With the recent OUTRAGE regarding the casting of Ghostbusters, Chris Gallagher has a look at the role of female characters in contemporary Hollywood with a focus on the role of female leads in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Is it any different in 2016?
Hollywood cinema has continually portrayed masculinity as dominant, with women being relegated to the role of spectacle. The male gaze has cast a shadow over women in Hollywood, a shadow that continues to this day. How has the role of women changed in Hollywood and how have they been represented in recent times?
Women in a Time of Greed
The 1980s saw the birth of Reaganism and the notion that a free market capitalist ethos would see America prosper. The family became a focus of right wing politics and a new moral compass would guide America into anew dawn. The effect for women in Hollywood was the rise of the sentimental female friendship film.
The sentimental female friendship film enhanced the stereotype that the main goals in life of women are to be a wife and mother. A focus on struggle and sacrifice bond the female characters in these films, with the emphasis on fixing any issues with the absent male characters. The unseen males drive the narrative, showing the power of masculinity.
These films were not produced by a new wave of female filmmaker but instead by the established Hollywood patriarchy, who saw the potential in making money from what they saw as ‘mainstream feminism’. The idea of a diverse, independent woman with ideas and goals out with the stereotype of wife and mother are not explored in these films. Women are bound by the patriarchal role they have been assigned.
You could argue that the female friendship films of the 1980s are a response to the Hollywood blockbuster strategy that was being harnessed at the time.
It would indicate that executives viewed the female characters in these films in a similar vein to their female customers, one dimensional and only interested in the female point of view.
Women as Action Hero
In 1986, the James Cameron film Aliens, showed that women could take on the action hero role. Sigourney weaver’s character, Ripley, takes control of a group of marines after an Alien cluster attacks them. As she takes command, her judgment is skewed when her maternal instincts kick in, after a surviving child is discovered. Ripley then puts herself and her follow survivors at risk as she protects the child.
Ripley can’t just be an action hero; she still has to take on the maternal traits of a mother. The idea of women as mother being their main goal, is again emphasized in Aliens with the main antagonist, the Queen Alien, also being motivated by revenge after the death of her offspring. The famous line, “Get away from her you bitch” promotes the stereotype of female relationships being based on betrayal.
Ripley transcends gender, taking on both male and female characteristics. The strength taken from the male side of the character, to lead and make decisions, juxtaposed against the weakness of her female side, making decisions based on her maternal instincts. The other prominent female character in Aliens, Vasquez, is almost male in appearance as well as attitude.
In 1992s Terminator 2, another James Cameron film, the female protagonist
Sarah Connor, played by Linda Hamilton, is transformed from the timid victim in the first film into a contorted version of female masculinity. A tough and toned Connor must protect her son from cyborgs from the future, as we see her transform from female to male form, shedding the maternal instincts and becoming the protector.
In both Aliens and Terminator 2, the lead female character is labelled as paranoid. In Ripley’s case, they (Men) do not believe her story about what happened on the Nostromo in the first film, as they look for answers regarding loss of profit in their capitalist world.
In Connor’s case, she is committed to an insane asylum for her stories about killer cyborgs and kept away from her son, who is turned against her by the system (Men). Both narratives push the notion of men as logical and target focused, with women driven by emotion.
The truth is eventually shown that both female characters are correct and that man’s need for profit, as well as an irrational need to harness power, means that only the female leads can save humanity. This is true of Terminator 2, when Sarah Connor quite literally changes the future and saves the world.
Aliens and Terminator 2 are both action films that appeal to a male demographic but with the addition of a female in one of the lead roles, it broadens the appeal.
Unfortunately, the female characters can never simply be women; they must have heightened female characteristics (Maternal) or be judged to have problems with mental health.
Women with Power
The 1990s was a boom time for America, politically and economically. The start of a liberal period in American politics, with Bill Clinton in charge, there was a feeling that gender equality could become a reality. More women were taking prominent roles within government and in the business world, and this supposed balance of power would find its way to Hollywood.
Powerful female characters would become part of the Hollywood zeitgeist in the 1990s. Would these women earn their power based on hard work and honesty? In a film like 1994s Disclosure, Demi Moore’s character seduces Michael Douglas, using her sexuality to overcome him. The balance of power is reversed.
The powerful women in Disclosure and in another film from 1992, Basic Instinct, brings to the forefront the idea of men unable to deal with the new powerful, sexually driven women. Threatened masculinity becomes a key component to what drives the narrative, as they struggle to deal with them.
The erotic thrillers of the early 1990s caused much controversy regarding their sexually driven content, becoming box office smashes. Basic Instinct caused controversy with people interpreting it as misogynistic and homophobic, leaked stories from set of sexual explicitness helped with the promotion, as did issues with the ratings board.
Provocative posters for Disclosure and another Paul Verhoeven feature, Showgirls in 1995, saw them follow in the footsteps of Basic Instinct as successful erotic thriller/drama. These films showed women in the lead role, oozing with sexuality and power. However, are they agents of culture and fantasy? Or are they simply there to be gazed upon?
Changing Role or Vaguely Familiar?
The changing role of women in contemporary Hollywood has seen a move from the sentimental image of bonding, through to the sexualized return of the femme fatale. Women are rarely allowed to simply be themselves and are often depicted as sex crazed psychopaths or the warm-hearted wife and mother.
A continual struggle by men throughout the 1980s and 1990s to define masculinity, meant women were represented as the main issue of their downfall, from the spread of disease (Aids) represented in 1987s Fatal Attraction, to the dominant female using their sexuality to emasculate the business man in Disclosure.
Women are rarely allowed to be successful or victorious by simply being themselves; they must accentuate what it means to be a woman. The maternal instincts of Ripley in Aliens cloud her judgment, and Sarah Connor literally shedding her female body to protect her son in Terminator 2.
In recent romantic comedies, He’s Just Not That Into You and Confessions of a Shopaholic both released in 2009, we see weight obsessed, image conscious female characters, obsessed with bagging a man.
Do these films really represent all it means to be a woman? In my opinion they do not.