Girls on Film: 5 Easy Steps to Improve Female Characters

Girls on Film: 5 Easy Steps to Improve Female Characters

Sep 22, 2011

Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.

Maya Rudolph in Bridesmaids

Between TIFF and the fall television season, I’ve journeyed through a ton of new worlds and met a ton of new characters this month. Yet time and time again, there’s always something that pulls me out – that little annoying tidbit that wrenches the path from reality, thrusting the experience into a tiresome mold of clichés – of plastic lives, astronomically overt emotions, or reductively one-note ideas of gender. Some of these moments are the bits of Hollywood “reality” that trickle into the film’s world, while some bits just reek of laziness – of a writer, director, or actor falling into a recognizably antiquated trope rather than taking a moment to find an alternative.

It’s two-fold pain. These moments are the nasty potholes in otherwise smooth entertainment, but they’re also insidious little beasts that inform everyday life. I’m not a person who you will see railing against violent video games, strong language, or sexual situations, but there is certainly a correlation between subtle aspects in film and the formation of opinions and ideas. A gun-toting video game won’t make a normal person into a killer, but repetitive imagery definitely impacts particular thoughts and viewpoints if we’re not careful.

It’s just like commercials – they make you familiar and aware of a product on a subconscious level so that you’ll prefer it to another when it comes time to shop, or they fill you with a need that makes you spend money. It’s no different than seeing these trite additions and clichés in film. Used over and over again, they give us a sense of what’s “normal,” but it’s not really normal. It’s just a dichotomy of differentness, either women feeling wrong about their natural feelings because they diverge from prevalent characterizations, or people who expect a certain real-world reaction because they continually see it in film and on television.

What’s particularly infuriating is that many of these moments/attributes can be stricken from film altogether without the overall creative piece really being changed. Sure, there are some fluff pieces and romcoms that couldn’t exist without the height of stereotype, but especially after this summer the box office has shown that a greater sense of reality and female depth can offer monetary riches.

What follows is a list of five simple steps that can broaden Hollywood output and give us better cinematic women without overhauling the system. It is, by no means, exhaustive, but considering each one’s massive prevalence, each of the 5 would go a long way to making cinema more true to the female population.

5. Tone Down the Emotions

There is nothing wrong with a female character going through complex emotions, but there is something hideously wrong with women on screen who explode into emotional messes whenever they’re faced with challenges. In cinema, being a woman means being emotional, and being emotional means displaying extremely extroverted and audacious tears and pain. There’s little room for the on-screen heroine to feel sad in a different way, although there are many ways that pain can authentically manifest in real life.

4. Follow the Bechdel Rule, At the Very Least

What has always been the real gut-punch of the Bechdel Rule (that women on screen speak to each other about something other than men) is that it doesn’t seem possible or real. It’s the sort of problem that feels redundant to even bring up, yet runs rampant through cinema. We almost never see women talking with each other on screen about life outside of romance, if they even get to talk to another woman at all, and it’s a rampant habit that would kill much male-centric cinema if the same rule applied. No Fight Club, no Superbad, no My Dinner with Andre… To top it off, the Rule makes no requirements on length of conversation, so a few words about broccoli can make the cut. Nevertheless, following the Rule is a good place to start, and it can work for more than just lesbians.

Kissing Jessica Stein

3. Allow Empowerment Through Action, Not Fashion

One of my biggest media pet peeves is seeing a tough woman be kickass in spite of being ridiculously impractical. There’s a reason why Joss Whedon had Buffy in a continual parade of ill-suited fightwear – it’s a classic aspect of sexy ass-kicker cinema. She must have on leather pants, or chase criminals in stilettos, or have perfect hair that requires hours of effort. Can a woman not run out in a ponytail without it being an indicator of the ugly girl? It’s a habit that grows even more tiresome when you consider the fact that cinema’s most beloved tough women like Sarah Connor didn’t have to contend with the fashion-fueled empowerment. She got to be tough on real terms.

2. Stop Making Normal Tasks Overwhelming to Women

This one is dedicated to Sarah Jessica Parker and her new film out last week, I Don’t Know How She Does It. Once again, the heroine must contend with what Hollywood considers life’s impossibility: having a relationship, a job, and a family at the same time. Yeah, that can be pretty tiresome and absolutely impossible, especially while having a nanny to help. Millions of women across the globe and spanning the length of human existence have balances these aspects, whether it be a woman tending to a huge family, or balancing family and farm/livelihood, or maintaining all aspects while having modern employment. To suggest otherwise, that to have a family and career is some monstrously a-mazing occurrence, is nothing more than a desperate attempt to label women with rich, full, well-managed lives as superhuman and therefore impossible.

1. Eradicate Botox

There’s a certain irony in a creative medium that strives to reveal human stories, but rests on a system that trumps inhuman forms above all else – bodies that must have natural shapes whittled away, bones revealed, lines eradicated, skin lopped off, fat injected. Ignoring the social implications, it’s simply ridiculous that the audience must ignore incredibly obvious differences between the women on the screen and the women in real life when actresses are playing “real-life” women. As moviegoers, we must ignore the actress who’s gone skeletal playing a character who eats fast food regularly, the 40-something modern woman who has not one wrinkle on her face (and for that matter, can barely move said face), the housewife with obvious plastic surgery (when they’re not a “Real Housewife”). Any one of those might be true of one, but is definitely not the whole or majority of women, and what’s the point of striving for talent, relatability, and a sense of reality if the actors not only fail to look like the general public (a topic all of its own), but fail to look like their own natural selves?

None of these potential changes are monumental on their own or even together, but they are exceptions of the mainstream rule. There’s simply no reason why emotions have to be overblown, why women can’t talk to each other and talk about something other than men, why empowered women have to be perfectly coiffed, why women have to continually be overwhelmed by life, and why they have to have faces like plastic.

If any of these changes are given a chance and utilized with skill, we'll embrace them. We are, after all, the moviegoing public that made Bridesmaids a huge hit (and Judd Apatow’s greatest success), who still idolize Sigourney Weaver’s alien ass-kicker, and who gush over the beauty of Helen Mirren. It’s not a matter of the audience. It’s all in the hands of the creators.

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