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

The Painted Word – Political Allegory in Early Modern Royal Portraiture

Portraits of sovereigns were always conceived with a political function in mind. Monarchs used their official portraits to cultivate an image of majesty, prestige, and royal authority, a key component in the broader construction of an inherently politicised royal public image. Whilst there is a discourse within the existing art-historical scholarship that seeks to depoliticise royal portraiture and downgrade the importance of symbolism, it is fruitless to extricate the paintings of early modern sovereigns from their clear political intentions. Close inspection of contemporary art indicates a distinct propensity for allegory, which served as a central way in which an image of Renaissance princely magnificence was promoted. 

‘The Rainbow Portrait’, 1600-1602. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The famous portrait of Elizabeth I, The Rainbow Portrait, has received significant attention due to its religious significance; however, little emphasis has been placed on its impact as a highly politicised piece of art. The most potent political thread of this painting is the portrayal of Elizabeth as ageless, when by 1600 she was nearly seventy years old. At the turn of the seventeenth century, England’s monarch was nearing the end of her life without a legitimate heir to succeed her. Through this lens, the depiction of Elizabeth as wearing the ‘Mask of Youth’ appears undeniably political. Contributing to the fiction of an eternal present, this portrait was a product of the period which attributed the physical likeness of the monarch to the health of the state, and served to alleviate the political anxieties surrounding the succession and a potential return to a turmoil akin to the Wars of the Roses. However, if we look closely at this painting, there is a distinct sense of political iconography. Some scholars have considered this painting as an exemplification of Elizabeth’s sexual power, a credible concept which recognises the inextricable connection in the early modern period between a female monarch’s sexuality and her political authority. The transparent rainbow she grasps in her hand, whilst iconographically establishing a connection with the divine and implicitly presenting Elizabeth’s legitimacy as a deific leader, also reflects her sexual power. The phallic symbolism applied to the rainbow consolidates her supremacy over the masculine, establishing a dominance that was essential for a female ruler in the early modern period. Through this specific painting, it is evident that royal portraiture was undeniably politicised as a visual representation of strength and control.

However, although the symbolic content of royal portraiture was the central means of constructing a political image, it is also significant to consider the role that portraits served as a princely currency and an integral component of political discourse in the diplomatic relations within the European princely community. Portraits were exchanged to ameliorate political relationships, as well as to serve as symbols of recognition of other rulers within the royal fraternity. Whilst this role was undoubtedly significant, its longevity is eclipsed by the allegory and symbolic weight which timelessly pervades the paintings of sovereigns, such as the famous Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I. 

Maximus McCabe-Abel, History in Politics Vice President

Women in Terrorism: An Invisible Threat?

In 1849 the world met its first female doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell. Years later in 1903, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, Marie Curie, did so for her outstanding contributions to Physics. How, with many more remarkable achievements behind women, does society continue to hold limited expectations of them? Why does the concept of a female terrorist seem so improbable to the vast majority of the Western world? 

While this perhaps appears a perverse logic; almost rendering terrorism a positive milestone for women, that is certainly not the intention. Instead, I hope to enlighten the reader to the gendered dimensions of terrorism, and to highlight the escalating need to perceive women as potentially equal vessels of terror. 

The BBC series Bodyguard focuses on Police Sergeant David Budd’s protection of Home Secretary Julie Montague in a fast-paced drama. The plot twist in the season finale centres on a Muslim women, who is revealed as the architect and bomb-maker behind the attack. Although some have found this portrayal as troublesome, displaying Islamophobic overtones, Anijli Mohindra, the actress, explains that the role was actually “empowering”. Regardless of these perceptions, it is clear that the ‘surprise’ element manifests itself in the female gender. This sentiment presides outside of the media too, highlighting the potential threat posed by gender limitations. 

Anjli Mohindra playing terrorist Nadia in BBC One’s Bodyguard. (Credit: BBC)

There is an undeniable, and widespread assumption that terrorists are always male. While this assumption could be ascribed to the smaller numbers of women involved in terrorism, it is more likely attributable to embedded gender stereotypes. Such stereotypes perceiving women as maternal and nurturing, but also helpless and passive, are irreconcilable with that of an individual committing acts which knowingly cause death and disruption. In 2015 when women such as Shemima Begum and Kadiza Sultana left East London for the Islamic State, they were depicted as archetypal ‘jihadi bride[s]’ in the media: meek, manipulated and denied of any agency in their decision. Yet, an accurate representation of women in terrorism needs to transcend the constraints of traditional gender constructs.  Although we may be aware of female stereotypes, why do they continue to permeate our understanding of women in terrorism, when we claim to be an equal society. 

