The media plays a highly important role in people’s lives having an impact on the way they perceive the world. There are different kinds of media such as radio, television, newspapers, advertising, movies, and others. They all depict images of women and men describing different features and characteristics of both sexes. These media images frequently change the way people embrace social realities. Different kinds of media demonstrate a dominant male economic, political, and socio-cultural order. Besides, there is constant amplification of a negative stereotype about women’s role in society. Such a concept as the male gaze confirms the fact that women play mainly supporting roles in movies where emotions they evoke in men are more important than female characters and their stories. Representation of men and women in films influences how gender issues are perceived because certain roles enhance the image of men. These movies demonstrate a gender structure of power, where men are usually described as the stronger sex while women are much more sexualized. Despite the fact that women are sometimes depicted as independent and strong, they cannot contest an obvious gender structure of power.
The Male Gaze in Hollywood
In Hollywood, such term as “gaze” is greatly widespread. It describes how the audience interacts with visual media. It relates to how viewers look at visual representations including movies, television programs, and advertising (Loreck). Male gaze refers to the sexual politics of the gaze offering a sexualized way of looking, which objectifies women and expands the capabilities of men (Loreck). Thus, women are visually portrayed as objects for men. Women’s thoughts and feelings are not as significant as men’s desire. Laura Mulvey introduced the concept of male gaze and developed the feminist film theory in the second half of the XX century (Loreck). She criticized how the media form the female identity (Hein 3). According to the scholar, traditional Hollywood movies react to a deeply ingrained attraction that is known as “scopophilia” meaning sexual pleasure that arises with looking (Loreck). Laura Mulvey argued that the purpose of the majority of Hollywood movies is to satisfy male scopophilia (Loreck). She used Freudian psychoanalysis in order to explicate how gender dynamics functioned in Hollywood movies (Forbess). Film companies and producers chose rich men as their target audience and created movies to provide visual pleasure to them (Forbess). Responding to male voyeurism, films usually sexualize women for the male public. In such a way, a man serves as a “gaze bearer” while a woman is a “spectacle” (Loreck). Laura Mulvey believes that men occupy an active position in movies while women receive passive roles (Hein 4). There is a great number of examples confirming this.
In the 1990s, strong female characters became highly widespread in Hollywood movies. For example, in the movie Disclosure directed in 1994, a character played by Demi Moore tempts Michael Douglas applying sexuality to defeat him (“A Woman’s Role in Contemporary Hollywood”). The same female character is depicted in the film Basic Instinct. This movie describes men who cannot cope with an influential woman. Many people interpreted Basic Instinct as a homophobic and woman-hating film (“A Woman’s Role in Contemporary Hollywood”). In many movies directed in the 1990s, women played major roles and these characters were filled with power and sexuality. Therefore, women’s parts involved temptress and seductress. Nonetheless, these characters do not promote culture; they serve only as objects, on which men can stare and derive pleasure from.
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Another example is Rear Window – a mysterious thriller of Alfred Hitchcock directed in 1954. The protagonist L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries does not leave the apartment but it is still possible to notice his main role in the intended and narrative heroic function (Forbess). The director makes it clear that Jeff is a leader because of his gender and socio-economic status. Lisa Carol Fremont is a charming woman demonstrating a “to-be-looked-at-ness” quality (Forbess). She confirms her female role in the wider context of patriarchy. She appears on the screen as an angel figure that literally and figuratively illuminates her surroundings (Forbess). Lisa evokes certain emotions in Jeffrey, but this character is still not important. She is valued only for the effect she has on Jeff. Regardless of whether this impact inspires fear or love, everything always returns to Jeffrey (Forbess). Rear Window serves as a vivid example of Laura Mulvey’s theory.
The male gaze has various forms. In general, it can be defined by situations where a female character exists in terms of what she represents to the main hero and is controlled by him (Loreck). A woman is not significant but the feelings and emotions that she inspires in the man are. Cinematographers frequently try to avoid representing female characters as simple sex objects (Loreck). Thus, female characters receive an active role in the movie having strong motives and complex stories. Despite this fact, the male gaze still prevails. For instance, Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises has substantial personal motives but her major purpose in the film is to cause admiration and desire to watch (Loreck). To disguise the sexual overtones, the director endowed this character with a complex story but many viewers do not even pay attention to it because she provokes only a desire to look at her. Despite the fact that Laura Mulvey developed the theory in the XX century, it is still extremely popular. Her point of view received continuation and nowadays, it is believed that not only women are objectified in cinema but men as well (Loreck). There are double standards in practically all Hollywood movies.
