Normalizing Male Dominance: Gender Representation in 2012 Films
This report was conducted by Chloe Beighley and Jeff Smith.
This is the first of several reports based on our investigation of Hollywood films in 2012. In this report we looked at gender representation, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Part of our analysis looked at represented by extreme gender roles, some by gender parity and other films by extreme gender inequalities. Our analysis looks at films by genres, with some concluding remarks about gender roles and examples of male and female characters that were less objectified and represented gender roles that were more human or outside of the narrow gender roles of most films.
A picture is worth 1,000 words. The above picture really only needs two words to describe it: gender inequality. In a shot from one of the year’s biggest films, The Avengers, we are privy to a perfect representation of women in films. Five men standing, preparing to protect the city of New York from being wiped off the map, and there is one woman with them. She is dressed in a suit that perfectly forms to her curves, as to appear appealing, and she armed with the smallest weapon. This is how women are portrayed in cinema.
We looked at a total of 72 of the top films from 2012 for the larger film study. The above graphic represents the lead characters of 67 of those films. Of the 67 films, 55 of the lead characters were male, and only 12 of the characters were female. That number of females includes the films in which we considered the gender roles to be equal. This is a huge misrepresentation of women in the world, and especially in the media, and only furthers gender stereotypes in the United States. For the analysis part we only included 53 of the 72 films.
Looking at the 53 films (listed at the end) in the category of gender representation, we see that the majority of characters were male, and only 7 were female. This further proves that men still dominate the cinema and gender is continually misrepresented in cinema and in films. Men are seen as the protectors, the saviors, the breadwinners, and the know-alls. Women are constantly being misrepresented in these films, shown for purposes of objectification, support of the male characters, and mostly as love interests that drive the male characters. In the few movies where we see strong lead female characters, we also see them having the support of at least one male who is involved in their situation in some way where the female ends up needing their help. We very rarely see any breaks in stereotypical gender roles. Even in action films where the lead is a female, there is always some sort of emotional baggage tied into the movie that makes her seem more “soft.” If this did not exist in the films then the women would seem “threatening” or “unlikable,” which is not what cinema wants in their female characters. Women in cinema, even in their action roles, are portrayed in a way that objectifies them, even if that is not the end goal of their role.
There were plenty of films where women were presented in stereotypical roles, which we would define as stereotypes that perpetuate gender roles within a male-dominated system. In these roles women are overtly feminine, have weak character, lack confidence, have an identity that is tied to a man or need to be saved by a man.
One example is how women are portrayed in the film Project X. Project X is a “high school” film about three guys who throw a party at one of their houses, a party that is over the top in terms of size, but fits into the typical high school film genre. One of the lead male characters has a friend who is female. They flirt on and off before the party, but want to hook up at the party. Instead, the male character, played by Thomas Mann, ends up with another woman at one point. The girlfriend walks in on them, runs away, only to forgive him later and be by his side after the fallout from the party devastation.
In addition, there are scenes all throughout the film during the party, where some of the high school girls in attendance are topless around and in the pool. This kind of casual hypersexual depiction does not take place with male characters, thus normalizing the objectification of female bodies.
There were other films that fit this genre of movies that cater to high school and college age audiences, where the gender roles are hyper-sexualized. In the film 21 Jump Street, the two male lead characters played by Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, are cops that go undercover in a high school to thwart illegal drug dealing. Both Tatum and Hill play hyper-masculine roles, with Tatum being the eye-candy and Hill playing a character that wants to relive his high school years, be accepted by the cool kids and get the girl.
Such movies present men as stuck in a permanent state of adolescence, where men never mature much beyond puberty and women are available purely for male pleasure.
Other films that perpetuated this permanent state of male adolescence were American Reunion, where five male friends try to re-live their high school sex fantasies when attending their 10 year high school reunion. Another film that promotes a permanent state of male adolescence was That’s My Boy. Like many of Adam Sandler’s film, That’s My Boy is a comedy geared toward normalizing male privilege and objectifying women. Negative male behavior is normalized in numerous scenes, but the most egregious is when a group of men go to a strip club as part of a bachelor party.
One last example of films that normalize male adolescent behavior was the movie Ted. In this film Mark Wahlberg’s character has a teddy bear that comes to life and as he gets older the teddy bear adopts crude behavior that involves lots of casual sex and where women are presented as lacking in intelligence. Ted exemplifies the permanent state of adolescence that men are encouraged to embrace in this culture.
