Since its evolution the world of moving images has acted as a barometer of social change.
As attitudes and perceptions towards a particular issue change in society so do their representation in the movies. In the age of the new millennium women have made tremendous strides in society and are considerably more independent than they were 60 years ago and the movies made in the present day and age reflect that. Female oriented movies such as Erin Brockovich (2000) where the story focuses on the trials and tribulations of a central female protagonist are well received and appreciated in the modern day and age. In our movies today there is nothing that a female character cannot do. Even the traditional male oriented action movie genre has been challenged by female actresses and movies such as Charlie’s Angeles, Mr and Mrs Smith, Kill Bill Volume 2 and Blue Steel.The 1950’s was an era where the feminist movement at least in the world of films was still in its infancy. The characters that women represented in the movies in the 1950s were very traditional and constrictive (Basinger, 1993).A female oriented movie where a central character could hold her own without the support of a central male character was only a figment of an overactive feminine imagination .
In the movies as in real life women lived under the shadow of the man. Roles for women in the 1950’s followed two distinct dimensions. The first type of role either revolved around the theme of marriage or how to find a husband. This concept formed the basis of plots of such memorable movies such as How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), Annie Get Your Gun (1950) and Calamity Jane (1953). Such movies delivered home the message that displaying feminine tendencies and taming down one’s independence is very important to secure a man. (Basinger, 1993).
Perhaps the most prominent female representation of the 1950’s was. The main protagonist of the popular and much loved television shows I Love Lucy. The character of Lucy personified a perpetually distressed housewife who always relied on the support of her man to set things right for her.
The character of Lucy became so popular because it represented the typical housewife in suburban America of the 1950’s (Basinger, 1993). Most women in this era had welcomed their husbands home from the war and were content caring for them and giving birth to babies Though there was an increasing percentage of women who opted to keep their war time jobs most had quit to make way for the returning men and traded in a pay check for the stove and a house in the suburbs. It was this growing percentage of women which are represented in the movies and television shows of the era.
Thus the role of the diligent home maker and the naïve heroine whose sole purpose in life was to marry the right man were based and inspired on the prevailing cultural practices in the era. The role was based on social conventions that expected women to be caring mothers, perfect home makers and obedient wives. (Basinger, 1993)These roles attained popularity because people accepted the perceptions and conceptions that were being portrayed. “Lucy” and the role of diligent housewife she portrayed in the world of moving images not only represented the existing social status of women it also stereotyped it. Even today when we think of women in the world of moving images in the 1950’s the character of Lucy promptly comes to mind.The other dimension that female roles assumed in the world of moving images in the 1950’s was that of the seductive temptress. Movies in the 1950 have blatantly featured female roles whose main purpose was to attain the male protagonist’s desire. These sexy sirens were often featured in interesting anti hero roles as vamps or conniving temptress who sought to seduce the leading man with their charms.
(Basinger, 1993) An actress who came to stereotype the role of the blond bombshell was Marilyn Monroe. Most of the characters that Marilyn portrayed on the silver screen like the one in the movie some like It Hot (1959) were etched along the lines of the sexy temptress. (Dirks 2010) She was rarely ever seen in the other common female role that of the diligent and obedient housewife.
Movies that were an exception to the norm and did have defined important roles for women did not show them to be as independent and self reliant as men. Even when the female character was strong and pivotal it was shown to be in need of protection and support from the larger than life male characters. This chain of thought is evident in movies such as high Noon (1952) and Angry Men (1957) where the female characters did have an important role but still were represented in a weaker capacity in comparison to the male characters .
