“Why do you have to make everything a Feminist Issue?” The Representation of Women in Film and Television

The other day I was chatting to someone about films, specifically the new trend for “reboots”. Though I think the recasting of old classics like Mad Max and Ghostbusters with female leads is a step in the right direction, the concept of just resurrecting a franchise form the 90s isn’t the ideal solution for the lack of strong female protagonists in mainstream entertainment. Why do we need to make a “female version” of an existing film? Are there no writers around who can create a NEW independent female character? Why does Hollywood think that for a film with a woman as lead need to piggyback on an existing franchise?

Apparently I was “overreacting”. By the way, do y’all not think I speak a lot in “air quotes”?

“Why can’t you just enjoy something for what it is? Why does everything have to be a feminist issue? Can’t a film just be a film?”

Well, in a word, no. Why does my questioning of the representation of women in film and television make people uncomfortable? It really isn’t a lot to ask for some original female characters in entertainment that aren’t just a foil for a male protagonist’s character arc, or a two-dimensional love interest. The very fact that my questioning the lack of female representation is a point of contention is a giant glaring reason why we SHOULD be having this discussion.

Role Models

Everybody has aspirations. We aspire to achievements in our personal and our professional lives. We want that new job, that promotion, those accolades or that award. As women, we are slowly but surely realising that we can be anything and do anything we set our minds to. Some of the things we take for granted our mothers and grandmothers would never have believed to be possible.

My mother was the first woman amongst her peers to choose a job over marriage and starting a family. She didn’t get married until she was well into her 40s, she didn’t choose to live off her family like some of her cousins, and she *gasp* held down a job for over two decades before she decided to have me. There were no role models for her back then, she was thought of as a bit of a weirdo for not choosing the path most normal.

When young girls see women in film and on television doing incredible things, whether it’s fight vampires or invent something that saves the world, it teaches them that anything is possible. Before Buffy, it was implied that in the case of a vampire attack, we women should just sit tight and wait until our male hero made it round to save us from the blood-sucking fuckers. Our role used to be the damsel in distress. Buffy taught us that we could be the ones kicking butt instead. Chances are we probably won’t ever need to save humanity from fangs, but the message is still the same.

Showing women in a positive role that goes against gender stereotypes is so important. Teaching this to children is essential, because what we learn at a young age sticks with us. Telling women that the only option for advancement in their careers is to just be a version of an existing male role really isn’t ideal.

Intersectionality is so important

There’s been a bit of an outcry about how these reboots with a female cast have “ruined” a beloved franchise. Mad Max: Fury Road. Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Ghostbusters. Fragile masculine egos have been damaged irreparably by the casting of *gasp* women in leading roles not as wife, girlfriend, mother or sister. I mean all the original films already featured women, right? Whoever would we need more women?

First of all, in my opinion both the Star Wars franchise and Ghostbusters were on pretty shaky ground before these films came out. I believe Jar Jar Binks and those ill-fated prequels fucked up Star Wars way more than casting a female lead in Episode VII could ever do, and Ghostbusters 2 was pretty shit. I can see why the directors decided to inject something fresh to the mix, and if that means a woman (or women) in the leading roles? That can only be a good thing. However it feels a bit like just a cursory nod to what the film industry has needed for a long time, rather than addressing the problem at its core.

There is no shortage of original material and film adaptations of books. A quick search on IMDB shows 400+ films that came out in the past year, so if you discount the obvious sequels, prequels, and the big franchises, there is still a staggering number of mainstream films released in a 12-month period, yet only about 12% (in 2014) of protagonists are women. We are chronically under-represented, and even when we are featured at all, we are only shown as young and white. Yes I’m pulling out the intersectionality card. Women of colour are even more woefully under-represented in film than the already ridiculously low numbers of white women. Oh and this is before opening up that can of worms of ageism in the entertainment industry. Have you ever noticed a woman over the age of 40 in a leading role where she wasn’t portrayed as someone’s granny? What about someone with grey hair? Men like George Clooney and Harrison Ford have no problems scoring huge roles though, and I don’t recall ever hearing someone slate Han Solo or Luke Skywalker for “not aging well”. There’s that male gaze kicking in. A woman in a leading role needs to be pretty to look at, whereas a man in a leading role? Not so much.

Women make up roughly have the viewing demographic of films, yet we are expected to accept far less than half the representation. The film industry is in desperate need of diversity. We want characters we can identify with, and the lack of strong and independent women doesn’t help. Teaching young women that their only possible role is as a lesser version of something a man has already done is so harmful. Why do we need to even be a “version” of a man?

Why can’t we just be our own, fabulous, fantastic female selves?








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