Women As People in Film (Part I)

Katherine Hepburn


The greatest evil in objectification of women in film is not sexual.  When we use the word objectification, really we mean dehumanization.  The woman isn’t even a human, she’s an automaton with well-placed fatty tissue.  In a way, that’s the easier problem to solve because you can just slap someone on the back of the head and say “Snap out of it!

The real, evil objectification of women is in the grammatical sense.  From Wikipedia: “In the sentence ‘Bobby kicked the ball‘, ‘ball’ is the object.”  To be the object of the action on screen doesn’t allow much room for complex characteristics.  We don’t need to know much about the character who is kissed or saved.

Premise 1: Female objectification is the rule of films up to and around 2005 rather than the exception.

Is it true?  Do I need to establish this?  Probably.  That’s hard to do with movies, though.  I’ve seen quite a few in my time, but I don’t have total recall and I don’t have the time or inclination to do statistical analysis.  How can I claim anything to be represented in all of film.  So it’s all anecdotal.  In my review for The Switch (2010), making a slightly different point, I said

As a semi-proof, of Rotten Tomatoes’ 25 Best Romantic Comedies, I’ve seen 20 and 15 of those are clearly told from a male perspective.  Of the five remaining, two are the gender-balanced When Harry Met Sally… (1989) and The Philadelphia Story (1940).  Even in those movies, the emotional balance (that is, emotional complexity) lies more heavily with the men than the women.  Maybe I’m just inclined to see the male side of the movie as dominant because their side resonates with me (a man!).  But I don’t think so.

Audrey Hepburn

How is it that the majority of these films which are almost certainly primarily made for and watched by women would be about men and their difficulties with women.  Women are the object of the male protagonist.  Some movies provide more rounded or real characters than others, but for now I’ll settle on the dynamics of plot for my point.

Insofar as action is concerned, I feel like proofs would needlessly pad the word count.   The number of films where women are endlessly pulled out of danger after danger like meal sacks are legion compared to those like Aliens (1986).

The Problem

Maybe I should make clear, at this point, that I find this very annoying.  A lot of that has to do with liberal guilt and the like, but also disappointment.  I don’t want to watch movies where I have to think and quickly bemoan “objectification of women.”  I don’t want the difficulty in listing favorite actors to be that “10 isn’t enough” and listing favorite actresses that “10 is too many.”

For more than some of us, the representation of women as mere plot devices in a story is a problem by itself.  You know, respect, dignity, etc.  But if that doesn’t work for you and/or you have a deep distrust of things that sound feminist/gender-card-pulling, and I sympathize with you, then I’ll have to point to something else.  How about quality?

To make a good movie with good characters, those characters should be more or less real.  To be real is to resonate with your experience of people and resonance is good.  A real person will be more moving (drama), funny (comedy), or thrilling (action) than a mere device.

There’s probably something to be said for society and role-modeling.  Using women as plot devices, if it doesn’t create full-on inferiority, will lead to confusion.  A real character is consistent and understandable, a plot device doesn’t need to be either of those things.

We can’t know everyone in the world and we aren’t always great at understanding people in the hustle-bustle, and so watching people act in movies and television serves as a training ground.  Expectations as to the dynamics of a relationship are going to be impacted by the movies.  I suspect that this impact is greater when it is consistent and unchallenged.

Further, what does this mean for our actresses?  I am inclined to prefer “actors” to refer to men and women rather than the archaic actrix, but I’ll use the word to be clearer.  Are the roles and stories to blame for my, and I suspect “our”, greater population of venerated Hamlets than that of our Juliets?  As a subscriber of the view that the material/script makes the role and, thus, makes the performance, I take this to be obviously causal.

And I’ll get into that a little bit more tomorrow…

About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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4 Responses to Women As People in Film (Part I)

  1. Pingback: Women As People in Film (Part II) | Prof. Ratigan

  2. Pingback: Women As People in Film (Part III) | Prof. Ratigan

  3. Pingback: Women As People in Film (Part IV) | Prof. Ratigan

  4. Pingback: Brave | Prof. Ratigan

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