Hand in hand with the feminist movement throughout the social life, the cinematic culture has gone through some alterations in the last few decades. Even though one can argue that the industry is still in white male dominance, both in terms of the directors and the ideologies behind the films, the revision cannot be overlooked. The movies and media, in general, have to go through an adaptation process today. In line with the advanced feminist movements and the aimed inclusion of women in every social and political field, some genres evolve and alter their modes in an aim with accurately addressing the new, somewhat awake audience.
Almost all of the genres have to adapt to changing social life in order to keep up with the audience. The biggest change can probably be seen in the western genre. Such films not only don’t appeal to the contemporary viewer but would also be harshly criticized if they follow the traditional way. As women’s dreams and ambitions are beginning to be supported within the social world, the same is expected from the film industry. With the accelerated feminist movements, the codes that worked in cinema for almost a century are failing today. Additionally, these limited representations of women in visual media have proven to be harmful to the overall feminist acts.
Miss Representation explores the problematic representation of women, revealing how limited the media portrays women of power and influence in the United States. In the documentary, Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Kimberlee Acquaro focus on how media defines the women with their looks. It is not that the influential women do not exist in real life, but they occupy a minimal role on the big and the small screen. Thus, the young girls get the message that what is important is how they look, no matter what their achievements are. Revealed in the studies, children until five years old have similar projections towards their future regardless of their gender. They have similar dreams and goals for the future, like becoming the president of the United States. However, the studies show that the percentage of girls who dream of being the president significantly falls as they begin high school, whereas it is not the case with the boys. This drastic change is believed to stem from the lack of representation of women in significant political or business roles on the media. As young girls don’t see these influential figures to look up to as they grow older, they distance themselves from their initial dreams.
A similar argument is set in This Changes Everything. The film is a documentary production by Tom Donahue, revealing mainly the gender bias in Hollywood. Hand in hand with the representation issue, the female directors are revealed to hit a glass ceiling on their way to be prolific filmmakers. They don’t find a supportive environment in the industry, which leads them to shoot fewer films, which contributes to the limited portrayal of females in cinema. The white male dominance in the industry is traditionally pointed out to be the reason for the problematic representations of historically underrepresented groups. For instance, the queer audience had enough of “straight men making films about gay people that would appeal to straight people”. Together with promoting the inclusion of female filmmakers within the industry, the documentary covers the research conducted by the institution, which devotes itself to the issue of the female representation in media.
Geena Davis, actress and activist, founded an institution regarding the gender bias in media in 2004. Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media provides the largest body of research on gender prevalence in family entertainment with the motto: “If she can see it, she can be it.” Using Google’s technology, the researchers scan all forms of media; films, series, advertisements, and so on to reveal how little showtime women hold compared to men. In This Changes Everything, she tells how she started this research herself: by watching all of the children’s animated movies and noting the gender of the speaking characters. She estimated a considerable difference, which triggered her to form this research institution and try to combat the bias in an organization.
The significant gap in gender prevalence in all forms of media is problematic for sure, considering that half of the population is underrepresented. However, towards taking a step in changing the destiny of our future, the issue requires an urgent resolution, especially in children’s movies. Children are not only the members of the society to create the future, but also the quickest audience group to react. The same year Disney’s Brave was in the theatres, an animation about a courageous Scottish princess who is a skilled archer, the number of girls registered in arching classes increased remarkably. A similar increase was observed after the release of The Hunger Games, as well. This shows how significant what children see is in regard to what they want to achieve. As productions empowering women are increased in number and effect to reach the audience, they begin to alter the expectations towards new productions. The children’s films, together with the traditionally so-called women’s pictures, are evolving and adapting to the feminist culture.
Accordingly, with the former concerns, Frozen II distinguishes its heroes from the traditional Disney princesses. It is not surprising that a Disney movie would not satisfy the contemporary audience (and their parents) with an ending with the prince rescuing the princess. In Frozen II, the two princesses are very different characters by nature. Where Anna is revealed to seek love since she was very young, Elsa doesn’t seem interested in finding happiness in another person. Projecting this duality on the big screen, that both are fine as long as you are satisfied and happy with your life, is one of the details I admired in the film. After the sequel was announced, a group in the audience was rooting for a same-sex relationship for Elsa, now that the iconic song “Let It Go” became an LGTBQ anthem. Personally, I am glad that a significant other is not implied as a “must have” for a perfect life. Nevertheless, if I should open a parenthesis on the subject, I am expecting an animated movie with a homosexual hero as the lead in the following years now that the movement toward better queer representation on the media is a hot topic.
Back to our example, not only in terms of love, but Frozen II implies powerful messages for young girls, which the traditional Disney animations lacked. For instance, when Elsa tries to cross the sea using her ice powers, there is a horse made of water which tries to overcome her. It should be noted that a horse is usually a phallic metaphor or at least a masculine one. Elsa tackles with the horse for some time and finally gets on it to get to the island. The important message here is that the help will not always be presented in a golden plate for us to use; we need to take action and “tame the horse,” so that we can use them in our benefit to reach our goals. Go, Elsa! Go, girls!
