Little Girl Under Fire

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Little girls, from the moment they are old enough to watch their first Disney Princess film, are under siege. Under siege to conform to unrealistic expectations both in body and in mind, are told, subliminally, that their worth as individuals is tied up with finding their 'prince'. They are seldom portrayed as doctors, or scientists or engineers in popular media... An essay on gender discrimination and female objectification within the film industry.

Submitted: January 20, 2013

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Submitted: January 20, 2013




I'm going to preface this by saying I am a mother. A mother of a wonderful, intelligent, inquisitive daughter. As anyone who has embarked on the journey of parenthood can attest, a parent wants the best for their children. Wants them to grow up in a world of opportunity, to learn and thrive, and one day find their place in the world. Parents of daughters have a particular challenge ahead of them, (though I'm in no way claiming that raising sons doesn't come with its own challenges). But little girls, from the moment they are old enough to watch their first Disney Princess film, are under siege. Under siege to conform to unrealistic expectations both in body and in mind, are told, subliminally, that their worth as individuals is tied up with finding their 'prince'. They are seldom portrayed as doctors, or scientists or engineers in popular media. And they're told, as early on as the aforementioned G rated films, that little girls ought to be interested in princes and rainbows and ponies, that the genres of science fiction, fantasy, history or drama are cannot be interesting to them without a love story somehow attached to it.

As a parent and I daresay, as a woman, I am concerned. This is an issue - a very prevalent issue. One unfortunately so common place it's become accepted as a social norm. But I ask this question?... What kind of damage is popular media, intentionally or unintentionally, inflicting on our daughters?

The Bechdel Test:

In 1985 cartoonist Alison Bechdel introduced a 'test' for female presence in popular media in her comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For". The criteria for the test is exceedingly simple. A film must contain: 1) At least two women 2) Who talk to each other 3) About something other than a man [1].

Sounds fairly straightforward, correct? Rather easy? Upon reading the criteria of the test one might come to the conclusion that the bulk of Hollywood films pass the test without difficulty.

Unfortunately that is far from the case. In fact, very few films pass it.

In fact, as one writer, Jennifer Kesler, indicated, film students are actively encouraged to disregard the criteria set forth by the Bechdel Test:

"When I started taking film classes at UCLA, I was quickly informed I had what it took to go all the way in film. I was a damn good writer, but more importantly (yeah, you didn't think good writing was a main prerequisite in this industry, did you?) I understood the process of rewriting to cope with budget (and other) limitations. I didn't hesitate to rip out my most beloved scenes when necessary. I also did a lot of research and taught myself how to write well-paced action/adventure films that would be remarkably cheap to film -- that was pure gold.

There was just one little problem.

I had to understand that the audience only wanted white, straight, male leads. I was assured that as long as I made the white, straight men in my scripts prominent, I could still offer groundbreaking characters of other descriptions (fascinating, significant women, men of color, etc.) - as long as they didn't distract the audience from the white men they really paid their money to see."

And as if that little tidbit of information wasn't disturbing enough, she went on to add:

"...they kept telling me lots of filmmakers wanted to see the same changes I did, and if I did what it took to get into the industry and accrue some power, then I could start pushing the envelope and maybe, just maybe, change would finally happen. So I gave their advice a shot.

Only to learn there was still something wrong with my writing, something unanticipated by my professors. My scripts had multiple women with names. Talking to each other. About something other than men. That, they explained nervously, was not okay. I asked why. Well, it would be more accurate to say I politely demanded a thorough, logical explanation that made sense for a change (I'd found the "audience won't watch women!" argument pretty questionable, with its ever-shifting reasons and parameters).

At first I got several tentative murmurings about how it distracted from the flow or point of the story. I went through this with more than one professor, more than one industry professional. Finally, I got one blessedly telling explanation from an industry pro: "The audience doesn't want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about."[2]

I'm positive, dearest readers, that your gasps of horror match mine. In fact, I don't think the adjective 'disturbing' is strong or explicit enough. This is Hollywood, an industry that shapes our culture, subliminally telling our daughters (and ourselves) that their voices 'just aren't interesting'. Never before, following my reading of that article for the first time, have I been more tempted to stage a coup.

It's been almost a century since the Women's Suffrage movement, have we really progressed so little? Sure, we can vote, but is that the extent of our contribution to society according to Hollywood even though women make up 50% of the workforce?

