#BreaktheBias: Five Female Stereotypes In Film That Need To Go

By Bianca Garner

The theme for this International Women’s Day is ‘Break the Bias’, according to the official International Women’s Day website “Whether deliberate or unconscious, bias makes it difficult for women to move ahead. Knowing that bias exists isn’t enough, action is needed to level the playing field.” We are all being urged to actively call out any form of bias and/or discrimination that we may encounter. For example, whether a woman is prevented from doing a task because she is considered ‘too weak and fragile’ to carry out the task, or whether her point of view or opinion is ignored in favour for a male perspective. Aside from calling out gender bias in our everyday lives, it is also important that we attempt to Break the Bias on the big screen. So, here are five female stereotypes that need to disappear from our movies ASAP.

Damsel in Distress

The Damsel in Distress has had a long history in our history. Often she’s used as a narrative trope for the male hero (or heroes), whose mission is to the defeat the evil that has kidnapped the damsel and/or put her life in peril. She’s often portrayed as being helpless, and incapable of saving herself so she requires the assistance of the man. The damsel is used as reward for the man who often marries the woman that he has ‘saved’. Since the very beginnings of literature, the damsel in distress has existed in some form. They’re probably more well-known for being the focus of many European fairy tales (e.g. Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Rapunzel etc.).

Throughout the history of cinema, the damsel in distress has had a long run of misadventures. Probably one of the most well-known ‘damsels’ is Maid Marian in the Robin Hood films, such as Olivia de Havilland in “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” (1991). The ‘damsel’ is also a key part of the ‘Comic Book/Superhero’ genre with the likes of Mary Jane Watson in the Spider-Man films, Lois Lane in the Superman films and Pepper Potts in the Iron Man films.

In recent years, the damsel in distress has become more well-developed as a character and hasn’t simply been someone who is seen as a prize. A good example of the evolution of the damsel can be seen in the new Spider-Man franchise, with the character of MJ played by Zendaya, who is a more contemporary version of Mary Jane Watson. MJ is very much her own person, who has her own identity and personality, and isn’t simply existing to be rescued by Spider-Man. The damsel in distress has also been reworked in recent Disney movies, with the princess becoming more active in her own story and even rescuing the man (examples include “Frozen”, “Tangled” and “Moana”).

The Hooker With a Heart of Gold

I recently watched “Pretty Woman” (1990) for the first time (you can check out my review here) and I wasn’t too impressed with the representation of sex workers that were evident in the film. The character of Vivian (Julia Roberts) is very much a ‘Hooker with a Heart of Gold’ (she may also be referred to as the ‘Tart with a Heart’), she may be rough around the edges but deep down she’s kind and sensitive, and needs a man to help her become a ‘proper lady’. Often this stereotype is used in the same way that the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ is used, she’s a trope to help the uptight man learn to loosen up and find himself. The hooker is often driven into the world of sex worker because she’s fallen on bad times and is different to the other sex workers because she has an uniqueness to her (for example, she’s kind, caring and intelligent). There’s often an overlap with the story of redemption for the ‘whore’ who rejects her old life in order to have a future with her male hero.

The ‘Hooker with a Heart of Gold’ may have originated from the Greek myth of Pygmalion, who was a Cypriot sculptor who carved a woman out of ivory. Pygmalion was a misogynist who remained celibate and focused his time of sculpting. He made a sculpture of a woman that he found so perfect he fell in love with it. Pygmalion made offerings at the altar of Aphrodite, and admitted that he wanted to find a woman who had “the living likeness of my ivory girl”. When he returned home, he kissed his ivory statue, and found that its lips felt warm. He kissed it again, and found that the ivory had lost its hardness. Aphrodite had granted Pygmalion’s wish and he would go on to marry his Ivory Girl. In films such as “My Fairy Lady” (1964) and “Pretty Woman” the female character go through transformations and become ‘perfect’ in the eyes of the male character.

This stereotype presents young women with the idea that they can only be redeemed at the hands of a man and that in order for a man to have a ‘perfect’ woman then he needs to somehow ‘create’ her. It also downplays the dangers of sex work and ignores the complexities of the lives of sex workers.

Manic Pixie Dream Girl

The MPDG was a term coined by critic Nathan Rabin in order to describe Kirsten Dunst‘s character in “Elizabethtown” (2005), he claimed that her character “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” The character of the MPDG has no complexities, she has no background or backstory and appears to exist simply to provide the protagonist with important life lessons so they can grow and develop as a person. In his review of “Garden State”, the critic Roger Ebert also described this kind of rather unbelievable “movie creature” as a “girl who is completely available, absolutely desirable and really likes you…we learn almost nothing about her, except that she’s great to look at and has those positive attributes”.

