The Unfixable Issue of the Portrayal of Women in Films

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Since the beginning of Hollywood, the industry used its platform as a form of expression. Whether it was shaping popular culture or shifting public opinion on politics in America, the industry can be held accountable for influence throughout the years. In the early 1900s filmmakers utilized their platform to create a push back to Protestantism in hopes of separating from the church. By utilizing women in a provocative way, they were able to challenge the Protestant church by creating films that people wanted. Censorship came to an end in 1952, with the overturning court case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson declaring that films are an expression of art. While the industry was able to lift the restrictions placed on them, the consequence was that filmmakers realized that exploiting and sexualizing women would lead to more ticket sales. Some films that display this exploitation is It (1927), Baby Face (1933), Them! (1952), and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019). One good film is Salt of the Earth (1954), which is a film that empowers women and also shows them in a stronger light. These films ultimately demonstrate not only the sexual exploitation of women but also their roles show a lack of purpose within the film.

In the film It (1927), Betty Lou who is played by Clara Bow, can be seen as an oversexualized character in multiple scenes throughout the movie. Shot in the silent film era, this film was pivotal for Bow’s career. One of her nicknames in the industry and pop culture was the “it girl”. The title of the film refers to “sexual appeal”, which both Bow and her character Betty Lou has. In the textbook, Screening America: United States History Through Film Since 1900, author James Lorence stated: “To have “It”, the fortuante posessor must have that strange magntisim which attracts both sexes… He or she must be entirely unselfconscious and full of self-confidence to the effect he or she is producing” (Lorence 37). This quote gives a just explantation to Clara Bow’s nickname which is the “it girl”. Part of the reason was because of her portayal of Betty Lou, but also it is becasue she posses those innate qualities. When Cyrus Waltham who is the male lead in the film, goes to the department store for the first time; he is seen strolling around like he is looking for something. Moments later, a man comes up to Cyrus and states “I’ve inspected all the lady employees--and not one of them have IT!” This scene from the film indicates that Cyrus is only looking for eye-candy and he is not interested in having a more sophisticated woman. If women don't have “it”, then they are not desirable to men like Cyrus Waltham who all the women in this film drool over. This gives off the notion that women need to prioritize looks over other aspects of life, and if they don’t they simply will not be desirable to men. Before meeting Betty Lou, Cyrus is romantically linked to Adela Van Norman, who comes from a wealthy family and is in the same social class as him. However, Cyrus is drawn to Betty Lou because she has “it” or sexual appeal, where Adela lacks that sex appeal. The writers of this film showcase Betty Lou’s sexual appeal in the scene where the couple goes out on a date to Coney Island. The first time, on the moving stairs where Waltham bumps into Betty Lou from behind several times, which insinuates sexual intercourse. The second time was when they were on the slide together and there was a camera shot where one can see under Betty Lou’s blouse. Even in today’s film era, those shots would be seen as inappropriate, but in the time period when the movie was made, that was considered to be pushing limits that haven't been pushed before. The sexual themes in this film would help contribute towards the implementation of guidelines that would restrict films from using sexual themes.

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Barbara Stanwyck’s character Lilly Powers, In the film Baby Face (1927) was created to challenge the Motion Picture Production Code regarding nudity and sexual innuendos. Filmmakers saw the code as a handicap on their creativity of films being created. As a result, the industry pumped out films that were marked as indecent. Lilly is the daughter of a speakeasy owner and was forced by her father to provide to service men in vulgar ways. When her father dies in an explosion, she is advised by a trusted friend to use her sexual prowess over men as a means to move up socially and throughout the film that is what Lilly does. By seducing her bosses, she is successfully able to move up in the company by utilizing her sexual appeal. Some may argue that Lilly has a “rags-to-riches” type of story, which is true. However, it is not one that someone should admire. Lilly is a manipulative character and she will do anything she needs to do to make it in life. As a viewer, one would develop a negative perspective on women and see them as deceitful after Lilly slept her way to higher positions. Later on in the film, Lilly ends up marrying the grandson of the founder of the company that she is employed at. The company goes under and Lilly’s husband, Courtland, is wrongfully pinned for the failure of the company. He is in need of a million dollars for defense fees and asks Lilly to cash in all of her assets to help pay for the defense fees. She declines and flees to Paris leaving Courtland a million dollars in debt. Men watching this film get the false impression that women are gold diggers and will only commit to a relationship when times are good. Lilly lacks purpose and the film does not give positive representation that women need.