Where all these messages sound beautiful and promising, I must note that when I went to see Frozen II, the theatre was filled with adults. There were three children only, who lost interest towards the end (which for us were the most gripping moments of the film), and were hushed rigidly by the rest of the audience.
With accelerating feminist movements and directed selective perception toward female representation in media, the audience is sensitive regarding the films which misrepresent women. We even have institutions in this regard! One can’t look away when the female protagonist is represented within an archaic understanding. Thus, romantic comedies with goofy female leads in need of a man to bring their life back on track became one of the first genres to change according to audience approval.
Molly Haskel uses the phrase “conflict in certain women between a zeal for work on the one hand and the socially conditioned yearning to be taken care of,” while describing Howard Hawks’ female antagonists. Almost a century later, one can argue that the conflict remains. The difference between the classical Hollywood and today’s films in terms of the female representation is that it is highly unlikely for a romantic comedy today to be revolved around a woman who doesn’t have a job and relies on her prince to bring the magical love and wealth to her life. Yet still, these characters were tolerated if not cheered only a decade ago. So, we can claim that the cultural alteration is accelerated recently, but what does traditionally feminine evolved to be?
The usual old plot of “woman finding happiness and wealth after meeting a man” seems to be failing to satisfy the feminist audience. Thus, more important than seeking love, today’s female rom-com lead should have a passion. In modern society, finding happiness in the significant other is somewhat inferior to finding peace within. The educated audience doesn’t buy the “they lived happily ever after” endings following the wedding anymore.
Accordingly, I observed a similar message in Last Christmas. With Emily Clark and Harry Golding, the romantic comedy revolves around the female antagonist who has a “shitty” life until she meets the boy. However, the twist (and the big spoiler) is that he is in her imagination. As revealed towards the end, Tom had actually died, and his heart was transplanted to Kate. How literal the title and the theme song of the movie, “Last Christmas I gave you my heart,” didn’t occur to me until I spoke to a friend afterward. So the film is not that subtle or witty, but to me, it had the ideal level of cheesiness which I expected from a Christmas themed rom-com. What is noteworthy regarding the film is the context in which it presents the traditional elements.
I have argued that today’s audience is much easily offended by the ill representation, and is more judgemental towards the implemented ideologies. Last Christmas doesn’t diverge from the classical romantic comedy notions except the twist, which becomes somewhat a disclaimer for the film. As Tom helps Kate get her life on track, Kate is revealed to actually “listen to her heart.” Through his guidance, she finds a way out of her misery which is to simply change her point of view and giving instead of taking. She finds inner peace by focusing on making other people happy. Tom, being imagined, works as a disclaimer to the three-fourths of the film in which a “failing” woman turns her dysfunctional life around with the help of a man. The closure of a film marks its statement toward the genre, as the message is conveyed through these last scenes. Following her heart to work for her dream of becoming a singer becomes the main message of the film. After all, in the end, she is left without a man in her happy and satisfactory life. Nevertheless, love is not a cure for all. Most importantly, our rom-com heroines now have a passion.
Take La La Land, for instance. Most of the traditional romantic comedy motifs are successfully used within a hybrid musical genre to bring the film several acclaimed awards. The most important alteration seems to be the closure. The traditional ending would make sure the boy and the girl ended up together. Instead, the protagonists follow their dreams in this film and make them come true at the expense of their relationship. In the end, they are both happy with their lives and still have admiration and respect towards each other. So a break up does not necessarily refer to an unhappy ending. Besides, Damien Chazelle was kind enough to include a “What if?” scene for the hungry viewer, as well. Instead of a traditional happy ending, romantic comedies today have slight shifts that place them to a rooted position within the social circumstances.
In Isn’t it Romantic, Rebel Wilson presents a parody of the clichés of romantic comedies, which is kind of ironic as she ends up filling the whole film with these motifs. The protagonist, who hates romantic comedies, hits her head and wakes up in an alternate reality in which her life is a romantic comedy. In the film, New York becomes way-too-pretty with all the pastel colors, flowers, and dancing people in coordination. The female lead now has a perfect apartment, innumerous shoes, a fluffy dog, and a very handsome admirer who engages in grand gestures of love. What Wilson succeeds in the process is that all these clichés are presented in a context in which they are mocked and proven to be unrealistic. They don’t add up in real life.
Therefore, the new popular films either change their attitudes towards the traditional motifs, add a twist as a disclaimer, alter the triumphant ending of love, or have a completely different theme to satisfy the feminist viewer. Take television series, for instance. Recently, there are many shows which depict women acing in their business, engaging in crime, being active decision-makers, and influential. The archaic belief of women needing to find someone to love them in order to be happy and satisfied with their lives are long gone, which resulted in the alteration of the whole genre. The industry still has a long way to go, and there could be picked out as many more counterexamples in popular media to claim the female protagonists are still the bearer of the same ideologies of a century ago. However, I find it essential to point out these baby steps towards a promising future in the industry and celebrate Elsa as the role model of many young girls in this new decade.