(Dirks 2010) The concept of women rescuing men and physically fighting goons which is featured in movies of the millennium age such as Charlie’s Angles was totally inconceivable in the 1950’s.This very limited and constricted representation of women in the world of moving images continued to be the norm till the late 1960s and early 1970s until a concerted feminist revolution turned the tables in Hollywood and re-defined the role of women in Film and television. (Haskell, 1997). Contemporary society too has been reformed by feminist ideals and no longer expects a woman to be just a wife and mother. In fact contemporary trends indicate that women and men work together equally in all walks of life. This trend is echoed in the world of cinema and television and women and men are often shown to be working together in challenging fields such as law, medicine and even the secret. The days when the women’s achievements were overshadowed by that of the men are now gone.
One movie which portrays this concept well is Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005).
The film has a dual lead with the male and female protagonist sharing the same occupation- the secret service- a domain traditionally reserved for men. In this movie the male and female lead are shown as having equal footing and independence in their professional life.There are also contemporary movies which show the struggle of the female protagonist in gaining an equal status with their male counterparts. One movie in which such a struggle is depicted is ‘Blue Steel’ (1990). The movie follows the trials and tribulations of Megan Turner its main protagonist in her quest to become a police woman. The movie explores a woman’s foray into an occupation that has traditionally been a male domain the protagonist suffers antagonism from male colleagues and prisoners and also doesn’t get support from her family because of the career she has chosen. The film portrays the courage and confidence that a woman police officer displays to prove that she has what it takes to succeed in a male dominated career that in the end encompasses everything else in her life.
In modern movies female characters have come to adopt many characteristics traditionally associated with their male counterparts. This trend has not only generated gender equality in the movies it has also lead to female characters exploring new domains(Haskell, 1997). Whereas female roles the 1950’s were about appearing feminine and behaving in a lady like manner movies today are about playing new challenging roles that are in stark contrast to the traditional female image.
It is this trend which has ushered the advent of the female oriented action movie. (Abramowitz 2000) Traditionally the action movie genre was associated with macho male leads doing heroic stunts to save the day. Even as late as the 1990’s the leads in action oriented movies were men while women played important second leads. Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reaves in Speed is a classic example. In this movie Sandra drives the bus while Keanu performs all the various stunts to save the day. Bruce Willis epitomizes the macho action hero in his series of Die Hard movies.
However in 2000 came the first Charlie’s Angeles movie which started a whole new trend of female oriented action movies. The actions and stunts featured in the movie revolved around the three female leads that fought the goons and saved the day without the help of a man.Another action movie which has a female as its main protagonist is Kill Bill 2 (2004) . In these martial arts movies all female characters retain their feminine charms even when performing violent and aggressive acts .Here the main protagonist is an anti hero who seeks to take revenge on the villains who killed her family.
Though the character indulges in a lot of violence her clothes and the narrative adapted throughout the story emphasise her feminity and don’t make her look masculine in any manner. In movies like Kill Bill we see how the role of women has evolved in Hollywood from the week and frightened victim who needs to be protected in the 1950’s to a strong and powerful warrior who seeks to extract vengeance on those who did her wrong.The power of the female character is symbolized by a samurai sword that the main character wields to get rid of her enemies. Perhaps in creating such powerful female lead Hollywood is trying to represent that a woman too can be violent and take the law in her own hands when she needs to just like a man. (Abramowitz 2000)The character of the super human killing machine that Uma Thurman plays with such finesse is comparable to all other male characters in other Hollywood vengeance sagas. 50 years ago movies such as Kill Bill 2 could not even have been conceived but their success in contemporary times indicates that society has accepted the notion of the empowered woman and is ready to take the next step and accept a female character in a genre traditionally dominated by men. (Abramowitz 2000)The representation of women in cinema has not changed over night.
It has taken several years for the role of women to evolve from a sanguine housewife to an empowered heroine on an equal footing with her male counterparts.(Acker 1991) As the position of women has evolved in society so has their onscreen representation. A series of movies which highlights how the representation of women has changed in the last couple of decades is the Terminator Trilogy.In Terminator 1 which came out in 1984 women were still seen as the weaker gender that needed protection from the muscle bound hero. The leading female protagonist Sarah Connor is portrayed as the screaming damsel in distress who needs to be rescued by the powerful male protagonist.