We see gender role reversal in one of 2012’s big blockbuster hits, The Hunger Games. In this film we are seeing a new type of heroine who defies gender stereotypes in cinema. She is not a victim, she is not passive, she is not cold. She takes action, she is compassionate, and she’s strong. She has taken over her deceased father’s role of providing for her family, and also has become a mother figure to our younger sister, when her own mother couldn’t fulfill the role. In terms of romantic interests, she is caught between her best friend at home, and another contestant in the games with her. However, she is not sexualized with either character until she and Peeta kiss, which was only prompted by her trainer. The thought process being that people watching the Games would begin to support her if she and Peeta looked as though they were falling in love, essentially sex sells. The scene also shows her love interest whom is not participating in the Games watching the kiss on TV. This adds drama to the scene, essentially, conflict sells. These are themes that we are seeing over and over in movies being released today.
Generally, in superhero movies, the gender roles are stereotypical. There is a man who comes to save the woman from peril and is deemed a hero. We are seeing the same amount of gender stereotypes in the superhero genre films that were released in 2012, namely, The Avengers, The Amazing Spider Man, Snow White and the Huntsman, and The Dark Knight Rises.
In The Avengers we see a collaboration of superheroes who are trying to protect the world from a super villain. In this instance, there was not a woman that needed protection, however, we still see stereotypical gender roles. The men are all fighting for control of the situation, each claiming to have the best solution to the problems they face. On the same level, they are trying to undermine the other male characters with snide comments. The main female character, the Black Widow, fights on the same level as the men do, an area we see a small amount of gender equity in the film. However, she is still very sexualized. When we first meet her character, she is playing the role of a prostitute, and is extremely scantily dressed. She is also the only character in the film that cries on screen. Additionally, there are undertones of a romantic relationship with another character. We see romantic relationships with nearly all of the characters in the film, however, her relationship is not spoken about, and therefore given more clout.
In The Amazing Spider Man we see the common role between Peter Parker and his love interest, in this movie, Gwen, named differently in other Spider Man films. They are schoolmates, then she grows to become a bit of a love interest, there is heavy flirting as he pursues her, and then some romantic kissing. They hide their relationship from her father, which adds a sense of danger or tabooness to their relationship, and of course, in the end, he does save her life, and comes home to her. We see very stereotypical gender roles in superhero films in this film.
In Snow White and the Huntsman the clash of two poignant traditional characters, Snow White and the Evil Queen and their fight for beauty. Snow White is not overly sexualized, she is trying to portray a stronger female heroine. She is bold and fearless, we don’t see as much of the girl who needs to be protected by the dwarves and Prince Charming, we do see, however, her being mentored by the huntsman, which does reinforce patriarchy. Similarly, in their fight for beauty, the judgement of who is the fairest in the kingdom comes from a male, the mirror on the wall, so the Evil Queen fights to be the most beautiful woman in the kingdom based on male opinion. The Evil Queen is highly sexualized. We see her going naked into a bath, and then emerging from that bath naked, covered in a white substance. Similarly, we see her in her bed, and her night clothes, as she kills the king.
In The Dark Knight Rises there are two strong female characters, Catwoman and villain Miranda Tate. While both of these women demonstrate courage and confidence, they are not independent of men. Miranda Tate deceives Bruce Wayne and sleeps with him. She is with the villain Bane and owes her life to him. The Catwoman character is often represented as being selfish and wanting her own freedom. Her character ultimately succumbs to Batman’s plea that she help save Gotham, but her decision to come back and fight Bane was to be with the hero Batman. Both Miranda Tate and the Catwoman character fall into the familiar pattern of being either defined by men or saved by them.
There are other films that have male heroes as the central character, such as Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, Dredd, John Carter, Men in Black 3, Skyfall, Taken 2, The Bourne Legacy, The Expendables 2, The Grey, The Hobbit, The Man with the Iron First, The Raven, The Woman in Black, Total Recall and Wrath of the Titans.
In each of these films, the men are clearly the saviors, the heroes, the focus of the plot. When female characters do appear in these films, it is primarily to be saved. There are some strong willed women in some of these movies, such as the female Judge in Dredd, who is an apprentice and another woman who is the drug lord, but clearly cast as a villain.
In this group of films most women are saved or merely play the role as the girlfriend, wife or love interest. Rarely, do we see women the primary protagonist, as in the films Resident Evil: Retribution, Prometheus and Underworld: Awakening. In Prometheus, it is the female scientist who keeps a level head and is able to survive, whereas all the male experts were fooled or gave into personal gain. In President Evil and Underworld, the lead females characters are strong and confident, but one is a vampire who is looking for her male partner and the lead female character in Resident Evil is often sexualized by the way she is dressed.
