For me, gender representation in film has always been of interest and concern, both as a teacher and a viewer.
The way media texts represent gender is worth analysing and challenging. Arguments exist (yes, I see the ‘straw man’ there – I hope to find a link soon) that challenging such depictions is pointless. That only the removal of gender as a concept will make any difference to society. I’m not on board with that, simply because gender difference has a role in diversity for me.
Further, I don’t enjoy representations that are one dimensional and those representations are here now. And so refusing to challenge damaging representations due to a potential future genderless society seems like rolling over. Future equality is just that – the future. We’ve got disparity right now.
I’m also writing this because it bugs me that portions of society (will always?) unthinkingly consume static representations, which is what most gender representations in film amount to. I want to repeat that obvious point – such stereotypes or tropes are static. They can’t be dialogues. They’re images or products and function as shorthand for attitudes. Dialogue, of course, doesn’t happen until someone engages with a text, rather than simply consuming it. So even a representation of gender that might be considered ‘positive’ is not much by itself. We have to talk about it.
My concern, as teacher and a writer I guess, is the way gender representations are static in media texts, a point I’ve rambled on about above. Now, this point feels more salient to me, especially when we look at film from different decades. It’s easy to point to Rear Window, for instance, and say – that’s how (western) women were in the 1950s. Look, it’s right there on the screen, see how Lisa is constantly cooking and dressing up for LB! Something which concerns me there, is that this allows a one-dimensional representation to achieve dominance through precedence. That’s ‘just how it was back then’ ‘that’s how it’s always been.’ (Hidden within that statement is also the notion that it was ‘like that’ everywhere for everyone. Every country, every race, etc).
Representations are static in newer and current texts too. Buffy, who it might be argued was only even possible as a character representation/a television show, after the second wave of feminism hit, is a classic representation of a 1990s woman. Look, she’s independent, see how she kicks the crap out of those guys and looks after herself, it’s right there on the screen!
It is on the screen.
But so are other behaviours. Both women are represented through the full range of their behaviours – but how often do we talk about that full range? To demonstrate this, both to myself and to my classes, I ask a simple question.
Who is more conservative, Lisa or Buffy?
Sometimes I add a qualifier – who is more conservative for her time?
‘Lisa’ is often the first response.
And she seems a fine candidate. She’s driven in her efforts to show Jeff how she’d make a fantastic wife – a classic 1950s goal for a woman. She always looks immaculate, she cooks and entertains, she tends to him, she tries to find him work, she even calls the kitchen ‘something more comfortable.’ She’s working hard to represent herself as the perfect wife and even to put herself into a position where she will no longer work, no longer have financial independence.* She seems an utterly conventional 1950s woman.
However, how else is Lisa represented in the film? Consider a few other points:
•Lisa has financial independence
•Lisa has a career
•Lisa freely gives her opinions in public settings (ie: with Tom Doyle)
•Lisa does all the dangerous ‘leg work’ for Jeff
•When Lisa does these things, it endears her to Jeff – he sees another dimension to her character
•Most tellingly perhaps, the film ultimately validates her ‘unconventional’ behaviour by making her the hero
Now, what about Buffy Summers (especially in the opening episodes of the show)? Even if she wasn’t the Slayer, it’s clear she’d be upfront with her opinions, strong, confident and principled. In the opening episodes of the series, you see her walking alone in dark streets, kicking butt, saving her friends and basically doing anything a typical male hero would do – and anything a typical female character wouldn’t have done on film in decades past.
However, how else is Buffy represented in the text? Consider a few mostly related points:
•Buffy is caring (ie: Willow)
•Buffy is concerned with fitting in
•Buffy is undergoing an identity crisis
•Buffy is concerned about her appearance (ie: choosing a costume in the opening episode)
•Giles is represented as a mentor and Buffy comes to realise she needs him
So what does all of that mean and why’d I want to know who’s more conventional? No prizes for the correct answer – I ask so that we can see beyond the first impressions the screen creates.
Perhaps Lisa is still less of a rebel than a young woman searching for a husband, and maybe Buffy’s more of a hero than a teenager trying to find her path, but the reason Lisa and Buffy are both successful characters and valuable representations, is because they’re multifaceted. They aren’t typical. They have their conventional and unconventional traits. But up there, alone on the screen – they’re still static representations. We have to question and talk about them, as writers, teachers, students, viewers, to really see what’s going on.
And perhaps all of this is only a concern if you accept that the media is influential. I admit that I don’t always see this as true. No amount of media advertising is going to convince me to take a political promise at face value. Forget the Hypodermic Needle model. The media isn’t influential all of the time, and not for all people. But sometimes it is. Sometimes it changes behaviour, sometimes it changes opinions. Sometimes neither. Other times it’s more insidious, saturating public consciousness with simplistic, one-dimensional representations that the uncritical mind may take on board.
And film is just one medium in our constantly connected society.
Would love to hear your thoughts!
*Two gender stereotypes seem to be at work there 1) a woman wants to wait on her husband hand and foot and 2) a man wants his wife to wait on hand and foot. Obviously Jeff doesn’t want that at all in Rear Window.
Now, is there problem with looking after your loved ones? No – if a woman or a man wants to look after their partner, no-one should stop them. And there’s no problem with such a representation appearing on the screen either – but only so long as it’s not the only way men and women are represented in a given media text. An unchallenged, singular representation closes off other possibilities of being a ‘man’ or a ‘woman,’ and if (or when) that singular representation normalises itself, people in the real world can have a hard time if they act outside dominant expectations. Which sucks.
Anyway – hope you all have a great Christmas break, see you in 2014!