated damsel in distress with no actual personality, or even women who can kick butt and never need a man to rescue them. Unfortunately, many of these female characters, unlike the male ones, do not always feel "real." Sure, I love a feisty, powerful woman who throws out witty one-liners as much as the next person but these shouldn’t be the "only" independent female characters we find in media. In real life, women come in all shapes and sizes, all careers, religions, and personalities. It would be ideal to finally see a greater representation of real women of every type in every aspect of media.
Gender Inequality In Film
Recently, the New York Film Academy presented statistics on “Gender Inequality in Film” based on the top 500 films between 2007 and 2012. The stats are more than a little discouraging. For instance, only 30.8% of speaking characters are women with a third of those characters wearing sexually revealing clothing. Shockingly, only 10.7% of the featured movies included a cast of an equal ratio between male and female characters. In all, there is nearly a 3:1 ratio of male to female actors.
Examples Of Great Female Characters
Yet despite the female stereotypes and gender inequality seen in media, no doubt there are great female characters out there. Consider the recent portrayal of Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone in the science fiction film Gravity. Bullock’s character is depicted as an intelligent, real human being who is vulnerable and even depressed, but also tough without possessing superhuman strength.
Or take a look at the character of Donna Noble in the BBC’s TV Series Doctor Who. An unlikely heroine, she’s a loud-mouthed woman with average looks in her 30s who desperately wants to get married, yet still lives at home with her overbearing mother because she hasn’t been able to figure out what she wants to do with her life. From the world’s perspective, she's a failure and feels like it. But as her character progresses and transforms, Donna finds herself along with inner strength, courage, and compassion for others. Again, she’s portrayed as very real: just plain human, flaws and all. Then of course, there’s Hermione Granger of the Harry Potter series who is smart, loyal, and brave. She falls in love with Harry’s best friend, Ron Weasley, but isn’t defined by it. Oftentimes, however, these examples of layered female characterizations aren’t as common as they should be.
Surprisingly, when it comes to the world of female characterization, much of literature in the late 18th century to the early 20th century was ahead of the game, though this is certainly not true for all. Many female characters were layered and diverse despite societal oppression. Just read Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte. Elizabeth Bennett and Jane Eyre remain some of the best female characters ever written, despite being created a couple hundred years ago. However, these characters are not great because they are strong physically; they’re great because they are real. They fit into their time period, yes, and can’t necessarily be understood with a modern lens (for instance, you can’t really expect a character by the Bronte sisters to think like we do in the 21st century). But that doesn’t make these characters any less authentic or any less developed as female characters.
Film History: The Damsel In Distress
As the film medium began to make traction in the early 20th century, female characterization took a step backward. In a time when women in America were finally getting the right to vote in 1920, women were regrettably being portrayed as objects on the big screen. In the early history of films, the woman was frequently portrayed as the literal stock character of the damsel in distress. They didn't have any real characterization behind them or depth. They were tied to train tracks if you will (though the literal image of the woman on the tracks wasn't as common as you might think), rescued by the hero at the last second and then rewarded with a marriage in the end. When the talkies were introduced, the damsel still remained (just look at Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), but intelligent women also began to appear more and more seen for example in characters played by Katherine Hepburn or Bette Davis.
As the feminist movement progressed throughout the 20th century, the portrayal of female characters on the big screen also changed. By the 1970s, the presentation of many female characters began to transform the image of the damsel in distress into something else entirely. Carrie Fisher said about her Star Wars character Princess Leia that, “I was not a damsel in distress. I was a distressing damsel.” This undermining of the damsel in distress became more and more popular through the ’80s till present day where it’s now become rampant. Today it’s quite common to find in media the model of the damsel in distress subverted into a distressed damsel who often does the rescuing (for example, in Ever After, when Danielle carries the prince away from danger). While this is a giant leap forward, it has also created another emerging dilemma of the modern female character.
Strong Female Characters
Instead of the damsel in distress, the representation of women went in the complete opposite direction. What started to happen in the 20th century was the creation of physically strong females. Writers seemed to assume that by making these women physically strong, the rest didn’t always matter. Does that mean there can’t be supernaturally tough women who are also three dimensional? Of course not. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a fantastic example of onscreen women who could be both strong and vulnerable. Unfortunately, it’s more common to find this other, one-dimensional representation of feisty female characters scantily clad than otherwise. This warrior woman has become another stock character just like the damsel in distress. And part of the issue is that we now have too many of these warrior women (three dimensional or not) and not enough regular ones. There needs to be a better balance.
