On film, we, as the audience, are reminded of how amazing women are in historical periods and in modern times. However, women are portrayed very differently on film, and having seen such roles can make society see/treat women in a whole other light. How women are portrayed in films can vary widely, but a blueprint is generally followed for a woman’s role.
Not too long ago, women were taught to be decorative. Be submissive to a man, never raise your voice, don’t have any quirks or flaws, and be perfect in every way. Jane Austin was a master at the softcore woman.
Pride and Prejudice is a beautiful example of what a woman should be and what society expected back then. In one scene in particular, Elizabeth Bennet (played by Kiera Knightly) discusses with Mr. Darcy (played by Matthew Macfadyen) what an “accomplished woman is.”
Mr. Darcy insists, “A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, all the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be, but half deserved. All this she must possess, and to all this, she must yet add something more substantial in improving her mind by extensive reading.” A pretty impossible feat to accomplish. Thankfully, Elizabeth takes hold of the conversation and condemns Mr. Darcy for saying he knows at least six accomplished women because there is no such thing.
Little Women falls into the softcore category but fits into this category more. Eldest Meg (played by Emma Watson) is the spitting image of what a proper woman should be, while her sisters have a lot to learn. Although she doesn’t have much to her name, Meg goes out into society and plays the role of a proper lady. Her younger sisters carry more burdens than Meg ever will. However, Amy (played by Florence Pugh) has the responsibility of marrying the rich fall on her so she can take care of the family. Pugh gives a moving monologue to Laurie (played by Timothée Chalamet) about the struggle to find a respectable man to marry.
“Well. I’m not a poet; I’m just a woman. And as a woman, I have no way to make money, not enough to earn a living and support my family. Even if I had my own money, which I don’t, it would belong to my husband the minute we were married. If we had children, they would belong to him, not me. They would be his property. So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition because it is. It may not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.”
While Amy has the weight of the world on her shoulders, Jo (played by Saoirse Ronan) has taken it upon herself to make her way in the writing world and get her name out. In a world where men dominate the work field, it’s tough for a woman to show she belongs. “Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for.” Even though Jo prevails in the end and gets her book published, she still has to marry a man because it’s “improper” for her not to end up married.
Women Talking is an important film that shows the oppression of women in a religious community. Even though it’s heavily based on what God would deem acceptable, it’s still very fitting for the normal suffrage woman. A significant impact of the screenplay is the woman agreeing to leave and take the children. That stems into a modern-day story: mothers worldwide are trapped in situations that hurt them for the sake of their children. “We were given two days to forgive our attackers before they returned. If we did not forgive them, we would be ordered to leave the colony and be denied entry into the Kingdom of Heaven.” What a terrible position to be in, but it’s something women go through every day worldwide.
It shows the complexity of what it is to be a woman and all the decisions and factors they must consider. Will it affect the children? Can they survive on their own? Even before leaving indefinitely, they pondered if they should give the men an option to come with them if they so chose. However, that defeats the purpose of the departure, because if enough men go, it will just be the same colony in a new place. Almost a fight or flight energy when watching. Women have been oppressed for decades, and period pieces and modern stories help showcase the struggle these women went through
The Sex Symbol
Hollywood is a trendsetter, and the number one trend for women has always been to look sexy. Since the start of film, women have been the centerpiece of beauty and have set the standard for how women should look throughout the decades.
Any Bond girl in any era of James Bond is deemed sexy. Bond girls show what was considered beautiful when the film came out. Are they skinny as a rake? Or do they have some curves? When the first James Bond films were coming out in the 60s and into the 70s, the trend for women’s bodies was thin, with long limbs and willowy. When the 80s came around, the trend changed to supermodel, athletic builds, with tall and curvy builds. Come the 90s and into the 2000s, women were back to being skinny and frail looking. It wasn’t until the 2010 era that standards switched to flat stomachs, big breasts and butts, and flawless skin.
With beauty standards constantly changing, Hollywood has become more accepting of different body types but will still default to the tall, skinny blonde. While Bond girls were not shown doing scandals and provocative actions on camera, times have changed drastically. Look at Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street. She is an absolute bombshell of a woman and a sex figure. She shows more skin and does more scandalous actions on screen. Young girls watching Hollywood films are exposed to a toxic look of beauty that stays with them through puberty and adulthood. They may think, “this is what society finds sexy?” and put themselves in positions that will make them look older and sexier. Teenagers are trying to grow up too fast and look more like what people in their 20s should like today than what people in their 20s look like.
Damsel in Distress (DID)
There are two parts to your common DID (Damsel in Distress). On the one hand, your typical damsel cannot sufficiently save herself (let alone put in the effort to try). On the other hand, you have the damsel who breaks away from those situations and saves herself.
In Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man, MJ (played by Kristen Dunst) is a classic DID. She’s not incredibly self-sufficient, or practical and expects too much from Peter/Spider-Man. She’s a constant target of all the bad guys even though she has “no ties” to the hero.
Buttercup (played by Robin Wright) in The Princess Bride is another example of your classic DID. Not only is she being forced to marry the king, but she also can’t defend herself to save her life. Doesn’t put in any effort when Wesley is fighting off the ROUS and stands there. Granted, she thought Wesley was gone forever. Still, she only gave herself two alternatives – stay unhappily married to the king or kill herself, because choosing to escape and live her life in Wesley’s memory is too much for her.
On the flip side of DID, you have characters like Daphne (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) from Scooby-Doo. She’s presented as the typical damsel who can’t defend herself, but in the film, her whole character arc is about breaking those stereotypical standards and proving she can save herself. She takes action to learn self-defense and takes down a wrestler alone.
Natasha Romanov (played by Scarlett Johansson) was the only female avenger for years and always got out of her situation. She’s not your typical DID; she purposefully puts herself in these positions to get information. Obviously, she can take care of herself very quickly. Women watching these kinds of films can choose to be rescued by a prince who may never come or stick up for themselves and escape their dilemma on their own.
How can a woman be all these things and more? Submissive and oppressed, but still sexy. She must be able to defend herself but should allow a man to save her if she’s in trouble. And yes, even though Pride and Prejudice is an enticing love story and incredibly romantic, it twists the image of “perfection” for women. You don’t have to be all these things to be an accomplished woman nowadays. Being able to vote is quite an accomplishment for women, having the right to work, having their own money, and making their own choices. The film is a tangible way to teach the audience how to feel about something. Both men and women can learn about women in a new light.