How are women represented in the film industry?
Reflecting the world we live in, contemporary feature films are filled with kick-ass women of all ages, races and backgrounds, but sadly that hasn’t always been the case. Unlike men, women had to fight for positive representation in the media.
In the early days of cinema, films would regularly rely on female archetypes that portrayed women as weak, inferior or unintelligent.
Take the damsel in distress archetype, for example – a character who requires the male protagonist to save her from the villain. She simply exists to serve as the hero’s prize and burden. Degrading, right?
Below, we take a look at the history of women within film, and unpack the gender inequality that still exists in the film industry.
Women’s Roles in Movies
The 1920s: Applause (1929)
Rouben Mamoulian’s Applause was a film produced during the early years of sound films.
The story follows a burlesque star called Kitty Darling who sends her daughter to a convent to distance her from the burlesque scene.
After becoming an alcoholic and being mistreated by men, Kitty dies from a drug overdose, and April becomes a burlesque dancer. Apparently, it was inevitable that Kitty’s daughter would follow in her footsteps.
The film may be female-led, but, unfortunately, both women are illustrated as objects of desire, reflecting society’s views at the time.
The 1930s: King Kong (1933)
In 1933, Cooper and Schoedsack’s influential monster film King Kong made its debut. And aside from the titular giant ape, Ann Darrow is considered the most prominent character in the movie.
Sounds like a win, right? Wrong. Darrow is King Kong’s damsel in distress.
Kidnapped by both the monster and the natives of Skull Island, Ann Darrow’s character is portrayed as a helpless woman who requires the help of men – such as filmmaker Carl Denham – to save her.
The 1940s: The Red Shoes (1948)
The Red Shoes – a 1948 British drama film, written, directed and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – pivots around a young, aspirational ballerina called Vicky Page.
Of course, with this being the 1940s, there’s a patriarchal catch: she must choose either her career as a ballerina or her budding relationship with the young composer, Julian Craster.
The moral of the story? Women can’t have it all. And what happens in the end? Vicky bleeds to death.
The 1950s: Peter Pan (1953)
The 1950s was an era of change, and Disney’s Peter Pan reflected this.
The 1953 animation features an array of female characters, many of which transcend the basic archetypes established in the early 20th century.
As we’re sure you’re aware, the two key female characters of Disney's Peter Pan are Wendy Darling and Tinkerbell. The former is a kind and intelligent young woman who is both mature and adventurous; the latter is a stubborn and sassy fairy who is loyal and caring at heart.
And while showing more than one type of woman is a novelty, what isn't new is the fact that both characters need a man (Peter, of course) to save them.
The 1960s: Batman (1966)
The first Batman film – simply titled, drum roll please, Batman – came to movie theatres in 1966, starring Adam West as Batman, Burt Ward as Robin and Lee Meriwether as Catwoman.
Sure, it was a win to see a female anti-hero make it to the silver screen, but, unfortunately, this early depiction of Selina Kyle embodied an ancient archetype: the femme fatale.
Essentially, this female archetype seduces men towards traps and compromising situations.
In addition, Meriwether is sexualised throughout the film for the male gaze, from her outfit to the poses she’s directed to assume.
The 1970s: Alien (1979)
The 1970s birthed the first female action hero: Ripley, a warrant officer of a spaceship called Nostromo.
Played by Sigourney Weaver in Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror Alien, the character is the hero of the film and the lone survivor. Now, how’s that for bad-ass women?
But before you get too excited, it’s important to note that we’re still in the 70s here, so things are still not perfect.
The issue with Ripley’s character is that she is perhaps overtly masculine. From her outfit to her stance, it’s quite evident that screenwriter Dan O’Bannon’s script was gender–blind. So is this really the win for women we first thought it was?
The 1980s: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Steven Speilberg’s Indiana Jones franchise contains some of the best-loved films in the world, and the first chapter – Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark – is widely considered the best.
What makes it so special? We’d say it’s all down to Jones’ relationship with tough cookie Marion Ravenwood.
In the 1981 picture, Marion is so much more than just your typical ‘love interest’ – she is a brave, spirited and independent woman who just so happens to develop feelings for the hero.
Her only downfall? She needs to be rescued a total of six times during the space of one movie. Three words: damsel in distress…
The 1990s: Mulan (1998)
Just before the new millennium, Disney released the forward-thinking animation Mulan.
The film centred on Chinese folk heroine Hua Mulan who disguises herself as a man so that she may take the place of her elderly father in the army.
The physical and mental strength of Mulan signalled a new age of cinema in which women were allowed to adopt both feminine and masculine attributes.
It’s just a shame she literally has to pretend to be a man to gain acceptance within the world of combat.
The 2000s: Kill Bill Franchise (2003-2004)
Quentin Tarantino’s duology – rumoured to one day become a trilogy – Kill Bill (Vol 1. & Vol 2.) is one of the most important works of the 2000s. This is a film in which women are proud to be skilled in combat.
The Bride (the main character, famously played by Uma Thurman) is a certified boss – she is determined yet nurturing, ruthless yet compassionate.
Save for her violent traits, she was, and still is, a positive role model for women worldwide. She's a mother who can have it all.
The 2010s: Avengers: Endgame (2019)
During the 2010s, Marvel Studios reigned supreme. And although women were left behind – or, in Black Widow’s case, sexualised – at the beginning of the universe-building franchise, things felt different by the end of the decade.
In Avengers: Endgame, women set pace. Sure, there are some cringe-worthy ‘girl power’ moments (who can forget that female team-up scene during the final battle?), but, ultimately, women are paramount to the narrative.
From Wanda Maximoff almost defeating the big bad (Thanos) to Black Widow’s heroic sacrifice, Avengers: Endgame found myriad ways to remind women that they rule. Plus, it promised a female-focused future for the franchise.
The 2020s: The Eternals (2021)
Speaking of Marvel Studio’s female-led future, the studio released The Eternals in 2021 – a film helmed by female director Chloé Zhao that put modestly dressed, powerful and beautiful women at the forefront and centre of the action.
Yes, powerful women can be beautiful too! And, as the film teaches us, they can also be conflicted, stubborn, disabled, romantic and much, much more. Finally, multifaceted women have come to film.
Women in The Film Industry: Popular Questions
Now that we have travelled back to the early days of film, we thought we’d run through the answers to three of the most popular questions surrounding women in the film industry.
What Percent of Film Directors Are Women?
Want to learn more about female film directors? Check out our guide to the best female directors of our time.
What Percentage of Women Are in the Film Industry?
As claimed by The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, 25% of those working in fundamental, behind-the-scenes film roles were women in 2021. This is another stat that marks an improvement as, in 2020, only 23% were women.
Who Was the First Female Lead in a Movie?
Canadian-American actress Florence Lawrence (aka the Biograph Girl) was the first woman to be publicly named as an actress in a film and, seemingly, the first woman to lead a movie.
Lawrence starred in hundreds of films during the early 20th century, some of which she played the titular character (e.g. O’Yama in D. W. Griffith’s The Heart of O’Yama).
Women in Film: The Takeaway
In summary, the representation of women in film has improved over the last century or so. And although there are still frequent glimmers of stereotypes that the industry needs to shake off, it seems there’s a brighter future on the horizon.
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