Quickhit: How Hollywood made its heroines weight-obsessed and man mad

From the Guardian/Observer:

Hollywood heroines are being increasingly portrayed as neurotic, idiotic and obsessed by men, weight and weddings, a professor at Oxford University has claimed.

Dr Diane Purkiss, who is a fellow at Keble College, argued that over the past five decades the film industry has made its female characters “dumber and dumber”. The latest slew of chick-flicks, including He’s Just Not That Into You and Confessions of a Shopaholic, fall prey to the “worst kind of regressive, pre-feminist stereotype of misogynistic cliche,” she added.

Dr Purkiss believes that much of this shift in portrayals is to do with the shift in the moviegoing demographic away from the pre-WW2 predominance of women consumers, meaning that Hollywood back then had to care what women thought about how women were portrayed. Now that young men make up the bulk of moviegoers, pandering to simplistic views on women doesn’t hurt Hollywood at the box office, so Hollywood has got sloppy.

But Hollywood is not entirely to blame, according to Purkiss, who claims studios are tapping into the real-life problems facing contemporary women. “When feminists had hope that they might achieve an equal playing field between the sexes, female protagonists on screen were grittier, gutsier and courageous. Now women are gloomier about feminism’s ambitions, so it’s a relief to temporarily visit a world where the biggest problem is what dress to wear.”

Another analyst, Melissa Silverstein, believes that Hollywood has got more than sloppy, that the male-dominated industry is actively pandering to the male audience by creating “women [characters who] titillate male audiences on the least challenging, most obvious of levels”.

Silverstein believes women need to take some responsibility for the way they are portrayed on screen. “We’re complicit in going to see these films. There are films being made about women that don’t focus on shopping, boyfriends and weight loss,” she said, highlighting Kelly Reichardt’s award-winning film Wendy and Lucy, which will be released in the UK next month. “Women need to support those films showing women in a more complex way.”

At the very end, a glimmer of hope?

But box-office analyst Jeff Bock is more optimistic about the selling power of strong female characters. He said the successes of the film version of Sex and the City and Mamma Mia! had been “a game-changer”. “These are industry-changing performances,” he said. “We’ve awoken a sleeping giant.”


Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism

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20 replies

  1. I’d classify such characters that are major plot protagonists as “anti-heroes” rather than “heroines”.

  2. This is nothing new. Molly Haskell was making the same argument in her book published in the ’70s ‘From Reverence to Rape’, tracing the representation of women in films from the ’20s to the ’70s. All the valorisation of the maverick male in the ’70s as exemplified by de Niro, Pacino and Nicholson and started by Brando in the ’50s, did actresses little good. They got to be the wife and the girlfriend. Think of Diane Keaton in ‘The Godfather’ films, or Carrie Fisher in the ‘Star Wars’ films.
    Undoubtedly it’s because in the ’30’s and ’40’s the key cinema audience was women and this was reflected by the fact that most of the important film stars were women. Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard,Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Arthur, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers, Jean Arthur, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Irene Dunne, Doris Day, Lana Turner, Gene Tierney, Lucille Ball, Vivien Leigh, Lauren Bacall, Claudette Colbert, Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth. The list goes on.
    Films were designed around them because that’s what audiences wanted to see. Now the key audience is teenage boys and films reflect this.
    I actually don’t think it’s due to the ‘failures’ of feminism. More likely due to the the failure of studio executives who are too lazy and insecure to think through how to engage with other audiences. As one told me ‘you don’t have try hard to get kids out of the house and into the multiplex. Any excuse will do. But it’s much harder to get to adult audiences, so why bother?’

  3. I think that main characters who are kind of losers appeal to audiences because we can kind of relate to them. We’ve had male main characters that are complete losers, and yet great things happen to them, since forever. That we are getting some of the same with female characters is a positive step, in my opinion. I don’t know about you, but I sort of relate to Bridget Jones, and I certainly relate to her a lot more than Lara Croft.
    I agree a bazillion times over that there is a lack of strong females on the screen. I want those heroines to look up to and provide fantasy, by all means. I want a female Indiana Jones (which could have been Lara Croft if she wasn’t so hypersexualized). But I also want female Napolean Dynamites and I’m happy that we are starting to get those.
    So, I think the problem is the absence of strong female roles, not the prevalence of loser female roles.