In an interview Zoe Kazan (who wrote and starred in the film “Ruby Sparks”) noted that the term should only be used to criticize writers who create one dimensional female characters, not actresses. Kazan was sceptic about using the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” stating that its use could be reductive, diminutive, and misogynistic. Kazan hasn’t only one that has tried to speak out about the use of the MPDG, Rabin has disowned the term. “I’m sorry for creating this unstoppable monster. I feel deeply weird, if not downright ashamed, at having created a cliché that has been trotted out again and again in an infinite Internet feedback loop.”

The MPDG is a hard character to define at times, and there’s been much debate as to whether certain characters in film can be defined as being a MPDG. For example, there have been arguments made for and made against whether Zooey Deschanel‘s Summer in “[500] Days of Summer” is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. As long as the character is there simply to be a narrative tool for the male protagonist then it shouldn’t matter if she’s slightly ‘manic’, right?

Psycho Ex-Girlfriend

This stereotype has really been damaging for women everywhere. It’s often used in the thriller genre, a perfect example being Glenn Close‘s Alex in “Fatal Attraction” (1987), who is becomes obsessed with Michael Douglas‘ character after they have a one-night stand with each other. The ‘Psycho Ex’ is often presented as being mentally unhinged and her mental health is treated in a comical or unsympathetic way. Being seen as ‘crazy’ is something that women are conditioned into believing is a bad thing, and that if they aren’t perceived as being ‘normal’ and ‘fully functioning’ then they will be unwanted by men. As Vanessa Torre writes for Medium, “Women are led to fear how quickly men are willing to dismiss any behavior that doesn’t fall in line with being a doormat as crazy behavior”.

As Torre writes in her piece, women are led to believe that if they demonstrate concerns about their relationship and their partner, then they are perceived as being ‘crazy’ and there is an aspiration for women to be seen as the ‘Cool Girl’. Women who aren’t seen as being ‘cool’ will believe that they will end up becoming the ‘Psycho Ex’. According to this piece from The Take, “countless movies and shows present this emotionally distressed woman without context as to the circumstances that got her there, framing her merely as an unpredictable liability and a problem that has to be eliminated.

The Crazy Ex isn’t allowed to be presented as a complex individual who has mental health complications and/or a history of abuse. Instead, she’s presented as an obstacle for the man to overcome. When you consider that in England, around one in five women has a common mental health problem such as anxiety, depression or self-harm, then this stereotype could really impact a woman’s decision to get help for her mental health in case they are perceived as being ‘crazy’. This damaging stereotype really needs to been stopped pronto.

The Ugly Duckling

How many teen movies (like “Clueless”, “She’s All That” and “The Princess Diaries”), have we seen where the ‘ugly’ girl is given a makeover and is revealed to be actually ‘really good-looking’ underneath those thick framed glasses and that frizzy hair? The ‘ugly duckling’ trope may be seen as something quite innocent and even positive (we all have the potential to be considered ‘beautiful’), but it’s actually quite damaging. The reason why is because it places all the focus on a woman’s appearance and their beauty, rather than focusing on their intelligence, their skills and other attributes. As Haley Devor writes for Her Campus, “The message being sent with this trope is that looking different is a bad thing, and you can only truly be confident if you change your physical appearance.”

Rather than accepting these female characters for their differences and their other talents, these films push the idea that women can only be considered ‘worthy’ for their physical appearance. Devor writes that “The trope perpetuates the idea that women are only desired when they fit into the cookie-cutter standard of what beauty is”. The ‘ugly duckling’ trope is based very much on a white western perception of what ‘ true beauty’ looks like and the impact that this can have on anyone who isn’t ‘white/straight/cis’ can be very damaging. The female character is never allowed to refuse a ‘makeover’ and as Gianna Ward-Vetrano writes in the blog Unbearable Bookishness, “ugly heroines are never allowed to remain ugly. To remain at the center of a narrative, she has to be made beautiful in some fashion or another”.

In order to fight this stereotype, we must try and push the idea that women do have self-worth even if they don’t fall under the banner of what is conventionally ‘beautiful’ and we must allow female characters on the big screen to be seen as being important to the narrative even if they wear glasses, don’t have straight glossy hair and don’t have perfect skin. In order to ‘Break the Bias’ we need to continue to call out these stereotypes and encourage more diversity in front and behind the camera.


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