Female Presence in Movies: An (Unpopular?) Opinion

As an avowed feminist and Cinema Studies student, I care about the presence of women in film. I hope that that much would be obvious. However, I think that presence is only part of the equation. In fact, I think it is the less important factor, compared to the representation of women.

Case Study 1: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, also known as The Worst Movie Of The Year

This movie was an absolute pile of shit. I don’t even want to give it the dignity of this minuscule internet footprint, but I think it’s an important illustration of my argument. A ridiculous script and generally terrible filmmaking aren’t anything special, of course. I’ve seen plenty of bad movies that I’ve promptly forgotten and moved on from. This movie raises my ire because of its piss-poor representation of women. The two female roles in the film are both “supporting” to the utmost degree: the first is the main character’s girlfriend, the second, his mother. The former is little more than an animated doll: pretty in the background, trotted out to awkwardly create the opportunity for plot development (Surprise! I’m conveniently pregnant! Now I’ll just disappear for the entire next act! ). The latter is a dumb, unlucky real estate agent who does little more than beg her son for money. These women are played by Carey Mulligan and Susan Sarandon! Academy Award nominees! (Multiple nominee and winner in Sarandon’s case.) These women are incredible actresses capable of range and nuance and profundity. What the hell is happening here?

So here is my (somewhat) controversial claim: some films would be better without their female roles. Now, hear me out. In the case of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, nothing would have salvaged it. But I can think of several good movies that fit the mold I suggest here. Take The Social Network, for example. It would have undoubtedly been a better movie without perpetuating the Slutty Asian Girl stereotype (a sexist/racist double-whammy! I keep hoping Edward Saïd will rise from the grave and write a follow-up to Orientalism called Whoreientalism).

I’m not advocating less female presence. I just hate being pandered to with terrible, demoralizing representations of them. I think it is more destructive to have poor representations and weakly-developed characters than to have none at all.

Case Study 2: Band of Brothers

One of my favourite tv series is Band of Brothers – over ten hours worth of episodes with only one female speaking role (at least if my memory serves me well – correct me if I’m wrong). It makes sense for the story; after all, there weren’t many women on the front lines of WWII Europe. But even with one speaking role in Episode 6, the show gives us Renee, a strong and driven Belgian nurse almost single-handedly running a make-shift hospital.

Of course we need a stronger female presence in American cinema. Emphasis on stronger. I believe in quality over quantity. Two of this year’s Academy Award Nominees for Best Picture are female-written, female-directed stories of strong, nuanced, imperfect, real women: The Kids are All Right and Winter’s Bone. I’d rather have a few of these films per year than a whole slate of shitty rom-coms.

But you know what I would most prefer? Hundreds of these films per year. A lady can dream, right?

5 thoughts on “Female Presence in Movies: An (Unpopular?) Opinion”

  1. Yes, I couldn’t agree more. Lately I feel like all movies, IF they have women in them, then they are portrayed negatively. Yes, I understand women can be terrible people too. But how come that’s all I seem to see? If they’re not horrible then they’re saintly (not human) or some version of a manic pixie dream girl.

    1. I feel the same way.
      The thing is, I don’t want/need all female characters to be shining examples of perfection. That’s just as unrealistic as them all being omg, hot slutz . I just want complicated characters. Developed characters. Nuanced characters. I think a great example of this is Patty Hewes on Damages . She’s a mean, manipulative, fairly reprehensible character; but at least she’s a well-developed one!

  2. I would read the shit out of Whorientalism.

    I agree with you that the representation of women on screen is easily as important as the number of women we see, but I don’t think either side is more important than the other. If we had more women, it would matter less how significant any one role is — we’d have more room for the same number of empty, ridiculous parts that men get. (Not that I’m advocating for terrible parts for any gender.)

    Is it sad that I haven’t seen either of your examples?

    1. I’ve seen both “The Kids Are All Right” and “Winter’s Bone”, and it’s hard to say, “Go see them! They’re awesome!” Not because it isn’t true–they’re both totally incredible movies–but because they were both so damned hard to watch. I sobbed through both of them. If you aren’t married, “The Kids Are All Right” might be fine, but as a married woman, watching a movie about the death of a marriage was incredibly sad and heart-wrenching. It was so good that it hurt to watch it. And “Winter’s Bone”? Dear God, every scene made that poor girl’s life more difficult, more devastating, and more traumatizing to watch.

      All of that said, they were both incredible movies, and you should probably see them. Just bring a box of tissues with you. And maybe a friend who is generous with hugs.

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