In her 1979 feminist tract “Towards a Feminist Poetics,” Elaine Showalter chategorized women’s authorship into three phases: feminine, feminist, and female. Feminine writing supports the patriarchal view of society, while feminist writing contradicts it. Female writing is the result of “women reject[ing] both imitation and protest” to present a voice of their own, detailing the specifically female experience. Although Showalter defined these terms in order to discuss the evolution of female authorship through the ages, they can just as aptly be employed to discuss 21st-century attitudes about women’s roles in society today.
Defined generalizations like Showalter’s are also needed for talking about gender stereotypes in film. Pop culture critic Anita Sarkisian outlined the “manic pixie dream girl” and the “damsel in distress” tropes in a couple of her fabulous videos on Feminist Frequency. These are two specific examples of the limited types of female characters we see in movies, television, gaming, and literature.
I have observed that female characters in film usually fall under one of four distinct chategories: the virgin, the slut, the bitch, and the earth mother. The virgin and the earth mother types could be defined as “feminine,” and the slut and the bitch as “feminist,” to use Showalter’s terminology. The “female” character is rarely seen in popular cinema, but when she does make an appearance, I like to call her the whole woman. Let’s break this down.
The virgin is delicate, innocent, and pure. She is generally loveable, but in a very passive way. She tends to be kind and compassionate, but also suffers from acute shyness. Her lack of confidence is what endears her to her friends. Although they adore her, the primary purpose of their connection with the virgin is to change her. Her girlfriends want to dress her up to attract men. Her suitors each want to be the one to get her to loosen up. The virgin is constantly acted upon, her chief flaw being that she feels deep down that there is something wrong with her and that she can’t be a complete woman until a man comes along to change, save, or protect her.
The Earth Mother
“It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.”
The Earth Mother represents essentialist femininity at it’s best. If a woman doesn’t want to and isn’t actively working to become a mother, there must be something biologically awry – she has been reading too many books, perhaps. The women who followed Phyllis Schlafly in opposing the ERA subscribed to this idealized vision of womanhood which glorified the stay-at-home-mom. (Note: this woman may seem less common today, though often she is just cunningly disguised as a harassed housewife instead of the happy homemaker.)
You will have to excuse my language but there really is no other word to describe this type of female film character. The bitch is often portrayed by a sexually frustrated career woman. She doesn’t have a kind word to say about men. She is so focused on her career that she will steam-roll anyone and anything that gets in her way. This snow queen will rebuff any sexual invitation in such a way that it turns the man’s genitals into icicles. Don’t mess.
Apparently, some women took the sexual liberation movement to a whole new level. This character in movies is often included just so the men in the audience get to see some tits and lips. She’s fast and easy and has no morals, but really she has a good heart underneath… her big tits. Sometimes she’s smart, but mostly she’s just a nice piece of meat for the men to oggle. But that’s okay because she has chosen to display her sexuality openly, because she’s a feminist, ya’ know? Yeah right
A lot of times, a film text will try to mediate the pigeon-holed female characters in order to give them some depth. This inevitably causes more problems than it solves. For example, the film might say:
“The bitch really is a nice person – totally dateable and attractive – if only she didn’t spend so much time at the office. Let’s have the male protagonist flirt with her until she get’s so annoyed she agrees to go out with him. Then she’ll see how wrong she is to reject romance and focus on work.”
“The virgin is really a swinger who wants to have fun, she just needs a man to come along and bring her out of her shell.”
“The earth mother isn’t so much of an up-tight 1950s housewife. Let’s have a scene when she gets drunk and does really naughty things that would embarrass her children if they ever found out.”
“The slut actually has a heart of gold, she just does lap dances to help pay her way through college and pay for her mother’s hospital bills. All she really wants is be an artist and live in a cabin with the man of her dreams.”
All of these messages suggest that women are organically flawed and must be changed/saved/protected by a man in order to be complete. They won’t find any satisfaction out of life until they have settled down and gotten married. The most recent example I’ve seen of these gender stereotypes in a film was THE INTERNSHIP (2013) with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. I enjoyed the movie, but there were three female characters in the whole film: the virgin, the slut, and the bitch. Other examples can be found in the recent article I wrote about OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL Womanizing Coward.
The Whole Woman
The whole woman is the healthiest view of women in film. She is intelligent, independent, assertive, compassionate, responsible, practical, sensitive, and confident. She doesn’t need a man, but that doesn’t keep her from falling in love. She likes her job because she’s good at it, but she won’t say no to children if and when starting a family seems appropriate. Most importantly, she is an active participant in her own life – she isn’t waiting for someone to change her into something she’s not.
When we do catch a glimpse of this rarity, she is often criticised for not being feminine enough. Maybe she is too bossy or too opinionated. Perhaps she doesn’t take enough care with her looks and her manners. I can only think of two films from the last couple years off the top of my head which portrayed “whole women”: THE HUNGER GAMES (2012) and BRAVE (2012). Oh, and basically everything Tina Fey and/or Amy Poehler put their names to.
I am not going to go into the whole of Laura Mulvey‘s male gaze theory, but I think we can all acknowledge that movies are primarily made by men, for men. The excuse for this is that girls will see guy movies but guys won’t see girl movies. Bull spit. If this is the case, then society needs to start conditioning men to want to see “female” movies, instead of the subject matter of movies constantly being manipulated to attract a male audience.