Fall 2007 - Volume 10 Number 4
|Reviews||Men on a Pedestal, Women in Prada
Discussed in this essay: Gone with the Wind (1939), Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), Spiderman 3 (2007), Transformers (2007)
Of late, feminism has supposedly come out stomping in its high-heeled Hollywood shoes. It has, we are encouraged to believe, entered onto the stage of pop culture and loudly announced its presence. We look to twenty-first-century feminism as a source of inspiration, a marker of progress. Women think: We have jobs, we can vote, we play super heroes in movies, we buy our own shoes. We are the newly empowered. But, somehow, I don’t think mocha lattés and Prada really quite cut it. In the realm of Hollywood, females continue to be implicitly and explicitly portrayed as sexual toys for boys, incompetent, and needing rescue, despite their apparent gains of power. So, is this new wave of feminism just a wolf dressed in stilettos and red lipstick? How are women being represented in mass, popular cultural artifacts today? Have we made any advances in terms of what is still an immensely powerful form of global influence?
Women in recent Hollywood blockbusters are shown buying their own wardrobes and clacking away on keyboards in corporate offices (or, in the cases I discuss here, as supporting actors, sidekicks, and “princesses”). I can’t help but think that we’ve been here before, and that not much has changed in the last century or so. Here, I argue that women today too often remain represented much as they were in the early 1900s. They are still largely depicted as being exploited in their sexuality, inferior to men in their efforts, and in need of rescue. These asymmetrical gender ideologies remain in such immensely popular twenty-first- century Hollywood films as “Spiderman 3” and “Transformers,” while being compared to films from the 1900s, such as “Gone with the Wind” and “Star Wars: A New Hope.” My objective is to show how gender relations in popular American films have remained much the same for nearly a century.
In the process of examining popular contemporary Hollywood films produced (mainly for an adolescent audience), I ponder the question as to why this subject would be of interest to professional film critics or professors, who probably could not care less about a bunch of badly done, over-rated, incessantly advertised and trashy “teenaged” films. And, in truth, I acknowledge that the films I have chosen to discuss bear no presumption as to being gender-sensitive works of “art”. The focus of these films lies mainly in rewards of profit, special effects and “spectacle”, with little attention paid to intelligent dialogue, character development or storylines of symbolic substance. And the question remains: Why would I choose to address films of seemingly little substance, while hoping to provoke the interest film mavens and educators? Because I believe these high grossing films to be of immensely powerful influence. These films are viewed by millions, and bestow their ideologies upon millions. They are widely seen by college students and are important elements of the popular culture they inhabit. They are works projecting negative gender ideologies or stereotypes, and so can create or reinforce belief in these ideologies.
That said, a minor caveat is in order: While I will be critiquing Hollywood film, I am in no way suggesting that every film produced in Hollywood has been sexist and regressive; I am merely trying to show that sexism and gender stereotypes are powerfully reoccurring thematic trends in popular culture. There are numerous American films that have depicted powerful women (think “Erin Brockovich” and “Thelma and Louise”). Even Princess Leia has her redeeming qualities. So, Erin, Thelma…where did you go?
Looking backward for historical comparison, “Gone with the Wind” (1939) presents the main character, Scarlett O’Hara, as a “relentless survivor” and a “savvy entrepreneur”. But she is also a shameless flirt who is punished and exploited for her aggressiveness. The men are not overtly depicted as the sexual predators that they are, and so they are not explicitly condemned for their sexuality. Consistent with the times, the women are coded as incompetent and dependent, and are represented as being ultimately reliant on men for their survival; stereotypical ideologies that, as Terri Wright (1997) pointed out, were heavily prevalent in 1930s film.
