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The Evolution of Female Stereotypes in Movies

Posted by Lindsay Allen on March 31, 2023

The movie business, especially when it comes to the top-grossing films released in theaters, has historically been male-dominated behind the scenes, and it remains so. Definitive San Diego State University research found that just 24% of director, writer, producer, editor and cinematographer jobs on major movies were held by women — down 1% from the year before.

What effect does this have on women’s on-screen representation? Perhaps predictably but definitely unfortunately, female roles in movies tend to be constrained compared to their male counterparts, limited to a few repeated tropes and character types.

Understanding what kinds of roles women are being offered, as well as how the industry has evolved over time and what can be done in the future, is an important part of being a media-literate moviegoer today.

Common female stereotypes in popular movies

Watch enough movies, and you’ll start to notice the stock character types. While stereotypical characterizations aren’t just for female characters, they can be especially reductive for women, which becomes especially clear once you start crunching the numbers regarding on-screen representation.

The first thing to point out is that the average film simply devotes far less screen time to women than men overall. SDSU research revealed that in 2022, only 37% of speaking roles went to women. While far short of parity, this is actually up 3% from the even-lower 2021 numbers. Then there’s the question of what plot functions female characters are being called on to fulfill.

A SheKnows list is a good primer, describing 31 one-dimensional female character types that filmmakers tend to fall back on. These range from the classic imperiled damsel in distress to crazy ex-girlfriends, evil stepsisters and inappropriate older women.

The common thread between many of these roles for women is that they drive the action by affecting other characters, rather than showing off their own thoughts, feelings or development. They make life tougher for the hero, provide a sounding board or give motivation.

With far less than half of speaking roles going to women and so many of those parts being thinly drawn, it’s clear that representation is less than ideal. This naturally invites a follow-up question. Considering Hollywood’s present issues with women on film, is there actually progress being made? Have things changed over the years, and if so, how?

The evolution of women’s representation over time

To track the ways writers and directors use their female characters, it can be valuable to take a very zoomed-out view. One interesting study on women’s roles in film was conducted at the National University of Singapore and focused on Hollywood movie plots from 1940-2019, analyzing this big data set to determine the nature of gender stereotype use over the decades.

The analysis revealed that while female characters’ roles have evolved somewhat to reflect changing social mores, they often remain boxed into supporting roles. For example, the incidences of women as “wives” or “widows” decreased through the decades as marriage became less of a thematic concern. However, the use of “girlfriend” and “crush” remained steady, showing a continued interest in defining a woman as a love interest.

One takeaway from the data may point to a more equitable future for women on screen is the decreasing use of the descriptors “beautiful” and “attractive” in descriptions of female characters. This lessened focus on physical beauty as a primary trait could reflect an increasing willingness to give women’s roles more agency, in defiance of traditional gender stereotypes.

The impact of female filmmakers

One of the most impactful ways to create better role opportunities for women is also one of the most direct. Creating more gender equality behind the camera could have a major impact on female representation on film.

The SDSU research revealed that in movies with at least one female director or writer, women made up 56% of protagonists. Among the movies exclusively written and directed by men, that number fell to 23%. Major characters were 45% female in movies with at least one woman writing or directing. In movies with only men in those creative roles, 36% of major characters were women.

The more-inclusive future of cinema

Keeping attention on the representation imbalance in film is one way to push for a more equitable future, but there are more direct ways to drive progress. Through programs such as scholarships and professional mentorships, institutions are encouraging women to step into behind-the-scenes filmmaking roles.

Giving these women a say in the creative direction of movies can be a major catalyst in making sure the movies in the near future are more reflective of reality than those in the past. Overcoming the stereotype and trope dependence that has limited the agency of female characters and their portrayers is an industry-wide group effort, and the right time to start is immediately.

To learn more about the state and future of women in filmmaking, read Crews Control’s new ebook.

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