Women’s Representation in 1980s American Film: Development, Influence, and Effect

Paper by Sara Nilsson.

American film, from its creation, has frequently mirrored the contemporary American society, either in a direct or more indirect approach. Filmmakers have constantly been inspired and affected by demonstrations, stories, individual actions and revolutionary events. It is true that films manipulate the viewer in many ways. However, it is a fact that the people are the ones from the beginning who help to form and create what they are watching on the screen.

In the 1980s, feminism in American society arose from women’s attempts to create a more equal society, by putting many of these ideas in to action. Laws were created that were advantageous to women, and numerous demonstrations were held against gender differences and stereotyping. Both women and men received a whole new perspective on the role of the women in the society; she now had more power than ever before. Looking at the developing film industry, numerous films in several genres produced in the 1980s were highly or mostly connected to the contemporary feministic development in the society. These films have taken the typical gender stereotypes and either transformed them or used them to provide power to the female character, different from the majority of films produced before this era.

In September 3, 1981, the Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women law came into force, which described discrimination against women in the following terms:

“Any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field”. (Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, CEDAW, “The Convention”)

In several ways, this law, and many other laws enforced in the 1980s, had a great impact on how the following films would represent differences between gender, and also how women would come to express themselves in the society. The “Independent woman” became a definition both in the society and in film. Productions that enhanced the female independency and strength were produced in genres that only men had been presented in before, such as action and science fiction. To present a character that had the same physical and psychological strength as a man was something new, challenging and provocative.

In Aliens (James Cameron, 1986) each and every one of the characters and events clearly represents boundaries women had to face in society. With the female main character Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in focus, the Independent woman is mirrored from several different angles. However, the most significant comparison in Aliens might be the picture of the nurturing mother as the strongest characteristics of the female hero. Later in this paper, a more detailed analyze of Aliens is depicted, focusing on the difficulties the character, and the women in society, had to face to get their voices heard in a man-dominated world, and how the picture of the mother-daughter relationship is displayed.

Looking further on into the productions in the late 1970s and 1980s, High-Concept productions and Blockbusters became crucial in the film industry. The majority of these productions included action and heroic deeds in films such as The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Back to the Future (1985) and Top Gun (1986). All of these movies belong to the “masculine” genre, where in many the woman becomes victimized and later on rescued by the male hero. However, there were many productions competing with the masculine heroic films, merely, depicted in a divergent kind of way.

In “Cracks in the Pedestal”, author Philip Green describes the new era of Independent women in the following way:

“In their tentative way, these movies attempt to appeal not to a new audience of women, but rather to an audience of ‘new women’, alerted by feminism to new possibilities of spectatorship”. (158)

He is to say, that the influences of the early films, with an Independent woman as the lead character, impacted the female audience in a way that they did not longer wanted to see the “traditional female protagonist who is passive and hysterical in the face of attack”, as Green states it. The circle of affection in the context is clear; the feministic era affected the production of films, which in their terms affected the women watching the productions. For instance, after watching Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991), where two independent women take their life in their own hands and through radical changes and defy all odds, a lot of women felt pride and could recognize their own struggle in these characters, whereupon films reflecting women in a less independent way became less attractive for several independent groups in society. Filmmakers would recognize these types of radical changes, therefore the productions where the independent woman had a leading role would grow.

Another film, less filed with action, but with the significance of a strong and independent woman in the lead role is Silkwood (Mike Nichols, 1983), where Meryl Streep’s character Karen plays an important role in fighting for her believes. By reviewer David Sterritt, she is declared to portray the “eccentric heroine”. (“’Silkwood’, good intentions are fogged in by ambiguity”, CS.moitor.com, Archive, January 05, 1984 edition). Needles to say, she protects justice and is provided with indescribable knowledge and with a career as a metallurgy worker, which is a highly male-dominated market.

Following, to deliver the message of a woman’s independency and power in the 1980s might have been virtually unproblematic to do in terms of presenting her as a hard working business woman, a fighter for ethnics or a fearless decision maker, in a comparison to presenting her as a physical strong action hero, as we see her in Aliens. The Independent woman in the 1980s was represented in legions of ways, the worker, the decision maker, and the Femme Fatale.

