Cinema is regarded as one of the most prevalent social tools of the modern day, despite, first and foremost an agent of entertainment, it is also a visual tool to affirm certain behaviours and characteristics of groups and individuals in society. Perhaps one of the most targeted groups is women, who sought humble beginnings in cinema in its early days as the damsel in distress or the shy and retiring wall flower. Modern cinema has created a new wave of sexually charged female characters who sport nothing more than a ‘hot body’ and subsequently lack substance. It is commonplace to find a macho leading man risking life and limb whilst the ‘supporting’ actress spends most of the film wearing very little. Has modern day cinema created a new breed of oversexed women that has one purpose and one purpose only, to satisfy the male gaze?
According to Amy Villajero in a 1991 article entitled ‘Reconsidering Visual Pleasure’,
woman is left in only a ‘negative relation, defined as ‘not-man’, and trapped within a theory that brilliantly describes the power relationships of patriarchy acknowledges no need for escape (Villajero, 1991, pg 110)
In other words Villajero is saying that thanks to visual interpretation by media such as film women are often just seen as ‘the other’ by an explicitly male driven society that dictates how a women should behave and become trapped by male ideology and are consequently reinforced with a false consciousness meaning that they do not realize they are being objectified so do nothing to change their circumstances. Such is echoed in film as women are seen as vacuous and just ‘a body’ made for sexual gratification of men. Take the 2008 film ‘The House Bunny’ starring Anna Faris and Emma Stone. The plot centred around a disgraced playboy bunny who seeks refuge in the throngs of a misfit group of college girls who are in desperate need of a house mother for their failing sorority. Faris’ character is the physical embodiment of the male sexual fantasy and her journey through the film is a poor attempt at discovering herself as more than a sexual entity. In ‘Hollywood’s New Herioine: The Skank’ Brian D. Johnson discusses that new type of female protagonist has been created by modern cinema;
the honourable slut (Johnson, 2010, pg 76)
Faris’ character ‘Shelley’ in this instance is indeed considered to be an ‘honourable slut’ or ‘tart with a heart’ ,as British society as affectionately dubbed women who use their sexual wiles to attract attention, but have good intentions in themselves as people. Yvonne Tasker has gone further by suggesting that oversexed female characters are often portrayed as
…good-hearted caricature[s] who…for example, [are] more than willing to share information (Tasker, 1998, pg 94)
Thus, is Tusker justifying Hollywood’s conscious decision to create female characters that get through the plot by using their bodies ? Or is she simply demonstrating a new more independent breed of female character who doesn’t need to be validated by a man’s actions nor do they need to be rescued or seen as a reward for a job well done.However, it must be noted that such depiction of women just further proves a satisfaction of the male gaze and how film has created a new sub-genre of good intentioned ‘sluts’ that has done little to change the perception of women in cinema.
As if the movie content itself wasn’t enough to reaffirm the issue of an oversexed female protagonist then the accompanying promotional poster that came before the film’s subsequent release will surely create a vacuous ‘dumb blonde’ persona for the budding ‘well intentioned slut’.
Promotional Movie Poster for The House Bunny (2008) Dir. Fred Wolf
The vacant expression on Faris’ face alone is somewhat damaging to the reputation of women-kind, suggesting that, as females, we have no real intellegence or substance and are purely seen as ‘eye candy’ (Faris becoming the stereotypical female embodiment of beauty with her peroxide blonde hair and slim physique). In her 1975 essay entitled ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Laura Mulvey suggested that the sexualized female body hold’s the attention of the male gaze and plays upon the male sexual fantasy.
Women displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle…she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire (Mulvey, 1975)
Another prime example of the sexualized female is Megan Fox’s character in ‘Transformers’ (2007) and it’s sequel ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’ (2009). Despite Fox being regarded as the female lead to Shia LaBeouf’s male lead, she does little to carry the storyline along, in fact it may even be suggested that she was chosen for the role due to her sexual appeal to a largely male audience rather than based on any acting talent. We find Fox’s character to almost always be dressed in outfits that leave little to the imagination. Whats more is that she is given a token job as a mechanic in a feeble attempt to create an interest around her character that isn’t purely sexual, however such attempt is in vain as she fixes bikes in tiny hot pants and tight tops once again reaffirming the idea that female characters in modern film are purely sexual entities with no real purpose other than to feed male sexual fantasy.