In 1929, Virgina Wolfe wrote in her essay "A Room of One's Own":

"All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. [...] And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. [...] They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that..."[3]

And that, ladies and gentlemen, was 1929. That we've progressed so little, from an award winning authoress' lament almost a century ago, to now, is rather telling.

Now the Bechdel Test is not a perfect example of female equality. As a commenter, and fellow Trekkie (yes, I am a Trekkie... what's this, a woman who actively prefers the Science Fiction genre to the average Rom-Com?! You mean women like you exist?!) pointed out to me, there was a conversation in a Star Trek film ("Star Trek: Insurrection") between two female characters revolving around the firmness of their breasts [4]. Such a conversation would pass the Bechdel Test in technicality, if not spirit. But technicalities are hardly the point.

The point (and irony) of the test is in its simplicity. The horror is that so few films bother with even so little as a conversation about breasts (without men ogling them, that is).

So Where Are We?

Actress Geena Davis, upon noticing the distinct lack of female presence in the industry where she's fought tooth and nail for a career, started an organization "The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media". Its purpose?

"The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is the only research-based organization working within the media and entertainment industry to engage, educate, and influence the need for gender balance, reducing stereotyping and creating a wide variety of female characters for entertainment targeting children 11 and under."[5]

Their website,, posts the results of their research , which I am exceedingly anxious to share with you. I have to stop now and give a bit of a warning, what you are about to read is immensely disheartening, I apologize in advance for being a bit of a downer here, but needs must, you understand:

  • Traditional domestic roles are still gender linked in entertainment, but only in certain media and on certain indicators. In family films, females are more likely than males to be portrayed as parents (56% vs. 44.1%) and depicted in a committed romantic relationship (65.7% vs. 54.1%). In children's shows, only parental status varies by gender (females=60% vs. males=29.3%).

  • Males outnumber females 3 to 1 in family films. In contrast, females comprise just over 50% of the population in the United States. Even more staggering is the fact that this ratio, as seen in family films, is the same as it was in 1946.

  • Females are almost four times as likely as males to be shown in sexy attire. Further, females are nearly twice as likely as males to be shown with a diminutive waistline. Generally unrealistic figures are more likely to be seen on females than males.

  • Females are also underrepresented behind the camera. Across 1,565 content creators, only 7% of directors, 13% of writers, and 20% of producers are female. This translates to 4.8 males working behind-the-scenes to every one female.

  • From 2006 to 2009, not one female character was depicted in G-rated family films in the field of medical science, as a business leader, in law, or politics. In these films, 80.5% of all working characters are male and 19.5% are female, which is a contrast to real world statistics, where women comprise 50% of the workforce.[6]

Let us take a moment to recap here, shall we? Script writers are actively told in college that female conversations are not interesting, that the viewing population at large will only to pay to see white, male protagonists. And jobs within Hollywood, both onscreen and behind the scenes, are mostly filled by men. Of those actresses who do find work, their job is as the love interest, the best friend of a love interest and the objectified (and let us not forget the unrealistically thin) eye candy.

Forgive me a moment, I'm about to state the obvious: This is absolutely notokay.

To answer the question I posed in the title of this subsection of this essay, wherever we are as women, it's not in front of or behind the camera (and in the few occasions we are, we're scantily clad).

These Boots were Made for Walking:

In the name of progress (at least, I assume these producers/writers/directors are believing themselves to be progressive) there is the occasional female protagonist gifted to us who can actually take a jaunt through a park and come out the other side intact without the need of a strapping young lad casually strolling by to save them. Hooray.

Yet, wait? Wasn't Buffy Summers the near victim of rape one memorable episode of the popular television series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" ("Seeing Red"), sexually exploited another ("The Harsh Light of Day") and turns her then boyfriend, a two hundred year old vampire, evil by gifting him with her virginity ("Surprise"). Apparently even girls gifted with super powers (Buffy as a heroine is gifted with super strength, speed and the ability to heal quickly) just can't catch a break when it comes to the whims of the men in their life. At one point in the series Buffy was so depressed that she had to kill her boyfriend (the aforementioned vampire who turned evil) to save the world that she ran away from home, away from her support network, the friends and family who loved her ("Anne"). [7]

I am not trying to pick on Buffy. She's hardly alone in this issue, and the show, as a whole was actually immensely enjoyable: a delightful mix of humor, horror, and fantasy. I, myself, am quite the fan. What I am trying to point out, however, is that even female heroines specifically designed to be progressive fall into the trap of relationship dependence, and being sexualized and objectified.