Women in Modern Movies
Depending on the era, women in the films were depicted differently. In many decades, women’s role in movies has altered greatly (Dupree et al.). It is possible to say that throughout the XX century, female characters were portrayed as a complement to male images. Visual representations of women were a sign of “otherness” standing for the world of movie production dominated by men, power, and narcissism (Menard). It was especially true for Hollywood films where men were portrayed as very dominant and courageous characters while women received roles of spectacles (“A Woman’s Role in Contemporary Hollywood”). Even when they had leading roles in movies, their parts were fairly stereotyped. One of the examples is Marilyn Monroe who was a very famous actress in the last century. She became one of the most popular sex symbols of the XX century (Dupree et al.). Throughout her career, Marilyn Monroe became known for her role of a silly blonde who was always in love with a man. This idea complies with all stereotypes concerning women. The actress also demonstrated that women could be more confident in their bodies and themselves, thus shaping a new look at women in movies (Dupree et al.). These stereotypes were common in cinematography of the XX century. However, at that time, people did not pay much attention to them.
Later, women started occupying hero roles in movies. One of the first directors who started depicting women in a heroic way was James Cameron. In 1986, he directed a movie Aliens and showed that women could take on leading roles (“A Woman’s Role in Contemporary Hollywood”). In this film, Ripley played by Sigourney Weaver takes control of marines after an alien cluster attacks them. At the same time, her judgment is distorted when she sees a surviving child and maternal instincts overpower her (“A Woman’s Role in Contemporary Hollywood”). She puts a group of marines at risk, as she protects the child by all means. In such a way, James Cameron portrayed a female character not solely as a hero but also as a woman endowed with strong material traits.
One more movie directed by James Cameron with the female protagonist is Terminator 2. The main character in the film is Sarah Connor played by Linda Hamilton (“A Woman’s Role in Contemporary Hollywood”). From a shy victim in the first movie, she turns into a transformed version of female masculinity. Being toned and tough, she protects her son from cyborgs. Sarah Connor gets rid of her maternal instincts becoming a protector for the child. Thus, in both these movies, women are depicted as not only heroes and protectors but also mothers defending children.
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Despite certain changes in the role of women in movies, the situation is still not satisfactory and women are underrepresented while men are overrepresented. Regardless of the fact, the problem of inclusion has become more widely discussed (Lang). For example, in 2013, women accounted for a third of the talking roles in movies with the highest rating and about 15% of the major characters (Murphy 8). The number of female speaking roles in films has reduced in comparison with 2009 (Lang). Even when a woman receives a leading role, it frequently requires heightened sexuality from her. Female characters twice more often than male characters are represented in sexy clothes or even partially nude (Lang). Women in films are often very erotic for the purpose of attracting men’s attention (Hein 4). They simply serve as objects, which men are pleased to watch (Hein 4). Due to numerous research and surveys, it is possible to trace a real role of women in movies.
Because of the success of a number of high-profile female films, there is a wide gap between what viewers can perceive as the current position of women in films and their real status in society. Even in recent movies, female characters are twice more likely than men to be identified only by their role in life and not by their role in work (Murphy 8). They are usually younger than men are; besides, they are not often depicted as formal leaders. Popularity of strong female figures like Tris in Divergent and Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games can create an effect that women are presented fairly and equally in the movies (Murphy 8). Despite the fact that certain female are strong and independent women, they are still identified as lovers, wives, and mothers. Moreover, they are seldom portrayed as independent but rather dependent on other characters. Women in movies are excessively emotional and limited to low paying jobs in comparison with highly ambitious and volitional male characters (Murphy 8). Even movies that focus on the female audience are frequently disappointing in terms of the images of independent and strong characters that real audience members can relate to (Murphy 8). Nevertheless, there are still many movies depicting an image of an independent and strong woman especially if to compare with the films directed in the XX century.
There are many examples of such movies. One of them is Juno telling viewers a story of a young girl who becomes pregnant from her boyfriend. She represents new cultural formulation of girlhood comprising such features as power and independence (Dutt 9). Juno is witty, eccentric, and empowered, and she does not care about her appearance. Regardless of the expectations of surrounding people, she makes independent decisions and is not afraid to express her opinion (Dutt 9). For instance, Juno decides to choose adoption when she finds out that she is pregnant and her opinion and decision is different from her boyfriend and parents’ wishes. In such a way, she serves as a visual characteristic of a new form of girls combining particular features of traditional femininity with masculinity (Dutt 9). It is obvious that this movie takes a step forward; on the other hand, it does not follow certain normative points of view (Dutt 9). Juno’s depiction of girlhood is still closely connected with social ideas about vulnerability, innocence, purity, and consequences of early sex.
