Every fictional female doesn’t need to be a role model

When I saw this opinion piece by Sacha Molitorisz in the Sydney Morning Herald I prepared to get my grrr on: To kick goals, girls need fewer bad teachers and more grand tourers:

Seeing Bad Teacher at a session packed with teenagers, I wondered: did all the girls in the audience want to be this woman? Did all the boys want to be with her? Is this the sort of female role model my daughters are destined to emulate when they’re older?

One female character in one movie who doesn’t act like a “proper woman” and there’s gnashing of teeth about role models and about how women are supposed to behave. I don’t recall people saying that boys and young men needed better role models when The Hangover was released. I recall words like “edgy comedy“, “clever script“, and frothing about it being hilarious. If you thought it was hilarious, then you should read The Lazy Misogyny Of The Hangover: “The Hangover, Phillips’ most recent (and successful, both comedically and commercially) work is arguably the worst of the lot, presenting women as warm-hearted whores, nut-cracking bitches, or spectacular-looking dum dums“. (For the record, I haven’t seen The Hangover. I saw a little bit on the weekend and it looked like utter shit. However, as was pointed out to me, I’m not exactly their target audience.)

Molitorisz writes:

Our culture needs more female protagonists, but not like this. We need fewer rap pretties gyrating like porn stars, fewer Elizabeth Halseys exploiting their appearance. Predatory as they are, these women are no more emancipated than ’50s pin-up girls. Their identity is defined entirely by their looks.

I agree when he says we need better female role models in our culture, but he’s only interested in the same three devils: glossy mags, rap music videos, and one female movie character. He’s blaming women, black men (although the gyrating women get most of the blame), and women. Phew, the white men who control the record labels and the movie studios are off the hook. Anyhow, it’s hard to argue that a gyrating woman in the background of a music video is a role model.

So, you want to talk about female role models in movies? Sure. Let’s start with female visibility in films. I’ve blogged before about the dearth of female characters in Pixar and Disney films, but here’s a quick summary:

* In the top 101 G-rated films from 1990 to 2005, only 28 per cent of speaking characters were female.

* In the 400 top-grossing G, PG, PG-13 and R films in the US between 1990 and 2006, only 27 per cent of the characters were female.

* In family movies, only 17 per cent of the people in crowd scenes are female.

* Female characters in G-rated films wear the same amount of skimpy clothing as female characters in R-rated films.

In The Shame of Family Films, Julia Baird writes:

A study commissioned by the advertising group Kaplan Thaler showed that 68 percent of those who watched Commander in Chief were more likely to take a female president seriously. Yes, even though it was just a TV show. That’s the point of all this—what we see on our screens matters. It shapes our imaginations, and sometimes limits them. “The more we see female characters who are hypersexual, one-dimensional eye candy, sidelined, or not even there,” [Geena] Davis said, “the more it affects the way boys and girls think about girls.”

It is a disgrace that we are still teaching girls that they should be onlookers in a world where boys do interesting things. Too many females on screen are inaction figures: watching, waiting, applauding, and baring flesh.

Every film does not have to be everything to everyone. But the film industry does seem to be just for boys and menn. I dare anyone to argue that all animated cars have to be male. Look at the twenty top grossing films in Australia this year and show me the female characters:

1 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part Two)
2 Transformers 3
3 The Hangover Part II
4 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (3D)
5 Fast Five
6 Bridesmaids
7 Tangled
8 Cars 2
9 Kung Fu Panda 2
10 Thor
11 Rio
12 X-Men: First Class
13 Black Swan
14 Yogi Bear
15 Mr. Popper’s Penguins
16 Hop
17 Water for Elephants
18 Rango
19 The Green Hornet
20 Just Go With It

A few hot chicks and a few crazy hot chicks who have a lesbian sex scene. And Bridesmaids, which caused a heap of famous douchebags to write about how women aren’t funny. There was also some gnashing of teeth about the female characters behaving badly.

