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Choose ONE option from the list below and write a essay:

1. Is theological engagement with film (or any other medium of popular culture) a trendy but ultimately meaningless exercise? Discuss. Illustrate by reference to particular products of popular culture.

2. Choose a medium of popular culture (film, television, music, or gaming) and critically analyse its representation of (women, or disability, or black/indigenous people, or Christianity, et cetera).

You should illustrate your case by in-depth references to at least one positive and one negative example.

Discussion

The new era has seen some exceptional coming of age films with women in the lead role and the men taking a back seat, as many analysts claim. According to them, women have received and are receiving the recognition in films, which they deserve (Simis et al. 2015, 94). In contrast to these claims, critics state that the portrayal of women in films has not changed at all, only the way of portrayal has changed. By this, they meant that only the context has changed but the views remain the same. The debate has long since going on and might continue for more years to come. Media studies and findings are abounding in this topic with varied conclusions. It is important to note that film is the most popular form amongst the other forms of popular culture. The popular culture, as the name suggests, is followed by the mass and hence, anything portrayed on the big screen is sure to influence the mass.

The essay will provide a systematic and critical analysis of women’s representation in films over the ages in different countries and culture, specifically in the Western countries. It will start with an explanation of women’s representation in popular culture that include, apart from films, music, television and gaming amongst others. Then, the essay will provide a brief history of portrayal of women in films. This is followed by the examples illustrating the negative representation. In contrast to the negative portrayal, the following sections will highlight the positive examples of women’s representation in films. While providing the examples, the essay will emphasize on the Western representation of women mostly in Hollywood.

Popular culture refers to the beliefs, practices and ideologies that are followed by the majority in a society. In simple terms, it means the popular taste of the members in a society relating to fashion, films, music, shows, gaming and so on. These forms of popular culture are created when the members of the culture interact continuously with each other. Producers or makers know the kind of music, films and TV shows people like by interacting with them. The process is mutual because the films and music produced keeping in mind the popular taste, become popular amongst the masses. In many cases, these influence the perception of the common masses regarding many societal issues including the representation of women. Gaming is increasingly becoming one of the most popular forms of pleasure especially amongst youth. In this platform also, it has been found that women have largely been objectified.   Starting from their physical features to their gestures, women’s representation seems to hit a new low. In a study conducted by Fisher (2015, 551) on, it was found that gaming magazines consistently treat women in digital forms as “vacant pinups to be ogled or irrelevant sidekicks to be tolerated and real women as annoying interlopers to be bullied”. The music industry also has minimal representation of women with most popular artists being men. O’Grady et al. (2015, 123) have found that women instrumentalists in the music industry particularly face biasness and stereotypes often from their male counterparts and others. Women artists are often considered least talented then men in playing instruments and signing. In addition, the lyrics of the songs also most times contain abusive and degrading language for women making them mere objects for sexual pleasure. The scenario is however changing as many female musicians are making a mark in the field.

Negative Representation

Lee and Billy (2016, 161) considers films as the most influential form of popular culture that has the power to shape the thoughts of people on important issues. The influence sometimes is so great that people take inspiration from the movies to perform an act in real life although the act is most likely negative. Many crimes have been committed with inspiration from films. Critics therefore suggest filmmakers to make films cautiously but it has hardly made any difference. The point has been made here because it would provide a clearer picture about the importance of women representation in films. As Sharp et al. (2014, 482) note, “Media plays a big role in influencing people’s daily lives as it influences how people view the world in general”. When filmmakers create characters and present them on screen, they are providing an ideology or perception that they expect the audiences to accept. Thus, when they portray women on screen, the audiences with low intellectual intelligence would grab it as the norm.