  4. I’ve been thinking similar thoughts, and had a similar article in The Age yesterday.

  5. “has gotten sloppy”, not “has got”

  6. Madaha? Just saying: the Microsoft Word grammar check doesn’t have a problem with either version.

  7. I want a female Indiana Jones (which could have been Lara Croft if she wasn’t so hypersexualized).

    The closest we have is Sydney Fox (from Relic Hunter series) who resembles Indy more than Lara. Series is a bit trashy though.

  8. Yeah, what is going on with this? I’ve been really wondering about the female characters in the big blockbuster films aimed at women lately.

  9. I agree with Silverstein – head over to Indy or the Art House sections and you will find loads of diverse and interesting characters for women. As well as opportunities for women writers and directors.
    And this isn’t just about women – I thought the female characters is Woody Allen’s latest film (Penelope Cruz, Scarlet Johannsen, Patricia Clarkson, Rebecca Hall) were spectacular. However, everything Nora Ephron has ever made made my eyes spew.
    sas’s last blog post..just let your love flow

  10. If Sex in the city is feminist, we’re all doomed.
    And ‘“has gotten sloppy”, not “has got”’ – gotten is only standard in North America. Fowler’s Modern English Usage says: “Nothing points more clearly to the North Americanness of a person than the ability to use the pa.pple forms got and gotten in a natural manner. Gotten forms no part of the paradigm of the verb get in the UK – though it once did – or in any other part of the English-speaking world”.
    So unless you’re American – which the Hoydens ain’t – gotten is obsolete and got is in fact completely correct.

  11. Rebekka – I believe you mean the Hoydens ‘are not’! ;p

  12. I say “gotten” often; it’s a natural part of my dialect. I’m not be a US citizen, though I did do half my elementary schooling there, and a chunk of my tertiary schooling. However I hear “gotten” very frequently in AusEng on this side of the desert, so I think Fowler’s Modern English Usage is either behind the times or hasn’t bothered to do a comprehensive survey of this particular usage. “Has gotten” might not be standard here, but it’s definitely in use.
    On the other hand, commenting purely to correct someone on their grammar is douchey, whether you’re right, wrong, or green with pink polka dots. For some reason I confess to being particularly amused that the poster used an Ivy League email address.

  13. Fowler’s Modern English (despite the word ‘usage’ in its title) is all about teh correct, not teh usage.
    And FP, that ain’t was deliberate!

  14. I know Rebekka, just playing along with you.

  15. Rebekka, I recommend ‘Stagedoor’, which is like ‘Sex in the City’ set in the 1930s, except it’s feminist. It’s set in all woman boarding house for wannabe actresses. All the characters have different desires and different trajectories, from marriage, to stardom, to becoming cat obsessed to suicide. None of the choices are derided. The women argue and bicker, but they’re there for each other. The script is witty and the gowns are glamorous. What more can you ask for?

  16. I’m with Fine–this is seriously nothing new to report. Not to mention that Dr. Purkiss is…well, maybe she’s not overly simplifying the matter, maybe it’s just that I’m overeducated in cultural analysis, or maybe it’s being dumbed down from the academic level, but I really just can’t get past the fact that my only response can be no duh.
    This trend is also nothing new socially. It’s been moving up in all types of Anglocentric fiction for women for the last fifteen years. Just because a few films come out at once does not make a sudden realization.
    …Am I being too critical? I don’t mean to say we shouldn’t talk about it, just that Dr. Purkiss needed to do a little more historical research.