Remember at the start I said I agreed with much of what Molitorisz said? Yeah, well his final paragraph ruined that:

And besides, Ellyse is so much more attractive than Elizabeth [Halsey – the Cameron Diaz character in Bad Teacher]. That’s the ultimate irony. Much more than a sex object, Ellyse Perry is a fascinating subject.

He’s reduced one of Australia’s most talented athletes to a sex object. To whether he finds her attractive. Her sporting achievements – representing Australia in soccer and cricket – are nothing compared to whether or not a 42-year-old writer finds her hot. She’s 21, by the way.

73 responses to “Every fictional female doesn’t need to be a role model

  1. Google hermione granger from Harry potter and tell me that girl isn’t kick ass, smart and funny.

  2. It’s nice when there are exemplary role-models but women (I hope you’re sitting down – I know this will cause some shock) are people too and as you say not all male characters are expected to be role models, so why the hell can’t there be some women acting like, hmmm, flawed characters? Ie., normal people? Sorry, I just realise I am sounding like a slightly incoherent echo-chamber so I will just summarise – I agree with you. (Also I have a headache.)

  3. Here’s another fact: “the more hours of television a girl watches, the fewer options she believes she has in life. And the more hours a boy watches, the more sexist his views become.” (from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704013604576247133240163732.html)

    I don’t think all women need to be role models in films and TV, but I’d love to see some female characters with a bit of depth, and with believable flaws, not ‘flaws’ like “she’s a bimbo” or “she’s a villianous, ball-breaking slut”. And female characters who don’t think their life-goal should be marriage OR a career.

  4. I haven’t seen the movie. But I saw the trailer on youtube. Cameron Diaz seems super badass. She’s a woman with strong sexual desire, who wants to fuck a guy. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. If anything, it’s an improvement on the usual hollywood female character.

    • Hi Michael, welcome to the News with Nipples. I haven’t seen it either, but from the trailer, I’m more bothered by the plot: are we really supposed to believe that a clearly attractive woman, who has plenty of male attention, actually believes a pair of big fake boobs will help her get a man’s attention? That doesn’t make any sense at all. Having said that, it looks pretty funny.

  5. Scary statistics. As a writer, I worry about this issue a lot. I used to be quite active in the women’s movement back in 70s and it’s depressing that things haven’t changed to the extent we all hoped they would back then. I also have a daughter and I’d like her to be all she can be. So I really want to promote good role models for female readers in the stuff I write. Yet when I look around at how life really is, I find myself in real danger of writing propaganda rather than stories that reflect the world we actually live in.

    So I’ve got some sympathy with the position that all female characters can’t be role models – shouldn’t be, in fact. But some should – and that’s where movies, literature and the news media seem to be letting us down.

    • Hmm. What if you just wrote female characters, as opposed to role models? For me, the biggest issue is not role models, but visibility. Or, when it comes to Hollywood, only being visible if you’re fuckable.

      What do you write?

      • “What if you just wrote female characters … ?” I think that was my point. And, if I did, some of them would be role models, but the majority would not be (same goes for male characters, of course).

        As for Hollywood and fuckability, have you noticed how buff the male characters have become in the last decade or two? You can’t have a teenage geek boy appear on film these days who doesn’t have six-pack abs and pumped up pecs. Equality of a sort, I suppose.

        But it does raise the interesting issue of how hyper-sexuality in women somehow became associated with liberation and empowerment. I suspect a lot of TV and film writers believe that putting a hot woman in a business suit, six-inch heels and a push-up bra, making her sexually rapacious, and as tough as her heavily-lacquered nails, is actually a good thing, presenting a strong, self-assured image of a woman. And maybe it’s better than the opposite, but I suspect that it’s another way that men have subverted the message to make it more appealing to themselves.

        • By just writing female characters, I meant female characters who aren’t necessarily role models. Just humans. Not writing only female characters.

          And yes, I had noticed that male actors are more buff than they used to be.

          • Have you read this?

