Leading Ladies: Changing Hollywood's feminine stereotypes
Published: Saturday, April 28, 2012
Updated: Monday, August 27, 2012 16:08
A death-match combatant with a knack for archery. A hacker with an insatiable curiosity. A teenage girl with a vampire baby.
Female roles in film have come a long way from the film noir femme fatale or the mindless bubbly eye candy. “The Hunger Games,” “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and yes, even “Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1”—which all center around compelling (or in “Twilight’s” case, “compelling”) female leads—were met with immense success. So what do recent films say about Hollywood’s understanding of traditional female archetypes, and more importantly, what are they doing to change them?
Roughly a month after a Capitol Hill hearing on the Obama administration’s new birth control mandate—in which Congressman Darrell Issa said “a man’s conscience” should lead the law, while he led an all-male panel—“The Hunger Games” arrived in theaters. The adaptation of the 2008 Suzanne Collins novel stars Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss: a tough competitor in a government-mandated game of life and death. The film opened to a cool $152.5 million, making it one of the top three box office opening weekend sales in North American history. As the debate raged on, so did “The Hunger Games’” success, holding down first place at the box office for four weeks straight.
Does life imitate art, or art imitate life?
In any case, “The Hunger Games” swept up the nation in its dystopian storytelling and compelling lead. DePaul junior Eunice Choi said Katniss was an alternative to the traditional American female hero.
“I think to a certain extent, Katniss is more complex than other female characters because she shows both a killing, active, masculine side and she also has a nurturing feminine side,” Choi said.
Likewise, DePaul new media and technology professor Paul Booth said the success of “The Hunger Games” portended well to more strong female characters. Because she is “such a badass,” Katniss ends up representing all women in film.
“You don’t find that with men in movies,” Booth said. “You don’t have Bruce Willis representing all men. You have Bruce Willis representing a character.” Meanwhile, Katniss’ nurturing disposition (along with her bow-and-arrow precision) helps her to survive, which separates her from, say, John McClane in “Die Hard.”
“And that’s really wonderful to see: a value placed on that sort of less active attribute,” Booth said.
Katniss could also be a turn away from the idea that women in film are just objects for the males to pine over.
“She refuses to be a sex object,” Booth said. “She’s like, ‘I don’t want to be a part of this love triangle. I don’t want to be seen that way. I want to choose how I’m seen.’”
However, it’s not all fun and games on the road to cinematic gender equality.
“There’s a large section of the population—‘The Hunger Games’ made the list of most banned books in school libraries as well—that is still very conservative about gender roles, and ‘The Hunger Games’ is not going to change their minds,” Booth said. “But if you can change 10 people’s minds, 100 people’s minds, and they can change people’s minds, change does happen.”
People who were shocked by “The Hunger Games’” Katniss would probably have a heart attack if they saw “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s” Lisbeth Salander. Though the film failed to reach the box office heights of “The Hunger Games” or “Twilight,” “Dragon Tattoo’s” simmering take on abuse and revenge resonated well with critics. Rooney Mara’s intimidating portrayal of the hacker and unorthodox detective earned her a Best Actress nomination at the Oscars: a testament to her performance and the importance of the role.
DePaul senior Kristen Micek said “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” plays with common portrayals of women as sex objects in film.
“She’s brutalized and treated as nothing more than something to be used in parts of the film, but she exacts revenge in a similar manner,” Micek said. “Lisbeth uses, and is used [for], her sexuality, but it’s done in a very harsh and practical manner that separates it from what is typically portrayed as feminine sexuality at all.”
Booth, however, hesitates to place “Dragon Tattoo” in the same socially-progressive category as “The Hunger Games.”
“We have a very powerful female protagonist here, even though the underlying message is one that maybe misogynistic,” Booth said. “You can have something that claims to be avant-garde or breaking social norms, and have an example of something that does, but the rest of the movie [could] support the status quo in a lot of ways.”