Recently in an interview with Elle, Natalie Portman turned her thoughts on feminism to that of the characterization of female characters in Hollywood. She said, “I want every version of a woman and a man to be possible. I want women and men to be able to be full-time parents, or full-time working people, or any combination of the two. I want both to be able to do whatever they want sexually without being called names. I want them to be allowed to be weak and strong and happy and sad – human, basically. The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a ‘feminist’ story: The woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.”
Portman hits the nail on the head. There’s nothing wrong with writing a “weak” female character because some women are in fact weak. Or shy, murderous, lonely, an underachiever, or an overachiever. There should be every version of women presented in every form of media, whether written for literature, film, or television.
Which then brings me to my next point: It’s simply not realistic to portray ALL women as never needing to be saved because women must be strong wonder women who can do everything. Sometimes, it’s okay to be defenseless. There were some complaints for instance in the CW’s Arrow when Felicity Smoake (an intelligent female character who assists Oliver Queen on missions) was rescued by Oliver in the recent season two episode "State Vs Queen." But is it sexist to write a female character who gets rescued every once in a while when she herself also does some of the rescuing?
The evolution of the damsel in distress evolved into the distressed damsel, which then evolved into the damsel who always rescues herself, which leads to where “rescuing” in media actually works. And that’s equal-opportunity rescuing. Dana Scully and Fox Mulder from The X Files are the perfect example of what I mean by "equal-opportunity rescuing." As much as Mulder rescues Scully, Scully also rescues Mulder. What makes them modern is that they EQUALLY need each other. It's about equality rather than one being stronger or superior over the other. Not to mention that both characters were written brilliantly and above all else equally. Both Mulder and Scully felt real because they were both fully developed. Likewise, today it shouldn’t be about whether or not a man saves a woman in distress or vice versa, but about what happens with the character outside of said rescuing. Who are they as characters? Who are they as people?
A lovely example of a three-dimensional, modern-day female character is Miss Phryne Fisher from the Australian TV Series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. In many ways, she gets to play the role usually given to a man. She’s smart, witty, and can solve just about any case like a female Sherlock Holmes rather than the stereotypical warrior woman. But she is also a flawed individual who makes mistakes. Moreover, while Miss Phryne Fisher does most of the rescuing during her murder investigations, every once in a while she finds herself in a scrape that requires her companion and best friend Dot or love interest Detective Jack Robinson to come to the rescue. She’s a woman who is talented and resourceful, but she’s also a character with many sides, secrets, and demons. Above all, she feels human. Still, while the evolution of female characters in many ways has come a long way from the days of the silent film character of the damsel in distress, we haven’t come far enough.
The Greek Slave and Media Objectification
Take a look at "The Greek Slave" by Hiram Powers: a striking statue of a young, nude woman enslaved in chains with downcast eyes, a cross revealing her faith, and her hand attempting to cover herself to protect her dignity. The statue became one of the most popular works of art in the mid-19th century. In 1851, suffragist Lucy Stone came upon this statue in Boston and broke into tears. She saw it as a symbol of female oppression, and later that evening at an antislavery convention, she spoke out. In a way, this image inspired a revolution for women’s rights.
The power of this same enslaved woman as an image and symbol still works today. When women are presented as objects in media, just as the Greek woman is depicted to be by those selling her, they remain enslaved. Jessica Alba in an interview with Marie Claire said: “I had a show that premiered when I was 19 … And right away, everyone formed a strong opinion about me because of the way I was marketed. I was supposed to be sexy, this tough action girl. That's what people expected.” This objectification and these marketing tactics do not empower women. Women can own their sexuality without becoming the objects the suffragists fought against.
Taking Female Characters Forward
From NewStatesman, writer Sophia McDougal wrote an insightful piece titled "I Hate Strong Female Characters." She ends her article by answering the question of what she wants besides strong female characters. She states:
“I want a male:female character ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:1 on our screens. I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness. Badass gunslingers and martial artists sure, but also interesting women who are shy and quiet and do, sometimes, put up with others’ shit because in real life there’s often no practical alternative. And besides heroines, I want to see women in as many and varied secondary and character roles as men: female sidekicks, mentors, comic relief, rivals, villains … I want her to be free to express herself … I want her to have meaningful, emotional relationships with other women … I want her to be weak sometimes … I want her to be strong in a way that isn’t about physical dominance or power … I want her to cry if she feels like crying … I want her to ask for help … I want her to be who she is … Write a Strong Female Character? No.”
When it comes to the evolution of female characters, as far as they’ve come, they still have a long way to go. How female characters should evolve next is straightforward. Let them be real, always real. Don’t make it be about a message or even about feminism (by writing characters we empathize with feminism will naturally be addressed), because that takes away what’s real. Female characters have evolved to the point of becoming human. The next step is to allow them to actually BE human. So let’s continue to take female characters forward, not backward.