Hollywood Sexism

Jul 27, 2011 | Opinions

The Hollywood SignSomething my better half said to me the other day stuck with me, when I got talking yet again about sexism in the media: the jist of it goes something like “Even when a movie/series isn’t sexist, you’re determined to see it as so – or when a movie/series clearly has a powerful female character, you’re determined to see her as weak.”

This got me thinking, as I am wont to do. Needless to say, I think I have a different perspective on movies and TV series than he does. My first question nowadays, if he points something new at me, is “What’s it about, and is the main character once again a white Caucasian male?” It’s pretty troubling how often he says yes. He prefers genre stuff, after all, which is mostly the kind of stuff that I like too, but I get seriously disheartened whenever I see yet another series or movie with a somewhat interesting story – and the protagonist, and most of the cast, are all white Caucasian males.

I would like to see more women in major roles, for god’s sake. I’d like to see them having adventures, solving crimes, getting character development. It drives me completely loopy that the only entertainment I like to watch on a regular basis seems to ignore half of the human race. But the flip side to that is I will not accept shitty movies or shitty TV just because a woman has a major role, and I’m sure as hell not going to stand for a woman in a major role being portrayed in a sexist manner.

Sexism in Hollywood is not up for argument, at this point. It’s established. We all know it. Pretending that it doesn’t exist, frankly, is an insult to anyone’s intelligence. Women’s stories are not being told, because the executives and directors behind Hollywood do not want to tell those stories. It is not a coincidence that Katheryn Bigelow is the only female director to ever win Best Picture, in 2009 – only four women have ever been nominated, and I actually have a theory that the establishment in Hollywood realised just how bad it made them look that no woman had ever won it, and chose Bigelow to get the critics off their back. But then again, I am bitter as all hell at this point.

Anita Sarkeesian at Feminist Frequency rightly pointed out the trend of movies that win Best Picture to overwhelmingly feature men, and men’s stories. It’s not surprising at all; movies in general are about men, star men, and women are sidelined. The IMDB top 250 list, for example, is mostly films about men. In fact, I went through all 250 and picked out the ones that star women, and here they are:

  • Silence of the Lambs – 26
  • Terminator 2 – 41
  • Alien – 44
  • Spirited Away – 46
  • Amelie – 47
  • Aliens – 60
  • Some Like it Hot – 79
  • Pan’s Labyrinth – 81
  • All About Eve – 84
  • Black Swan – 104
  • Princess Mononoke – 108
  • The Wizard of Oz – 130
  • Kill Bill Vol. 1 – 141
  • The Terminator – 171
  • Mary and Max – 198
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – 201
  • Persona – 205
  • A Streetcar Named Desire – 206
  • The Passion of Joan of Arc – 213
  • Magnolia – 222
  • Rosemary’s Baby – 225
  • Howl’s Moving Castle – 226
  • Kill Bill Vol. 2 – 233

Where I wasn’t sure, I looked at the IMDB listing and guessed whether the main star was a woman or not. I’m probably being generous on a few that feature couples or whatnot, and I know for a fact that Arnie was the bigger name in the Terminator films. The verdict? 23 films, total, and none in the top 20.

Note, by the way, that Hayao Miyazaki has two films there that are unrelated to each other. Quentin Tarantino also deserves some kudos for his female characters, and having the balls to write them the way he wants. Some directors do get it, and the movies they make are successes, so do not tell me that it can’t be done or that the audience won’t accept a strong female lead.

In fact, let’s talk a little about that audience, shall we? I’ve mentioned before that more women go to see movies than men. This is a fact, from the MPAA themselves. Women and Hollywood wrote a great little article highlighting this. The only reason that Hollywood could have for not chasing this money and making more films that appeal to women is ingrained sexism.

TV series are similarly lacking, again, in the genre shows that I like so much. Some of my favourites still fall down badly and there’s nothing I can do about that, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get angry. Some of the examples that are usually held up as having major strong female characters still irritate me for being flawed, like they’re afraid to make a woman the protagonist or something. Here’s a few of them:

  • Castle – Beckett is a strong character, but the show isn’t about her. It’s about (surprise surprise) Richard Castle.
  • X-Files – it’s about both Mulder and Scully; Scully herself isn’t the focus of the series.
  • Stargate SG-1 – there was really only Carter there, surrounded by men; again, she’s not the focus.
  • Firefly – strong female characters, still not really about them in particular

Something I will give to many genre shows, sci-fi in particular, is that they frequently have an ensemble cast that includes strong female characters. Battlestar Galactica (the remake) has plenty of interesting women doing interesting things, and that gives me the warm and fuzzies because I desperately want to see more of that on TV. It’s just not enough – there are so many shows where the protagonist is male and the plot revolves around them that I want to see more women in leading roles to balance things out, I guess. I took a look at a list of the top 100 sci-fi shows on TV, and although I would guess the majority have interesting female characters, only a few are headlined by women. (Dark Angel, Fringe, Sarah Conner Chronicles, Ghost in the Shell, Dollhouse, Sanctuary, Wonder Woman, The Bionic Woman, and Aeon Flux, in case you’re wondering.) Nine out of the hundred qualify, which is suspiciously close to the just-under-one-in-ten statistic you get from the IMDB top 250 movie list.

This isn’t exhaustive research. The point I’m making, really, is that this stuff is very, very real and I’m not going to accept whatever crumbs get tossed my way in a vague attempt to stop me and feminists like me from bitching. I expect more, and I’ll keep expecting more and calling out the shows that don’t deliver, even if it bothers other people who really like those shows. If I think a series is sexist, or it has sexist moments, I’ll say why. If I think a strong female character isn’t good enough, or if I think just having a few female characters in a show primarily about men isn’t good enough, I’ll say why. If I think that an action movie has a token female in there for eye candy and little else, you’d better believe I’ll say why. Usually in excruciating detail, too.

I’ve also been told that it’s ridiculous to get angry about this kind of thing, that there’s nothing I can do and it doesn’t really matter anyway because it’s just entertainment. I don’t think that’s true. This stuff matters, because people are shaped by stories, and right now, the stories of one half of the human race are being largely ignored. There’s no excuse for that. And we can make a difference; notice how the costume for the new Wonder Woman show was changed after the outrage of fans who thought it made her look like a stripper. Change is possible, when enough people who care about this kind of thing speak out.

I know the show wasn’t picked up. A strong female star versus a female villain, with a cast that included lots of women? Yeah. Their new shows, by the way, include a romantic comedy, a supernatural detective thing with a token female, and a sitcom starring a couple, a show about the Playboy Club (gah). I’m not really surprised by any of that. But I am surprised that they’ve also got Prime Suspect, a police procedural headlined by a female cop, and Whitney, a comedy starring “an opinionated woman and her very-supportive live-in boyfriend.”

The nice thing about expecting more is that sometimes, you do get what you want.