Strong on the page, weak on screen: we examine the worrying trend of diluting female characters for cinema.
Female representation in the film industry is shocking. For decades we’ve had to deal with simpering, pathetic female characters who have little purpose other than being there for the male gaze or to be an object of the viewer’s lust. A recent landmark global study backed by the UN has found and exposed “deep-seated discrimination and pervasive stereotyping of women and girls”, including blanket under-representation and widespread hypersexualisation. It seems it’s an issue that won’t go away. So why exactly do contemporary films fall shy of positive representation? And why are big Hollywood blockbusters the worst culprits?
We’ve seen countless strong female characters from literature getting ‘dumbed down’ on their way to the big screen
We’ve seen countless strong female characters from literature getting ‘dumbed down’ on their way to the big screen. In Stephen King’s The Shining, the character Wendy Torrance – played by Shelley Duvall in Stanley Kubrick’s movie adaptation – is trapped in a nightmare situation: shut up in a disused hotel with psychotic husband Jack (Jack Nicholson in the film), she soon begins to realise his mood swings are not simply a case of writer’s block, but indeed something far more sinister.
The film version of The Shining is a Kubrick masterpiece – the mise en scene, the suspense, the script are all masterfully done – but Kubrick’s Wendy leaves a lot to be desired. Unlike the Wendy in King’s novel, the Wendy of the movie screams hysterically, cries and runs about the place flapping like a headless chicken. The film can be read as a domestic abuse tale – nothing wrong with that interpretation, disturbing though it may be to watch. The real problem is that Wendy in the film is completely unlikable, which problematic considering she is the victim, treated horribly by her abuser. King himself has called Kubrick’s Wendy “one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film.”
In Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre, the governess is referred to as “mousy”, where the character in Bronte’s novel is anything but. There seems to be a tension in how Jane Eyre is portrayed on the big screen – confidence and plainness do not go together in Hollywood. Therefore, Jane has to be portrayed as either ‘mousy’ or good looking. The book Jane Eyre relies on the reader’s imagination – Jane is strong willed, intelligent but plain, but it’s up to the reader to conjure up what she might look like. Films need to appeal to mass audiences in order to make money. Western society is obsessed with beauty and looks. In literature, beauty is more subjective – it is in the eye of the beholder; it can be present in qualities such as goodness and intelligence. With films, it takes a brave producer to cast a ‘plain’ actress.
In literature, ‘beauty’ can equate to goodness or intelligence. But with films, it takes a brave producer to cast a ‘plain’ actress
The Hunger Games franchise’s Katniss Everdeen is a recent exception to the rule; producers have so far avoided sexualising her for the big screen. Although attractive, Katniss’s strength and resolve is what’s highlighted by the filmmakers. The first film finds her dressed in brown robes and war gear. In Catching Fire, Katniss is turned into a peacock, and therefore the spectacle is parodied, for we know Katniss is so much more than a doll. She is adoringly gazed at by her audience in the same way modern society worships female judges on talent shows for what they wear and what they look like. But Katniss is a rarity.
A weak female characters is not always necessarily connected with good looks in the movies, though unfortunately they often go hand in hand. To see the spirit of a female character on the page diluted for the screen can be frustrating to watch, but above are just a few examples. The 2011 Jane Eyre’s ‘mousiness’ is completely at odds with Bronte’s feminist creation. It either shows a complete misunderstanding on the part of producers, or indicates that there is something more sinister at play in the film industry.
Featured image: Universal Pictures
Inset image: Warner Bros