3. Off Screen to On Screen Representation

How the lack of women behind the scenes results in a harmful on screen representation of female characters.

Cinderella, Kenneth Branagh, 2015

The patriarchy of the real world is reflected and magnified in film, where the gender population ratio is completely disproportionate to reality and of course, favours the male gender. As discussed previously, there is an inequality and disparity in the amounts of women working behind the scenes in creative decision making roles in the film industry. This lack of women making decisions behind the scenes has resulted in an unrealistic representation of women on screen. Not only do the numbers of female characters in film not reflect the 50/50 gender ratio of reality, the way that women are represented on screen is unrealistic and creates unobtainable ideals for women. In this way, the lack of women making creative decisions in film making, therefore leaving men to make decisions about the ways that women are presented on screen, has an extremely harmful effect on the female audience.


There is obviously an issue in the lack of women represented on screen; women accounted for 12% of easily identifiable protagonists in Hollywood films in 2014. (Lauzen, 2014) This has an inevitable correlation to the fact that only 18% of directors of Hollywood films were female from 2014-2015. (Lauzen, 2015) In films where either the director or writer was female, the amount of speaking female characters rose to 37%, whereas in all Hollywood films in 2014 not taking into account the gender of behind the scenes roles, only 29% of speaking roles were female characters. (Lauzen, 2014) This demonstrates that the presence of women in creative roles in film production definitely does result in better on screen representation of women.


However, not only is lack of women on screen a problem, the way that they are represented on screen is also a major issue for young women. 29% of speaking characters in Hollywood films in 2014 were female, however only 13% of these characters were leaders or showed leadership qualities. (Lauzen, 2014) Rather than having an emphasis on leadership qualities, or personality traits, mainstream films typically emphasize appearance and physical characteristics as important, if not directly this glorification of aesthetic beauty and traditional beauty standards is emphasized through the ubiquity and constant presence of only beautiful characters. Documentary, Miss Representation, focuses on this misplacement of importance, and one insightful teenage girl recognises that, “Media is the message and the messenger…It’s all about the body, it’s not about the brain.” Most on screen characters are lower in weight than the average Western woman (Fernandez, S., Pritchard., M. 2012) and where characters are not unrealistically beautiful, they are generally characterised and defined by their unattractiveness.


According to modern psychology, youthfulness- recognised by smooth skin, large eyes, small nose and a small chin) and weight- slimmer is considered more attractive in Western culture are the two prominent factors of perceived physical attractiveness. (Eysenck, Michael W. 2012) It is not surprising that female characters are most frequently played by women reflecting these aesthetic qualities. You only have to look at any Hollywood blockbuster in any popular genre to see the massive lack of diversity in body types represented on screen, most noticeable with female bodies but also with men. In line with this preference for “attractiveness” in female characters, there is also an obvious trend toward younger actresses playing alongside older male counterparts. In the article, Leading Men Age, but their Love Interests Don’t, Kyle Buchanan compares the age of popular male actors as the age to the respective age of actresses playing their love interests in films at different stages in their lives and careers. There is a very obvious disparity, leaning towards age differences of between a few to thirty years, in popular films. The age gap clearly widens as the male actors grow older, demonstrating that there are more roles for older male actors than female actors. 18% of male to female age gaps in Hollywood films show the actress to be 10-14 years younger than male actors, whereas only 0.96% of female to male age gaps were between 10 and 14 years. (The Hollywood Gender Age Gap, 2015) This patriarchal favouring of male actors is just another facet of the bias toward attractive women, who do not reflect the reality and diversity of natural womanhood. This lack of representation of diverse female characters and bias for attractiveness has a direct and extreme impact on the self esteem and mental/physical health of women.


One disturbing study demonstrates how influential this lack of diversity in the representation of the female body really is. Researchers spent three years in a Fijian village monitoring the effects of Western television programs as they were first introduced to the village. After three years of having access to Western television and film, the rate of bulimia among villagers rose from 0% to 11.3%. (Becker, et all. 2002) The implications of this polarizing figure are further emphasized by interviews conducted by the researchers. One girl states:


 “When I look at the characters on TV, the way they act on TV and I just look at the body, the figure of that body, so I say,`look at them, they are thin and they all have this figure, so I myself want to become like that, to become thin…I think all those actors and actresses that they show on TV, they have a good figure and so I, I would like to be like them…since the characters [on Beverly Hills 90210] are slim built, [my friends] come and tell me that they would also like to look like that. So they, they change their mood, their hairstyles, so that they can be like those characters…so in order to be like them, I have to work on myself, exercising and my eating habits should change.” (Becker, et all. 2002)


A similar study found that there was a significant link between the media, particularly advertising and film, and low self esteem and desire for thinness in men and women. (Fernandez, S., Pritchard., M. 2012) The most vulnerable are people who are already body conscious, therefore seeing one body type in film that is not reflective of most women’s bodies creates a cycle of low body esteem and even self-loathing. (Ferguson, C. J., Winegard, B., & Winegard, B. M. 2011)


These studies demonstrate not only the powerful influence of on screen characterisation and casting, but how the lack of diversity of body types and the ubiquity of one glorified body type significantly affects the self esteem of individuals. This study makes it all the more disturbing that when female body types outside of the on screen norm (thin and aesthetically beautiful) feature in popular films, they are often characterised by their appearance and it is consistently the butt of the joke.


Even in the popular, female cast driven (though male directed) film, Bridesmaids, all lead characters were thin other than one character, Megan, played by Megan McCarthy. As with many Hollywood mainstream films, a large weight or ‘fatness’ is Megan’s defining quality, and this makes her the comic relief character, who is rarely to be taken seriously. The same can be said for another female cast driven (though male directed) film, Pitch Perfect.


