Women's Work: why the jobs of female film characters matter


I hadn’t heard of Ross Putnam until this week; I'm guessing you hadn’t, either. For those of you, of which there are bound to be a good number, that don't recognize the name, let me tell you the little I do know: Putnam is a producer in Hollywood who started the would-be-funny- if-it weren't-sad-but-true Twitter handle @femscriptintros, where he posts actual intros written in scripts for female characters in films.  

Within 24 hours, Putnam had amassed over 20k followers and has had Hollywood heavy hitters like Paul Feig retweeting and cosigning the very sentiment of Putnam's Twitter feed: that Hollywood creators are doing female characters a large disservice before they even get cast. It's a burden with which their male counterparts are never saddled. While women in film are being held to descriptors such as " a raw sexual, force impeded" and "model pretty once, but living an actual life has taken its toll", male characters are written with more depth and purpose that supersedes their aesthetics. Slate hilariously posted an alternate universe, giving well-known male characters the same kind intros that focus far more on their sex appeal instead of seeing them as fully realized characters.

As The Mary Sue pointed out, Putnam's not the first person to expose the blatant sexism when it comes to female roles in Hollywood. An anonymous actress called Miss. L has been sharing sexist casting notices on her Tumblr, "Casting Call Woe," since 2013. While both accounts share numerous examples of tasteless-to-lazy descriptions, the ones that stood out to me most were when a female character's job was somehow directly linked to her looks. Take, for example, two from Putnam's account in which the characters are described as " attractive, but too much of a professional to care about her appearance" and "dressed in a paramedic's uniform - blonde, fit, smokin' hot." Or on Casting Call Woe, where Miss L. shared a casting notice for "a woman who can more than hold her own in a male dominated profession. Her cleavage is her best feature." I've wracked my brain trying to figure out why the size of a female character's breasts plays any significant role in her ability to be a strong businesswoman, only to come up with none. But alas, people in Hollywood seem to think it does.

Genre films have also had a history of shortchanging their female characters, especially when it comes to their ability to perform their jobs. Lois Lane, for example, doesn't get to be an award winning journalist; she needs to be a journalist that can't spell and is a general mess, as if Superman, with all his powers, would be any less super if his would-be girlfriend knew how to spell. More recently, in 2015's Age of Ultron, Black Widow was reduced to a love-sick girl who lamented over her inability to find love and be an Avenger, while her teammate Clint was able to juggle both family and work with ease. Also, last year, Jurassic World's female lead started off as a frigid, uptight, corporate stick-in-the-mud whose character development meant "evolving" into a more likable, warmer woman that wanted to be a wife and mother.  It's a dangerous and outdated narrative to continually reinforce that sends the wrong message to young female fans: That their worth isn’t measured in their ability.  So, what gives? And why does any of this even matter?

Just how bad is it?

Though there seems to be some improvement when it comes to representation in film, the progress isn't nearly as good as people think. According to San Diego University's Center for The Study of Women in Television and Film, females accounted to 34% of major characters in film ( only 7% higher than in 2002). When it comes to the occupations of characters in film, 78% of males had an identifiable occupation in movies, whereas only 61% did. 64% of males were actually seen working opposed to the 44% of female characters, and 48% of male characters had work related goals compared to 34% of females. When it came to goals in film, most women were tied into their personal lives (14%), but only 5% of their male counterparts were. Black Widow's disappointing non-development in AOU is a perfect example of this.

There's also a direct link to the representation of women in film and the number of women working behind the scenes. Films with at least one female director and/or writer featured a higher percentage of female speaking characters ( 40%) versus those with exclusively male directors and writers ( 30%). When women were at the helm, 50% of protagonists were female ( only 15% with male directors and writers) and 29 % were antagonists ( compared to 15% with male directors and writers).  

Why it matters

Seeing strong female characters who have goals that are based on their jobs, or are portrayed doing their jobs and in a capable manner, contributes to young female audiences considering the possibility that they, too, can hold those jobs. That they can be successful in whatever job they are doing, or be capable in balancing their work life with whatever else they choose. It's important for young audiences to see everyone fulfilling their potential, not mostly white, straight men.  

It's important that Princess Leia is now, rightfully, called General Leia. She was always more than a Princess, and her obvious importance and skills as a military leader were always prevalent in the original trilogy.  

Perhaps the most important aspect of the female-led Ghostbusters reboot is not merely that we get to see reimagined ghostbusting team with four women cast in the lead roles, but that all four leads are scientists and academics. Little girls can't grow up to be a Ghostbuster, but they can grow up to be municipal historian, a nuclear engineer, a particle physicist, or a researcher and scientist. Their imaginations are now armed with more realistic and attainable dream jobs, be it as a fierce military commander or an academic.

When it comes to science-fiction and genre, the expectation should be even greater that everyone is equally represented. The genres have always created innovative worlds where anything and everything was possible, that challenged human innovation and imagination. Together, they are responsible for some of the strongest and most capable females in film. Princess Leia, Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, Katniss Everdeen, Hermione Granger; they all embody the kinds of able and resolute female leads that young girls need to see in film. That's a great start, but as last year's numbers clearly show, more can be done. More SHOULD be done, and it starts by employing women behind the scenes, doing the very jobs that little girls need to learn early on can one day be theirs, too.  

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