Clare Ziemer
Engl 331
Dr. Shea

Progression of Women in Film: On and Off The Camera

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The media is a pervasive and highly influential force that has been a main part of our society for years. Although some media is educational and important, most of it is full of stereotypes and distortions. Films are one of the great storehouses of society’s stereotypes about women (Blewett). Women are shown in a certain light that affects our beliefs on the roles of that gender. The media imposes a kind of pressure on all ages to act and look in a particular way. While the media still holds on to stereotypical roles, it has been progressing through the decades by defying those roles to a certain degree. I decided to take a look at the advancement of women in film and analyze the different progressions through the ages.

Women as an Audience
The men of the late 19th and early 20th century were viewed by society as the income earners and women took care of the finances of the household. They were in charge of controlling those finances to buy what the family needed to survive. As a result of industrialization of urban areas, more women started to leave their home and work in factories. These new jobs provided women with more disposable income for leisure activities. As film popularity increased, theater owners wanted to go after the middle-class women to legitimize their own industry, because the majority of their audience at the time was working class men. They sought after the middle-class women because the women chose what to do with their disposable income.

“The middle-class supposedly emulated the tastes of the upper-class, and then passed these values and behaviors on to lower-class women, something social reformers viewed as positive. As a result, theater owners, film producers, and social reformers concentrated on their middle-class female customers as they sought to reshape the image of movies and theaters as tasteful, safe leisure activities.” (Women in Film, NWHM)

Theater owners then thought to hire women to work in the ticket booths to demonstrate that going to the movies were a safe activity. After women won the right to vote in 1920, sparked the beginning of the era of the “New Woman,” who was urban, young and independent. Hollywood greatly influenced and helped shape the new image, which in turn inspired young women to be like the women they saw on screen.

Women Behind the Camera
Prior to the 1930’s, Hollywood had provided many opportunities for women to work both on camera and behind the camera. Many studios had female directors and screenwriters that created some of the most popular movies of the period. Alice Guy Blache is credited the first female director who helped to shape the early film industry. She mentored Lois Weber, who was another one of the most famous female directors. Theater owners loved the idea of incorporating more women behind the scenes because movies directed by women carried greater moral weight. For example, Weber came from a middle-class household, with religious values; she had a stable marriage and embraced motherhood. By having these morals, audiences elevated her films to a higher standard. During the 1920s and 30s women were starting to be crowded out of directing positions. There was an increasing gender difference that started to be more pronounced and that is what caused edging female directors out of the business. Many women turned to screenwriting and were welcomed because the writing departments of the studios were always an anonymous job. Just as these women helped shaped film behind the scenes, actresses played a vital role in the development of film. However, as women’s roles in society started progressing, filmmakers became more comfortable featuring stronger women on the big screen.

Depiction of Women in Film
Traditionally in film, women are portrayed as the typical housewife or needy and subservient. However, as women’s roles in society started progressing, filmmakers became more comfortable featuring stronger women on the big screen. Virtues that were defined for women in the early 19th century seemed to be virtues directors wanted their women actresses to play on screen. These virtues are pity, purity, domesticity and submissiveness. These virtues were prominent in the film Way Down East by D.W. Griffith in 1920. This film was made the same year women won the right to vote, thus being the culmination of a century’s agonizing struggle for political equality (Blewett). Griffith’s main character Anna is the classic female victim. She is hopelessly naïve and passive and her life is shaped by powerful men. This was an immensely popular film and is a perfect example of the way traditional ideas about women were reinforced in the public by the new film media (Blewett). As the years go on, movies show women as sexual bait for marriage, the source of trouble in relationships with men, only good for child bearing and must not show dominance over their husband in any way or there will be issues. Now, women are usually the recipients of beatings or sexual assault and typically known as the damsel in distress. Most of the time, audiences see women as dumb or silly and are always obsessing over boys. They are dependent and always need a man to come and rescue them. Women are constantly objectified in film, which brings a pressure for the younger generation to look exactly like the actresses with perfect bodies. Audiences are taught that this is what you must look like in order to find true love and the perfect “prince.”

Role Reversal
Throughout different films the audience will see the occasional role reversal. Fargo (1996) is a perfect example of women switching roles. Marge Gunderson is one of the main characters in this production. She defies the typical gender role by being the breadwinner for her family while her husband stays home and paints. Even her job is a stereotypical “man’s job.” She is a cop pursuing a murder while being quite pregnant. Her husband makes breakfast for her every morning before she goes to work and he takes care of the household duties while she is off working hard. At the end, she takes part in a shoot out with the murderer and ends up saving the day. Aside from being pregnant, Marge takes on the role a man would usually play and shows that women are capable of doing these things. The advancement of women’s roles in film is one of the first steps to their advancement in society.