            I feel like the “we want more WEAK female characters.” Not ‘weak’ meaning ‘Damsel in Distress.’ “Weak” meaning ‘flawed’. ” sentiment is kind of tied in with the desire for female characters who are human, and not necessarily perfect or role models.

            • And that’s what I mean by “strong” female characters – characters who are real, who are flawed, who are more than just two-dimensional hotties or hot baddies.

              • Yeah, the use of strong/weak by the author of that post is a bit twisty because it’s trying to express that what films are portraying as strong female chracters are actually quite weak, and that what we would consider “strong” female characters (i.e. ones that are human and flawed) are probably what filmakers would consider to be weak female characters. (And that, if we’re using the terms of film speak we need more weak characters- which translates in feminist speak as strong characters).

  6. Hopefully the new Pixar movie “Brave” won’t screw it up, and will give us a strong female lead… but yeah its pretty dismal still. They did an OK job with female characters in The Incredibles, so I am holding out hope…

  7. As I’m sure you know, the women in Harry Potter are awesome, but still, I know what you’re saying, it’s a percentage thing, and there are of course more men in HP than women. Those statistics are pretty grim. I’ve never thought of it all that way.

    Also, this is definitely one of the reasons I love shows like Fringe and Firefly. And my mother adored Commander in Chief. Before it got cancelled. -eyeroll-

    • Welcome Tallulah. What’s Fringe?

      • Fringe is ahmaaaaazing.
        It’s sci-fi, the basic premise, initially, is a fairly standard ‘odd occurrences caused by rents in the fabric of the universe, go check ’em out, gang!’ type deal. . The lead character is FBI agent Olivia Dunham, and I find it difficult to describe her because it makes me want to just go ‘eeeeeeeeeeeee I looooove heeeeer!’

        She’s smart, principled, capable (so, so capable), but not in that two dimensional ‘female hero’ way that you tend to get. She’s allowed to be scared, and emotional, and make mistakes, and be angry, and love, and hate, and her capability isn’t called into question because of it. Actually, it is once, right at the beginning of season 1, but she addresses it perfectly. I cant find the exact quote, which is going to bug me for a while. In fact, Im going to go back and watch the episode til I find it!

        The support cast is stellar, and have agency, for the most part. It has Joshua Jackson (Pacey!) and John Noble acting their hearts out. Noble’s performance as Walter Bishop, genius scientist who’s not quite firing on all cylinders (you find out why later) who was locked away in an asylum after some experiments went wrong is utterly heartbreaking at times, hilarious at others.

        I cant recommend it highly enough, and my description isnt doing it any justice. It doesnt shy away from ethical grey areas (in fact, one major plot arc is based on some veeeeery shady practices, and the writers address it head on) and is probably one of my favourite shows of all time.

        • That sounds fabulous. I’ll check it out. For someone who’s not interested in sci-fi and fantasy, I really enjoy some of the shows: Battlestar Galactica, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who.

          • Ugh. Game of Thrones.
            I was on the fence about it (Im not a fan of brutalist fantasy, it’s far too often an excuse for writers to treat women like utter shit), then Jason Momoa’s little comment on how totes awesome it is being in a fantasy movie because you get to ‘rape beautiful women and then they fall in love with you’ put me in the ‘no fucking way’ camp.

            • movie = series. My brain, she is toast today.

            • Yes, I struggle with all the nude boobs and women as prizes, but there are still strong (ie developed, flawed and/or powerful) female characters. Momoa’s comment says more about his douchebaggeriness than it does about the series.

              • Yeah, it does, and to their credit, the rest of the cast on the panel with him facepalmed at the comment. I guess for me, though, it’s really indicative of the attitude towards women in the genre, and it doesnt take much to make me shy away from stuff these days. I’m sick of being given crumbs and being told to be grateful for them.