Scarlett is crudely punished for her overt sexuality. She flirts all over town, marries for money, and becomes the “town whore”. When she is caught in an embrace with her love-interest, Ashley, she is shunned by the townspeople. Her husband, Rhett, threatens to leave and take their children with them. One of her children ends up dying. Rhett walks out. Scarlett has no husband or family. She is punished for her promiscuity, having had three failed marriages, and having resisted her expected role of mother and wife. Meanwhile, Ashley remains uncondemned. He is not scorned by the townspeople. His wife, Melanie, does not leave him; she remains dutifully by his side until her death. Evidently, the woman who defies her role as subservient housewife is done for good. The male, the breadwinner, holds the power of being the provider, and therefore possesses the power to do as he pleases. The woman has no power, and cannot make her own decisions. She must remain faithful to her husband and her preordained gender roles.
Scarlett is a typical whiny, pampered Southern belle, apparently unwilling to do anything for herself. When she is left to care for her destroyed household, she runs to Ashley. She begs him to run away with her. When she has no money to pay her taxes, she flees to Rhett. Rhett refuses her. She marries a man who won’t. When she wants to start her own business, she returns again to Ashley. She is incompetent in her entrepreneurial skills; desperate and unable to pay her bills. She needs a man for anything that requires more brainpower than throwing a cocktail party.
Decades later, little had changed. Modern-day films of the 1970s continued to exploit women in their sexuality and depict them as ultimately being in need of a man’s deliverance (think “Pretty Woman” here). Women snatched up careers and civil rights, only to be undermined in their progress. If sexually deviant, they were persecuted and dispossessed of their livelihood. Men came out with a stable career and a clean record.
Consider “Star Wars: A New Hope” (1977). Princess Leia wields a vicious tongue (and a hairstyle to match). But alas, she requires rescue, and stands nearly idly by while the men triumphantly wreak destruction on the Death Star. Leia is given the opportunity to shoot a few bad guys here and there, but she also hatches an escape plan that nearly gets the group incarcerated by a posse of storm troopers. Needless to say, she doesn’t quite wiggle her way into the sobriquet of “heroine.”
At first glance, Princess Leia appears strong-willed and even witty in her comportment. Yet this is quickly overshadowed when she is captured by the villains and tossed aboard the Death Star. She sends a message via video hologram as a cry for rescue: “Help me Obi Wan Kenobe. You’re my only hope.” Leia immediately establishes herself as the freaked out, feeble, desperate princess in need of some major male salvation. A man is her only hope. Luke, Obi Wan, and Han take their cue to hop into a spaceship and embark on a quest to save the hapless princess in their shining, white storm-trooper armor.
Despite her sharp tongue and “kiss-my-butt” attitude (“From now on, I call the shots"; "I recognized your foul stench”), Leia is incapable and incompetent in many of her efforts. When attempting to escape from a barrage of gunfire, she suggests the group jump down a metal hatch. They then proceed to find themselves in a gigantic garbage dump, where they are nearly made into mush by two contracting walls. Luke saves the gang by radioing the droid, and the men take the situation into their own hands to manoeuvre their way out.
When the rebels (the good guys) embark on a mission to blow the Death Star to smithereens, Leia waits patiently in the battle station. She is the “little girl” who waits at home, while the big men go off to war. War evidently remains a man’s world. Leia is excluded from this manly world and expected to sit pretty. She serves little purpose in the war effortonly there for her spunk and good looks. She is eye candy, a romantic interest to the male figure (as she later becomes to Han).
The next half of the twentieth-century and the transition into the twenty-first-century cannot be held responsible for spawning vast change. Representations of men alter slightly, while women seemingly feel no impulse to discover tremors in the fault lines of their representations.
A brief glance at current film could potentially satisfy the viewers’ search for the contemporary progressive women. Women hold careers, sometimes fight at the front lines in wars, and contribute in banishing the social woes of the world. But women remain on the margins, rather than in the vanguard. They are sidekicks to men, along for the journey. They say little and contribute less, acting as a response to the male fantasy of attractive and welcome company. In the new culture of the spectacle, women satisfy the hunger for the visual and answer the call to be subjects of billboards and objects of desire. Their spectacular roles displace action. In film, they do not act as heroines or saviours, but as sidekicks and stand-ins to the male effort. Men remain to act as the strong, solid providers who save the world from peril. They are physically strong and effortless in their brawn and intelligence. They are occasionally sexualized in their physique, but use their physical attributes as tools towards “good,” strength, and action. Their solid structures battle evil, carry out missions, and transcend tirades. The sleek, accentual physique of a woman is solely for visual display. Women remain as they did at the beginning of the twentieth century, only equipped with more makeup, less clothing, and a host of opportunities they are firmly denied.