Pat Medford is another character who is not only sexualized but not treated with the same respect as the men in the movie Them! (1954). Some instances that show this is at the beginning of the film when she is first introduced. Pat is shown walking down a ladder of a plane in a suit and high heels. While she takes her time getting down the ladder, Robert Graham (who is a Sargent) and Ben Peterson (FBI Agent), tip their hats and smile. At this point, Pat was only halfway down the ladder so all they saw were just her legs. As the conversation ends, Robert tells Ben “she’s the kind of doctor that takes care of sick people and I think I got a fever real quick.” This comment made by Robert was demeaning and disrespectful. Pat is a doctor of myrmecology just like her father, yet she is treated like eye-candy. She deserves the same amount of respect as the other characters in the movie, but due to her gender she is oppressed to gender norms. Around the forty-minute mark of the film, Pat wants to assist Robert Graham and his team when they are getting ready to enter the ant’s nest. Robert tells her that going down into the ant’s nest is “no place for a woman.” This is another instance where Pat is not recognized for being an intellect, rather just a female character who is there for show. Pat eventually would go onto lead the team into the queen ants nest, but not before she had to explain why she would be an asset to the team. Robert completely disregarded her certification and merit and saw her as a liability to the team because of her gender.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019) is the third installment to the Sleeping Beauty (1959) franchise. It focuses on the wedding of Prince Phillip and Aurora and the communion of two kingdoms. The marriage ends up being called off due to a dispute between Maleficent and Queen Ingrith. What is interesting about this film is the polarity between Maleficent and her Godchild Aurora. Maleficent is seen as this mighty being who enemies and kingdoms fear whereas her daughter is seen as a princess who is blinded by marriage and her only goal is to get wedded away to Prince Phillip. Through the majority of the film, Aurora struggles between choosing a side between Maleficent and her soon to be family. When Aurora and Maleficent are invited to the Kingdom of Ulstead, Aurora suggests that Maleficent covers her horns so they would less afraid and more accepting of her. The significance of this is that Aurora lacks resolve and she does not have any morals to stand by. She wanted a picture-perfect wedding and was willing to compromise herself and her loved ones to make it happen. Another instance is when Maleficent is wrongfully accused of casting a spell on King John putting him into a coma. Aurora immediately believes Maleficent was the one who did it and sided with her future mother-in-law Queen Ingrith, in order to keep the marriage from failing. There are two instances where Maleficent’s costume choices are oversexualized. When she is brought to the land of the Dark Fey, she wakes up in revealing white robes in a bright cave. The camera angles in this scene are focused solely on her with a minimalistic background. When watching this scene, it almost looked as if it was a photoshoot and Angelina Jolie was posing for pictures. The second instance is in the final battle scene where Maleficent returns again. She is wearing a black dress that is revealing and only covers a small portion of her chest area. This is significant because it only appeals to the audience and it does not add to her character development.

The film Salt of the Earth (1954) is based on true events and shows women in a much different light compared to the other four films. When a mining coorperation called Empire Zinc Company is unfairly treating Mexican workers, the workers decide to go on strike for equal working conditions. When the company imposes a law that forbids them to protest, their wives bravely step in and protest on their behalf. Ironically, the men are not happy about this because typical gender and cultural norms for women are that they are supposed stay at home. The gender roles completely switch and the men in the film feel insecure about women holding more power than them. At home the main character, Esperanza Quintero, is overpowered by her authoritative husband, Ramone due to the power shift.Towards the end of the film, Esperanza tells Ramone: “Stay in your place you dirty Mexican that’s what they tell you, but why must you say to me… Stay in your place.” Esperanza is challenging her husband’s dominance through her words and actions. Ramone is blinded by his toxic masculinity and cultural views to which he refuses to see Esperanza as his equal; even though she has made great strides in the protest. During that scene, Esperanza has an awakening moment where she realizes that there is no longer a power gap between her and her husband. She demands to be treated as an equal and goes on to state, “I don’t want anything lower than what I am. I am low enough already. I want to rise and push everything up with me.” Esperanza Quintero is the ideal example of a strong female character. What differentiates this film from the others is the women in the movie lack sexual appeal. Quintero is a devoted mother to her three children and wife to her husband. She is not like Betty Lou or Lilly Powers who are single women living carefree lives seducing men. This difference makes her less attractive to the public eye both by attraction and revenue. The film ended up being blacklisted due to communist themes such as equal rights for minorities. One could argue that even if the film was not blacklisted it would not be successful due to the fact that the leading actress is Hispanic and the majority of America was only interested in white actresses.

In today's society, we have normalized the sexualization of females and still are not bothered by the content that is shown in films today. The reason for this is because filmmakers over the years and will continue to prioritize ticket sales over meaningful content. There have been films in our modern era with progressive, meaningful content. Characters like Wonder Woman are groundbreaking sources that bring female leads to light. Regardless of how strong and developed a woman character is, writers and producers continue to perpetuate females by making them wear inappropriate clothing. This portrayal is superficial and creates a narrative that one would have to look a certain way to attain sex appeal. Unfortunately, this applies to most movies created and will continue to be the case moving forward.

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