The Evolution of the Mistreatment of Women in Film

Paper by Emily King.

After World War II, women were seen to rise up again to fight for equality, in what we call the second wave of feminism. This second wave of feminism reflected women who responded to the pressures placed on them to return back to the traditional roles of women in the home, both in real life, as well as in film. Women wanted to be represented as people of power, which previously is not seen very prominently in films. Film’s that were produced during this time did not display women in a good light, but rather exploited them. From the mid 1970’s onward, it is clear to see a progression of how men felt towards women; threatened. Through this, women fought through the backlash that can be seen through slasher films such as John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), and responded to this pressure with the rise of independent films, in which filmmakers did not have to abide by the Classical Hollywood style of filmmaking that so famously abused the image of women. Independent films such as Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise (1991) reflect this growth throughout the years of how women are depicted in films, where we see the representation of women who break free from the shambles of abuse and oppression that have been placed onto them for decades. Through the analysis of films such as Halloween and Thelma & Louise, as well as the examination of independent filmmaking, it will be clear to see how women not only faced oppression in real life, but also dealt with years of underlying abuse and domination from men in the film industry for years on end.

From the 1970’s and on, a series of different types of films arose that diminished the image of women, rather than embracing them. This idea was recognized as the backlash against women, in which films portrayed them in a harsh light. The 1980’s saw the death of the Equal Rights Amendment, in which it would have made it a federal crime to discriminate on the basis of sex. Under the Reagan administration, many people wanted to return back to the normal ideologies of what a true family was, which included women being in the house cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the family. Due to women wanting more independence from these pressures being placed on them, men on screen and in real life felt as if their masculinity was being threatened. Women wanted to be treated and viewed as equals, and men were fighting against this. There was growing tensions between men and women, especially within the film industry. One of the first trends that arose from this was the action-adventure films, in which men were strong and masculine heroes, and women tended to be damsels in distress. At the same time, films were being created that reflected the struggles women felt if they were handling a career and a family. Ultimately, the late 70’s and early 80’s were the beginning of the reflection of the second wave of feminism, with men ultimately portraying themselves as even higher beings than before, and women being portrayed continuously on a lower level.

One of the main genres that reflected this backlash against women, was the slasher film. One of the first films that this ideology can be seen is in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), but the genre did not gain traction until the backlash against women during the second wave of feminism arose. This slasher sub genre of the horror film tended to reflect the anger that men felt towards women during this time, not only by thematic conventions, but through stylistic choices as well . One of the most famous of these was Halloween. In this film, we see a boy named Michael Myers who slashes his sister when he is a young kid, then continues this trend on Halloween night 15 years later in the same town. At the beginning of the film, we see him sneak into his sister’s room, and stab her immediately after her boyfriend sneaks out of the house. We see a shot of his sister covered in blood, laying naked on the floor. This shot deeply reflects the anger that men felt towards women during this time, while also using the opportunity to sexualize them in the process. This is a depiction of what is known as the “male gaze” that has been seen in films throughout history, with content being created by and for what men want to see. Not only did men want to see women being belittled or even harmed, but they also wanted to sexualize them for their own gain. Going on throughout the film, we see Michael Myers 15 years later, spotting and following a group of three helpless girls throughout the night. Michael first finds Annie, hides in the backseat of her car while she is going to pick up her boyfriend, and slashes her throat from the back. Unknowingly, Lynda and her boyfriend Bob go back to the house to have sex, where Michael stabs Bob in the kitchen. He then pretends to be Bob, and goes upstairs to stab Lynda. What is interesting about this film and about the slasher genre in general, is the sequence in which girls are killed. Both Annie and Lynda were portrayed as independent women, who were very open and proud about their sex life. Both of these girls were killed as they were about to have sex, or had just done so. These characters were both sexually depicted, and were both murdered in a very cruel way. Laurie, on the other hand, is shown to be more shy and lacking confidence in herself, afraid to even ask a boy to the dance. While she does get chased down by Michael multiple times by the end of the film, we see her escape each time. According to Lady and the Vamp: Roles, Sexualization, and Brutalization of Women in Slasher Films, it was found that in majority of the slasher films curated during this time, “sexualized characters are tortured and attacked longer than non-sexualized females. Sexualized females may also be more likely to die, while the good girls, who appeared as more masculine and less attractive, were more likely to live (Cowen and O’Brian 1990)”(Wellman, 663). This finding and analysis of themes in slasher films can be applied to Halloween, with the more sexualized women being brutally killed, while the more masculine and shy woman eventually gets away. Another theme of these films, is that while the women who are murdered are shown in full view, the men who are killed, such as Bob, are more hidden. The slasher films use this symbol of a knife to “represent male sexuality and aggression… (they) also repeatedly make use of subjective camera shot that put the spectator in the killer’s place, as if the viewer is seeing through the killer’s eyes as he murderes and tortures” (Benshoff & Griffin, 287). Sequentially, the slasher film subgenre of horror films reflects the reactionary anger and hatred of women that was present during the second wave of feminism. Not only were men playing roles that insinuated their masculinity, but they were also taking part in degrading women through stylistic and narrative techniques shown in films such as Halloween.

