By Courtney Young
A steady diet of fragile and passive female characters cannot buoy a woman’s self-esteem or build a girl’s confidence. Here, pop culture critic Courtney Young asks if what she identifies as Hollywood’s bias against women with muscles might also help create a climate of violence against women.
December 4, 2009
As I think retrospectively about this year in film, it’s safe to say that it has not been kind to women, particularly strong female characters. Instead, it seems an uphill battle just to get a studio to highlight a female actress. In June, Nia Vardalos’s wrote in the Huffington Post about presenting a script idea to a male studio exec who asked her to change the lead from a woman to a man. Asked why, he replied that women do not go to the movies—in Hollywood talk, there’s just no money in it.
Such physically strong female protagonists as Michelle Rodriguez in Girlfight, Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodbye, Jennifer Garner on TV in Alias, Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft, and Hilary’s Swank’s Oscar winning turn in Million Dollar Baby seem to be a thing of the past. Today’s pop culture encourages images of women that project passivity and fragility, rather than agency and strength. Oscar winning actress and UN Goodwill Ambassador Nicole Kidman told a House foreign affairs subcommittee in October that demeaning female roles—most notably that of the weak sex object—contribute to a climate that promotes violence against women. And indeed, in the few box office successes featuring a female lead this year—think of New Moon, The Blindside or Julie & Julia—the women are either attached to a male protagonist or recreations of notable dead women. Is Kidman right? Do movie screens filled with diminished female bodies with withering intellects not only threaten the psyches and self-esteem of girls and women but also contribute to a culture that fosters violence against them?
New York Times writer Manolha Dargis has written about the cultural trends surrounding women in film throughout the year. In her article, “ Now Starring at the Movies: Famous Dead Women,” she states: “It’s rarely been more difficult to be a woman in the movies than now…Last year, only one movie about a woman—“Twilight”—squeezed into the ranks of the Top 10 grossing titles… Another two female-centric stories climbed into the Top 20. That sounds shocking except that only three such stories made it to the Top 20 in each of the previous two years.” The “crypt raiding” Dargis speaks of—she mentions Coco Chanel and Amelia Earhart in addition to Julia Child—indicates a significant shift in the types of women characters given screen time, with historical personalities partially filling a gap left by the marginalized, one-sided portraits that Hollywood can concoct. Part of the problem, argues Melissa Silverstein, creator of the website Women & Hollywood, is that the business model in the movie industry has morphed from studios that had the room to take some risk into companies that are solely beholden to large corporations concerned with little more than a film’s opening weekend box-office earnings.
If we’re looking to see women who exhibit physical strength—dare I say muscles—those representations are practically non-existent. Collette Dowling’s 2000 book The Frailty Myth argued that women are bred from the time that they are infants to fear getting too strong, too big. Their physical potential is sharply curtailed, and this infringes upon their ability to achieve at the highest level.
A fragile and dependent feminine ideal is particularly troubling in a year when a series of particularly horrific crimes against women made the national (and international) news: the abduction and 18-year captivity of Jaycee Lee Duggard; the 11 bodies found in and around the Cleveland home of convicted rapist Anthony Sowell; misogynist George Sodini walking into a Pittsburgh gym and shooting three women and himself after posting in his online diary about his hatred for women; the unidentified “Grim Sleeper” in Los Angeles, credited with the deaths of at least 13 women; Elizabeth Smart speaking publicly about the daily rapes she endured while being held in captivity for nine months; and most recently, a young woman gang raped outside her Richmond, California, high school while dozens of people watched and shot video of the event. The magnitude of such high profile events compelled New York Times columnist Bob Herbert to write his op-ed “Women at Risk” on violence targeted at girls and women, in part due to a culture that supports misogyny and its continued replication in the cultural, social, and political fabric of our society.
Feminist writer Sharon Marcus’s essay “Fighting Bodies, Fighting Words” speaks to a “rape script” embedded in the language of our society that dictates women as victims and men as potential perpetrators. Scripts, she argues, can be re-written, co-authored, added to, or erased completely. In order to create a society whereby women can be strong and independent, there needs to be a total revisioning of the language, behaviors, and social policies that reinforce violence against women. Of course a woman being physically strong does not necessarily exempt her from violence, but it does, as Marcus says, subvert the script.
The images that we see and receive in popular culture are indeed powerful. First lady Michelle Obama’s sculpted arms created a small media fervor, inspiring some women to integrate weight training into their exercise regimen. And surely there are images of physically strong women in the media—Venus and Serena Williams, Dara Torres, Laila Ali, Candace Parker—but these images are seen as the exception. Dowling says, “Gender is a system of ideas about men and women that we live our lives by. The more we live the system, the more internalized it becomes, and the more it actually gets translated into our bodies. Man strong, woman weak. Man violent, woman not violent. Man bad, woman good.” In reality, we are complex beings who suffer from the rigidity of such roles. Studies show that girls who participate in sports assume more leadership roles, are more comfortable with their bodies, and have higher self-esteem. I personally can’t wait for the day when women with muscles are the norm and not the exception.