During the 19th and 20th century, when films as popular medium of entertainment began to influence the audiences, women had the least role to play. Hollywood is the most watched and followed film industry in the world and hence, a look into its history of women representation would provide better insights. During the 1940s to 1960s, women were represented from the perspective of the men. “The Male Gaze” is the popular term that is used to describe this trend. Women, during that time were represented only as sex objects, “an illusion of men’s desire”. The Bond films in particular, throughout the 1950s to 2000s, represented women from the ‘male gaze’. They were projected as Bond’s love and lust interest, having the only job to satisfy or seduce the male character. Wreyford (2015, 84) states that the phenomenon like industrial revolution and the introduction of sound into films led to the downfall of women’s role in films. Although there are no particular reasons as to why this happened, the authors state that unionization could have been one of the reasons. With this, women directors, theater owners and producers who had dominated the last part of the 19th century, vanished. Men mostly dominated the film scene in terms of theaters, lead characters, directors and producers. Ezzedeen (2015, 239), while highlighting the representation of women in the past, makes an important observation. The scholar finds that Hollywood had a biased way to depict women executives as well during the early years. Women executives were depicted as “mean and conniving personalities, promiscuous, isolated and failures at intimacy, inability to balance work and family” (Ezzedeen 2015, 239).

Positive Examples

Several scholars are of the view that the recurring trend within the society is also responsible for the way women were and are represented in films. In the past, the societal norms particularly in the Eastern countries were very strict and women were not even allowed to enter into the film industry. Singh (2017, 90) provides a study on the history of Indian cinema, which reveals that during the early 19th and 20th century, men performed the roles of female characters. This was largely due to the societal influence where women had to perform the subordinate roles of a wife, a mother, a daughter-in-law and so on. She had to manage only the household chores and was not even allowed to study or involve in any other form of art or literature. Similar was the situation in other nations like Iran where women in films received roles that had no value or respect. It was also due to the condition prevalent in the society during that time. As time passed and women began to realize their rights and potential as human beings, representation also started to change. Hussain (2017, 80) contrasts this view stating that although the societal norms did exert an influence in the perception of the filmmakers, it cannot be generalized that society influences women’s representation in films. The author argues that if that was the case, the present inequality in women’s representation could not have been there as the society today has progressed remarkably. The author’s views are valid to some point but cannot be agreed upon completely. The society did have an influence on the way women were represented in films. Filmmakers take inspiration from the literature and the daily life to create a film and men mostly dominated these inspirations. Therefore, the place of women in these works was marginal.

It is imperative also, to highlight examples of where women were represented positively without any bias or prejudice. Recent films like Mad Max: Fury Road, Maleficent Part 1 and 2, Brave, The Hunger Games and Gravity are only a few of the many films that have strong and leading female characters. Charlize Theron stars in the film portraying the role of Imperator Furiosa and displays strong character and strength. Angelina Jolie stars in Maleficent as the Red Queen and excels. Brave is an animated film that represents the life of Princess Merida and her determination to lead her own life, defying the old customs. The Hunger Games presents the story of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) who battles for life after taking place of her sister in a game. Examples could also be given of earlier films like Black Swan, Changeling, Mona Lisa Smile, Miss Congeniality, The Blind Side and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. These films had some very strong and splendid female characters and did well at the box office as well.

Societal Influence

However, the film Gravity defines the recurring positivity regarding the representation of women in films, especially Hollywood. The film portrays women in the lead role taking charge of a space shuttle stranded in space (Imdb.com 2018). The film is significant in many ways when it comes to the portrayal of women. First, it shows a woman in a profession that was not meant for women some decades ago – an astronaut.  Second, the film shows the woman leading from the front and struggling to survive without any help or assistance from men.  Third, the filmmaker cast a 49-year old actor (Sandra Bullock) on who rested the responsibility of carrying the film throughout. Fourth, despite having a woman lead character, the film managed to do exceptionally well at the box office worldwide. Bartyzel (2018) states that the filmmaker (Alfonso Cuaron) “has made a perfect modern rallying film to battle the idea that women cannot lead blockbusters and that success or failure rests on gender and age”. The author is correct in making this statement because the film has been a milestone when it comes to representation of women in films. Nonetheless, speaking specifically about Sandra Bullock, who played the lead role in the movie, the author comments that, her back to back successes has been a one-off affair since none other female actor could repeat it. With all being said, it cannot be denied that the movie proved to be a great example of the positive changes that are taking place in the world of films and its treatment of women.