In Working Girl (Mike Nichols, 1988), Melanie Griffith’s character Tess McGill is intelligent and hard working, with goals of moving from the secretarial pool into a higher executive position. Comparing to a film like Wall Street (Oliver Stone, 1987), where Charlie Sheen’s character Bud Fox also is fighting for success, Tess McGill is constantly facing difficulties throughout the movie, until she finally makes it out from the secretary pool. Bud Fox, on the other hand, faces success immediately, whereupon he slowly breaks down when he realizes he made the wrong decision by getting involved with Michael Douglas character Gordon Gekko. The resemblance to the gender issues in the society at the time is rather striking. The lack of confidence caused by the high positions of male authority influenced the women’s opportunities of reaching success, resulting in a hard struggle for a lot of women who were interested in reaching a higher position inside the working market. This mostly affected the female working class. Nickie Charles states in “Feminism, the State and Social Policy”:

“Equal opportunities policies are applied differentially within workforces so that women whose jobs are low paid and un-skilled, mainly working class and ethnic minority women, have benefited least”. Further one, she also claims: “Reforms in the 1970s provided the opportunity for feminists to press the further-reaching changes in the direction of gender equality within organizations”. (113-114)

From this you get the knowledge of what kind of struggle many women had to go through, which is highly depicted in Working Girl, and also, Tess McGill reaching her goal in the end can be seen as a representation of the female successes in the working industry. Bud Fox in Wall Street on the other hand, had to face the dark lesson of greediness, starting from the top and slowly falling down, a lesson that far more men had to go through than women.

Looking at another kind of Independent female character reflecting society in the 1980s, is the seductive so-called Femme Fatale, often depicted in the Neo-Noir genre. The most famous one in this era might be Kathleen Turner’s character, Matty Walker, in Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan 1981), using her sexual awareness to get wherever she wants. On the History Television’s website, the article “The Femme Fatale throughout history”, says that the Femme Fatale “remains an example of female independence and a threat to traditional female gender roles”, which Matty Walker is a spectacular example of. In one scene of the movie, Walker is making the bed (highly a woman’s job in the terms of stereotyping, but nevertheless a possible part of her Femme Fatale-cover), and she tells Ned Racine (William Hurt): “My mother told me that knowledge is power”, which illustrates her as an intelligent female character. She knows how to get where she wants, and most important, how the male individual works and thinks. She is provided with power and knowledge beyond Ned Racine’s beliefs and uses this to her advantage, parallel to the women in the society in the 1980s who begun to see it more and more acceptable the use of their bodily awareness to reach success. One example to this rising acknowledgement is the forming of the Sex-Positive Feminism Movement, which emphasized women’s sexual pleasure, freedom of expression and gender identities. Many of the women at the time started to take control over their sexuality, and the biggest idea in this movement was that “sexual freedom is an essential component of women’s freedom”, stated under the Key Ideas in the Wikipedia-article of Sex-Positive Feminism. Looking at this idea, the Femme Fatale is an eloquent example of the idealistic picture of an independent, self-secure and self-aware woman at the time.

Another new part of the feminist movement in the 1980s that would have a great impact on the development of equal rights in the United States was the era of Post-feminism. New laws were enforced, and from this, new job opportunities for women aroused. Professions such as scientist, professors, astronauts and members of the military became increasingly accepted. The “physically strong woman” could now approach in a more direct way, and an affirmation of the knowledge many women held, inside subject such as science, became crucial. (Wikipedia.org, Second Wave Feminism – Post Feminism in the 1980s).

Looking back at Aliens and Ripley’s whole attitude as a character, she terminates several stereotypes of the time such as how a woman should act, behave or interact with others or in critical situations. She is constantly smoking, something we can see in many male characters at the time, such as for instance Bruce Willis’s John McClane in Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988). This characteristic was an attribute for many strong, “cool” action heroes. She is cursing, screaming, and talking about guns and machine vehicles. She is determined to prove the male characters wrong and is fighting for a greater cause, an attribute which is seen in almost every movie focusing on depicting the female strength at the time, (proving all the productions mentioned earlier in this analyze are concentrating on implementing this). In the first part of Aliens, when the boarding members are having a meeting with Ripley, and the leader Van Leuwin (Paul Maxwell) refuses to listen to her foretells by responding with a: “Thank you, that would be all”, she bursts out:

“God damn it, that’s not all! Because if one of those things gets down here then that will be all! Then all this – this bullshit that you think is so important, you can just kiss all that goodbye!”

This sentence could as well has been taken directly from any male character playing a hero at the time, such as John McClane when answering to Dwayne T. Robinson’s (Paul Gleason) “You listen to me” with the following words: “No, you listen to me, jerk-off, if you’re not a part of the solution, you’re a part of the problem. Quit being a part of the fucking problem and put the other guy back on”! The resemblance of the dialogue is extremely similar, however, words like that coming from a woman talking directly to a man in authority were not common to hear at the time. Thus Ripley became one of the first to crush many stereotypes of how women acted on the screen.

Furthermore, the men constantly doubting on Ripley’s knowledge and their lack in letting her participate in the decisions and actions taken, is similar to how many men doubted on women’s knowledge in society by not letting them reach higher positions, as also seen in Working Girl. However, Ripley is over and over again proving them wrong, just as many women did in the working field at the time. Some examples of this attribute are seen at the times where she takes control, such as coming up with a plan to keep the aliens away from the base, driving a loader without problems, or when her predictions about the aliens become true.