 Pitch Perfect, Jason Moore, 2012


Often the butt of the joke is that women perceived as fat cannot possibly be attractive to men. This joke is at the cost of women, for the benefit and laughter of men. For example, in the aforementioned, Pitch Perfect, the ‘fat’ character, Fat Amy, is the butt of the joke. Throughout the movie Fat Amy is shown to have hoards of fit and attractive men lusting after her and attending to her every need; this is comedic because of the perceived ridiculousness of the situation. The punch line to this joke is that Fat Amy could never be perceived as attractive to those men because fat women are not seen as attractive in mainstream society. In Bridesmaids, Megan, flirts overtly with an Air Marshall on a plane, the butt of this joke is that he is repulsed by her. Just as Jack Nicholson is repulsed by the character Kathy Bates plays in Jack Shmidt when she gets into a hot tub with him naked.


About Schmidt, Alexander Payne, 2002


All of these examples demonstrate the awful way that larger characters, who are perceived and portrayed as less attractive, are treated in film, which greatly contributes to low self esteem issues in people who are overweight or perceive themselves as overweight. Toula Filiadis, a clinical psychologist specialising in treatment of eating disorders made this statement about the relationship between the representation of the female body on screen, and women’s health off screen:


Research shows that the media contributes massively to the onset of body dissatisfaction. What we know for a fact is that the images that portray women do have an impact on body esteem via body comparison, even for children as early as 5 years of age. This directly contributes to the onset of eating disorders…The women that are seen on screen are mostly thin, some even to the point that they look undernourished. Women compare themselves to this most of the time they don’t match up to what they see in the media every day, thinking that it is what is normal and to be desired. It has a dire effect on self esteem and all the time I see the effects that it has on women’s lives and their wellbeing.” (Filiadis, 2015)


The startling 2014 remake of the classic tale, Cinderella, by the same title, is a disturbing example of the emphasis of appearance and its potential influence on young people. The film was notably both written and directed by men, despite the fact that the story and film are generally known to attract a feminine audience (that is not to say that masculine audiences would or should not enjoy the story as well). The main character is a woman who demonstrates qualities of exceptional kindness. However, there is an unhealthy amount of importance indirectly placed on the protagonist, Ella’s, appearance. The actresses waist is alarmingly thin, which caused outrage and concern from the general public. (Weisman, 2015) Lead actress, Lily James, herself has stated that the corset that she wore to portray Ella’s physique was so tight that she could not digest food properly while wearing it and had to eat soup. (Weisman, 2015) This is an example of the representation of women in unnatural and unrealistic aesthetic states and the importance that is placed on appearance for female characters. Lily James, already a conventionally attractive and incredibly petite woman, was not thin enough to play the female lead. It is notable that actor playing the male love interest of Cinderella, did not have to wear a corset or any other shape altering device. The standards for men are more true to the reality for male viewers. This is harmful enough, but the film goes on to body shame a character who is shown to be unlikeable, suggesting that larger bodies are linked to being a less desirable person. In the film, one of the antagonists and most unlikeable characters in the film, an ugly step sister, is shown struggling to fit into a corset, despite her small figure. When viewing this film with the knowledge that body comparison and feelings of body satisfaction occur as young as 5 years old, as described earlier in quotes from Toula Filiadis, one might feel the full weight of these all too common representations and the potential damage that they have on young women.


Cinderella, Kenneth Branagh, 2015
Other films directed by men that do not represent women realistically and therefore contribute to women’s damaging thoughts and self esteem are explored in this photo series which compares women as represented on screen with real women. There are of course exceptions, P J Hogan set an excellent example for male directors and writers with Muriel’s Wedding, and Anne Fletcher did women a massive disfavour with 27 Dresses. However, for the most part, women visibly represent female characters more true to the reality for real women.


Lisa Cholodenko’s, The Kids are All Right, is a fantastic example of how female director’s and writer’s make better choices regarding the on screen representation of women. In this film, the two protagonists are both women which is already a triumph, however they are also over forty and gay. This popular and successful film tells a story about a very underrepresented demographic and does not try to emphasise the beauty or youthfulness of its characters, rather it focuses on the rawness and honesty of its characters in regards to the story. In Obvious Child, female characters make up the majority of prominent characters in the film, including the film’s protagonist. The protagonist is a female comedian, showing a woman in a creative leadership and comedic role. She is shown as an intelligent, funny and flawed human being who makes mistakes and deals with them independently. The protagonist and other female characters are not characterised in any way by their appearances and do fall outside of the narrow aesthetic standards for women starring in films. In The Dressmaker, casting directors have reversed the typical age gap in Hollywood film, where lead actress Kate Winslet is 15 years older than her male love interest, played by Liam Hemsworth. Kate Winslet is also known to be slightly curvier and larger than other actresses playing love interests on screen. This role reversal shuns the typical standards placed on actresses in lead roles in romantic dramas for two main factors of conventional beauty, youthfulness and thinness.


The point that is being made is that the lack of women in creative roles in films is having a direct, harmful impact on women who view films where the decisions around representation of women and the female body are being made chiefly by men. However, it is important to note that:


In films with at least one woman director and/or writer, females comprised 39% of protagonists, males 35% of protagonists, and male/female ensembles 26% of protagonists. In films with exclusively male directors and writers, females accounted for 4% of protagonists, males 87% of protagonists, and male/female ensembles 9% of protagonists. (Lauzen, 2014)


So while the present situation is bleak, these statistics demonstrate that by employing more women to take on creative decision making roles in the production of films that will reach widespread audiences, the representation of women will improve and in turn the on screen roles and characterisation will improve and move away from appearance and relations to men, toward the positive and negative qualities that make both men and women fascinating characters.