Thursday, 8 March 2018

The Representation of Women in Film

by Sienna Bentley



Veronica Lake
The portrayal of women in film until recent years has epitomised Laura Mulvey’s idea that most, if not all media is viewed through the eyes of men and thus, women are objectified by the male directors’ gaze. Women are consistently sexualised and arguably have been since the beginning of time, potentially to meet this expectation of the male audience. It has been argued that “men do the looking, and the women are to be looked at”, seen through the age-old portrayal of the ‘damsel in distress’ in film, primarily a sex symbol or “prize” to be won by the male hero. This theory was first introduced by Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp who stated that every narrative follows a simple structure, also concluding that all the characters could be resolved into 7 broad archetypes. With this in mind, it is then apparent that there is a certain way in which women are portrayed in film. According to Propp, two of these characters include the aforementioned victim, the “prize” to be won by the male protagonist, or the villain: the femme fatale, a stereotype exploited extensively in film noir in the 1940s. These characters both share a common denominator in the way that they are both overtly sexualised, desired characters.

The term femme fatale is directly translated from French to mean “fatal woman,” which is embedded in classic film noirs such as Double Indemnity (1944) with Barbara Stanwyck, enhancing the notion of women as ‘criminals’ who prey on their male counterparts. Femme fatale characters are typically beautiful and sexy, while being simultaneously dark and seductive and using their sexual prowess to further their personal agenda. This could arguably be implicit of how many women are viewed through the male perspective. The femme fatale is defined by “her dangerous, yet desirable sexual presence,” rather than the typically weak female characters evident in Hollywood, suggesting these femme fatale characters are strong, empowered women, yet the staggeringly male-dominated directorship in film noir films implies that these characters are simply a figment of the male imagination, becoming an object of spectacle for enjoyment and sexual gratification. Actresses such as Veronica Lake or Lizabeth Scott were viewed as sex symbols both within and outside the film industry in the 1940s, sexualised by their role in film noir productions. Lake even referred to herself not as a sex symbol but a “sex zombie”; she was desperate to leave this image behind in the late 1940s, despite being so widely admired with other women nationally trying to emulate her during the war period.

It is not as though the sexualisation of women has not been normalised into Western culture for centuries. Mainstream advertising has seen a long history of headless models used to further the advertising agenda, with society’s idea of ‘attractive’ female body parts and postures as the cynosure of the image. According to Ms., “Headless women… make it easy to see them as only a body by erasing the individuality communicated through faces, eyes and eye contact.” In this way, objectification is almost inevitable, with the autonomy of individuals removed through the expression typically conveyed through the face and eyes. It also packs every individual together, making them indistinguishable from each other. Between 2006 and 2016 women were shown in sexually revealing clothing six times more than men. With all forms of media being consumed all the time, it is practically impossible to avoid the indoctrination of Western ideals of gender roles in society; by being surrounded by advertising and film that encourages the objectification of women, it has come to be normalised by men and women alike. Advertising and the fashion industry have moulded a new ‘ideal’ woman over the years and this has been exacerbated by the frequent use of social media sites like Instagram. This ‘ideal’ woman is thin, with long legs and perfect skin and white teeth, striking eyes and a tiny waist and does not exist in reality. Not only have men been taught to desire this woman, but women have been conditioned to believe they must match and project this image, leading to a seemingly widespread inability for women to love themselves as they are.


Pinups like Bettie Page have been overtly sexualised by both the media and the public eye. However, at the peak of her career and to this day, Bettie Page has become a source of empowerment for women. Heterosexual men love her for obvious reasons, but for many women, Page symbolizes self-confidence, unapologetic sexuality, and bold authenticity. Her cheeky explicit photographs greatly opposed the notion of the 50s that even the topic of sex was taboo. It is for this reason that “Bettie’s female fans often feel a deep emotional connection” because she was inadvertently fighting expectations that perhaps women still face today (“Bettie lived in a sexually repressive society, and we still live in one”). The fact that sexualisation exists everywhere; women should be celebrated and celebrate each other, with both men and women remaining aware of the standards placed upon them. By being able to identify with Bettie Page, women have become able to access a sense of sexual confidence. Arguably, women should feel this confidence without having to think about the male opinion on this matter, and have the freedom to express this confidence in the way that they want.


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