The Portrayal Of Female Characters In Films


23 Mar 2015 06 Jun 2017

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Keywords: women in film, females in film, new age man film

Films have long been used as a tool to portray human imaginations and ideas that are sometimes deemed impossible in reality. The characters in films have had a huge impact, with regard to gender stereotype, on audiences of all ages (Neuendorf et. al., 2010). Though there have been debates of how female characters are being portrayed in films, from being submissive to hyper-sexualised and lately, adopting more dominant roles in films, has there really been a change in male characters in films instead (Gilpatric, 2010)? Have male characters in films adopt female traits like how the female characters have adopted manly traits? This paper looks into how the portrayals of male characters in films have changed or are changing and how they affect gender construction.

The feminist movement has constantly fought for women's right and equality so as to place women on equal standing to men in the society. This revolution has since been translated onto the silver screens as films depict women playing prominent and dominant roles in films (Gilpatric, 2010; Neundorf et. al., 2010) which is a stark contrast to the past when women played a submissive and subservient roles to the male character. Furthermore, films mirror the changing nature of our society, expecting men to behave in accordance to societal expectations deconstructing the male stereotype. Thus, the increasing trend in films shifting away from portraying men as having the traditional masculine trait, reconstructing it to more what termed today as the "New Age Men (NAM)" has been a result of the increasing prominence and dominance of females in films and the evolving nature of the society.

The NAM is thus seen as a fusion of having both the traditional traits of males and females, embracing both masculine and feminine traits. Here, masculinity is defined as having the "size, physical strength, rejection to authority and the use of physical force" (Eschholz and Bufkin, 2001). Along with those masculine traits, the NAM are also expected to have traits like caring and being able to handle housework. The birth of the NAM has been heavily attributed to the rise of females in films and the changing nature of the society. Men today feel there is a need to differentiate themselves from females in films to assert their dominance in the industry and to reintegrate into the society, deconstructing the male stereotype.

Female Characters in Films Today.

Male characters in films are moving away from having masculine traits due to the rise of female prominence and dominance in the roles they play by adopting those masculine traits. Female characters like Lara Croft and Kill Bill highlights the point that traits like submissive and subservient are no longer being associated with female character. The casting of the Bond girl character is as equally important, receiving just as much attention as the casting of James Bond himself, and though a Bond film may lack the innovative gadget, never has there been a Bond film without a Bond girl (Neuendorf et. al., 2010). This accentuates that the women's roles are equally important to the Bond character. Men, who relate closely to Bond who usually portray masculine traits, view this as a challenge to their masculinity as the Bond character is dependent on the female character. The lack of innovative gadgets also portrays a crisis in masculinity since men regard these technologies as 'macho' (Neuendorf et. al., 2010). This is further amplified with female characters playing main characters in films being created with complex and enthralling personalities relative to male characters who are rather one-dimensional and are of minor interest (Russell-Watts, 2010).

Women are also selected to play roles previously played and deemed suitable for men. Though Lara Croft and Kill Bill props to mind, the Hamlet by William Shakespeare is another example. Despite Hamlet being a male character, women have been manifesting their interest to play the role and there has been an increasing trend of women getting selected to personify Hamlet (Howard, 2007). Moreover, the Hamlet is known to be involved in violence as portrayed by the character Alexandra Tranda, who parallels the happenings of Hamlet to the events occuring in her life and ends up killing her father (Howard, 2007). Violence is defined as "any intentional infliction of physical pain or harm" (Eschholz and Bufkin, 2001) and has a positive correlation to masculinity (Eschholz and Bufkin, 2001; Neuendorf et. al., 2010; Gilpatric, 2010) thus proving an increase in violence equates to in an increase in masculinity. Men feel the idea of a women hamlet as unhealthy and feel ashamed for a woman to take the Hamlet role (Howard, 2007). This is an indication to men that women are challenging their masculinity and dominance in the film industry especially in roles crafted for men.

The rise of females in films adopting a more masculine nature and playing characters deemed more suited for men resulted men to feel challenged in their masculinity and has since led to a crisis in it. Men feel there is a need to differentiate themselves from the female characters and assert their masculinity and dominance within the society, re-constructing the gender stereotype to create the NAM.

The Dynamic Nature of the Society.

Films impact audiences (Gilpatric, 2010) and may portray a reflection of the society. The dynamic nature of the society portrayed through films has been a contributing factor to the deconstruction of the male gender stereotype to form the NAM. Relative to the past, women today are generally more educated, enabling them to take up jobs also held by men (Buchbinder, 2008). Accelerated by the feminist movement, women today are equally as likely as men to be casted to play professional roles and jobs like doctors and lawyers (Gilpatric, 2010). There is an increase of female characters holding major roles from 12% in 1960 to 32% in 1990 (Neuendorf et. al., 2010) and female characters in films can be a true representation of their position in the society as 51% US workers who hold high-paying management and professional jobs are women (Gilpatric, 2010). Similarly, most young man today expects to go through at least three major career changes in his life (Buchbinder, 2008). Also, improvements in the economy have enabled both women and men to spend on luxury items. "Narcissistic concern with one's look and body," traditionally marked as feminine are being linked to men, making it harder to comply with the traditional masculinity trait of a man (Buchbinder, 2008).