In the animated movie, Brave, we see a young female character trying to defy social norms by not getting married, and the struggle that ensues with another female character, her mother. The girl goes on a journey with her mother, which is a result of her desire to not be married. In the end, we see a understanding growing between the two characters, who agree on defying the “social responsibility” of a princess being given to a prince.
The mother character is both domineering and understanding, two characteristics which are not often seen together in maternal characters in cinema, especially in children’s movies where the mother character tends to be sweet and nurturing, or overbearing. The mother also is perceived as the head of the house, where the father/king responds to what the mother would like done.
The young girl is both headstrong and rash in the beginning of the movie, focusing on her weaponry and adventuring. By the end of the movie, she has become both more understanding of others and a caring daughter.
Frankenweenie, created by Tim Burton, portrayed the classic Frankenstein tale with a bit of a twist. A young boy who loves his dog is suffering when the dog is suddenly hit by a car. Using the lessons he learned in science class, he resurrects his dog. The film is shot in black and white and uses Burton’s familiar stop-motion medium that we saw in Corpse Bride and Nightmare Before Christmas. We see animated film gender stereotypes here, a young boy being the main character, his dog being male, his role model in the film being a the male science teacher, his mother being overly protective and the villain, of sorts, being the cranky male neighbor/mayor of the town. The boy of course has a young love interest, and she is stuck with her creepy uncle while her parents are gone, creating a friendship between the two.
Hotel Transylvania does not have a singular main character, however, it heavily focuses on the overprotective father and his teenaged daughter. The other characters in the hotel are family characters as well, and we are not seeing anything out of the ordinary in terms of gender in this film. The daughter wants to roam free and learn about the world, her overbearing father says no, and then a love interest comes to stay at the hotel. Eventually, they leave the hotel and travel together. There was certainly potential of the vampire girl to end up with someone other than a straight, white male, however that did not occur. Since monsters in movies are traditionally represented as “the other,” there was also room for her to end up with a variety of characters, including other monsters, however, she ended up with a white male human, completing the fairy tale.
The families that come to stay at the hotel are male dominated monster characters. They are the best male friends of the father, and are traditional monster characters: the werewolf, the mummy, frankenstein, and the invisible man. Their wives are certainly vocal secondary characters, however, it is the men who make the majority of the decisions and voice their concerns in the film.
In The Lorax, the main character, the Lorax is voiced by a male. The first three characters that appear on screen are male characters. Also, the towns “billionaire character” who is the antagonist is a male. The first woman character, Audrey, voiced by Taylor Swift, is deemed a love interest right from the time she is introduced. She plays a stereotypical “hippie chick,” tall, with long messy hair who wants to paint and plant trees. The main male character Ted, voiced by Zac Efron, lives with his mom and grandmother and does not have a father figure, which is interesting, since in a large number of children films, the maternal character is missing. The grandmother plays a huge role in encouraging Ted to find the Onceler and learn about planting trees. The mother is also very encouraging of his journey, especially when he faces characters who want to stop him. The character that Ted goes to seek out while looking for a tree, The Onceler is also a male, and the part of the storyline, follows him as he devastates a forest and entire ecosystem and then gets Ted to help him rebuild it. There is nothing extremely different about gender roles in this film.
Madagascar 3: Europes Most Wanted follows the gender representations that the other Madagascar films have followed. The main characters are three males and a female. The Lion, who is male, and the leader of the group makes all the plans for the group. At the beginning there is a struggle of power between the three men, then the woman hippo decides that she will be in control when they are interrupted and the argument is stopped. The animal control chief is a woman, who is stereotyped similarly to how female policewomen are usually portrayed, very harsh and motivated in her job.
The animals buy a circus so they can go back to America and the lion tells the other animals not to think of him as an authority figure because they own the circus now. He tries to act like an authority figure but one of the other animals tells him they feel bad for him. However, when the circus fails, he takes the position of trainer and gains their respect.
Ice Age: Continental Drift follows the same storyline as the previous Ice Age movies. The movie focuses around the three main male characters, Manny, Sid, and Diego. Manny is having trouble controlling his teenage daughter, who in turn is having trouble fitting in with the other mammoths. The men face conflict with the male leader of a pirate ship. When the men sink his ship, the pirate leader, Gutt, vows to take revenge, and ends up holding their families hostage. The female roles come from Manny’s wife, Ellie, their grandmother, and their daughter, Peaches. Also, from the first-mate of the pirate ship, Shira, who becomes the love interest of Diego. The women are all in very secondary roles as loving companions, similar to the roles that we saw in Hotel Transylvania. One difference we do see, however, is Shira betraying her friends to protect Diego and his friend’s families. Shira saves Manny’s wife, therefore earning the love and respect of the group of friends. Also, Granny plays a large part in protecting the family when her pet whale stops the fighting between the pirates and the friends. In this film, there are also Sirens, creatures that portray what each of the male characters find desirable, which creates an environment where the female characters are being objectified.