The reality of women in terror is quite the contrary of the aforementioned stereotype. In January 2002, Wafa Idris became the first female suicide bomber. Since this date, women have represented over 50% of successful suicide bombings in the conflicts of Turkey, Sri Lanka and Chechnya. In more recent years, the Global Extremism Monitor recorded 100 distinct suicide attacks conducted by female militants in 2017, constituting 11% of the total incidents occurring that year. Moreover, Boko Haram’s female members have been so effective in their role as suicide bombers, that women now comprise close to two-thirds of the group’s suicide-attackers.  

It is perhaps the dominant nature of presiding stereotypes regarding women, which enables them to be so successful in their attacks – presenting terrorist organisations with a strategic advantage. This is illustrated by the astonishing figures proving female suicide attacks more lethal on average than those conducted by their male counterparts. According to one study, attacks carried out by women had an average of 8.4 victims, compared to 5.3 for those attacks carried out by men. Weaponizing the female body is proving successful as society continues to assume women lack credibility as terrorist actors. Needless to say, remaining shackled to entrenched gender preconceptions will undoubtedly continue to place society at risk of unanticipated terror attacks from women.

Emily Glynn, History in Politics President

Gorillas, Galleries and Cage Fighting: How Visual Culture and Media Are Still Significant in Modern Politics

If a history student were to be asked about how visual culture and media can influence politics, they would surely think of examples such as British propaganda in the world wars, or the striking posters used in Nazi Germany. There is widespread agreement on the significant impact of this visual culture and media on people’s beliefs, and therefore the politics of the time.

What is less clear is how much of an impact art can make in the contemporary world. There are countless artists who make political comments with their work. The question is, can this work still genuinely influence politics? With the wide range of ways in which we are fed visual media, particularly through online sources, it is arguably much harder to influence and control opinions and politics in the modern world.

However, with a little research, we can find examples of contemporary artists who have made a genuine impact with their artwork.

Think of Paula Rego, the Portuguese artist who, with her powerful ‘Abortion Series’ (1998-9), has been credited with influencing the decision to hold a second referendum on legalising abortion in Portugal in 2007, after the first one failed in 1998. The series captures the reality of abortion, humanising the experience in a graphic yet beautiful way. Lesley Hoggart, whose research focuses on reproductive health, abortion policy and sexual health, credits Rego’s complex work with having a role to play in the important advance in reproductive rights in Catholic Portugal (The Lancet, 2019).

A painting from Paula Rego’s ‘Abortion Series’. (Credit: Paula Rego.)

Another interesting example to look at is the work of Grayson Perry. With 174,000 followers on Twitter, exhibitions in numerous galleries, a 2008 ranking of 32 in the “100 most powerful people in British Culture,” and appearances on This Morning, Loose Women, The Graham Norton Show, and Celebrity Gogglebox, there is no denying that Grayson Perry has the opportunity to reach a large audience with his art.

One of Grayson Perry’s banners on display in Durham Cathedral in 2016. (Credit: The Northern Echo.)

In his Channel 4 mini-series, All Man, Perry examines the concept of masculinity. He puts himself in typically masculine environments, from cage fighting to the Durham Miners Gala, council estates to the Square Mile, then makes art to capture what he experienced. Tackling subjects such as the gender roles in childhood, family values, the stigma around mental health and the high suicide rate among men in the North East, this mini-series has the potential to challenge views on significant issues, much like Perry’s work has done for many years. He explains in the documentary that the aim of the artwork he is creating ‘is to provoke a conversation,’ which he is definitely successful in achieving. The series won multiple awards.  

A final example of note is the Guerrilla Girls, a group of feminist activist artists. Their form of visual culture and media challenges inequalities in the art world itself. Their website explains that they ‘use facts, humor and outrageous visuals to expose gender and ethnic bias as well as corruption in politics, art, film, and pop culture.’ Active for over thirty years in many cities across the world, the Guerrilla Girls wear gorilla masks and name themselves after famous dead women to maintain anonymity. Whilst there is still a long way to go in the group’s aims, the Guerrilla Girls co-founder, who goes by the name Frida Kahlo, recognises that over time, public opinion has changed, and people in and outside of the art industry are realising the importance of diverse voices in the history of art.

DO WOMEN HAVE TO BE NAKED TO GET INTO THE MET. MUSEUM? (Credit: Guerrilla Girls, via guerrillagirls.com.)

