This Article is From Sep 10, 2014

Sugar, Spice and Guts: Representation of Female Characters in Movies Is Improving

Sugar, Spice and Guts: Representation of Female Characters in Movies Is Improving

Jennifer Lawrence in a still from The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Elle Fanning in a still from Maleficent and Emma Watson in a still from The Bling Ring respectively

Girls grow up on big and little screens, and sometimes the thinking about girls and girlhood grows, too. Inspired by Richard Linklater's Boyhood - a magnificent film that tells the story of a boy's life from 6 to 18 - we are taking a look at how girls are growing up in the movies. American mainstream cinema, a timid enterprise dependent on formulas and genres, can be mind-blowingly retrograde when it comes to women and girls. And while an occasional woman or girl rules the box office, too many of their on-screen sisters are sidelined or just left out of the picture.

Characters like Katniss Everdeen are changing girlhood and challenging tired stereotypes by not waiting for some guy to save the day: They're saving themselves and their worlds, too. Yet Katniss, her screen sisters and the industry have a very long way to go. In one study the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media looked at 5,554 "distinct speaking characters" in 122 family movies rated G, PG or PG-13 that were released between 2006 and 2009. The institute discovered that only 29.2 percent of those roles were female, while a whopping 70.8 percent were male. In other words, there were 2.42 male characters for every female one. Put another way, there was Harry and Ron and then there was Hermione, the smartest girl in the class. Hermione ruled, but not nearly enough.

In the past, some actresses had a measure of power or at least staying power in Hollywood, but too many more were typecast as bratty sisters, dutiful daughters or sexpots, and then cast aside. And some of their most memorable characters were, like their adult counterparts, defined by hypersexuality or asexuality. Such was the case in 1962, when Dolores Haze, better known as Lolita, was the barely pubescent object of her stepfather's lust in Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of the notorious Nabokov novel. That same year, Scout Finch was the object of her father's moral instruction in the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird. A year later, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique rocked the country, becoming a best-selling portent of second-wave feminism.

What has changed in the years since? Quite a lot off screen, if not nearly enough on: Nymphets and tomboys still show up, as do brainy, funny, scary and tough girls. The picture of girlhood at the movies has become an increasingly diverse, sometimes contradictory array of identities, including bold revisions of age-old archetypes and brave new heroines. That said, the faces of these girls remain exasperatingly monochromatic. So all hail Quvenzhané Wallis,who after leading the charge (and earning an Oscar nod) in "Beasts of the Southern Wild," appears in December as Little Orphan Annie in a remake of the 1982 movie musical. The sun will come out tomorrow - but this time so will the daughter. Here, we take a look at some of the other pixies and powerhouses who are also changing movie girlhood:

Girls Gone Wild

American popular culture has always indulged male rebellion in various forms, from James Dean and Holden Caulfield to Adam Sandler and the overgrown man-children who have followed in his wake. Girls have played by different rules, and their acting out is more likely to be viewed with disapproval or prurience, and to turn on the defiance of sexual taboos.

At first glance, the four college friends in Spring Breakers (2012), who set out on a hedonistic crime spree in the Florida sunshine, seem to belong to this tradition, which often blurs the line between liberation and exploitation. But Candy, Cotty, Faith and Brit are not looking primarily for male attention, or even for sex. They are American dreamers acting out of a sense of constitutional entitlement: They want money, stuff, fun and freedom, and above all the thrill of raising a middle finger at the world's expectations.

This kind of rebellion has its dangers, and movies about young women in revolt frequently carry a cautionary, moralistic charge. The bored suburbanites in Gia Coppola's recent debut, "Palo Alto," risk being taken advantage of by creepy older men or callous male peers; the privileged housebreakers in her aunt Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring (2013) risk jail and disgrace.

But often the thrill of recklessness outweighs such perils. There is pleasure in asserting yourself against the world's indifference or censure, and power, too, especially in the company of friends. For boys, rock 'n' roll has been a perpetually renewable source of that power, and girls have been tapping into that for themselves, breaking out of the traditional roles of groupie or girlfriend. Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart were awesome in The Runaways, Floria Sigismondi's underrated movie about the 1970s hard-rock band of that name. So were Elle Fanning and Alice Englert in Sally Potter's Ginger & Rosa (2012), at least until the selfishness and hypocrisy of certain adults spoiled their trip through the '60s. And the spirit of punk rock - mischievous, angry, joyful and silly - has never been more truly served than by the trio of middle-school Swedish thrashers that invaded American screens last spring in We Are the Best.