The parade of critics, viewers, producers, and theorists daring to claim that certain filmic works have progressed in their representations of gender suggest that films are no longer explicit in their sexism. But “Spiderman 3” (2007) is a film that denies women their autonomy. The women in the film appear to be attractive in appearance and are capable of holding careers, but they are also helpless, waiflike creatures, who are inept without a man and hopeless in achieving conquest. As Maher perceptively states: “I am most disturbed by essays that, by embracing a ‘postmodern version of feminism,’ unduly praise every example of a hot girl who knows how to fight or pay her own bills” (Maher, 2007, para. 17). Despite the fact that critics claim contemporary films to be progressive, hugely successful films such as “Spiderman 3” are works that fail to redeem woman’s stereotypical image.
“Spiderman 3” is the third installment of the Spiderman series. The main character and heroic figure, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), faces the challenges of battling villains, dealing with fame, and maintaining his relationship with his girlfriend, Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst). Peter is forced to battle against his friend, Harry Osborne, and fight a new villain by the name of Sandman, while simultaneously seeking his uncle’s killer. Peter falls prey to a venomous black substance that brings out his sinister “id.” He is forced to battle against his enemies and himself.
“Spiderman 3” is a film which values women solely for their sexual prowess and their ability to elevate the esteem and worth of the hero. Mary Jane, the female lead, fulfills such a role. She is attractive, slim, and often commended for her appearance. She achieves little more than acting as a sexual figure to Spiderman, a prop that will elevate his status as true hero. She is portrayed as being unintelligent and incapable of success. In one of her first major career experiences as a lead in a play, her hopes for success are immediately deflated when she receives the first reviews of her performance. Critics quip that she is “easy on the eyes, but not the ears,” and claim her performance to be lacking in talent and charisma. Mary Jane is eventually released from her acting company and demoted to a position as a waitress. She is undermined in her efforts to attain a career. She succeeds in the “attainment” of good looks, while continuously floundering in her work.
The female characters in “Spiderman 3” are often undermined in their success. They are bereft of glory, “big time” careers, high incomes, and big breaks. Their worlds are devoid of their own heroism and strength. They are desperate for men and helpless and miserable without their companions. They lack intelligence and capability in every area. The male figures are typical in their masculinity: they are strong and violent, they either save the world or conquer it, they are intelligent and capable, and they succeed in their occupations. They do not require the help of a female, but often desire her companionship.
Peter Parker, the main male figure, is represented as being intelligent and successful, excelling in his academic life and career. He achieves good grades, aspires to be a scientist, and is admired by millions of citizens as the city’s gatekeeper. He is enthralled by the attention he receives as parades are held in his honor. His picture is everywhere around the city and he is thronged by reporters. Peter is gawky in his stature and awkward in his banter, but his abilities evidently displace his appearance. Mary Jane is only valued for her appearance and possesses little capability. Peter possesses fame, while Mary Jane possesses bad reviews.
Peter is vulnerable to numerous crises in the movie, but manages to emerge from his conflicts unscathed. He becomes distanced from Mary Jane and is threatened in his career. Eventually, he is replaced in his position as photographer and fired from his job. He is constantly pursued by villains: Venom, the Sandman, and his best friend Harry, the Green Goblin. Yet despite Peter’s apparent struggles, he manages to overcome his obstacles and reclaim his status. He regains his position of photographer by proving that the man in his place is a fraud who has claimed Peter’s photos as his own. He recovers his heroic status by rescuing Mary Jane from the villains, defeating Venom, and reconciling with his enemies.