Slowly But Surely
Again, the 1920s and the years following centered on women being pure, submissive, domestic and pitied. In 1962, the first of the Bond movies was produced. As the movies kept coming along, audiences familiarized themselves with the ‘Bond girl.’ This girl was objectified, seductive, and powerless and played Bond’s love interest. Of course, the girl would usually die in the end because Bond could never be tied down to one girl. This ‘Bond girl’ brought a male audience that wanted more than some action and car chases. This is just one of the lights women appeared to be under in the film industry. On the other side, women were shown as the perfect housewife, like in the hit series I Love Lucy and Leave It to Beaver, as well as many films. They were responsible for their house and taking care of the children. The wife would have dinner prepared every night for her husband when he came home from a long day of work. And of course one must not forget the great Disney movies that make every little girl swoon.

Progression of Disney Movies
Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty are three of the oldest princess movies, being produced in the 1930s and 50s. They centralize on the traditional gender characteristics; such as, helpful, affectionate, fearful, troublesome, tentative, and described as pretty (England, Descartes, Collier-Meek). Not to mention, each princess has a pale complexion, small waists, delicate limbs and full breasts. They look very close to perfect. If there is any slight trace of assertiveness, it is seen towards animals or children. The princess was rarely seen asserting herself with the prince. Also, the first three princesses were shown doing domestic work throughout the movies. By the middle movies of the 80s and 90s (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Mulan), Disney no longer portrayed the princesses doing domestic work. These middle aged princesses still had many feminine characteristics, but were progressively taking on some masculine traits as well. Ariel in The Little Mermaid was the first princess to start to challenge the traditional roles. She promoted the idea of exploring and showed independence and assertiveness.
Then finally, Merida, the Brave princess refreshes us as a very brave, bold, daring, courageous, stubborn, rebellious and headstrong girl who does not fit the stereotypical princess role. She is one of the most skilled archers ever seen who is also skilled in sword fighting and racing her horse across the countryside.

In the past couple Disney movies, a woman is not only the main character, but also the hero. She does not depend on a man to help her solve the problem. The Disney princesses were once the epitome for a damsel in distress but are now evolving into powerful women with no need for a man. This independence is also starting to show in recent films such as The Hunger Games has a strong female lead that takes charge. Katniss Everdeen is the epitome of independent and strong. She makes Pita, the guy she is competing with, look like a complete wimp. Women in film are defying the stereotypes and traditional roles, which is playing an important role in the growth of our society and development in the future.

Today’s Stats
Jeff Smith, a worker for Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy, conducted a film study looking at the 72 top films of 2012. He took a closer look and narrowed it down to 67 lead characters in different films. Of those 67 characters, 55 were men and 12 women. Men are still dominating the screen today; however, women have been on the rise and will continue to grow and progress in film.

In another study, conducted by the New York Film Academy, looked at the top 500 films between 2007 and 2012 to find that women filled only 30.8 percent of the speaking parts and that only 10.7 percent of movies featured an equal balance between male and female characters (Sarkas).

Brenda Chapman became the first woman director to win an Oscar for an animated feature with Brave. Women have accounted for only 9 percent of directors in Hollywood in the last five years, the same number as in 1998. In the entire 86-year history of the Academy Awards, only four women have every been nominated for best director: Lina Wertmuller for Seven Beauties, Jane Campion for The Piano, Sophia Coppola for Lost in Translation and Kathryn Bigelow, the only female ever to win the Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker. And all this in a country where women purchase half the cinema tickets on sale annually (Earl).

Women are undoubtedly still under-represented in film but are in a far better position than they have ever been (Fox).

Works Cited

"Women in Film." Women in Film. National Women's History Museum, n.d. Web. 07 May 2014.

Blewett, Mary. "Women In American History: A History Through Film Approach." Film & History (03603695) 4.4 (1974): 12-20. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 7 May 2014.

England, Dawn, Lara Descartes, and Melissa Collier-Meek. "Gender Role Portrayal And The Disney Princesses." Sex Roles 64.7/8 (2011): 555-567. SocINDEX with Full Text. Web. 7 May 2014.

Fox, Olivia J, Jane Earl, and Costas Sarkas. "Are Womens’ Voices In Film More Powerful Than 60 Years Ago?." Index On Censorship 43.1 (2014): 181-185. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 7 May 2014.

Smith, Jeff, and Chloe Beighley. "Normalizing Male Dominance: Gender Representation in 2012 Films." Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy. N.p., 12 Feb. 2013. Web. 06 May 2014.

Zimmerman, Debra, and Patricia1,2,3 White. "Looking Back And Forward: A Conversation About Women Make Movies." Camera Obscura 28.82 (2013): 146-155. Art Source. Web. 7 May 2014.