When we do this, we want to see women who remind us of ourselves, who are able to speak up about what they want (and resist what they don't) and who experience failure (and success). More often than not, we are disappointed.
If you apply a Bechdel Test
to the biggest box office hits and the films that sweep awards season (identifying work that has at least two women in it, who talk to each other about something other than a man), the results won't be pretty. Research shows
53% of women around the world see a lack of female role models in film and TV, and 74% of women say they wish they had been exposed to more female role models on screen.
Unsurprisingly, the women of the red carpet are taking notice and speaking out. At the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, Jessica Chastain called out
filmmakers for failing to write female characters who "are proactive, have their own agency, don't just react to the men around them, they have their own point of view." Chastain's criticism comes on the heels of Sofia Coppola's best director win for "The Beguiled." Coppola is only the second woman to win this award in over fifty years of Cannes film festivals, underscoring generations of backlash
against the festival's biases against female filmmakers.
Chastain is also an outspoken advocate for female actresses earning the same as their male counterparts, which begs the broader question: what part of the politics of gender on (and off) the screen are women supposed to try to fix first?
Is it fighting for recognition of their work at awards ceremonies? Convincing the industry to write complex female protagonists? Or, asking for equal pay when working hard to bring those characters to life?
The answer, unfortunately, is all of it, because it's all inextricably linked. It's impossible to create relatable female characters unless the entertainment industry stops viewing paying women equally for their work as a burden, and stops regarding content that empowers women as a business risk.
Chastain's comments also raise another key point: we need more female storytellers, but we also need male writers and directors to start telling better stories about women.
The first time I watched the NBC television show "The West Wing," for example, I found myself rooting for and simultaneously embarrassed by the characters Donna Moss, Amy Gardner, and CJ Cregg. These women came through when their male bosses dropped the ball, and did the emotional labor their male colleagues didn't know how to do, and yet always had an air of being less driven, less professional, and, as a result, less credible.
Creator and executive producer Aaron Sorkin's chronic inability to intelligently write female characters has plagued him over and over again
, and yet, he really doesn't have much of an incentive to stop doing it because, well, everyone else does it, too.
In the newly released season of "House of Cards" (spoiler alert), Claire Underwood becomes President of the United States, and she still has to answer to White House staff (and her husband) who treat her like a First Lady who doesn't know her place. In reality, Robin Wright can and does speak out against unfairly being paid less
than her co-star Kevin Spacey but the inequity in her bank account is a painful reflection of the inequity her character experiences on screen.
Even Wonder Woman isn't able to catch a break in Hollywood.
As a recent TIME article pointed out
, she's saddled with an impossible burden: "Like every other female figure in pop culture, she must be everything to everyone: A fighter and a pacifist, smart and naive, a feminist and a bombshell."
As historian -- and noted female storyteller herself -- Jill Lepore has written
, Wonder Woman's creator, William Moulton Marston, drew inspiration for her look and attitude from both suffragists and pinups, which says a lot about the double-bind her character remains in to this day.
It took 75 years to make the first movie about the world's most famous female superhero (meanwhile we have had nine live-action feature films for Batman, and no less than seven Superman movies) and when the movie finally did get made, studio executives had to be sure she was feminine enough to be a sex object, but not so feminine that audiences feel like they're watching a "girl power" film. If even Wonder Woman isn't allowed to display actual human flaws and emotions, how could we expect characters like CJ Cregg or Claire Underwood to ever stand a chance?
Part of the problem surely lies in the conventional wisdom that tells writers to "write what you know," and what most writers in television and cinema know is a world in which women smack their heads against the glass ceiling, repeatedly, and hard. Maybe Sorkin and Beau Willimon, one of the original writers of "House of Cards," don't write female political characters who are as complex as their male counterparts because there aren't enough prominent female figures in politics to draw from (see figure A
from Trump's overwhelmingly white and male 'focus group' on health care).
I empathize with the limitation, really, I do. But I'm not naive (or patient) enough to wait for the worlds of tech, politics, and finance to become a fairer place for women before I expect the media I consume to be created by women, about real women, without making money as a result of either of those factors.
We're seeing progress, absolutely, but while all those women writers, aspiring directors, and actresses are working hard to put the necessary cracks in the glass ceiling of the film industry, consumers like us need to get their backs and send the right message to studios and awards committees.
To the executives who have the power to green light the projects we want to watch every Friday night, money talks. And unless we subscribe, buy tickets, and click "Next Episode," there won't be any shows or movies to criticize and the talent pipeline will remain just as limited in its scope and representation. You've certainly heard about "voting with your wallet," but it's really not drastically different to refuse to watch things that claim to portray someone just like you, who if you met in person, you'd have nothing to talk about.
Don't hate-watch the next show with a ditzy female protagonist, or a poorly-written movie about how desperate women are to end up married at all costs. It's just not worth it.