By Erin Moore
**Warning: this post contains spoilers for a few classic movies.
It’s summer time, which means every spare dollar in my pocket will be spent on movie tickets. I love movies like Squints loves Wendy.
Like V loves revolution.
Like Juno loves Sunny D.
But if you’re like me and find yourself a simultaneous movie buff and feminist, you might feel torn between these two passions, like Neo, choosing between worlds of pleasant illusion and harsh reality.
Unfortunately, the film industry is not always kind to women. The majority of female film characters exist to support male characters. They are often used as tokens of beauty and sex, displaying few or no substantive qualities. When a woman does show intelligence or originality, her character is rarely the center of the story. In short, women are endlessly underrepresented and misrepresented in film. But boy are they pretty.
Men on the other hand enjoy dynamic time on the big screen, playing just about every character you can think of. Choose your preference. Lovable underdog?
And why stick with one man when you can watch a whole group? You’ve got your quirky ensembles.
Your dynamic duos.
And your triumphant teams.
Whenever I point out the imbalanced portrayal of women in film, opposition sounds something like this: “It’s not their fault. They just make what sells. It’s what people want to see,” as if that’s supposed to be comforting. But is that true? How then do you explain the commercial success of films with strong female leads, like Bridesmaids, The Hunger Games, or Zero Dark Thirty?
Does the film industry give people what they want, or do people learn to want what they see on screen?
To explore this question, we’re going to look at the portrayal of women in the top 5 movies on IMDB. If you’re not familiar, IMDB stands for Internet Movie Database. It’s a treasure trove of information on basically any movie you can think of. Site visitors can rate films on a scale of 1 to 10. From this data, IMDB maintains a “Top 250” list. While the list continually changes, the highest-ranked movies tend to stick around. (For the complete, current rankings, click here.)
This is by no means a perfect picture of movie culture, nor can we draw definitive conclusions from it about how our society portrays/views/thinks about women. But it does tell us something. Each of these five movies was rated hundreds of thousands of times, some of them over a million, and every user only gets one vote. So let’s take Fraulein Maria’s advice and start at the very beginning. And by that I mean number five.
5. Pulp Fiction
My favorite Tarantino film (until I saw Inglorious Basterds) is his signature web of quirky characters, violent crimes, and witty banter. The meat of the movie lies in the partnership between hit men Vincent and Jules (played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, pictured above.) They have provocative chats about the meaning of life as they go around killing people who owe their boss money.
And how about the ladies? The film’s strongest female character is played by Uma Thurman, pictured below on the film’s iconic cover. Her name is Mia, and she’s a highly sexualized, drug-addicted gangster’s wife. Much of her role in the film is centered on her body and the tension she creates for Vincent, who can’t decide if he should sleep with his boss’s girlfriend. The film also has a hysterical female robber and a child-like girlfriend, neither of whom get very much screen time.
4. The Dark Knight
The second Batman movie in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy follows the still-tortured Bruce Wayne as he tries to save Gotham from a demented terrorist, the Joker (played respectively by Christian Bale and a frightening Heath Ledger.)
The film’s one prominent female character, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, is Rachel. She’s Batman’s former love interest, but now she’s dating the DA. Rachel still has feelings for Bruce, which creates some juicy tension, but in the end she winds up the oh-so-typical damsel in distress. Rachel is admittedly an intelligent and strong character who is doing her part as Assistant DA to protect Gotham. However, her fate is ultimately sealed by her role in the love triangle.
3. The Godfather: Part 2
Michael Corleone, played brilliantly by Al Pacino, has descended into darkness to fill his father’s throne as the omniscient, deadly Godfather. Their family-based crime ring expands from New York to Nevada and Cuba, and we also get the back story on Michael’s father, Vito Corleone.
No Godmothers to be found in these films. Michael’s wife Kay is one of the only women in the film, and she’s played by Diane Keaton. In this movie, Michael and Kay’s relationship is strained by Michael’s double life. Kay displays some strength in standing up to Michael, but this serves to eventually display his increasing evil. After confessing to Michael that she aborted their baby to avoid bringing another man into the family, he hits her, and they end up divorcing.
2. The Godfather
In the first film we’re introduced to the aforementioned Corleone family. All-powerful Vito is getting older, and we wonder which son will take over the clandestine family business.
The Corleone’s have one daughter, Connie, and the movie opens on her wedding day. Connie, played by Talia Shire, makes sporadic appearances during the film, the most memorable of which involve violent fights with her abusive husband. Connie is an extremely unlikable character–she is whiny, immature, and at times, hysterical. It’s easy to find her the least tolerable of the Corleone crew, even though the rest of them are murderers.
1. The Shawshank Redemption
Based on over one million ratings, The Shawshank Redemption is the number one movie on IMDB. Tim Robbins plays Andy, who is wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and her lover. He is sentenced to life in prison, where he befriends Red (Morgan Freeman), and together they make the most out of a horrible situation. It’s a beautiful movie about restitution and forgiveness, and Red and Andy are two of the most likable characters you’ll ever see on screen.
But this post isn’t about the boys, powerful though their stories may be. Aside from a store clerk here and there, The Shawshank Redemption has one female character: Andy’s wife. In the credits she’s listed as “Andy Dufresne’s wife,” and I was unable to find a picture of her anywhere on the internet. She appears in a few passionate flashback scenes which remind us she was cheating on Andy.
So there you have it. To review, in a list of classic, brilliant, and universally popular films, you have a sexy gangster’s wife, a sexy DA’s girlfriend, two more gangster’s wives, and a sexy, dead wife. Substance? Complexity? Personality? Not much.
And you know what’s really bugging me? I really really like all of these movies. They’re incredible. Fascinating stories. Memorable characters. Genius acting. The stuff you want when you watch a movie. But keep going down the list and you’ll find the same story over and over. Remarkable, dynamic men with occasional women for them to screw.
So where is the feminist cinephile’s reconciliation? Many things about the film industry and society in general need to change before genuine, complex women become the norm in our movies. For now, let’s continue to appreciate the classics while acknowledging their faults, and also show support for new writers, directors, and actresses who are daring to portray women in film as real people. Now there’s an offer I can’t refuse.