In Terminator 2 we see how this character has evolved and become more empowered reflective of a society where women have become more independent, confident of their own abilities. Terminator 3 introduces the powerful and destructive female anti hero who challenges her male counterpart and puts up a tough fight. . The female Terminator known as the TX is also a robot.
In this capacity the terminator and the TX are on equal footing in the movie- they are both robots programmed equally without human emotion and feelings. Yet she is more powerful than her male counterpart because she can use her sexuality as a weapon to distract enemies and kill them. In the movie they show how the robot can enhance her feminine features such as enlarging her breasts to attract males and also to escape from police attention. In this aspect this character assumes some of the femme fatale attributes that personified the sexy sirens of the 1950’s .However none of these sirens were as lethal as the sexy robot trained to kill.
Another series of movies in which we notice how the role and character of women have changed over the years is the James Bond chronicles. Since these movies span a series of decades it is easy to trace the difference in the various roles that women have essayed right from ‘Goldfinger’ (1964) to ‘Casino Royale’ (2006). The role of the James Bond girl has always been a coveted one for most actresses in the film world .The term Bond Girl described James Bond’s love interest in the movie. It is the typical damsel in distress role where the actress has to look pretty, attract the hero and wait to be rescued by him. Even in the post feminism era the role of the James Bond’s girl did not change much in its scope and dimension. In the majority of the movies they continue to be the object of Bond’s desire and wait to be rescued by their hero.
However in the age of the millennium the Bond girl did acquire some independence and empowerment. The character that Halley Berry essays in Tomorrow Never Dies’ (2004) is professional career women who are independent, confident, empowered and not your typical damsel in distress. However true to the character of the Bond girl she is also the object of the hero’s desire and is seen succumbing to his advances conforming to the traditional representation of this role. It is difficult for the Bond girl to break the traditional stereotype and be seen as an equal to the male protagonist .Things are changing slowly and perhaps one day we will say a female protagonist on an equal footing with the legendary James Bond.In the 1950’s single parenthood out of choice was not a very common phenomenon. .
Divorce and single motherhood were concepts which had still not met with social acceptance Marriages were meant to last forever and a woman was supposed to suffer a bad marriage in silence for the sake f the children. It is not surprising to note therefore that there were not many movies made about the trials and tribulations of the single divorced mother. The rise of feminism, the emergence of women into the workforce gave women the courage and the financial stability to walk out of a bad marriage and raise children on their own. In present day and age there are many professional divorced women in society who manage to raise their children successfully on their own. Like in every era, the world of movies and television is a reflection of society and the character of the single divorced mother has been represented effectively in many shows and movies. One such successful movie is Erin Brockovich where the character of the protagonist is played by Julia Roberts in a performance that won her the academy award. The movie deals with a how a twice divorced mother of three stumbles into a career as a legal assistant and how her diligence and commitment helps to bring a gigantic corporation to its knees. The movie was based on a true story and drove home the point of how the courage and determination of one woman can indeed change not only her world but also the world of those around her.
The representation of women in moving images has changed with the evolving role of women in society. The characters that women now play in movies and television are very different from the ones in the 1950’s.(Acker 1991) Female characters essayed in the films of the new millennium are self empowered independent and not in need of a man to rescue them from any situation. These women can help themselves out of a tough spot, hold their own in a male dominated profession and still manage to look good and attract the man of their dreams. The adoption of these characters on the big screen find appreciation and acceptance in a contemporary society where women lead independent empowered lives in which they are successful in their careers and not dependent on a man for their financial survival.
As society evolves and women become even more emancipated it is likely that the representation of women in the movies of the future becomes even bolder than it is today. In fact it is entirely plausible that one day the audience of the future looks back to the movies of the new millennium and finds the portrayal of woman utterly outdated just like we currently do when watching the movies made in the 1950’s.