Love and Death

According to Edgar Allan Poe, "the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world." Alfred Hitchcock had a perverse respect for this idea, as did the makers of Love Story (1970), which asked, "What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?"

Why not ask the girl herself? The nexus of romance and mortality has been given, as it were, a new lease on life by a crop of teenage melodramas, many of them based on young adult novels, that explore the nexus between love and death from the point of view of brave, serious, smart teenage girls. The summer of 2014 began with The Fault in Our Stars and wrapped up with If I Stay, both drawn from young-adult best-sellers and both starring formidable and already seasoned young actresses. Shailene Woodley, in Stars, and Chloe Grace Moretz, in Stay, each played artistically minded adolescents whose first experiences of love are shadowed by mortality.

But these characters are more resilient than tragic. Unlike, say, Bella Swan of the Twilight books and movies, they are not consumed and paralyzed by romantic longing. They prove themselves capable of juggling their dream boys with other dreams and ambitions, of suffering the pangs of love and loss with discipline and humor. What they project, even when faced with the disruptive forces of passion and calamity, is common sense, kindness and responsibility.

Remove the specter of fatal illness or accident, and you see that they are romantic real girls. Woodley's character in The Spectacular Now (2013) is an especially vivid example of this type, a girl who might once have been sidelined as a nerd or a wallflower but who now can now be seen as a heroine in her own right.

The New Searchers

Journey is one of the most overused words in movie-speak. One reason are guides like Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting That You'll Ever Need! that borrow heavily from Joseph Campbell, who wrote that whether the hero is "ridiculous or sublime, Greek or barbarian, gentile or Jew, his journey varies little in essential plan." Too bad that in Campbell's "monomyth" that journey is also unequivocally male: "The woman is life, the hero its knower and master." The classic trip has been so historically male that one critic, Eric Leed, gave it a biological spin, labeling it a "spermatic journey." Never mind that every so often a girl or woman - Dorothy, Thelma, Louise or Hushpuppy - hits the road. She gets out of the house and, like a footloose Penelope, weaves an adventure instead of a shroud.

The truth is that women were on the move in movies before talkies, in serials like The Perils of Pauline (1914) and Westerns like The Covered Wagon (1923). Although girls tend to experience more domestic exploits, a few second-wave feminist girls did get out and about, including in Paper Moon (1973) and the original True Grit (1969). In recent decades, the movie industry hasn't been much interested in women and girls, so it hasn't created all that many female-driven escapades. Yet the emergence of new peripatetic girls and women who voyage with purpose and goals - in the latest True Grit,Winter's Bone,Beasts of the Southern Wild and the coming Tracks (September 19) - suggests that our movies may be finally catching up to female Americans on the move.

The Warriors

Katniss Everdeen, who returns this fall in Mockingjay -Part 1, the third installment in the Hunger Games franchise, is so cool, so capable, so focused, with her archer's eye, on the task in front of her that it's easy to lose sight of just how revolutionary she is. Not only in the dystopian fictional universe she inhabits, where she has been radicalized by the cruelty of the Hunger Games and the iniquity of the society that supports them. In the world of mass entertainment, too, Katniss is a transformative figure: a solitary warrior, a heroine whose personal struggles for survival and dignity are joined to a larger fight for justice. And also, as played by Jennifer Lawrence, a potent force at the global box office - a blockbuster Joan of Arc.

On the movie landscape, Katniss is not entirely alone, though she is still very much outnumbered. In recent years, there have been a handful of movies about young women who can throw a punch, land a kick and run like the wind, girls who are more than sidekicks or pneumatic eye candy. Shailene Woodley's Tris Prior in Divergent- another crossover from the fertile world of young-adult dystopian literature - is, like Katniss, a fighter against corrupt authority. In Joe Wright's Hanna (2011), Saoirse Ronan is a big-eyed, sweet-faced killer, trained in combat by her father. In the culty "Kick-Ass" movies, Chloe Grace Moretz portrays the fearless Hit Girl with a foul mouth and an appetite for combat.

The violence there was played partly for laughs and shock value, making the most of the incongruity between the cuteness of the actress and the viciousness of the character, but it also tapped into a deep reservoir of restlessness and rage. For most of movie history - from the old Westerns to Thelma & Louise by way of exploitation gore-fests like I Spit on Your Grave- women's violence could be justified by narrowly defined motives of self-defense or revenge. The broader battle between right and wrong - and also the pleasure of action for its own sake - have typically been male prerogatives, handed down over the decades from gunslingers to superheroes.