One individual Ripley is struggling with throughout the movie is Paul Raisers character, Carter Burke. From the beginning she accepts his offer to once again return to the base, but, later in the movie she starts to go against him more and more. He is constantly trying to tell her how to act and what to do, and she is constantly defying his demands. This may be seen as a comparison in class to the competition between men and the woman in the society, and the revolutionary steps women took when going against their previous stereotypes.

However, some attributes of the female character have always been, and will always be, a part of her nature and an important part of her presentation inside the film industry. To expose a woman who is physically strong and fearless, providing overloading knowledge which the male character do not even possess, did not seem like natural presentation. Subsequently, the picture of the nurturing mother comes into display, balancing her “manly approach”.

In “Contemporary American Cinema”, Linda Ruth Williams is describing Sigourney Weaver’s character in the Alien-series with the following term:

“Weaver draws open the complexities of a character that is masculinized but resolutely female, tough but maternal, finally alien as much as human, emerging from hyper sleep like Snow White but fighting like Rambo”. (308).

Needless to say, Ripley’s character is both going against all the female stereotypes possible, at the same time as she is enforcing the picture of the mother who would do anything for her child. The fact that Ripley is prepared to sacrifice her own life to save Newt (Carrie Henn) in the final frequent of the film, with all odds against her, is highly depicting the picture of the nurturing mother.

Linda Ruth Williams is also citing author Barry. K Grant as he is writing in “Film Genre Reader” (1986) that Ripley is a “progressive representation of woman or merely contain them within a masculine sensibility has been a matter of considerable debate”. (p.308)

On the contrary, Ripley’s approach has attached to many women, proving that a woman can be a mother and still be a strong, independent and developing individual, a feature that therefore is of great significance to capturing a bigger audience. Who said that the new female action hero would come to look exactly like the male action hero? That expectation is nearly impossible, when after all, the male and the female individual are of two dissimilar natures. The relation between Ripley and Newt is not enforcing any stereotypes, neither does it provide any negative features to the female character. Instead, Ripley’s strong devotement to the little girl is providing the female character a sense of glory and valiance. It implies that the most important part of life is not to be the motionless fighter, but to nurture the relationships that you have been given, something that is as much “hero” as saving a crowd of people in a terrorized tower. And as Williams also puts it:

“Weaver is frequently read feminist or writers on contemporary cinema for her contribution to transformations in the iconography of women in action-adventure cinema in the 1980s and 1990s”. (309)

Needless to say, the conversions that occurred in female characters throughout the 1980s and into the era of 1990s were commodious, depicted in many different forms and mirroring the women’s determined struggle for a more equal society. By looking at films such as Working Girl, Body Heat and Aliens, you get a broad picture of how the new era of Independent women were illustrated and developed. Many of these genres had been produced for many years and became even more popular in the 1980s, while some of them, like the female action hero, was something new and never before seen on screen, giving a whole new role to the female character. Starting from the 1986 production Aliens, many movies produced today have come to be inspired by the picture of the strong and fighting, but yet “feminine”, woman, such as Tomb Raider (Simon West, 2001) with Angelina Jolie’s character, Laura Croft, fearless and tough but yet extremely “womanly”. Also films as Working Girl has come to take a whole new shape, with the woman now starting on top and bossing over the male workers. An example would be the newly made movie The Proposal (Anne Fletcher, 2009), where Sandra Bullock’s character, Margaret Tate, is one of the head leaders of a big company. Bullock’s role is that of a woman that upholds control and power over her employees.

We have, in other words, come a long way with enforcing the role of the strong and independent woman on screen. This would not have been possible without the pressure from society in terms of revolutionary movements, new laws and individuals fighting for their beliefs. There is still a long way to go, but as the film industry keeps on shaping to society people will always be inspired by the independent, intelligent and mighty characters presented on screen.

Works cited

Green, Philip, “What the male gaze sees: ‘Women you don’t mess with’”, Cracks in the Pedestal, Ideology and Gender in Hollywood, The University of Massachusetts press, 1998, pp. 158.

Charles, Nickie, “Equal opportunities”, Feminism, the State, and Social Policy, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000, pp. 113-114.

Ruth Williams, Linda,”Women in recent US Cinema”, Contemporary American Cinema, Open University Press, 2006, pp.308-309.

Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, CEDAW, “The Convention”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CEDAW

Sterritt, David, “’Silkwood’, good intentions are fogged in by ambiguity”, CS.moitor.com, Archive, January 05, 1984 edition: http://www.csmonitor.com/1984/0105/010506.html

The History Television: “The Femme Fatale throughout history”, 2009: http://www.history.ca/content/ContentDetail.aspx?ContentId=73

Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Sex-Positive Feminism “Key Ideas”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex-positive_feminism

Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Second Wave Feminism “Post Feminism in the 1980s”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second-wave_feminism#Post-feminism_in_the_1980s


About this entry