by Heather Cowherd
March 1, 2011
In 1995, at the age of ten, I wanted to be like Princess Aurora, Jasmine and Snow White. I even remember having a recurring dream where I imagined I was a princess who was imprisoned in my castle by a fire-breathing dragon. Each day, I would sit and wait for the prince to rescue me from my ivy tower, so we could live Happily Ever After. I thought that was what young women were supposed to do — take a back seat when danger occurred and applaud the male hero for saving the day. I never considered the possibility that I could just slay the dragon, save myself and be my own hero.
It wasn’t until I saw movies like The Silence of the Lambs and Aliens that I realized how women can be strong, cunning and forceful — characteristics that are usually categorized as being masculine. I thought that I could be an FBI agent like Clarice and use my intelligence to seek out a serial killer or, if the need arose, be like Ripley and battle extraterrestrials.
As I grew older, I sought out movies that shouted female independence and leadership. Into my view came Iron-Jawed Angels, depicting the influential leaders of the Women’s Rights Movement, such as Alice Paul (Hilary Swank) and Lucy Burns (Frances O’Connor), and North Country, showcasing the character Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron), a miner who speaks out against sexual harassment in her workplace. However, when reviewing the roles of leading ladies in Hollywood cinema, I realize that the consistency of films with feminist perspectives is slim.
Since the 1940s, little has changed in the treatment of women in cinema. In the 21st century, the female acting roles are still limited, the press still merciless in its preference on reporting on age and appearance rather than acting ability, and the women still perplexed about the reason why this is still occurring.
After receiving the Sherry Lansing Award at the 2010 Hollywood Reporter’s Women in Entertainment breakfast, actress Helen Mirren gave a speech commenting on sexism in Hollywood. She said that she resents “having witnessed in my life the survival of some very mediocre male actors and the professional demise of some very brilliant female ones.” The actress said she doesn’t understand why writers, producers and directors give precedence to male actors and leave little room for growth for female actresses. Mirren saw women as: “(U)nappreciated, underused and ill-used. Undervalued, undernourished, uneducated, unsung.” She wondered: “What is happening to that incredible global resource called women â€“ the only future of the human race?”
For over a century on the big screen, women have been mostly characterized as innocent, fragile, provocative or overly dramatic human beings. Even finding information on feminist roles is difficult, a challenge that is multiplied if searching for black women or other women of color, who are seemingly more limited by casting constraints.
Over time, the perceptions of women on the screen have changed somewhat due, in part, to the small opportunities given to actresses to take on feminist roles. These are roles that allow actresses to redefine gender stereotypes and to push the envelope by tackling controversial issues. For example, characters like Mildred in Mildred Pierce (1945) have broadened the scope of Hollywood cinema.
In Mildred Pierce (1945), Joan Crawford earned an Academy Award for her portrayal of a housewife (Mildred), who, after separating from her husband, attempts to support her family during hard times. She becomes a successful entrepreneur, but encounters family tragedies, such as dealing with the rebellious nature of her daughter. (A five-part HBO remake with Kate Winslet in the title role will air in late March 2011.)
Mildred is an independent character who reflects a time period that’s filled with uncertainty about the evolving role of women in and outside of the home. The film takes place at the end of World War II and during the age of the iconic figure Rosie the Riveter. Women who were once encouraged to fulfill their patriotic duty by joining the workforce were now being asked to remove themselves from the business world and to return to their domestic sphere. These women were pulled in a game of tug-of-war between the male ideal of a woman’s role as a housewife, and their own desires to continue their financial independence. Mildred’s character, who struggles with her financial station in life, represents the latter class of women.
The portrayal of women in Hollywood cinema is important because movies are a powerful art form that not only comments on important societal issues, but are a mirroring image of society itself. As film critic Marjorie Rosen notes in Popcorn Venus, which analyzes women in film, movies are commentary pieces that reflect a predominant opinion on a particular subject. If used correctly, this medium has the power to create societal change. Let’s hope that next year at this time the movies available for Academy Award considerations are overflowing with feminist leading roles that can help shape a more equitable future for women.
Heather Cowherd is a writer, scholar and community activist who has received numerous awards for her academic and service contributions. She resides in the South Central Kentucky.
Also see “Superheroes and Fantasies a Feminist Can Love?” by Linda Stein in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
See Misogyny Makes Money: Review of The Social Network” by Ariel Dougherty in the Cafe of this edition of On The Issues Magazine.