10 Movies Showing the Evolution of Gender Equality in Hollywood

People say that films are sometimes depictions of the society and time in which they were made. This is especially applicable for society’s view of women. How particular films depict women really shows how people at that time embrace feminist ideas, and more generally, women. In this article, I am going to introduce 10 movies that really show how audiences, or Hollywood as an institution, think about female characters in films. 

Legally Blonde (2001) 

The first film is ‘Legally Blonde’, starring Reese Witherspoon as the lead character. Most people watched this film as a teenager, especially women aspiring to become lawyers. Many would say that this is clearly a feminist film, and a huge step for Hollywood to depict woman as strong, independent and critically minded. 

Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde (2001). (Source: IMDB)

However, when we pay closer attention to the details of the film, we clearly see that the film is actually filled with stereotypes about women. For example, women like the colour pink, chasing love being the main goal in a woman’s life and investing in fashion and beauty as the second mind goal in a woman’s life. Although the film did try to attack the ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype, the other stereotypes about women demonstrates that audiences and Holloywood depict women as very different from men. This clearly shows that Hollywood is still a long way from achieving gender equality in script writing and character creation. 

Iron Jawed Angels (2004), The Stepford wives (1975, 2004), North country (2005)

Then we have ‘Iron Jawed Angels’, starring Hilary Swank, ‘The Stepford wives’, starring Nicole Kidman and ‘North Country’, starring Charlize Theron as the lead. I expect fewer young people to have watched these films, as they are made in a nostalgic style, reminiscent of post-World War Two films. 

A common feature of these films is that, while Hollywood are placing more attention onto women’s issues, these issues are mostly centered on women being suppressed. The Stepford wives featured women being controlled by men and technology, being forced into conforming to traditional stereotypes of being good wives and mothers. Both ‘Iron Jawed Angels’ and ‘North Country’ are documentary films. The former featured female suffragists’ struggles during the pre-post wars times, the latter featured women being harassed and discriminated in the workplace during a time when people started hiring women to work in traditionally male dominated jobs. Whether it is being suppressed by men, the system or politics, these films have a common theory saying that if films are about women, it should be about how women are being suppressed and how women are fighting against the suppression. While this is a good start to letting people pay attention to women’s suppression, from a modern feminist perspective, these films inevitably depicted women as being defined by their disadvantage and therefore as victims. 

Hidden Figures (2016) 

Then comes ‘Hidden Figures’. This is said to be a huge breakthrough for female characters. As even though female characters are still being discriminated against and suppressed, female characters are finally being depicted as having the same and even higher intellectual level as the other sex. Another breakthrough is that this ‘female-centered’ film is made in a way that targets both male and female audiences. ‘Hidden Figures’ demonstrates that ‘female-centered’ films can be shown on the big screen and the characters be taken seriously; female characters can be judged by the same standards and for the same qualities as their male counterparts. The film also begins to explore the duality of oppression through discussion of African-American women, something rarely depicted in Hollywood films. 

Wonder Woman (2017) 

‘Wonder Woman’ is always included when talking about feminist film, and this is justified. The character and plot of Wonder Woman itself is empowering and encouraging for anyone. More importantly, Wonder Woman is the first woman hero character in a male-dominated ‘universe’ that is being taken as seriously as the lead male hero characters such as Superman and Batman. Most DC or Marvel female characters whose existence value are largely dependent on her male counterpart, such as Harley Quinn, Cat Woman and Batwoman, who are interesting mostly because of their relationship with the Joker and Batman. Unlike them, Wonder Woman is herself an icon and is an interesting character by herself. Also, the fact ‘Wonder Woman’ is filmed in a way that does not make a huge stir about a hero being a female shows that Hollywood is depicting female leads with other significant attributes than their gender. 

Bombshell (2019) 

Interestingly, ‘Bombshell’ stars Charlize Theron, who also played the suppressed, harassed female lead character in ‘North Country’ included above. Though both ‘Bombshell’ and ‘North Country’ featured women being sexually harassed and discriminated against in the workplace, obvious comparisons are observed. For example, support in society for the harassed female characters are more available in ‘Bombshell’. People are also less uncomfortable by claims of female characters being harassed in ‘Bombshell’. The most obvious improvement is that women are finally depicted not as weak, but strong, career driven, confident characters. The power to make a change and to help others are also totally placed in the hands of women themselves, instead of dependent on benevolence of male characters, such as the lawyer and one of the co-workers in ‘North Country’. An additional observation from the two films is that how women’s status has grown over the years can clearly be seen as both films are documentary films which featured real events of women’s struggle of their respective times. 

I care a lot (2020), Promisingly young woman (2020), Pieces of a woman (2021)

With the Marvel trend quieting down after ‘Avengers: Endgame’ in 2019, a film trend featuring smaller productions, clamer plots and women has started. There are films like ‘Bird of Preys’, starring Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn finally getting rid of her ties with the Joker, ‘I care a lot’, starring Rosamund Pike who also played Gone Girl in 2014 and ‘Promisingly young woman’, starring Carey Mulligan. These are, I would say, films with a more overt feminist message compared to it being more implicit in earlier films such as ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ (2012), ‘Miss Sloane’ (2016) and ‘Lady Bird’ (2017), which had a feminist lead character but not a feminist plot. A trend of ‘clear feminist’ films, which all received huge accolades, shows that Hollywood is more confident in making gender equality films. This also shows that audiences are more accepting of strong feminists featured in films than in the past. I am confident to claim that had these films been shown 10 to 20 years ago, they would be criticized as “too radical”. Although, Hollywood still has a long way to go before reaching true gender equality and recognising the issues that intersect with feminism, such as sexuality, gender identity, race and class. 

Chan Stephanie Sheena

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