Peter resolves his problems and achieves success through action; battling his villains and pursuing his career and the woman he loves. Mary Jane solves her problems by moping around the city and complaining how lonely she is without Peter: “You aren’t there for me”. Mary Jane attempts to seek consolation by going to Peter’s friend, Harry, another man. Mary Jane is once again reminiscent of women from past decades: she is dependent on men, constantly in need of men, and reliant on men to solve her problems. Just as Scarlett pursued Ashley and Rhett in “Gone with the Wind,” Mary Jane pursues Harry. She is the ultimate archetype of femininity: without career and intelligence, sad without a man, and bloated with incompetence.
As well as being sexualized and incompetent, women require rescue. When Mary Jane is captured by Venom and Sandman, she is held hostage in an automobile suspended over the city. She is screaming and helpless, unable to escape from her captors. Spiderman must come to her rescue. Spiderman defeats Venom by clashing metal poles together that causes him to implode, battles Sandman, and reconciles with a wounded Harry. When Mary Jane falls with the descending car, Spiderman leaps to her rescue and sweeps her from the falling wreckage. The final scene of the movie features Mary Jane singing at a jazz club and Peter coming in the door and approaching her for a dance. Despite the fact that Peter and Mary Jane are separated by this point, Mary Jane takes his hand and looks longingly into his eyes. The film closes with the couple holding each other closely.
“Transformers” (2007) is another contemporary work that shows women as sexualized, incompetent, and requiring rescue. “Transformers,” much like “Spiderman,” features a reluctant, gawky hero and a sexed-up, leggy female, who serves little more purpose than to ask mind-jarringly stupid questions, to seductively straddle automobiles, and generally strangle the film’s dialogue with her lack of intellect. I realize that tight, ripped abs acquired from the bottom of yoga mat and sets of lips soaked in bins of collagen are prized possessions, but couldn’t there at least be some intelligence packaged with that Happy Meal? At least some occasional witty dialogue, some predictable, tireless, corny one-liners that vie to demonstrate how “oh-so-sassy” and independent the female figure is?
“Transformers” is a film that begins its narrative in a battle between two robot races: the Autobots and the Decepticons. The Autobots possess a “cube of power” that the Decepticons require for domination. The Autobots conceal the cube on the planet Earth, persuading the Decepticons to invade. Megatron, the leader of the Decepticons, becomes entrapped and frozen in the Arctic Ocean. Megatron’s corpse is later discovered by a group of explorers, led by Captain Archibald Witwicky, where Megatron attempts to engrave a map in the Captain’s glasses. Sam Witwicky, the grandson of Captain Archibald, eventually comes into possession of the glasses decades later. He also unknowingly purchases a car that is an Autobot in disguise, that has been programmed with a mission to protect Sam. Sam eventually embarks on a journey to aid the Autobots in saving Earth from the Decepticons.
“Transformers” is a film that invites the utter bombardment of crazed, estrogen- strung feminists. It practically demands a recount of the woman’s vote. Women’s representations in this work leave nothing lacking or hanging in limbo, save for the enflamed, expectant libidos of a few adolescent boys.
The audience is provided with a first glimpse of apparent progress and “feral” independence when they are first introduced to the lead female character. Mikaela Banes, played by Megan Fox, appears in her first scene, clad in a short denim miniskirt and a cropped pink tank top, exposing her in all her almost-full frontal glory. We see “progress” sauntering toward us, “progress” leaning seductively and leisurely upon a car, “progress” exciting the male fantasy of a few awkward, nerdy adolescents. Mikaela is slim, full lipped, doe-eyed, and, (of course), perennially at a loss for words. She is immediately established as lacking in intelligence and oozing sexuality in her role as the popular, “babed-out” chick with the jock boyfriend and utter contempt for semi-intelligent beings (hence her total ignorance of Sam Witwicky, the main character who has been pining after her for their entire educational career). “Transformers” presents its female characters as wholly sexualized and woefully unintelligent. Mikaela serves as little more than the ideal fantasy of the film’s main character.
