Women and Hollywood

During the opening act of this years Academy Awards, one of the lines in ‘Moving Pictures’ was “Small town girls who change the world by challenging the norms”, and we see selected female roles appear on the screen behind Neil Patrick Harris. First up, was Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games (Ross, 2012), followed by Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side (Hancock, 2009), Idina Menzel as Elsa in Frozen (Buck and Lee, 2013), Octavia Spencer in The Help (Taylor, 2011), Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, 2012), Reese Witherspoon in Wild (Vallee, 2014), and Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine (Allen, 2013). Not only two years prior to this, Seth MacFarlene shamed our Hollywood actresses in a performance of the song ‘We Saw your Boobs’. In spite of this, Neil Patrick Harris also mentioned Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks, 1953), and “When Sharon went commando and unsettled us all”; Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (Verhoeven, 1992). It may be a generalization to say, but representations of women in Hollywood appear to be very genre specific. For example, if a well known leading actress takes a role in a drama, women are represented well, but not so much in comedies or erotic thrillers (Basic Instinct). Usually, strong female roles take place in dramas, but ‘femininity’ is usually exploited in comedies. I will attempt to unravel how women are represented throughout film history, specifically Hollywood.


I will choose 1939 to begin with, as two will known films were unleashed onto the world this year. These were Gone With The Wind (GWTW) (Fleming, 1939) and The Wizard of Oz (Fleming, 1939). Both movies were directed by the same man, and yet display different representations of women. The strength of women was demonstrated at the end of the first half of GWTW with the infamous line when Vivien Leigh declares that she will never grow hungry again. Despite this, in the following half of the movie we have Clark Gable saying ‘frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’, and in the ensuing scene the lead female suffers a miscarriage from falling down a flight of stairs. In contrast to the strong female lead and ‘putting down’ of women in GWTW, in The Wizard of Oz we find the highly feminine idyllic innocence of both Dorothy and Glinda, the Good Witch. Obviously Dorothy couldn’t make it to The Emerald City herself, she needed three male characters to help her there. When she kills the Wicked Witch: ‘I didn’t mean to kill her, it’s just that he was on fire’. Even Dorothy’s Aunt Em: ‘Now Almira Gulch, for twenty three years I’ve been dying to tell you what I thought of you. And now, well being a Christian woman I can’t say it’, and runs off crying.

Throughout the 1940’s the representation doesn’t change very much, including in How Green Was My Valley (Ford, 1941), and Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942). Katherine Hepburn also stood out in this period with the many movies she did with Spencer Tracy. She was known for her ‘fierce independence and spirited personality’, and would be portrayed by Cate Blanchett in The Aviator (Scorsese, 2004).

We continue to the major decade in the golden era of Hollywood, the 1950’s, were we saw the beginning of what I would call the Marilyn Monroe versus Audrey Hepburn period. In which, the difference between the sexualized female and the ladylike female both sought to dominate the industry in this period.


In the case of Audrey, her spectacular unparalleled beauty was emphasized upon the moment she set foot on screen in Roman Holiday (Wyler, 1953). This continued in her role in Sabrina (Wilder, 1954), and her elfin features being the key storyline of the musical Funny Face (Donen, 1957). She enchanted everyone into the 1960’s with Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Edwards, 1961) and My Fair Lady (Cukor, 1964). As much as I would be a fan of Ms. Hepburn myself, I can’t help but wonder if her entire persona was a marketing scheme, to counteract the growth of a sexualized entertainment industry. In which case, the entertainment industry began to be spiraled into this idea of a ‘pin-up girl’ which had been set into particular motion with the release of Pin Up Girl (Humberstone) in 1944. When Norma Jeane took on the persona of Marilyn Monroe she quickly became one of the biggest names in Hollywood based upon this marketing of a ‘dumb blonde’ personality, and her position as a ‘pin-up girl’ throughout the 1950’s. Audiences saw witness to this personality which was meant to be humorous in We’re Not Married! (Goulding, 1952), The Seven year Itch (Wilder, 1955), and Some Like it Hot (Wilder, 1959). Included with these was the sexist ‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend’ in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks, 1953), and her driving Lawrence Olivier mad off the screen during the making of The Prince and The Showgirl (Olivier, 1957), as was documented in My Week With Marilyn (Curtis, 2011). Clark Gable had a heart attack and died after making The Misfits (Huston, 1961) with her. This was her last movie before her drug overdose. In actual effect, her other co-star Montgomery Clift died the same way as her in 1966, after he told his personal secretary to turn off The Misfits, which was on TV the night he died.