Buffy would often fight the villain of the hour dressed impeccably in trendy clothing, not a hair out of place, and was, herself, played by an attractive, at times excessively thin, blonde.

Okay, then.

Enter Ellen Ripley stage left. In the "Alien" films Ellen Ripley wasn't impeccably dressed, wore little makeup, spent the bulk of her time fighting for her life rather than making googly eyes at the men surrounding her... as someone under siege and fighting for their life very well would be doing! According to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the instinct for survival, for food, water, shelter and warmth, is the most basic impulse of humanity[8]. Curiously, these things come before finding that attractive mate. That Maslow, didn't he know his needs don't particularly sell?

It's important to note at this time that "Aliens", as a series, was immensely successful. Yet the film industry would have you believe such an occurrence, a series led by a female protagonists not particularly aligned with the typical Hollywood standards of beauty, without a romance attached to it to keep her 'interesting', dirty and grimy and tired from hours of fighting parasitic aliens, is destined to fail.

In 2007 Warner Brothers made the announcement that they would no longer be doing any films with female leads [9]. Their reasoning? Their films "The Reaping", "The Brave One" and "The Invasion" starring Hilary Swank, Jodi Foster and Nicole Kidman, respectively, did not do so well at the box office.

Huh. Apparently this had absolutely nothing to do with one film going through two directors ("The Invasion"), bad writing or dubious plot, how silly of anyone to assume that. It's because these films were led by woman. Never mind, of course, the fact badly written and directed male led movies also are prone to disappoint. Anyone but me remember one of the most expensive flops in Hollywood history "Water World"? Or how about "John Carter"? Didn't one almost bankrupt Disney? But listen to me, spouting all this logical speak. It's the woman's fault (by Warner Brother logic). Obviously.

"Alien" and "Aliens" must then be a fluke, right?

But let's picture a world for a moment where it wasn't a fluke. That the success of the movies came from a compelling story and the realistic appearance and portrayal of a capable woman struggling and succeeding to survive in a near impossible situation.

Interesting concept, I know. But you know, stranger things have been known to happen. Mark Twain once said: "Truth is more of a stranger than fiction."[10] Oh, the irony of that statement.

The Token Romance (or why is there a kissing scene in the middle of the action sequence?!):

Fun fact: a 2010 census of the United States unveiled something that had never before occurred... the majority of the population of America now consists of single person households.[11]

I'll bring that up again in just a bit, until then...

I mentioned earlier that I am a Trekkie. I have been watching one form of Star Trek or another since I was a wee one with a head full of dreams. That doesn't mean, however, that even a franchise I hold beloved, and have placed on a pedestal amidst all that is good and right with the universe, is entirely exempt from female subjugation and objectification.

Star Trek: The Original Series blasted across the airways in 1966. For its time it was revolutionary. The 60's were the height of civil unrest in the United States, and here is a show containing a team composed of different ethnicities who are treated as all ethnicities should be treated, as equals. How progressive!

And it was progressive in a different way as well. Beautiful Nyota Uhura. A female professional, one who wasn't Caucasian at that (yes, Virginia, other races do exist in female form, too), on the bridge of a Starship (representative of a bridge of a naval vessel by modern standards) carrying the rank of Lieutenant and holding her own in a world of men back when the Baby Boomers were still trying to recover from years of being subjected to "Leave it to Beaver". Thank you, Gene Roddenberry!

Fast forward to 2009, Star Trek is being 'rebooted' with a younger cast, and far better special effects then pencil shaving transporters and painted Styrofoam rocks. Except, wait, is that Uhura kissing Spock right before he and Kirk are due aboard an alien vessel spiraling through space with the specific purpose of destroying the Earth?

For you non-Trekkies let me set this stage for you. I mentioned that The Original Series (abbreviated to TOS online) first aired in the 60's. Thus, out of seven main characters, only one of them was female. Now to be fair, Nyota Uhura is a wonderful protagonist as female protagonists go. She is intelligent, compassionate, highly trained and educated.

We've already established, however, that film students are taught, in universities, that intelligence, compassion and ability are just not interesting enough on their own. Not if such a creature is a woman. Oh goodness no. Therefore she must be paired up romantically and pronto. Bonus points if the pairing happens in the form of a love triangle, where both Kirk and Spock vie for her affections, the winner, in this case Spock, gaining the prize as if she were a trophy.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the Token Romance.