Beginning in the 1980’s, more and more women found themselves earning a spot in the film industry. Many of these women had to work their way up, starting elsewhere in the entertainment industry, then making a name for themselves. Many of these women found themselves in positions where they still had to abide by the Hollywood narrative form, hence, having the typical male hero and female objects. When women wanted to create films that addressed the feminist issues or concerns, they were forced to work with independent companies. These independent companies were not completely unbiased towards minorities, but are historically known for being more welcoming than Hollywood. With the growth of independent filmmaking throughout the 1980’s, women found themselves working “outside of the demands of mainstream Hollywood, (hence), their work could address gender issues in a more forthright and complex manner” (Benshoff & Griffin, 290). With this new way of filmmaking, women were able to find themselves creating films that addressed gender issues, but the Hollywood entertainment system still took the lead on how women were portrayed.

At the turn of the 1990’s, the Hollywood blockbuster formula continued to drive the industry with women inevitably coming behind their male lead counterparts. What did come about, was that certain male-dominant genres were adapted for female leads. The buddy-film, which was the male-male platonic relationship which embraced masculinity, was reworked with female characters. One major rework of the buddy film is Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise, in which we see two lead female characters who escape the thresholds that the men around them and the men they encounter place on them. From the beginning of the film, we see how Thelma’s husband is verbally abusive towards her, treating her like a housewife and an object. She decides to go on a fishing trip with Louise without telling him, knowing he would not let her go if she had asked. From then on, Thelma and Louise feel independent for the first time. They encounter a man who tries to rape Thelma at the bar, which leads to Louise shooting and killing him. From then on, the women are running away from the crime they committed. They encounter more scenarios with different types of men, all who represent the misogynistic men in which the second wave of feminism was trying to fight against. For the rest of the film, we see Thelma & Louise chasing the high of the freedom they feel as they, per say, defeat the men that come across their path. The journey that they embark on represents the independence that women during this time were craving, with their confidence and happiness visibly increasing as they go on. At the end of the film, when the women get cornered in, they decide to drive their car off the cliff, representing the eternal independence and freedom that they will find doing so.

Thelma & Louise goes above and beyond to depict the freedom that women yearned for, though the film raised a lot of controversy. According to In the Company of Women: Contemporary Female Friendship Films, “while feminist critics registered their objections, antifeminists criticized the film as feminist fascism that advocated transformative violence as the answer to women’s problems, bashed men, and offered bad role models for female viewers” (Hollinger, 118). The female screenwriter of Thelma & Louise, Callie Khouri disputed this claim, expressing that “even if this were the most men-bashing movie ever made–let all us women get guns and kill men– it wouldn’t even begin to make up for the 99% of all movies where the women are there to be caricatured as bimbos or to be skinned and decapitated” (Khouri, 119). While the film did raise controversy, it was a box office hit, giving women a chance to see themselves as the main characters onscreen. The two women found themselves in situations where men tried to dominate them, representing how women had been treated for decades. Instead of succumbing to this, they grow from each experience, realizing the power they both held when they didn’t let men dictate them. Thelma and Louise were depicted as somewhat violent, but their actions represented and can be “understood as a complex and ambivalent response to feminism, a figure articulating both female desire and patriarchal anxiety” (Tasker, 411). This was one of the first films that depicted women in a way where they take on the more “masculine” roles, with the gunplay, drinking, and driving fast, so the fact that it raised so much controversy furthers the idea of how women have been mistreated within the film industry. Not only did men play these roles in the famous buddy films such as Easy Rider (Hopper, 1969) and Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger, 1969), but they also felt a threat to their masculinity when they saw women playing the same roles.

The film industry ultimately has come a long way in regards to how women are portrayed. When looking back just to the 1960’s, Hollywood did little to support the second wave of feminism. Not only were there very few spots available to women filmmakers, but there was also almost no representation of women besides the sexualized objectification of them. Moving through the 70’s and 80’s, women had more roles in films, but they were treated and depicted by the underlying anger and oppression that men felt towards women. The slasher subgenre of horror films, as previously discussed, is a good example of how male filmmakers engraved this deep rooted hatred of women into viewers. Moving forward into the 80’s, the industry saw a rise of independent films, which in turn gave more roles to women in film, both as creators and lead roles. It also gave women a bigger opportunity to express the ideas of feminism in the form of narrative storytelling. This led to films like Thelma & Louise, which despite controversy, fundamentally ended up bringing a lot of attention to viewers about the way women had been depicted in films for decades. Women have been dealing with oppression and abuse from their male counterparts for years on end, and the film industry has contributed greatly in the implementation of hatred towards women. Through hidden meanings and specific narrative storytelling, women have been put in a place to receive oppression from men. While the industry has without a doubt progressed and welcomed a vast variety of women into films compared to any other time in history, there are nonetheless still unspoken barriers placed on women in the industry, as well as their everyday lives.

Works Cited
Benshoff, Harry M., and Sean Griffin. “Chapter 13 Gender in American Film Since the
1960’s.” America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies, Third ed., John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ, 2021, pp. 278–300.
Hollinger, Karen. In the Company of Women : Contemporary Female Friendship Films, University of Minnesota Press, 1998. ProQuest Ebook Central, Tasker, Yvonne. “Fantasizing Gender and Race: Women in Contemporary US Action Cinema.” Fantasizing Gender and Race Contemporary American Cinema.pdf
Wellman, Ashley, Michele B. Meitl, and Patrick Kinkade. “Lady and the Vamp: Roles,
Sexualization, and Brutalization of Women in Slasher Films.” Sexuality & Culture, vol. 25, no. 2, 2021, pp. 660-679. ProQuest, ady-vamp-roles-sexualization-brutalization-women/docview/2495184992/se-2?ac countid=28576, doi:

About this entry