What has perhaps become a far more frightening realization in recent years concerning the portrayal of the female protagonist in film is that sexuality is not an exclusive trait of the sane but the mentally unstable female character is now holding her own when it comes to her sexuality. In the article entitled ‘Crazy Chick Flicks’ (2011) Ramin Jetooden discusses how modern cinema has created an oversexed women even with deep psychological problems.
the female protagonist doesn’t just lose her mind; she loses her clothes. And sometimes she loses her sexual orientation as well (Ramin, 2011)
Films have materialized in recent years that center around a female protagonist that has either deep emotional or psychological problems, from Amanda Seyfried’s troubled prostitute in the 2009 film ‘Chloe’ to Natalie Portman’s mentally disturbed ballet dancer in Black Swan from the following year. Such characters, instead of addressing the issue of their mental states head on, are still glorified in a sexual way, in particular Portman’s character Nina Sayers who has a lesbian sexual encounter with fellow co-star Mila Kunis, which consequently became one of the film’s most iconic scenes and every young man’s wet dream. Amanda Seyfried’s character has a similar experience with Julianne Moore’s character in ‘Chloe’. Consequently, is it now a trend in modern film to create a mentally unstable female lead that still eludes sexual appeal and satisfies the male gaze? Or is Hollywood going too far to promote the age old saying ‘sex sells’?. Filmmaker Lizzie Borden (1992) in the article ‘Redefining Female Sexuality in the Cinema’ , suggested that the sexuality of female characters in film is a heavily scrutinized subject.
the idea of female sexuality comes under so much attack by everyone. it’s a subject everyone thinks they know something about 
Thus, is it acceptable to create a sexualized identity even for the mentally unstable female in Hollywood or is it making a mockery of an issue that is becoming even more prevailent in modern society and should not be taken lightly or underplayed for the sake of satisfying a male gaze or selling tickets in the cinema. The oversexed trend emerging from Hollywood stretches even further with attempts to create a sexual identity for the older female character as well. Rose Weiltz in the article ‘Changing the Scripts: Midlife Women’s Sexuality in Contemporary U.S Film’ (2010) suggests that the sexuality of the older female is becoming more accepted and less of a taboo subject in modern film with the emergence of the cougar.
…the cougar phenomenon also suggests a growing recognition of the sexual potential of at least some midlife women (Weiltz, 2010, pg 31)
Is the emergence of the cougar Hollywood’s feeble attempt at giving older women a sense of sexual agency in film? Or is it just a new way of satisfying the male gaze and furthering the spectrum of the gaze beyond youth. There appears to be a sense of mocking surrounding the sexuality of the older women in film as a cougar is generally looked down upon by much younger, and often much more sexually active co-stars. Thus, the perceptions of the oversexed older women in modern society bears nothing but negative connotations thanks to the portrayal of such women in cinema and the number of cougars is definitely growing with each summer blockbuster or hit romcom.
in the form of Justin Bartha in 2009 film The Rebound. Dir. Bart Freundlich
So much female sexual empowerment from different aspects of film can only been seen as a good thing right? i mean these women aren’t necessarily seen as vacuous eye candy for the male gaze and a method of selling seats in the cinema are they? Subsequently, recent film Sucker Punch (2011) proved that there was much more to a female character than the fact she had a ‘hot body’. The film sees Baby Doll (Emily Browning) , a young girl abused by her cruel stepfather, sent to a mental asylum after accidentally killing her sister. The bleak outlook of the asylum is shadowed by a make believe world of burlesque style dancing and sexual flirtation which then goes on to manifest into a world of tough ass-kicking females brandishing machine guns. Browning’s character strives to save herself and others from the cruelty of the mental asylum and so ensues a quest to collect items that will aid them in their escape. Despite the fact the girls are scantily clad as it were they are never shown to be using their sexuality to gain advantage at anytime throughout the film (we know that whenever Baby Doll dances she is using her sexual prowess to gain an advantage but we never see this happening, it always cuts to an action sequence) Director Zack Snyder has stated that he wanted to show a sexual liberation of the female characters in Sucker Punch without any sexual exploits.
