2. The Impact of Stereotyped Representations

The lack of representation of women in creative roles in the film industry has negative implications on audience’s understanding of gender roles and multiculturalism.

Amongst these consequences are the lack of role models for children in film characters. When choosing role models, audiences usually choose people (and characters) that they can identify with, tending to choose people of the same gender (Anderson & Cavallaro 2002). As children are now more than ever inundated with media projections of potential role models, it is a significant question as to whether they are positive reflections for children to aspire to. Studies have demonstrated that gender stereotypes still remain in content targeted to children, with male characters being presented in leadership roles more often than female characters, restricting the range of role models for children (Anderson & Cavallaro 2002).

Arguably the biggest producer of children’s films is Disney, however the characters do not always represent realistic and positive role models for children (Anderson & Cavallaro 2002). Children’s films such as Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas (1995) portray racial stereotypes which have negative impacts on children of ethnic minorities who look up to characters they can identify with (Anderson & Cavallaro 2002). The portrayal of the Middle Eastern characters as caricatures in Aladdin and Pocahontas as having a body figure more similar to a Barbie doll than Native American women mean that children who identify with these ethnicities either can’t see themselves in these unrealistic depictions or aspire to look like them (Anderson & Cavallaro 2002).

In a study of 179 children between the ages of 8-13, it was found that 67% of girls named people they knew as their heroes, while only 58% of boys citing the same (Anderson & Cavallaro 2002). It was concluded that this was a result of boys having more role models in the media to look up to compared to girls (Anderson & Cavallaro 2002). The study found that overall, children chose the same gender as their role model, while college-aged women chose female and male role models with the same frequency indicating that this may be due to the lack of females in powerful positions compared to men (Anderson & Cavallaro 2002).

The study also found that children of ethnic minority backgrounds tended to choose a role model of their own ethnicity at a lower frequency than white children, with only 35% of Asian American children and 28% of Latino children choosing role models from their own ethnicity (Anderson & Cavallaro 2002). The lack of ethnic representation in the media is a direct correlation of these results. Only 2.2% of film and television characters represent Asian people, and only 4.4% Latinos, demonstrating that the lack of ethnically diverse characters on screen has a negative effect on the representation of children’s role models (Anderson & Cavallaro 2002). If an ethnically diverse child can’t identify with a character in a film, they are being taught that their ethnicity doesn’t have the same currency as being white, so they in turn look to white role models to assimilate with society’s standards.

The patriarchal perspective that is rife in the American film industry teaches young women that they need a man to protect them. This is demonstrated in the Twilight film franchise based on the young adult novels of the same name by Stephanie Meyer. The first film in the franchise follows Bella who falls in love with a vampire named Edward and becomes entangled in his family’s affairs. “Twilight… positions the central female character as subordinate to her one true love in a highly romantic scenario of male-dominated extreme passion and love” (Kellner 2011, pg. 66). She is a passive character, allowing Edward to control every facet of her life, including who her friends are. He even sneaks into her bedroom unbeknown to her and watches her while she sleeps (Kellner 2011). This representation of a young woman as being passive, and being controlled by a man is not the kind of role model society should champion for it’s young men and women. The way Edward controls Bella in many instances could be considered to be a form of emotional abuse, teaching young people that such behaviour is acceptable when it simply isn’t. Despite the novel being written by a woman, and the first film being directed by a woman, the patriarchal perspective is still in focus. However, this isn’t representative of all films directed or written by women, as The Hunger Games series aimed at the same demographic is based on the novels (and screenplay) by Suzanne Collins and depicts the female protagonist Katniss as strong, smart, caring and inspiring. She takes care of her family and her world doesn’t revolve around romances. These two differing texts demonstrate that more inclusion of women in the film industry can result in a better onscreen representation of young women for girls to look up to, however this is not always the case.

(Twilight, Catherine Hardwicke, 2008)

(The Hunger Games, Gary Ross, 2012)

Film portrayals of wives and mothers also support the patriarchal perspective, making it difficult for women to find progressive role models in the media. Adrian Lyne’s 1987 film Fatal Attraction compares the ‘good’ wife and mother to the ‘bad’ woman, with the portrayal of the characters Beth Gallagher and Alex Forest (Thomas 2012). The film centres on Dan Gallagher who has a wife (Beth) and daughter (Ellen) and has a one-night stand with career-driven single woman Alex, who becomes obsessed with him (Thomas 2012). Alex is depicted as the homewrecker as she is the one who incites the affair, and thus is demonised by the audience (Thomas 2012). Beth is depicted as the wholesome ‘good’ woman, as she is mostly shown cleaning, cooking and taking care of her daughter, and does not have a career outside of the home (Thomas 2012). On the other hand, Alex is depicted as a ‘bad’ woman as her life as a single, sexually free woman, who is focused on her career has meant that she doesn’t present the traditional housewife which would fit with society’s patriarchal standards (Thomas 2012). When Alex discovers she is pregnant with Dan’s child, she asks him to respect her as his child’s mother and to own up to his responsibilities, “independent from the plot, these demands do not sound dangerous or evil; on the contrary, they sound like healthy, self-respecting, and empowering requests in the line with feminist ideologies” (Thomas 2012, pg. 81) However, Alex is depicted as the monster as she is presented as a threat to destroying Dan’s family unit. Her ultimate death is necessary in rewarding the ‘good’ woman Beth for being a champion for patriarchy (Thomas 2012). The films is both written and directed by men, highlighting the way in which the lack of women in creative roles can result in negative onscreen depictions of women. These depictions of wives and mothers gives viewers the impression that woman can’t have it all, and must choose between being a wholesome wife, or being an evil career-driven woman. These are harmful as they don’t portray real women who balance their career and family life, and are able to make independent decisions.

(Fatal Attraction, Adrian Lyne, 1987)

The lack of inclusion of women in creative roles in the film industry can result in negative onscreen depictions of female role models for young children, adolescents and adults. The lack of ethnic diversity onscreen and the negative portrayals of gender roles can result in harmful messages being projected to audiences.