The comic-book fraternity has been slow to admit women as full members. Lawrence has made an impression as the blue-skinned, shape-shifting Mystique (a role originated by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), but her team is still called the X-Men for a reason. And if women can fight their way toward parity, it will be Katniss who blazed the trail.

Once Upon a Time Right Now

Disney has been banking on princesses since Snow White warbled Someday My Prince Will Come in 1937. Decades later, its sagging fortunes were lifted in 1989 by the animated Ariel, aka the Little Mermaid, an undersea princess who paved the way for the tiara-wearing likes of Belle, Jasmine and Tiana.

In 2000, the company created Disney Princess, what it called a "young girls' lifestyle brand" that brought together eight of its actual and honorary princesses under one "marketing umbrella." Since then more princesses have been gathered under that parasol, including Merida from Pixar's first female-driven movie, Brave (2012). Disney bought Pixar in 2006, and it's hard not to wonder if Pixar's run of male-driven hits didn't play into Disney's fleeting concerns about the whole princess thing.

Some of that unease was apparent in Disney's titling of Rapunzel, which it renamed Tangled because, according to a 2010 article in The Los Angeles Times, company suits believed - after the disappointing box office returns of "The Princess and the Frog" (2009) - that boys didn't want to see a movie with "princess" in the title. Maybe not, but to judge by that billion-dollar juggernaut called "Frozen," everyone wants to see a good princess movie with an ear-worming song. Critics debated whether the movie repackaged stereotypes or was a continuation of the slow-moving revolution that had begun with the introduction of minority princesses. Frozen, of course, splits the difference with two royals: one who kisses a guy and one who, smiling and skating, emphatically does not.

With two shorn wings and an astonishing maternal kiss, the recent Maleficent demolishes stereotypes that were only tweaked in Frozen. So it's a surprise that Maleficent - a fascinating live-action origin story about the mean, green fairy in Disney's 1959 Sleeping Beauty - hasn't inspired all that much critical thumb sucking. It stars Angelina Jolie as the titular fairy whose path to villainy is directly traced to the catastrophic moment when her old childhood friend, Stefan, cuts off her wings in a power grab. It's a shock of violence that's been read as a rape, and more than one observer has seen allusions to Jolie's double mastectomy. In retaliation, Maleficent curses Stefan's daughter, Aurora (the future slumbering beauty), only to gradually, and with great feeling, fall for the girl.

The scenes of the emotionally chilled Maleficent melting while she watches Aurora grow up are flecked with comedy. But they also chip away at the cliché of the beautiful evil woman whose power is inseparable from her narcissism, and who invariably sees a younger woman as a competitor. Maleficent only threatens to lash out at Aurora - the girl loves her in turn - saving her fury for Stefan. By the time Aurora slips into her curse-induced sleep, there's a prince hovering at the story's edge. Yet his kiss doesn't awaken Aurora. Instead, Maleficent stands over this girl and, with a tender, motherly kiss on the head, wakes both this beauty and movie genre, ushering the Disney fairy tale into the 21st century.

Scream Teens

Movies have long embraced young freaks and ghouls, those teenage werewolves and other children of the damned, and, in recent years, the young adult book market has helped pump fresh hot blood into the screen. The horror genre goes so well with the adolescent body, after all, both fertile sites churning with strange liquids, violent passions and seemingly inexplicable, terrifying changes. "I want to be normal," says the spectacularly paranormal Carrie (Chloe Grace Moretz) in the recent remake of the 1976 Brian De Palma freak-out. There's no chance of normal for Carrie, no matter her era, or for the title character in Life After Beth, a young zombie (Aubrey Plaza) whose morbid resurrection turns her into the ultimate clingy girlfriend. "I kind of wish she'd stay dead," her boyfriend says with a sigh.

Having a monster for a boyfriend has metaphoric potential, but it's also true that these days it's harder for a white girl to hook up with a black guy than it is to get serious with a super-white vampire (Twilight) or suck face with a deadly white zombie (Warm Bodies). The Production Code's ban on "sex relationships between the white and black races" ended in 1956, but in today's neo-segregationist cinema, blacks and whites rarely mix romantically. So while Twilight introduced a Native American heartthrob with Jacob the wolf boy, Bella was always destined to remain on Team Edward. Given our black-and-white obsession with race, it's no wonder that in the 2013 Southern gothic Beautiful Creatures a teenage witch who learns that "no good could come from us loving a mortal."