In Wreck-It Ralph, the relationships between male and female characters are portrayed as much more of a partnership than we see in many other movies, where one, mostly male, character is dominating another, usually female, character. There is a solid relationship of mutual partnership between the main character Ralph, and one of the female characters, Vanellope, who has been made an outcast in her game by another character who has taken over. They continually work together to help solve each others problems. There is the opportunity for the movie to have a stereotypical lesbian character, and it seems like they will head down that path with the character of Sergeant Calhoun; however, she works closely with another male character, Felix and the two become romantically involved. In the arcade itself, the movie does a good job of having young women playing the games and not making the conclusion that only young men play video games.
ParaNorman continues the male dominated representation like the other animated films we have looked at. In Paranorman, a boy who has the power to see the dead saves the town by uncovering the haunting secret surrounding ghosts, which plague his town. Female characters have marginal roles, like Norman’s sister, who plays a stereotypical teenager that is irritating and obsessed with boys. ParaNorman had potential to deal with historical gender oppression, since the ghosts that haunt the town were community leaders that sentenced a young girl hundreds of years ago because they did not understand her gifts. The film mildly presents the harm done during what is often called the Salem Witch hunt; wherein men accused women and girls of witchcraft as a means of controlling female behavior. While this film does have a positive lesson for younger audiences, it failed to challenge gender norms.
Male Drama Category
There were several films we looked at in this study that would fall under the genre of drama. Disproportionately, these movies had lead characters that were men and the majority of the time, men who played stereotypical male roles.
The revisionist film Argo is primarily about the heroics and political hardball played by men during the Iran hostage crisis. The movie Battleship was a typical military film, except instead of fighting enemies from foreign lands, the US military fights aliens from outer space. Men are the dominant characters who not only win the war, they get the girls.
Other drama films also focused on men, like Lockout, Looper, Premium Rush, Safe House and Lawless. Women are certainly present in these films, but their roles are marginal and only serve to bolster the male character’s identity. The movie Lawless typifies this dynamic, where one female character, who works for the men, and has a love interest in the lead character played by Tom Hardy. This women is sexually assaulted in the film, but her victimization is not relevant to the plot, which centers around three brothers from a small town involved in selling moonshine during the period of Prohibition in the US. A scene near the end of the film reflects the essence of Lawless, when there is a bloody shootout between two groups of men.
There were a few dramatic films that did give women larger roles. The Oliver Stone film Savages, has two strong willed women, one who is the lover for the two male characters, and a female drug lord in Mexico, played by Salma Hayek. The other film was The Trouble With the Curve, where the daughter of Clint Eastwood’s character is played by Amy Adams. Eastwood is a baseball scout who is losing his eyesight and is helped one season by his daughter to scout new players. In the process Amy Adam’s character decides to quit her job at a law firm as an extremely gifted lawyer, in order to take over for her father and become a new baseball scout, while at the same time rescuing her relationship with her dad and ending a romantic relationship with a fellow lawyer. It is a heartwarming film that challenges some gender roles, but in the end Amy Adams character finds another male love interest and plays the role of the female fixer in a dysfunctional family.
In Dark Shadows, we see quite a few different love interests for Johnny Depp’s character, Barnabus, which are really the drive behind the film. The plot, which involves restoring the family to their original fame and fortune, is interlaced with the romantic dealings of Barnabus. We see a sexually aggressive female character in Angelique, who loves Barnabus and wants his love in return. There is a particularly amusing segment where Angelique tries to force herself upon Barnabus, in turn destroying her office. The character that Barnabas loves is one of a younger girl with a much sweeter demeanor, much more so than Angelique. We also see the members of the family occupying his house trying to vie for his love and attention, which the writers rely on to drive the humour of the film.
The premise of Magic Mike seems like it is driven completely by the sexual objectification of some of Hollywood’s most “attractive” actors. The plot is based around the main stripper, Mike, changing his lifestyle for the woman that he loves, the sister of one of the strippers. With the exception of the lead female character, the women in the film are also objectified, being portrayed as girls who love male strippers, and will eventually sleep with them.
In The Five Year Engagement we see a bit of gender parity, the movie focusing equally on the main male and female characters. The situation with the male character seems to be more crass and sexually objectifying. He is seen naked in a scene, he makes the decision to cheat on his fiance, and when he enters into a new relationship, the woman that he is dating is young and very sexually active, which they show more than once in the movie. When the main female character enters into another relationship, it is with an older man who is portrayed as more mature, and they do not show the same types of situations as they do with the male characters. In the end, they do switch traditional gender roles, and the main female character proposes to the main male character.