“Transformers” may have had the opportunity to redeem itself from a feminist viewpoint, had the director only remembered to give the female lead some intelligence. If Mikaela had been scantily clad, but well read, then we feminists wouldn’t have complained (as loudly). If she had picked up a book, taken up a gun, and uttered more than a few simple words, then we would have said “Oh, okay, she’s doing something. She’s contributing!” However, Mikaela’s dialogue consists of little more than a few incessant, dippy questions and obvious, vacuous statements: “What is it?”, “You think I’m shallow, don’t you?”, “I guess I just have a weakness for hot guys”. Mikaela is evidently relevant for nothing more than sexual spectacle, as is made evident by the camera’s constant tendency to pan her down from head to toe, and Sam’s hormonal escapades of chasing her down the street in an attempt to win her as the final accessory to his car: “Now that I have the car, I gotta get the girl.” Mikalea appears unintelligent and uninvolved, and so cannot be valued for anything other than her appearance.
The issue of most concern about the exploited sexuality of women in so many Hollywood films is that women remain visual objects of male desire, while men are associated with the intellectual. Women are visual images, while men, in contrast, are doers: the scholars and the heroes. Women are valued for their sexuality, while men possess intelligence, courage, and endurance, and obtain the women, the fame, and the rewards. Women get nothing.
While it is a common event to say that women are exploited in their sexuality, it is also important to look at how men are addressed in their physicality. In the film “Transformers,” men do not seem to be exploited as often. While the soldiers, yes, are buff, brawny, and visually appealing, they are not dressed in skin-tight clothing that reveal any body parts that should remain unrevealed. The main hero, on the other hand, is a wimpy, seemingly unfit-for-kinghood kind of guy. He is evidently not valued for his sexuality. He is significant for his intelligence, his humor, and his ability to complete his mission as the “chosen” hero of the robot race. His physical appearance and “exploitable sexuality” remain absent from the picture. His sexuality lies only in pursuing the girl. But he is not at a loss of power in his act of pursuit. The male will decide that the woman will choose him as her love interest and she will fall prey to his whims. As Hedley states in his article: “In the male-centered triangle, he is in control…She is not in control of her romantic/sexual future. He will make it happen. She will wait for it to happen to her” (Hedley, 2002, para. 8). The man exerts control over the woman, while the woman loses power in her submission.
“Transformers” represents men as possessing superior intelligence to women. Sam Witwicky’s character is a hopeless nerd; detested at school, awkward in his banter with girls, and a self-proclaimed “ladies man” in the cyberworld. He demands A-letter grades on his assignments. He is the chosen hero who possesses his grandfather’s glasses, the source of the transformers’ power on earth. Sam is the possessor of knowledge as the chosen hero; he is aware of the Transformers’ mission and knows what he must do to save the planet from destruction.
Men prove to be superior in this film, simply by being the active participants. The male hero, Sam, is destined for the life of a hero. Sam decides to pursue his call to action, strings Mikaela along, and performs all the labor of escaping from the bad guys, negotiating with government officials, and providing the government with information regarding Earth’s invasion. Sam is literally always in the driver’s seat, even though it has been made evident in the film that Mikaela possesses more knowledge about cars. She is discarded as the secondary driver simply for the fact that she is a girl. However trivial, this appears to be the circumstance.
In the final scene of the film, Mikaela earns her rightful place in the driver’s seat. Not surprisingly, she is permitted to drive the automobile only when Sam has literally abandoned his command post to attend to more important matters. Sam must dodge through war-torn streets of mangled cars, gunfire, and transfer a robotic cube to the top of a building, and then back down to the Transformer in order to ensure evil’s destruction and the preservation of the human race. He is the reluctant hero, balking when he is given his mission from the military: “You’re a soldier now,” the military captain tells him, signifying Sam’s transcendence from boy to hero.
In Mikaela’s only scene of action, she is permitted to drive a jeep with a Transformer strapped to its back, shooting at any enemies that interfere in their path. Somehow, I can’t be impressed that the girl is granted the “privilege” of driving a jeep backwards, while a robot does all the grunt work of taking out their obstacles. Her contribution of driving a jeep seems meager compared to that of Sam’s flight through the city and the efforts of the military to bring down a fleet of robots.