Annex - Monroe, Marilyn (Misfits, The)_10Other notable actresses of the 1950’s period included Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly. Taylor’s character in Giant (Stevens, 1956) was hounded away by her husband during a business meeting, as ‘women should not worry themselves with such things’. Despite this, her role is strong in the movie, as was her character in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (Brooks, 1959). Grace Kelly faces a large amount of sexism in Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954), despite her strong willed, elegant character. I quote from that movie: “I don’t know how many years I’ve spent tracking down leads based on female intuition. That feminine intuition stuff sells magazines, but in real life it’s still a fairy tale. … Let’s let the female psychology dept. sort it out”. In essence, the roles of many of the great 1950’s actresses were strong, vibrant, and elegant, even if the ‘dumb blonde’ persona sold cinema tickets as well.


The Golden Era of Hollywood ended in the late 1960’s, with the moment Maggie Smith obtained her Oscar for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Neame, 1969), which displayed another strong female character being put down by the male characters. Also, let’s not forget the wonderful Julie Andrews and her titular roles as Mary Poppins and Maria, in which she triumphed as a woman in both roles: “First of all I’d like to make one thing quite clear. I never explain anything.” In the former, suffragettes are represented, and in both roles Andrews plays characters who are very forward thinking for their respective eras.

Next, I enter the 1970’s by discussing Barbra Streisand. In The Way We Were (Pollack, 1973), she portrays a highly outward spoken woman, first in the late 1930’s and then in the 1950’s, and thus experiences isolation in the situations she is in as a result. Streisand would take on similar roles in her self directed films later in her career including Yentl (Streisand, 1983), The Prince of Tides (Streisand, 1991), and The Mirror has Two Faces (Streisand, 1996).

In the later part of the 1970’s, Diane Keaton took on two very similar roles in Woody Allen’s films: Annie Hall (Allen, 1977), and Manhattan (Allen, 1979). In each, she is in a relationship with Woody Allen’s character whereby her characters, especially Annie Hall, are put down in the relationships. Allen’s characters see her as weak, yet she turns out to be the strong one and him the weaker one in each case. The character of Annie Hall also displays a masculine dress sense, which was taking shape in society at the time of the films production.


Flashdance… What a Feeling!

Enter the 1980’s, where the image of women changes, but the treatment doesn’t change as drastically. Lead female characters working in steal mills and factories are displayed in Flashdance (Lyne, 1983) and An Officer and a Gentleman (Hackford, 1982). There is a contrast within these however, with the character in the former pursuing her dream as a dancer, her dancing could be seen as female empowerment or female objectification. The way she is treated in the bar that she works clearly follows this trend of putting down strong women. Whereas, the end of the latter film has the famous scene with Richard Gere entering the factory the lead female character works in, wearing a white Navy suit and carries her out of there. Again, female empowerment or female objectification?  Footloose (Ross, 1984) shows the lead female going against her family and the social norms, while in The Goonies (Donner, 1985) the girls are the weak and scared characters but ultimately just as smart as the boys. The female characters always seem to prove themselves towards the end of most drama or action/adventure films in this period. Of course, this is debatable within either the Star Wars  or Indiana Jones franchises, but Princess Leia is a very strong female character despite this. Let’s not forget the character of Ellen Ripley played by Sigourney Weaver in Alien (Scott, 1979) and Aliens (Cameron, 1986) though. She changed how women are portrayed in movies by becoming the first female hero in the science fiction genre.


As we enter the 1990’s, I am going to name drop to start, as these actresses still dominant Hollywood, but made their mark from the years 1980 – 2005: Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Hilary Swank, Gwyneth Paltrow, Natalie Portman, Sandra Bullock, Julianne Moore, Jodie Foster, Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett, Reese Witherspoon, and Anne Hathaway.

Following this rise of the new representation in the 1980’s, the 1990’s only saw to develop this even further. Thelma & Louise (Scott, 1991) and The First Wives Club (Wilson, 1996) developed a new face for women in film. We also had Jodie Foster in The Silence Of The Lambs (Demme, 1991), which was very different to her character of a 13-year old prostitute in Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1978). I can’t forget to mention Sally Field’s portrayal of a woman caught in her husband’s home county of Iran, in which they arrive on holiday and he won’t let his wife leave afterwards. Field attempts to leave, but proclaims Not Without My Daughter (Gilbert, 1991).

