“Girls on Film”: The Long and Troubled Affair of Women and Hollywood

Following an article written by Jennifer Lawrence, Síofra Ní Shluaghadháin looks at the sexism inherent to the Hollywood machine. [br] In recent weeks, Oscar winning actress Jennifer Lawrence, in an article written for Lena Dunham's Lenny Letter e-newsletter, criticised the structure of the industry in which she works. It is an industry which idolises and objectifies, glorifies and demeans women. None of the content of Lawrence’s essay – which included the not so shocking revelation of a gender wage disparity in the Hollywood film industry – came as any surprise to anyone, yet it sent reverberations around the internet, with comment from celebrities and Joe-soaps alike. What is it about the troubled relationship between the film industry and the women who work in it that has the world fascinated? And why, in an industry populated by some of the most influential women in the world, hasn’t change happened already?The first challenge for a woman in mainstream cinema is to find major roles. A lot has been written on the topic of gender bias in the industry – a quick Google search reveals thousands of articles, from every grade of source. From the evidence, it is clear that strong female roles are thin on the ground, and that this has been the case for the entirety of Hollywood’s short but glitzy history.Big-ticket roles are very rarely those which would warm the cockles of a feminist’s heart. From the beginnings of modern cinema, through Hollywood’s Golden Age, in Bond films, action movies, and even in the romantic comedies of Woody Allen, women are seen as passive, as objects of desire. Very rarely do we see the sort of hard-hitting roles that are likely to inspire young women. Strong women in cinema are either vile antagonists, or will, at some stage over the course of a two hour film, turn up as a body in a refrigerator.Some of the most famous actresses and roles in cinematic history – the roles taken by Marilyn Monroe, Bond girls, Audrey Hepburn, Scarlett O’Hara, or even more recently, Scarlett Johannsson – have been prized, not only for their skill, or the importance of the part, but also for their beauty. Certainly, cinema is not the only genre to fall prey to the fine tooth comb of feminist critique, but also true is the fact that there is no industry that generates the same hype, that has the same influence or that can command the same sort of budgets as that of film.
“Some of the most famous actresses and roles in cinematic history… have been prized, not only for their skill, or the importance of the part, but also for their allure, and their beauty.”
It’s a topic that has come under increased scrutiny in the last thirty years or so. Perhaps the most revealing, and the most jarring commentary on the subject comes from a comic-strip by cartoonist Alison Bechdel. The Bechdel test, which started as a satirical look at women in cinema, has since become an unofficial benchmark for female representation in films. It’s a simple test: in order to pass, a film must: a) have at least two women in it, b) they must talk to each other, c) their conversation must be about something besides a man. Depressingly, most major blockbuster films fail.This test has gone on to inspire other feminist critiques of films, such as the “sexy-lamp test”. If a female character can be removed from a plot, and her place taken by a sexy piece of furniture, the film fails, which reiterates the glaring inequity which exists on-screen.Indeed, mainstream Hollywood fails with such almost overwhelming certainty that when, once in a blue moon, a role and a character appear to fulfil even some of these criteria, that film must be raised on a dais and praised for its progressive and forward-thinking casting. In any other context, this sort of lacklustre performance would be seen as far too little, and certainly much too late. In a similar way, the lack of opportunities for women behind the camera also leads to any successful woman – think of Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar nomination for Best Director some years ago – being used as a symbol of how the industry is surely changing.In light of all this, the reasons why women fail to have the same clout in the film industry as their male counterparts is clear. In some respects, they are the same reasons why women fail to rise in many industries – as Lawrence called it in her article, a fear of looking like a “spoiled brat” for speaking out, a reluctance to negotiate, and an often ingrained sense that women ought to be grateful for the opportunities presented to them and not to look a gift horse in the mouth.Why it matters so much in film has less to do with monetary value, at least not to those directly involved. It matters instead to the women these actresses inspire, the girls who grow up wanting to be actresses, or through the trickle-down economic impact. For an industry that thrives on the times, it seems Hollywood has missed the zeitgeist.