When Mikaela stations herself in the center of the war zone, she is yelled at by the troops to “get out of there,” as if she is some annoying little sister. Evidently, Mikalia is not destined for heroism. As the Princess Leias before her, she is ineffectual in action, battle, and occupying a place alongside the male hero.
Although Sam appears to be an unlikely hero in the beginning of the film, he evolves to a man of strength to whom the Transformers are forever “indebted”. Sam “assumes the masculine ascendancy he has worked toward. He earns paternal authorityandcompletion by saving [the woman and the world]” (Schneider, 1999, para. 7). Sam indeed assumes his destined role as savior. Mikaela is in need of saving and he saves her. She is helpless; he is capable. He will rescue and she will affirm his male role as hero.
In eighty years of major blockbuster Hollywood films, little has changed. Four seemingly different movies across the period simply reiterate old stereotypes. The men are strong, independent, and capable, while the females are simply along for the “ride”. They make a slight ripple in the pond, only to be outdone by men throwing their big beastly boulders.
Why do these representations continue to prevail? Because, as Lauzen and Dozier (2005) pointed out, the film industry remains made up of nearly eighty-percent of men who stick to the same, clichéd conventions. A more important question is why there should there be such concern centered around the issue of gender representation in film. Big box office Hollywood productions, such as “Spiderman” and “Transformers,” attract vast audiences. “Spiderman” and “Transformers” are films that, collectively, have grossed over $300 million in sales. In witnessing contemporary Hollywood films, millions of people are continually exposed to ideologies that work to undercut the efforts of feminism. As long as these films continue to garner profit, women will be portrayed as dependent and incompetent. People continue to witness ideologies, which may eventually be imbued in their conscience. The public will then be “socialized” into believing that women are unequal in their abilities.
As Theodor Adorno (2001) pointed out several decades ago in his classic study The Culture Industry, contemporary Hollywood films, although often shallow and formulaic, are powerful conduits of contemporary ideologies. These Hollywood films have proven through their sales that they are likely to be deeply influential. In reinforcing these stereotypes, Hollywood is, for the most part, continuing to hammer these ideologies into the minds of the viewers. They are ensuring that there will never likely be gender parity. Females will continue to be perceived by much of the world’s population as “easy hits” exploitable in their sexuality, inferior in their strength and intelligence, and thus denied the most basic opportunities of human entitlement. Women may have nowhere to go but back to the kitchen.
Adorno, T. (2001). The Culture Industry. New York: Routledge.
Arad, A. (Producer), & Raimi, S. (Director). (2007). Spiderman 3 [Motion picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures.
Bryce, I. (Producer), & Bay, M. (Director). (2007). Transformers [Motion picture]. United States: Dreamworks SKG.
Hedley, M. (2002). The Geometry of Gendered Conflict in Popular Film. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 20(7). Retrieved Feb 20, 2007, from
Kurtz, G. (Producer), & Lucas, G. (Director). (1977). Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope [Motion picture]. United States: Twentieth-Century Fox.
Lauzen, M., & Dozier, D.M. (2005). Maintaining the Double Standard: Portrayals of Age and Gender in Popular Films. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 52(7). Retrieved Feb 20, 2007, from http://find.galegroup.com.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/itx/infomark.do?
Maher, J. (2007). The Post-Feminist Mystique. College Literature, 34(3). Retrieved Aug 4, 2007, from http://ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/login?
Selznick, D. (Producer), & Fleming, V. (Director). (1939). Gone with the Wind [Motion picture]. United States: Selznick International Pictures.
Schneider, K. (1999). With Violence if Necessary (action-thriller films). Journal of Popular Film and Television, 27(1). Retrieved Feb 20, 2007, from
Wright, T.M. (1997). Romancing the Tale: Walt Disney's Adaptation of the Grimms' "Snow White”. Journal of Popular Film & Television, 25(3). Retrieved Feb 20, 2007, from http://ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/login?
Amy West is a senior student in the Professional Writing Programme at York University in Toronto, Canada. Her interests include contemporary film, popular culture, and feminist studies. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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