A very strong female lead actress from this period, who could do no wrong until she shoplifted in the early 2000’s was Winona Ryder. From her heroism in Heathers (Lehmann, 1988) after dealing with shall we say an abusive boyfriend, her dream to be a writer in a time when female authors were frowned upon in Little Women (Armstrong, 1994), and portraying the unknown realities of post-college life in Reality Bites (Stiller, 1994). All leading up to her unparalleled performance as Susanna Kaysen with Angelina Jolie in Girl Interrupted (Mangold, 1999), portraying a girl trapped in an era that didn’t look very kindly on a woman who thought differently.

Ryder was, and is open to opinion, the Audrey Hepburn of the 1990’s. Too bad she sold herself out at the beginning of the following decade. At which point, we had Hilary Swank portraying a transgender woman in Boy’s Don’t Cry (Peirce, 1999) and a female boxer in Million Dollar Baby (Eastwood, 2004). Swank won Oscars for both of these movies. Also, in 2000, Julia Roberts played a woman bringing a large company to its knees for her town in Erin Brokovich (Soderbergh, 2000), much in comparison to her portrayal of a ‘saved’ prostitute in Pretty Woman (Marshall, 1990). Of course, Roberts is known for playing many great women, going against the norm and she did this no better than in Mona Lisa Smile (Newell, 2003).

At the beginning of this decade, we also had Coyote Ugly (McNally, 2000).

Rachel Weisz was also killing it for women in The Mummy Series. Nicole Kidman demonstrated harsh realities for women at the turn of the century in 1900 in Moulin Rouge! (Luhrmann, 2001), and joined forces with Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore for a movie which cut across different period struggles for women in The Hours (Daldry, 2002). An essay could be written on that movies representation of women in itself.


As we look upon the past ten years, the path is paved by all the great actresses that came before contemporary Hollywood. In 2006, Jennifer Hudson was in Dreamgirls (Condon, 2006), belting it out with ‘I Am Changing’.

Angelina Jolie tried to stand strong against an oppressive society in Changeling (Eastwood, 2008) to find her missing son. Meryl Streep, just say her name, I don’t need to say anymore.

I mentioned some of the more recent representations of women in my introduction, but I will conclude by making some final remarks about the recent situation. Disney had Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora. In the 1990’s they had Belle, Jasmine, and Mulan. Now, we have a Rapunzel who saves the man, and Elsa who doesn’t need any man, as well as her sister who punches a guy in the face. We first had Disney women who needed to be saved by men, followed by women who followed their dreams, and now we have women following their dreams and don’t need men to save them.

frozen-1024x768In the action world this year, we had the Black Widow debate, whether or not she should get a movie. This coincided with sexist comments made by Chris Evans (Captain America) and Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye) about her character, which they apologized for. Scalett Johansson was also in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo and Russo, 2014), and her origin story could have been Lucy (Besson, 2014), because the title character and Black Widow are very similar. Despite this, I think she should get a movie. Johansson has been doing a very good job for women, from what I can see and deserves her own movie. She stands strong in each Avengers movie, as the only lead female and the only one until Scarlet Witch was introduced.


To rap up, over the past few years we have had some actresses who have pretty much become pop culture icons, just purely based on their representations of women. These are Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook (Russell, 2012), Emma Stone for The Help (Taylor, 2011), Anna Kendrick for Pitch Perfect (Moore, 2012), Ellen Page for Juno (Reitman, 2007), and Emma Watson for The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Chbosky, 2012). As such, I think every generation is building on the last. The last few I mentioned are building on the stage created by Streep, Moore, Roberts, and Bullock, and they built on that created by Hepburn, Taylor, Andrews, Streisand and Keaton. Representations are changing, and have changed since 1939. More needs to be done, but more needs to be done in society as well. It is a slow process, but by just looking at how much film has changed, we know we have come a long way. Patricia Arquette said this no better this year when she received her Oscar for Boyhood (Linklater, 2014). Equal wages could be a path to a more equal screen. Katyrn Bigelow was also the first woman to receive the award for best director: The Hurt Locker (Bigelow, 2008). Here’s to the future of women in Hollywood.



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