        • Yeah, my post about Fringe was somehow made as another comment, not as a reply. Damn you, internets. Oh well. We basically said exactly the same thing anyway, and what you added, I heartily agree with, plus some. =D

          I’m all into Game of Thrones right now; I love it. For a story about a ye-olde patriarchal society, there are some amazingly strong female characters. Who the hell as sure aren’t just used as a means-to-an-end. Love love it.

          Momoa’s comment shouldn’t put you off the whole series. He wasn’t being serious at all, and he has a lot of love and respect for his female cast members, especially Emilia. It was just a dumb thing to say. He knew it too, possibly when the entire room did that awkward gasp, fake laugh thing. that happens when a ‘joke’ goes over the line.

          • It still, unfortunately, runs afoul of my discomfort with brutalist fantasy.
            I wish I could handle it better – some of them are exquisitely crafted, incredibly well written works (Joe Abercrombie’s stuff, for example. Oh Joe, please PLEASE write something where women arent treated like utter shit. I would buy the FUCK out of that book). I read to educate or escape, these days; I’d much rather be curled up with Thursday Next than Daenerys Targaryen.

            • Fair enough. If brutalist fantasy is not your thing, Game of Thrones is surely not going to be your favourite book or show. Women in it are still amazing, though.

        • I love Fringe too but network TV in New Zealand pretty quickly stuffed it into a useless timeslot and then dropped it altogether. So annoying! Olivia Dunham rocks! By the way, the actress who plays her is australian, did you know?

      • -eyeroll- I understand, agree and commiserate with the point about a Hermione Granger Series not happening, but for the rest: eyeroll.

  8. It’s a fairly bleak picture all around for feminism in film (particularly kid’s films). However, I think Tangled deserves a shout-out alongside Harry Potter for being a reasonably feminist film. It does pass the Bechdel Test, after all!
    If anyone happens to be interested, I wrote a little about Tangled here: http://seriouslywhimsical.wordpress.com/2011/06/26/disneys-tangled-feminism-and-the-big-dorky-review/

    • I love the Bechdel Test. It’s so simple, yet YELLS exactly what is wrong with so many movies: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.

      • Does that mean they can never talk about a man at any point or they must talk about something other than at some point? If it’s the latter what about alien?

        • It means they must talk about something other than men at some point. The Bechdel Test is less about identifying the quality of any individual movie, and more about demonstrating how messed up the industry is when it can be so hard to find things that reach even such an absurdly low standard.

  9. Oooh, Fringe is this *amazing* sci-fi/drama created by JJ Abrams (Lost and Super 8). The main character is Olivia Dunham, a no-nonsense, brilliant FBI Agent; what strikes you most, from a feminist perspective, I guess, and especially in the context of this article, is how her looks never have anything remotely to do with anything. She’s always rugged up in black with her hair back and no make up; but she’s real: she has a troubled past, she falls in love, and also saves the world on the side 😉


    I love Firefly too – created by Joss Whedon, who is a known feminist and none of his female characters take shit from anyone 😉

    • I love Joss too. However, there are times I have been disappointed in him. Dollhouse is a great example of my disappointment. (A lot of bullshit in that series that is very fucking hard to swallow.)

      • You mean disappointed by him in that you didn’t like Dollhouse as a show or his feminist side failed in it? I presume you mean the former, I didn’t find anything worth questioning concerning his female characters…I’ve watched the first season…it’s…hmm…honestly, I just really really really really dislike Eliza Dushku lol. But I thought the concept was completely brilliant, so all kudos to Joss on that score.

        • His feminist side failed in it. Gratuitous rape etc. Just not good. I expect more from Joss. (I’ll have to go back and see which eps I mean- can’t think of them off the top of my head…it was a while ago that I watched it, but I still remember the stomach turns and the extreme disappointment, but some eps were just awful fail for a guy who has always treated his female characters with respect.)

          I don’t dislike ED, but I think some of the writing in this one let her down and equally i think she let down some of the writing. The premise of Dollhouse was a good one, but it degenerated into an undercurrent of misogynistic goo. Certainly far from Joss’s best work, and not so feminist when you scratch the surface.

