The film industry has flirted with the word ‘feminism’ a lot in recent years. Emma Watson, Charlize Theron, Joss Whedon, Channing Tatum – amongst many more – all proudly declare themselves as feminists.
Looking at the industry, it’s not surprising that many have been outraged by inequality. According to one study by Directors UK, in which they examined 2591 UK films between 2005 and 2014, films were six times more likely to be directed by men. A BFI study, meanwhile, reported that only 30 per cent of actors cast in films in 2017 were female.
So, here we have the problem presented through numbers. Inequality becomes quantifiable. The solution appears easy: women made up 50 per cent of cinematic audiences in 2016, according to the Motion Picture Association of America; so all that needs to be done is push the other percentages up to 50% as well. Then, we will have equality.
Except the problem runs deeper. Certainly, representation is significant and needs to be addressed, but it is important to look at how women are represented – not just whether they are. Declarations of feminist doctrine have come streaming out of the film industry, but it would be unwise to simply take them at their word.
There’s a Mitchell and Webb sketch about two producers looking to try and market The Apprentice. They note how it’s not just “coverage of idiots […] for an audience of idiots” – there’s also people who’ll watch ironically. “How do these ironic non-idiots show up in the ratings?” Webb’s character asks. “They show up the same, my friend,” Mitchell tells him.
Film producers do not have any allegiance to politics. They do not care if you’re watching ironically or not – if you’re progressive or sexist – only that you are watching. As they see progressive movements hit the mainstream, they adapt their films, not because they believe, but because this maximises their appeal. They adapt to the market, not to morality.
An effective way to do this is to present a film as feminist, but keeping characters sexualised under proclamations of ‘sexual liberation’. It’s easily done. A sexually empowered woman arrives on the screen, dressed in a skimpy outfit. The feminists cheer for sexual freedom. The sexists cheer for sexism. The producers cheer for profits.
This is definitely not to say that a woman reclaiming sexuality is bad, and of course it can – and should – be empowering. But most teenage boys do not care about sexual freedom, or the ‘Free the Nipple’ movement. They want to see you topless. It is a naïve hope to think producers are unaware of this.
So, yes, we can have female representation as action leads. We can have Black Widow (in Joss Whedon’s Avengers Assemble), Wonder Woman, Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde. But Whedon’s Black Widow will be in skin-tight leather (whilst not featured amongst the merchandise, or in her own film). Wonder Woman will have slow motion shots up her skirt/armour as she kicks (as in the Justice League trailer). Charlize Theron will have a lesbian sex scene. It’s as if producers are giving consolation prizes to men: “Sorry, fellas, we’ve got to do this because feminism’s popular, but here’s some close-ups of Scarlett Johansson wrapping her legs around a guy.”
“The sad truth is that even to watch most films is to accept underlying sexism”
Even this is only half the battle. To return to the Mitchell and Webb sketch, it’s worth examining “ironic viewers”. With so many films presenting sexist stereotypes in more obvious ways (women as housewives, sexualised women, women side-lined, etc), it can be tempting to watch these films believing you are better than their other audience because you’re aware they are sexist. The Fast and Furious franchise might needlessly have women in bikinis everywhere, to the point where even the actresses begin to call it out (“I hope [the studio] decide to show some love to the women of the franchise on the next one,” Michelle Rodriguez wrote on Instagram), but we can tell ourselves it’s a guilty pleasure. We’re not really sexist for watching it, because we know it’s sexist. We won’t fall for it.
But, in watching, we have fallen for it. The casual sexism is accepted, and even supported, by an audience of feminists and sexists alike. The films continue to be made. The sad truth is that even to watch most films is to accept underlying sexism. Fighting for more representation is incredibly important, but until we can deconstruct the sexist roots in our society, these films will continue to be made and consumed.
All we can do is hope that, by increasing representation, film producers will begin to become aware of and correct the stereotypes and ways of presenting women that have dominated the industry. With nothing short of a radical rethinking of cinema, can we strive for equality.