Whilst the impact of Rego, Perry, and the Guerrilla Girls’ work might be quite different, with Rego having a role in clear legislative change, and Perry and the Guerrilla Girls having an influence through a slower process of challenging views and ideas, the significance of all three cannot be denied. The political impact of contemporary art may not be as obvious as the propaganda posters examined in history classrooms across the country, but it would be wrong to ignore the power that visual culture and media such as art still holds in influencing and impacting political opinions and change in the modern world.

Georgina Crowther

The Floating Jew: Manifestations of Migration in Chagall’s Art

Although there are many distinct features of a Marc Chagall painting, it is the floating figures that are the artist’s most curious motif. In amongst the rich pastel colours and two-dimensional composition are people suspended in mid-air – an idea that features in some of his major works across his career, from 1915’s Birthday to 1950’s La Mariee. Whilst the concept of the “wandering Jew” is not unique to Chagall, it is the optimism that he embeds within his art that makes his work significant. To understand this we must not only analyse the artist’s life, but also the position of Jews in the early twentieth century. 

Born Moïche Zakharovitch Chagalov in what is modern-day Belarus, the artist’s formative years were spent not in art school but in the synagogue. The majority of Jews in Eastern Europe lived in shtetls; insular agricultural villages that were governed by Chassidic law, allowed to live under the Russian rule. Anti-Semitism was rampant, often manifesting in the violent form of pogroms and attacks on Jewish property and people. They reached a height in 1881, after Jews were partly blamed for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II given that they were viewed as foreign, and loyal to Israel rather than Russia. 

Marc Chagall’s ‘The Birthday’, 1915 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The pogroms were one of many factors that forced Jews to move out of Eastern Europe in the early twentieth century. Shtetls were often characterised by intense poverty, exacerbated by Jewish farmers’ reluctance to embrace industrialisation in the name of preserving traditional culture, despite the fact that the agricultural way of life that had sustained the communities for thousands of years was becoming inefficient in supporting growing populations. Chagall was one of many Jews who fled westwards. Around 200,000 Jews migrated to London between 1880 and 1919, with thousands more emigrating to America in search of new opportunities and safety. This forced the abandonment of the Jewish traditions and lifestyle that permeated in the shtetls, a process which exacerbated with growing multiculturalism and secularism: Chagall himself emigrated to Paris in 1923, a time when France was still reeling from the Dreyfus affair where a Jewish Captain had been falsely accused of leaking military information to Germany and was imprisoned. Despite Dreyfuss being exonerated in 1906, there still loomed a distrust of Jews, especially as many did not view them as French, and thus disloyal to the French Republic (as was the case in Russia). Many immediately deserted any semblance of Jewish identity both in lifestyle and identity out of fear of being identified as an alien: Jews changed their names to aid their attempt to integrate; Chagalov became Chagall, and fellow Russian-Jewish artist Chaim Sutin became Chaim Soutine. 

Jews not only ran the risk of alienation from western society but also the Jewish culture that they turned their back on, a feeling likely exacerbated by the growing popularity of Zionism. The call to create a Jewish state had entered mainstream thought, and transcended the Jewish intellectual circles with the 1917 Balfour declaration which decreed support from the British government. This would have intensified feelings of displacement for many Jews living in the diaspora knowing that there was a spiritual and literal home for them elsewhere, a place where they could belong. 

So what of Chagall’s art? How do these broad socio-political ideas translate into paints and canvasses? The phenomenology of lacking a true homeland to act as a spiritual ballast explains Chagall’s floating figures. As an itinerant Jew himself, Chagall would have known what it was like to be “a stranger in a foreign land”, as was predicted in the Abrahamic covenant. This theme is well documented in art and literature: the image of the “Wandering Jew” appears in novels by Dickens, poems by Shelly, and illustrations by Doré. Chagall twists the usual despondent pessimism which the “Wandering Jew” is depicted by giving his figures a distinct serendipity. They appear buoyant like helium balloons, following each wind and current without resistance. His figures, sometimes ostensibly Jewish and sometimes not, are not melancholic or cursed, they exist as a testament to survival over thousands of years of being wanderers. None of his figures are shown to be tormented or suffering. Instead, they appear to be at one with their predicament, calmly accepting the surrealism of the situation. This is best implemented in his 1923 Green Violinist, which depicts a violin player precariously balancing on two rooftops as he towers over his shtetl whilst a figure glides over the houses behind him. There is a precariousness to his position: he is lumbering and clumsy but whilst he could fall at any moment, he continues to play his violin absorbed in the moment. Chagall captures the sentiment of Jewish identity in the early twentieth century: one of duality and one of homelessness. Despite the persecution and adversity, his optimism endures through his artwork.

Alexander Cohen