The women take control of the sexual trappings foisted upon them, even turn them into weapons (says Snyder) The challenge was to confront the concept of the exploitation of women without creating exploitative imagery (Snyder, cited in Jenson, 2011)
Snyder could easily have gone ahead with the concept of the seedy strip club scenario that partly features in the plot and take it in the stereotypical direction that most films do i.e the women use their sexuality to get what they want, but he chooses instead to focus on the ass-kicking action scenes that feature whenever Baby Doll dances. Perhaps this is Snyder maintaining the moral integrity of his female characters and proving that a women doesn’t have to take her clothes off to get what she wants. Although directors like Snyder are attempting to reinvent the portrayal of women in modern cinema there is still an underlying sense of sexual intent about the way a female character is often introduced to the audience, it is all about the visual aesthetics. Mulvey goes on to discuess how the female character in film is seen as having a dual purpose however both lead to being controlled by the male gaze, the character has no agency over whether she is gazed upon.
Traditionally, the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the spectator within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator in the auditorium, with a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen (Mulvey, 1975)
So according to Mulvey the women essentially have no control over their portrayal to the male gaze, there is a sense of eroticism regardless and there is almost a competition between the gaze of the characters on screen and the audience in the cinema, but perhaps this is simply the macho competitive streak that most post-adolescent males possess. Mulvey goes on to express her frustration at the oversexed female character held captive to the male gaze and feels that there should be major changes to the film industry in regards to plot and character persona’s to change the way in which women are percieved on screen.
To produce a cinema no longer ‘obsessively subordinated to the neurotic needs of the male ego’ it is necessary to break with illusionism, making the camera material, and producing in the audience: ‘dialectics, passionate detatchment (Mulvey, 1975)
Mulvey, feels that there needs to be a change in the way that women are viewed as individuals thanks to the contributions of Hollywood playing on the ‘sex sells’ angle to bring in the punters and earn extortionate amounts of money. Although, it must be understood that sexualization isn’t a complete disregard of the respectability of women. As suggested before it can be viewed as a sense of independence and sexual liberation as the male gaze is controlled by the females who have their own agency in film when it comes to who views them, although that isn’t true of all films which is why the argument that women are only seen as sexual entities to satisfy the male gaze is such a prevalent one.
Consequently, it can be determined that there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that Hollywood has created a breed of vacuous female characters that are only seen for their bodies and sexual wiles rather than any reputable character or skill they may possess. There have been moves towards a more intelligent and self sufficient female in modern film, such as Zack Snyder’s characters in Sucker Punch, but there is still an overpowering sense that a male driven film industry is creating roles for the sake of the male gaze alone and have no wish to consider female audience members in the equation. Thus, will cinema forever be privy to the age old marketing ploy that ‘sex sells’ or will there be a change in female character from brainless to brainy?
- Jenson, Jeff, (2010), Decoding Sucker Punch, Entertainment Weekly, Issue 1147, pg 64, EBSCO Academic Search Complete [online] Available at: http://ebscohost.com/
- Johnson, Brian (2010), Hollywood’s New Heroine: The Skank, Maclean’s, Vol. 123, Issue 37, pg 76, EBSCO Academic Search Complete [online] Available at: http://ebscohost.com/
- Lucia, Cynthia (1992), Redefining Female Sexuality in the Cinema, Cineaste, Vol. 19, Issue 2, pg 6, EBSCO Academic Search Complete [online] Available at: http://ebscohost.com/
- Mulvey, Laura (1975), Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, [online] Available at: http://wiki.brown.edu/confluence/display/MarkTribe/Visual+Pleasure+and+Narrative+Cinema
- Ramin, Jetooden, (2011), Crazy Chick Flicks, Newsweek, Vol. 157, Issue 6, EBSCO Academic Search Complete [online] Available at: http://ebscohost.com/
- Tasker, Yvonne, (1998), Working Girls – Gender and Sexuality in Popular Cinema, Routledge,London, pg 94
- Villajero, Amy, (1991), Reconsidering Visual Pleasure, NWSA Journal, Vol. 3, Issue 1, pg 110, EBSCO Academic Search Complete [online] Available at: http://ebscohost.com/
- Weitz, Rose, (2010), Changing The Scripts: Midlife Women’s Sexuality in Contemporary US Film, Sexuality and Culture, Vol. 14, Issue 1, EBSCO Academic Search Complete [online] Available at: http://ebscohost.com