Another example is The Devil Wears Prada where David Frankel demonstrates two kinds of empowered women. The first one, Miranda Priestley, has a business mind; she does not pay attention to the feelings and emotions of other people (Kidwai and Ahmad 4). The second one, Andrea, is a woman whose life depends on her family and friends. They are both independent in their own way (Kidwai and Ahmad 4). The first one applies the practical judgment while the other is pleased with her emotional outlook. Miranda Priestley is the chief editor in one of the most influential fashion magazines in the country. Her employees and colleagues respect and fear her. She is extremely passionate about her work and it leads to the fact that she does not have time for her family and there is no emotional connection between Miranda and her daughters (Kidwai and Ahmad 4). The society perceives Miranda Priestley as a woman obsessed with her career. It is highly frequent concerning a woman who is in charge of a big company. That said, a man-in-charge is usually considered loyal to his job (Kidwai and Ahmad 4). At the end of the movie, both women choose completely different lives. Miranda Priestley continues living in her insensible and insensitive business world. Andrea returns to her world where her friends love her and where she feels independent and powerful by being herself (Kidwai and Ahmad 4). In this way, although they make opposite decisions, they are both independent because they are satisfied with their lives.
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Walt Disney Productions also did not stand aside and decided to create new female characters that would be more powerful and free. It released several new princesses for both children and adults. Such films as Moana, Frozen, Brave, and Tangled depict self-consistent and strong female characters distinguishing a breakthrough in the tradition of unfortunate girls of Disney classics (Batt and Cortland). People can see the transformation of female characters from the first Walt Disney cartoon Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to Moana, as they became more independent. New films are distinct from the first generation cartoons. In the latter, Disney depicted princesses who were completely dependent on men and other people (Batt and Cortland). Cinderella is a good example of this. In this movie, a girl meets a prince who falls in love with her because she is beautiful and charming. In the cartoon, the main character is depicted as a helpless waiting for a prince to rescue her. Many years of romanticization of this love story have led to the fact that both women and men have been searching for their version of a fairy and fabulous romance (Batt and Cortland). Still, many people believe that it is the height of all relationship goals.
New female characters challenge this perfect love story and their relations are more equal and realistic. Modern female characters of Disney films have shed a damsel attitude that included waiting for someone who could save them; they find a way to save themselves and others (Batt and Cortland). The classic films of Walt Disney Productions have put forward an idea that the most important thing for every girl is to find a soul mate. Nevertheless, the other idea, that is more often expressed in cartoons is that finding a purpose in life is also important regardless of your sex. It is a radical improvement of the lessons that old films gave. For many girls who frequently hear that their value as a person greatly depends on the ability to marry a good husband who will protect and guard her, it is useful to watch a movie rebutting old stereotypes.
Walt Disney Productions started creating empowered and realistic female characters. Princesses move away from the old idea of a damsel-in-distress (Batt and Cortland). It has a highly positive impact on children. They constitute the majority of viewers who watch cartoons and, therefore, such roles of princesses have a favorable effect on children’s perception of the world. The author John Berger claims, “the way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe” (Berger, 3). Thus, what people believe affects their view of the surrounding world and if they think that a princess in a movie is weak and dependent on others, they will believe that it is true. In such a manner, it is highly necessary to change the way men and women are portrayed in films.
These days, the role of women in movies is highly complex. In modern films, female characters are more frequently depicted as strong, independent, and intelligent than in older movies. In spite of this fact, women are still not very important in comparison with male characters. Many films are still guided by such a concept as “male gaze”. It is used to describe how life sides and aspects are spuriously considered from a male perceptive and viewpoint. Laura Mulvey studied this concept and developed the feminist film theory that is very popular nowadays. According to it, a great part of Hollywood movies uses female characters only to emphasize the importance of men and attract the attention of the male audience. There are many examples that confirm this theory including Rare Window, Disclosure, and Basic Instinct. It is necessary to mention that gender stereotypes concerning personal characteristics, as well as career and family roles, are regarded as a norm in the majority of Hollywood movies. Consequently, female characters are often weak and dependent on men. In turn, films play a great role in people’s lives because they form ideas on how they should perceive themselves and others. Films have an opportunity to shape negative views and attitudes and they equally can affect people’s opinions positively. With this purpose, Walt Disney Productions has released several new princesses for children and such cartoons as Moana and Brave depict clever and independent characters. In contrast with princesses from older movies, the new ones prove that for every girl, it is very important to find a real purpose in life and not just marry a good husband. This fact will definitely have a highly positive impact on children. It is necessary to change the role and attitude to women in cinema because movies often distort reality and present them in a wrong stereotypical light.