          • I enjoyed Dollhouse in a rollicking yarn kind of way. What got to me was the bondage footwear. I can’t stand it. And when Echo actually made a comment about how wise it is to wear comfortable shoes WHILE wearing stilettos I wondered if Whedon had simply failed to pay attention to what the costume department was doing.
            My memory may be failing me, but I remember issues about rape and consent being dealt with seriously in the show.

          • Two words: Adelle DeWitt. She comes close to being my favourite female character that Whedon has ever written. I find her completely fascinating and incredibly powerful (if not always on the side of Right).

    • whoops, for some reason my browser didnt show up your reply! Please excuse my long, ranty, Olivia-fangirl explanation up there *points*

  10. I thought that whole “women aren’t funny” hoo haa was before Bridesmaids came out? I can’t remember who the quote was from.
    But seriously, anyone who says women aren’t funny, and you can’t write comedy for women hasn’t seen the movie. It is hilarious. And the small minority of people who say it is bad to see women acting ‘badly’ (as in, doing things only blokes should do) were never going to get it anyway, so fuck them.

    • The “women aren’t funny” thing was Christopher Hitchens in a Vanity Fair article a few years back. The buzz surrounding “Bridesmaids” has mostly been insulting incredulity at his being proved wrong.

      • Christopher who?

        All of the ‘buzz’ I have read surrounding Bridesmaids has been that it is a good and funny film. There have been references to the ‘women aren’t funny’ article, but none of it incredulously insulting. All very much of the, ‘yes chicks are funny. Let’s move on’ variety.

        And I watched Harry Potter yesterday and aside from the Hermione girl, several important ‘save the day’ moments are instigated by women. That Luna girl, and MAGGIE SMITH (who is kick ass, in everything she does). I was quite pleased about that.
        Also that the Luna girl is a bit nuts, but still smart, funny, and not stereotypically ‘the crazy girl’.

        • It’s actually really touching reading in various blog discussions about just how much Luna means to so many people who spent their school lives feeling they didn’t fit in, and wishing they could be valued for who they are, even if that is a bit weird. She’s much more important than she seems, and has been a balm to the soul of a lot of people.

          This thread seems to have gone KABOOM.

    • MrDonkey, anyone who says women aren’t funny hasn’t hung around with us.

      Yah face.

      • In terms of stand up (of which I consider myself a connoisseur, women whilst funny (Sarah Silverman, Joan Rivers, Margaret Cho, Ellen Degeneres etc) for me they are rarely as funny as some of the male greats (Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Lenny Bruce, Jerry Seinfeld, Russell Peters, Eddie & Charlie Murphy, Steve Martin, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Andy kaufman etc) I think it has more to do with material than anything else (like talent) for example just saying vagina is rarely funny especially if everyone knows you’re about to say vagina. The fact that you are a lesbian (Hanna Gadsby) should not be the basis of your entire act. Considering the largest audience for stand up is generally male, forty minutes of hearing how fucked (and stupid) we are will probably wear a bit thin.

        • Yeah, just like hearing about nagging wives/girlfriends.

          And isn’t Josh Thomas’ whole act about being gay? And Dave Hughes’ act simply about his voice? My point is that you can’t use one example to rubbish the comedic ability of an entire gender. There are just as many – if not more (see my next point) unfunny male comedians.

          So, the greats you’ve listed, why should opportunities in the world of comedy be any different to opportunities in any other profession, in that they always favour men. We only consider them greats because we know about them.