The Vow follows the gender roles as in all Nicholas Sparks movies. The couple is in love, they face turmoil, they are separated, and in the end they are together. This movie is no different. There is a bit of gender parity, each character being equally focused on. The main female character is a little more stereotyped, she comes from a wealthy family and she lives at home with them, which is opposing how she lived with her husband and had an art studio before her accident. Following suit to all Sparks movies, the couple does get back together in the end of the film.
In Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 we see a change in the attitude of Bella, as she is now a vampire. She functions much more singularly, not following Edward around or reacting to his every action. She spends time on her own, doing her own problem solving. Also, she now plays the role of a stereotypical mother, being protective of her child, and protecting her family. It is a refreshing change from the previous movies. The other female vampires play roles that they have previously played, mostly being strong female character with male counterparts. Similarly, the male vampires play roles that they have been in throughout the film series. Edward becoming a strong protective father figure, being the difference.
What To Expect When You’re Expecting focuses on the female characters, trying to show how potential childbirth affects each character. Each potential mother handles the arrival in different ways and we see natural childbirth, adoption, and a miscarriage, and the resulting emotional trauma of each situation. However, the film does not completely disregard the male characters. There are plenty of scenes where the fathers or potential fathers spend time together discussing life with children and how their lives have changed. Though the movie seems as though it would focus on the babies and the mothers, the writers added the parts of the movie about the fathers to add more humour and also to appeal to a male audience.
There were a few examples of solid representations of women where the female character was independent and did not rely on men, were not portrayed as emotionally unstable, and not used for purposes of a love interest. Brave was certainly one example of a movie where the lead female character did not rely on men, and in fact, did not want to get married. Also, it could be argued that in The Hunger Games, Katniss was not used for a love interest, but rather, had other love interests, which were manifested for the purpose of achieving her end goal. Also, in Snow White and the Huntsman, the Queen was certainly using men as a means to her end, however, she was certainly doing so to protect herself. Though there are not a large number of deviations from the cinematic norm, it is certainly nice to see a few differing representations of women in 2012 cinema.
In addition to the instances where women are portrayed with positive characteristics, there were films that also allowed men to step outside the limited boundaries of normative male behavior. For instance, the main character in the film Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie, while struggling with depression, is allowed to show emotion and does not try to just fit into the dominant culture. The friends he develops throughout the film, both male and female, allow him to be his own person and deal with the myriad of emotions that any teenager is confronted with.
Considering the power of images and messages in Hollywood films, it is safe to conclude that male dominance continues to be the norm and that gender stereotypes continue to limit the kind of representation that is possible in film. There is not a simple cause and effect of media representation and what happens in the real world, but media representation does normalize the reality of male dominance that continues to be pervasive in the United States.
Here is a listing of the films we looked at for the gender representation study:
21 Jump Street – 2 Males
Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter – Male
American Reunion – Male
Argo – Male
Battleship – Male
Brave – Female
Cabin in the Woods – Male
Chernobyl Diaries – Male
Chronicle – Male
Cloud Atlas – Male
Contraband – Male
Dark Shadows – Male
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days – Male
Dredd – Male
Flight – Male
Frankenweenie – Male
Fun Size – Female
Here Comes The Boom – Male
Hit and Run – Male
House at the End of the Street – Female
Hunger Games – Female
Ice Age Continental Drift – Male
John Carter – Male
Lawless – 3 Males
Life of Pi – Male
Lockout – Male
Looper – Male
Madagascar 3 – Male
Magic Mike – Male
Men in Black 3 – Male
One for the Money – Female
ParaNorman – Male
Premium Rush – Male
Project X – Male
Prometheus – Both
Resident Evil: Retribution – Female
Safe House – Male
Savages – Gender parody
Skyfall – Male
Snow White and the Huntsman – Female
Taken 2 – Male
Ted – Male
That’s My Boy – Male
The Amazing Spider Man – Male
The Avengers – Male
The Bourne Legacy – Male
The Campaign – 2 Males
The Dark Knight Rises – Male
The Dictator – Male
The Expendables 2 – Male
The Five Year Engagement – Both
The Grey – Male
The Hobbit – Male
The Lorax – Male
The Man with the Iron Fist – Male
The Odd Life of Timothy Green – Male
The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Male
The Raven – Male
The Vow – Both
The Watch – Male
The Woman in Black – Male
Think Like A Man – Both
Total Recall – Male
Trouble with the Curve – Male
Twilight Breaking Dawn 2 – Female