According to Hollywood, this is the thing that ensures that we lady viewers buy our movie tickets (but let's put the insult of that aside for the time being).

A popular website,, defines the token romance this way:

"When a romantic subplot is tacked onto a work with little relation to the overall story. Especially blatant when the setting or premise of the plot leaves little room for romance, such as after the Apocalypse or in the land of racing cars and guns.

The reasons behind this are understandable: love is often quoted to be universal, and directors and producers want to cater to the largest demographic possible. What better to draw females to theaters than with a few tender scenes inserted here and there in an action or disaster movie? Or to titillate the males in the audience with a Green-Skinned Space Babe hanging around the hero? Or vice versa?

Unfortunately, the romance subplot itself tends to be shallow and underdeveloped, existing only because the audience expects the hero to have a healthy love life. In fact, if the Token Romance was removed entirely, it would barely leave a ripple in the overall plot quality. The love interest is nothing more than a bland, forgettable Satellite Character, and may even be ignored or replaced by another love interest in a sequel."[12].

And has this to say about Star Trek in particular:

"In the rebootedStar Trek film, Spock and Uhura's romance could be removed and it's loss wouldn't affect the plot at all."[12]

I think the important question here is what do our daughters take from the popular existence of this trope? That they could be intelligent, compassionate, and educated but in order to be interesting a cool boyfriend is the most important of all necessities? After all, don't all the best heroine's, i.e. Nyota Uhura, Buffy Summers, et all, have them?

And remember how I said that the majority of the United States is now single? What does the token romance imply to those who have chosen a career over the traditional family norms of finding a husband and settling down with 2.5 kids, a white picket fence, a Chihuahua, a kitten, and more debt than they can handle?

It's telling them that they're not interesting, either.

The Cure for Insomnia:

... is "Sleepless in Seattle" (at least in my estimation). And I am thoroughly convinced that said film is a story about stalking. So is "Twilight" for that matter. Things that sell, that we women are told by the film industry that we want to see would actually be illegal if practiced in real life.

In other words, if I wake to find a pale, skinny man staring at me through my bedroom window while I sleep (or worse, in my bedroom) and without being cordially invited, I'm not going to sit there swooning... I'm going to call the police! And I certainly don't want my daughter thinking this behavior is 'romantic' either.

As a woman, the romance genre has never really held a particular interest for me. Less so when the female protagonists are portrayed as co-dependent and obsessive. But I'm certainly not naive enough to believe that it doesn't hold its appeal for some. And I can't begrudge them that. Love between two consenting adults is a beautiful, wonderful thing. Emphasis on the words 'consenting' and 'adults'.

I've often wondered, however, if romance, as it's portrayed in the movies or television, sets unrealistic expectations for our daughters. Are they are looking for an Edward Cullen, wealthy, good-looking, and eager to shower their beloved with expensive gifts? What happens when they realize that love takes work? That two people coming together is not without the occasional issue. That compromise, and the ability to listen are the key to any successful relationship?

The film industry would tell you that such concepts as a healthy relationship between equals who communicate and compromise would not sell tickets, but then the film industry seems to make a lot of assumptions on behalf of consumers, not all of them particularly flattering or realistic.

And just how correct are their assumptions? In 2012 the top movie was Marvel's "The Avengers", the year prior "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II", the year before that "Toy Story III". What do these three films have in common? None of them are classified under the genre of 'Romance'[13].

In fact, romance isn't even in the top five for box office grossing, that would be: 1: Comedy, 2: Adventure, 3: Drama, 4: Action, 5: Thriller/Suspense. [13]

And guess who have bought more movie tickets, on average, the past few years, women or men? If you guessed women give yourself a prize and a huge pat on the back because you would be correct. [14]

And yet, if women are buying more movie tickets, and we're told that we tender-hearted souls only like watching a love story, why then are romances not in that top five? Could this explain the 100 million decline in movie ticket sales from a decade ago?[15]

There are many factors that could be contributing to this, a bad economy, for one. But what if, just perhaps, another contributing factor is that the film industry is trying to appeal to the majority (women, at 51%)[16] and getting it way off the mark?

The tragedy in all of this is that while they're getting it all so drastically wrong, they're presenting our daughters with unfortunate implications.


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