Aoife Rooney takes a close look at the way female characters are depicted by male authors and filmmakers, through praise and criticism.
The characterisation of the female body and intellect through literature and film at the hands of male writers and filmmakers has long been seen as anti-feminist. While there is a myriad of male writers who do justice to their female characters, there are also many who miss the mark. It is worth noting that while fictitious works are not always an attempt to capture an accurate representation of girls and women in today’s society, the inaccurate representation of women in the arts can still be damaging, especially to young, misrepresented consumers of the media. So much of what should be celebrated about being a girl and a woman is echoed throughout books such as Matilda and School of Rock, but can also be damaged by works such as Gone Girl or Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.
Look no further than infamous male author Roald Dahl for the blueprint on how to write young women as role models for readers. In all his main female characters, there is a constant appearance of assertiveness and ambition. While the author often includes petulance and stubbornness in his characters, it is not a discrimination – most of his main characters are children, most of whom tend to be stubborn and petulant. One of the most enduring figures in children’s literature, Matilda (1988), has been a role model for curious, young girls for over 30 years. Roald Dahl wrote the character, without intending her to be seen as annoying or obstinate, but to be inquisitive about the world around her and determined to have the education she deserves. When, even today, there are millions of young girls not being provided with their right to education, this book is an enduring testament to the importance of access to that right for girls; and has yet to be eclipsed by a female author.
Much of Dahl’s positive female representation is echoed in Richard Linklater’s 2003 film School of Rock. The film, while at its core is about a spiralling almost 30-year-old hijacking a private school classroom, treats the female characters in the movie with the same level of respect that the men receive. There are many talented young students whose musical talents are cultivated and fostered. The young girls in the movie grow to become more self-assured as the feature progresses, and show real character development in equal parts for the male and female characters. Richard Linklater also directed Everybody Wants Some, albeit an aggressively male-dominated cast, but which made a superb attempt to write self-assured, actualised female characters into an overwhelmingly masculine narrative. The film’s female characters compromise nothing and are wonderful examples of how all young women should be given the freedom to act.
It seems as though it is too much to ask that a female character could kill a male character while their dignity remains intact.
While there are many examples of male-backed progressive female characteristics, more often than not it is women writers and filmmakers who have to carve out space for female role models in the literature. This sentiment is echoed in Gone Girl. In the film adaptation directed by David Fincher (2014), there are notable differences that could be categorised as misogynistic compared to the book written by Gillian Flynn. There is an overt over-sexualisation of the female character in the film; when Rosamund Pike’s character Amy kills Desi, she is scarcely dressed and in an intimate moment with him, whereas in the novel, the victim is simply drugged. While there is an argument for how words on a page translate to an image on screen, it is interesting that Amy’s character is placed in a position of vulnerability, under the victim. Despite the viewer’s awareness of Desi’s vulnerability, given what is about to happen to him, Amy cannot take too much control. She has to be lying under Desi, and in the process gets covered in blood and momentarily pinned under a dead body. It seems as though it is too much to ask that a female character could kill a male character while their dignity remains intact.
Interestingly, Nick’s character (Amy’s husband) is made out to be far less misogynistic in the film than he is in the novel. Despite Nick assaulting Amy and berating her several times, it is still a much more dialled back version than on the original pages, with Flynn playing up the misogyny every chance she gets in the novel. It is quite surprising when, at the end of the film, the audience is still sympathetic to Nick. While Amy is clearly the worse of the two characters (by one dead body’s worth), Nick is far from innocent. The story’s infamous ‘Cool Girl’ monologue tells it all: both counterparts of a relationship are pretending to be something they are not, but it is the woman in a heterosexual relationship who is expected to maintain the cover, to stay the ‘cool girl’ even though the man in the relationship has long stopped pretending he is who he was when they met.
One of the most uneasy examples of the physical embodiment of misogyny in film is that of Quentin Tarantino’s obsession with specifically female feet in his movies. In his film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), Tarantino used every opportunity in the screenplay he wrote to have the feet of the female actresses be fixtures in the scene. It is to the point of distraction. It becomes uncomfortable that there is so much emphasis placed on a body part that all characters have, but only the female actors' feet are objectified. Tarantino uses female actresses' feet heavily in Pulp Fiction also, but noticeably less so in male-dominated films such as The Hateful Eight or Django Unchained.
It is not too far a leap to assume that there is a correlation between the negative representation of young girls and women in literature and big, real-world problems, such as the gender pay gap, violence against women, and access to education and healthcare.
The objectification of women written by men is not a new concept and the effect of girls and women seeing themselves being portrayed in such a way is reflected in female life. It is not too far a leap to assume that there is a correlation between the negative representation of young girls and women in literature and big, real-world problems, such as the gender pay gap, violence against women, and access to education and healthcare. All of this is threatened when young girls are portrayed in a light that perpetuates harmful stereotypes of women being less than their male counterparts. When women are portrayed in a fair light by writers, it usually paints a picture of empowerment and self-actualisation.
Female characters too often end up as a vehicle for a man’s success or the supporting role in a man’s story. The importance of written representation has long been stated, so when women are given the chance to pull attention from male voices, their feet should not be in their way, and the time should be taken to listen to women stories in order to proportionally represent them in text.