There has also been a shift in the portrayal of men in films today. In the past, men have always adopted the central figure but roles recently played by men and women in films have been blurred as the gap between masculinity and feminity. According to Breillat, "There is no masculine psychology in my cinema. They contain only what women feel and desire. Therefore, men must not try to recognise themselves in my male characters" (Russell-Watts, 2010, p. 72). This shows that men play secondary roles to women in today's films restricting them to relate to the traditional male masculinity. Moreover, men are also increasingly portrayed in films as the figure of the schlemiel. Schlemiel is a Yiddish word which means "a foolish person…a social misfit" (Buchbinder, 2008, p. 228) and is unable to "meet the performance and attitudinal requirements of traditional masculinity" (Buchbinder, 2008, p. 230). For instance, Bond girls have been known to play independent and intelligent roles even outwitting Bond himself in the latest Bond movie. Despite Bond films representing Bond as having a chauvinistic persona (Neuendorf et. al., 2010), this places Bond in the Schlemiel category of a "foolish" character causing men to view this as a crisis to their masculinity.

These factors when combined has resulted men to lose its masculine traits and restricted them to conform to the traditional masculine traits deconstructing the traditional male stereotype and reconstruct the NAM to help them assimilate back into society and be of an equal standing or higher to the women.

Stereotypes Still Prevails.

Some might argue that despite the rising prominence and dominance of women, the subservient and submissive nature of women's portrayal still prevail while men's masculinity are still confined to the traditional stereotype. Women in films are still regarded as subservient and submissive as the dominance exerted is based on a maternal motif, creating a stereotype of mothers or wives to save her child or loved ones (Gilpatric, 2010). Moreover, the societal movement of feminism is lacking, as women in films today still report to a more dominant male character (Neuendorf et. al., 2010), acting as a "sidekick" to a male character and getting involved in a romantic relationship with them (Gilpatric, 2010). Male characters though may have less masculine traits as portrayed by Robert in the movie Romance, his masculinity is emphasised through his occupation, being the boss of the main female character (Russell-Watts, 2010). This proves that despite being portrayed as dominant character in films today, women still conform to the gender stereotype of the traditional feminine traits of reporting to a more dominant male character. Some may argue also that films may not be a true reflection of society hence the portrayal of men as less masculine are not true. Films portray women as successful only when they are thin and attractive (Neuendorf et. al., 2010) when in fact, success is judged based on merit and not only looks. Building on, by showcasing one man as less masculine in the form of the schlemiel figure, subtly it provides a foil for other male characters to stand out, bringing out the masculine traits in the other male characters, (Buchbinder, 2008) indicating that male characters in movies still conform to the male gender stereotype of masculinity.

New Age Man is the New Man.

Despite the portrayal of women as subservient and submissive, women are still just as likely as men to commit violent acts in films. Presently, women are more likely to show acts of aggression (Neundorf et. al., 2010) and masculinity levels in male and females have increased (Eschholz and Bufkin, 2001). Though many may argue that the feminist movement may not have reached its promised desire, it cannot be regarded as a failure. Women's role in movies has since increased transcending the traditional feminine traits (Gilpatric, 2010). No longer women are being portrayed as one-dimensional who plays stereotypical female characters. Moreover, men today are unlikely to conform to the traditional form of masculinity although they may still hold superiority over the female characters as masculinity portrayed by men in films today is excessive in nature and something that men cannot relate to. The rugged masculinity shown through characters played by Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger is being described as a "fantasy" (Eschholz and Bufkin, 2001). Men feels there is a need to form a new identity something that they can relate to and has slowly since give rise to the birth of the NAM. Though portraying men as less masculine or as the schlemiel figure helps to bring out the masculinity in other male characters (Buchbinder, 2008), this very need has proved that there is a decreasing trend in films, which showcase men as masculine.


Films have evolved tremendously down the years and will continue to do so at such rapid rate. As women's roles in films continue to rise and take centre stage, male characters in films have since taken steps in the opposite direction, adopting lesser of the traditional masculine traits but instead adopt more feminine traits. This has not being helped by the changing nature of the society where women continue to rise in status at workplaces challenging men for jobs. The birth of the NAM has been heavily attributed to the rising dominance and prominence of female characters in films and also the changing nature of the society. As the world become more globalized, women's status in society is also expected to improve and NAM may well form a new stereotype for men in times to come.

(1996 Words)


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