Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Geena Davis is wrong.

Davis, the actress perhaps best known for "Thelma & Louise" and the failed TV series "Commander in Chief" in which she played the president of the US) gave a speech last month in which she criticized the stereotyping of female characters in films and television.

"Gender stereotypes remain deeply entrenched in today's entertainment and there has been no significant progress over the last 20 years," Davis was quoted as saying at the gala held at UN Headquarters by the Agence France Presse.

I wasn't sure if I agreed with that, so I went to look at a list of popular films of 20 years ago, in order to compare them with those of today. What I found saddened and surprised me. Turns out, it's not merely that there's been no progress.

There's actually been a decline in the presentation of non-stereotyped female characters in films and television over the past 20 years. Check this out. In 1991, these were some of the most popular films of the year:

"Silence of the Lambs," with Jodie Foster as the FBI trainee matching wits with Dr. Lecter.

"Terminator 2: Judgment Day," with Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, one hell of a female role model as far as I can see (as was Lena Headey, in the same role, in the much-missed-at-least-by-me TV version).

Then there's Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," in which care was taken to make Belle more than just the beauty of the title, but well-read and outspoken as well.

This brings me to “The Addams Family." Well, that whole movie is about people who behave in ways which the mass of their culture find unusual or odd (and don't care that they do).

The women certainly aren't left out of this. Morticia (Angelica Huston) may be, as she defines herself in the sequel, "...just like any modern woman trying to have it all. Loving husband, a family..." But the way in which she tries to have it all is, shall we say, outside the realm of what is considered normal.

And Wednesday Addams (Christina Ricci) is a deeply weird child; I mean that in a good way.

So that's movies. And who were women television watchers finding on their sets 20 years ago?

Women like Roseanne, Clair Huxtable, Murphy Brown, Jessica Fletcher, The Golden Girls, Lisa Simpson. Even the female students on "Head of the Class" (who were, by virtue of the show's premise, by definition exceptional young women).

Powerful woman characters all--whose shows may or may not have ever explicitly invoked feminism--I'm honestly not sure--but were feminist all the same. And check out that demographic spread!

Before I go on, I wanna go back to Davis' speech for a second.

"What message are we sending to girls if there are so few female characters. If the characters are devalued, stereotyped, sidelined or simply not there at all," Davis said.

Remember that, as I move onto looking at the most popular films of today: Now I have to admit upfront that I haven't seen any of the current top five. If you have, and I'm wrong about what I'm about to say, please write in.

But I see a lot there that evidently either have no female leads, or limit them to girlfriend/romantic interest/wife parts. "...devalued, stereotyped, sidelined or simply not there at all."

As for popular contemporary TV?

I see shows that are willing to showcase talented women...but only if they sing. Not if they are committed to an ideal, even if that ideal is their own intelligence. I see shows with admittedly popular female characters...that nevertheless are subservient to men in their jobs. I see a show whose whole premise, as I understand it, was about two men raising a child without a woman. I see a show about "Desperate Housewives." I see the show "IJust Wanna Man!" excuse me, "The Bachelor."

But mostly, I see I see shows with women who are mostly young, white; white-collar, and successful. As compared to the variety in the 90-91 batch cited above (with the possible exception of "Mike & Molly").

(Even "House," which I think used to have some pretty good images for women, has either driven those women away or drained them of their strength.)

So what's the answer?

Darned if I know. I just know...it saddens and surprises me.

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