          • I agree but those male comedians aren’t great nor even very good. I would happily shell out twice as much to see Joan Rivers perform than I would for most male comedians. This is because she is a great and she is great because she pushes the envelope (just like Kaufman, Hicks et al) So did Degeneres regarding her lesbianism which renders the topic no longer edgy.
            Whilst there are as many unfunny male comedians there aren’t as many funny female comedians. Again this comes down to material. I think female comics are convinced by someone that their material needs to fit neat definitions as to what a female comedian should be. This is why I love margaret Cho, she doesn’t give a fuck about such definitions.
            To be entirely fair of my favourite sitcoms only Seinfeld is headlined by a man (the other two are The Vicar of Dibley and Absolutely Fabulous) and my favourite sketch performers are women (French, Saunders, Fey etc) It’s just in stand up where I feel women are held back by stupid limitations on material.
            Stand up writing and performance is a learned art. There is no reason for women to not be as funny as men. Indeed the whole concept of women not being funny is bullshit. I just don’t laugh as hard at their stand up as I do at Russell Peters or the godfather of modern stand up Richard Pryor.
            There is also the fact that I am a man and can probably relate to male performers a lot easier.

            • If there are just as many unfunny male and female comedians, then it’s because they are unfunny – or, rather, their humour doesn’t appeal to you – rather than it being about gender.

              • Plus, we’re talking about a handful of comedians in the entire industry. There aren’t that many who truly make me laugh.

              • Oh 100% it’s about my sense of humour. My point (poorly made) was that if females are to be considered as great at stand up as males their material needs to appeal to the lions share of the average stand up audience eg men. This is only in terms of them appearing to be funnier as a standard to outsiders.
                In the end I am male and I can relate to male humour a lot easier than I can to female humour. This doesn’t make women less funny just less funny to me personally.

  11. YMF (that is internet speak ‘ya mum’s face’).
    I am SO down with the kids.

  12. The posts above just confirm the exceptionalism of a range of female characters. The damage of Pretty Woman is much deeper than the occasional evil version. We still don’t get strong women as the norm, and kids stuff is particularly noxious eg Toy Story etc. The SMH story is just another view on why in 2011, we have made little impression on the serious power shifts that was women’s liberation’s aims. it’s not about us being males or even becoming male but about the diversity of both male and female being similarly ordinary

  13. No heartbreak, that suggests giving up but anger that we are still being duped and misled by apparent equality via limited choices. .We need to move beyond the playpen of ‘women’s issues’ and take on the wider issues of redefining gendered assumptions. Why are options so limited? Why are we stuck with the legal rights but no serious power to decide what matters.

  14. Duped is precisely the word, and it’s the sense that the bar has been set so low that we forget to look up anymore that infuriates. We are obliged to cheer Mulan, even though all her companions are men, and the hero treats her like dirt; to be grateful that Astrid is so cool, even though the story is still about Hiccup, and there is no reason why the dragons they ride on have to be ‘he”, and yet they are; to be encouraged that Aliens vs Monsters is a woman’s journey of self discovery, even though it only passes the Bechdel test because Susan introduces her mother to her all-male team. I feel like I’m groveling for crumbs, and that’s just the animations.

    Also, Eva Cox is showing up now? I’m giddy with the elevated circles you spin in.

  15. Favourite films with strong female roles:
    1. Silence of the lambs
    2. GI Jane
    3. Double Jeopardy
    4. Itty Bitty Titty Committee
    OK I wikipedia’d that last one under the listing ‘feminist films’ which includes Kill Bill???

  16. Assessing how a movie treats its female characters is surprisingly like assessing how a person treats their fellow human beings. You simply ask yourself, “are they being treated as a means to an end, or as an end in themselves?” If the only women in a movie are plot devices (means to an end) in a story about the hero’s journey (who is an end in himself), it’s a fail.

    This is a list I show first year uni students when I need to give a lecture on gender and the theatre. Actresses among you, these are your career options:
    – Íngenue (subcategory: chaste innocent or feisty wench)
    Function: prize to reward the Hero
    – Succubus (femme fatale / whore)
    Function: lure the Hero to his destruction
    – Wife/Mother (usually Good. If not Good, will be either whore (see above) or shrew (see below))
    Function: support the Hero
    – Virago/shrew/crone
    Function: obstacle for the Hero to overcome

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