  17. I’m confused. Doesn’t the first quote say that Dr. Purkiss reckons this is part of what’s been developing for 50 years? That looks pretty historical to me (in fact, if googlescholar is to be believed, her work has, in the past, been focussed on the way that medieval and renaissance influences play through in contemporary fiction). And I tend to think, Bene, that Purkiss’ work is probably a bit more substantial; the MSM always seems to do this with any kind of sophisticated academic work (no matter what the scholar attempted to get across – there’s a reason I would always avoid such outlets for my own work), and I tend to think that it’s them, the MSM, rather than any scholar, who is having a sudden realisation. And generally by the time they get around to having realisations like this, it’s because a whole bunch of people have been pointing it out for forever. I’m not suggesting we ought not to be critical, either, but… maybe let’s give Purkiss a little more credit? I’d go looking for her work in this area specifically, but I’m currently being shaped (bandwidth-wise!).
    And whilst I agree, Fine, that the maverick male of the 70s movies reduced women to girlfriends and such, to me it looks like a different matter when we look at contemporary representations of women-amongst-themselves. That is, when even movies which are supposedly *about* women (rather than maverick males), and supposedly designed *for* women’s interests (ie the chick flick) are reducing women to worrying about their weight, men and what dress to wear, that too is a cultural shift; a continuation of an older one, yes, but significant nonetheless. I’m quite struck by how the ‘chick flick’ and the ‘rom com’ seem to have gotten (huh, looky at that… ;-)) more and more nasty about women… and about people more generally. Some friends of mine have stopped watching romantic comedies because they seem to consist of people screwing over existing partners in order to be with the fabulous new partner. And more recent chick flicks… I dunno. I liked (bits of) the Sex and the City TV show, and thought they were often quite thoughtful; but the movie, even if enjoyable in parts, seemed to be one big lesson in women ceding ground to men in order to remain in relationships. Ugh.
    On the Judd Apatow front… well, whilst I get that he might be trying to renegotiate contemporary ‘loser’ masculinity, women, actually, seem to be the ones losing out in the whole thing. ‘Knocked Up’ has been discussed to death (and jeez, the extent to which Katherine Heigl seems to get the blame for sexist films primarily because she’s honest about seeing the sexism in them is kinda gross; tis a system, peoples!) of course. But I was astonished and horrified in ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’: for a brief moment, a light seemed to shine, when the ex-girlfriend, Sarah, explains that she tried a thousand and one things to make their relationship work, including taking classes and talking to his friends and all kinds of other things, before she simply ‘up and left’ him (which is his interpretation). Yes, she cheated before that, but I was waiting for some actual discussion of the fact that women actually have no responsibility to put up with shitty relationships and whilst, yes, she should have been honest, that had become difficult as he was quite depressed, she didn’t want to require him to change, and she kept hoping things would shift. That would have been an amazing point for a movie like this to make: relationships are hard, and women are expected to do lots of work for them, whilst men often remain oblivious to their own roles in taking care of the relationship…. Instead, all of a sudden she’s considering having sex with him, gets frustrated because he can’t get it up, and then he goes nuts at her because (I paraphrase) ‘maybe [his] dick remembers that [she] totally betrayed [him]!’. Ugh. So we go back to her being the bitch who destroyed his life, and eventually he moves on to someone who ‘really understands’ him… all without having to reconsider his relationships with women. Bleargh. How comical and romantical…

  18. I was unaware of “the shift in the moviegoing demographic away from the pre-WW2 predominance of women consumers”. But it kind of makes me happy, like
    HEY HOLLYWOOD, we bitchez gots* better things to do than watch yr stupid movies!!!!!111!!
    * (have got?)

  19. I’m not knocking Purkiss, WP. But, I’m saying that it isn’t a new problem and isn’t a new discovery.
    OT, I had an English teacher who believed any use of the word ‘got’ was bad. She would say ‘has become more than sloppy’. Not saying she was right, but I always squirm a little when I hear ‘got’ or ‘gotten’. Old habits died hard.

  20. Oh, god, no, totally not new at all. But you know we might be getting somewhere when the MSM finally makes its way into the ‘realisation’. I’m told that in general it takes about 20 years for academic understandings to make their way into the mainstream… I dunno if it’s entirely true, but in particular areas (like this one) it certainly seems about right!

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