In contrast to this positive example of women representation in film, numerous movies have been made that brutally distort women’s roles and even mock their personality. The Bond films including Live and Let Die, You Only Live Twice amongst others, superhero movies like Superman, Batman and others have portrayed women as subordinates and inferior to the male characters. Other films like the Ironman and Avengers series, Star Trek Into Darkness, Skyfall and She’s All That and so on depict women in very demeaning roles (Independent.co.uk 2018). The values associated with womanhood have been largely neglected in these films. Apart from that, these films have contributed towards influencing the popular perception that women are powerless and incomplete without men. The roles that had been given to them had no contribution to the plot, neither the story of the film. In addition to misrepresentation of women, these films also stereotyped minority communities as well.  A look at the statistics during the last decade reveals dismaying truth about women’s representation in Hollywood films. The year 2014 saw only 28.1 per cent female characters in over 100 films out of which only 21 films had women in the lead role (Forbes.com 2018). The stats are alarmingly low as compared to the previous years especially in 2008 when the stat was 32.8 per cent. In case of animated films as well, women represented only 23.3 per cent of roles, which is remarkably low than in 2010 when the representation was 30.7 per cent (Forbes.com 2018).

One good example of negative representation of women in Hollywood films is the 2012 Bond movie Skyfall with Daniel Craig in the leading role. As mentioned earlier, all the Bond movies since the past until the contemporary have portrayed women in the worst roles possible. The modern Bond film is no different. In the movie, Bond sets of on a mission to find a computer drive having the information of the British agents. While on the mission, he meets a woman named Severine (Berenice Marlohe) and finds that she had been a victim of sex trade. He fights with the bodyguards of Severine and then goes to Severine’s yacht later and they have a steamy moment together. A few scenes later, Severine is shot dead by Silva (Javier Bardem) and thus her role ends. It can be clearly seen that the woman character has been used just to serve the purpose of the male lead. The character is introduced, is made to have sex with the male lead and then killed. In addition, the fact that she had been a sexual trafficking victim and then to show the male lead approaches her in that way without her objecting is disturbing. The woman character is used as an object that had the job to introduce the villain of the movie – Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) – to Bond. After she is killed by Silva, Bond makes a remark that further demeans the woman character. He hilariously declares her death as “a waste of good scotch” (a glass of scotch was balanced above Severine’s head before when Silva shot her dead). The film has represented women in every demeaning and negative way it can (Imdb.com 2018). Funnell, Lisa and Dodds (2015, 358) comment that the Bond films have been around a long time and one would expect to see a transformation to the women have been portrayed in these films but sadly, hardly anything has changed. The authors explain that the recent Bond film too has succeeded in portraying women in the demeaning light. It has demonstrated them as “both incompetent, lacking in their duties and in looking after themselves and places them in demeaning roles” (Funnell, Lisa and Dodds 2015, 358).

Krainitzki (2014, 35) also sheds light on the character of M (Judi Dench) in the movie and states that the only female character in the movie who had a better role, has also been portrayed as incompetent. She heads the Foreign Intelligence Wing but despite that, she makes horrendous decisions that cost the lives of numerous people. It has been done to portray that women are incapable of managing higher positions and that only men could rectify their mistakes and bad decisions. In addition, one of her male counterparts, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), seeks to replace her as the head of M16 – the intelligence agency, which M heads. She strongly declines to step down and is later killed in a fight that occurs while Bond accompanies her to meet Silva. This clearly conveys the message to the audience that because she is a woman, she is incompetent and incapable of handling top positions and carrying out responsibilities. Dodds (2014, 116) while focusing on the women’s representation in films in the 21st century and especially the Bond films states that the majority of films produced even in the so-called progressive century are dangerously ignorant of women’s importance. Dodds (2014, 120) opines that the movie Skyfall has made an attempt to do away with M due to her “aging body” that serves no important purpose any longer. It is therefore clear that women are still represented wrongly and negatively in films.

Conclusion

Women have a crucial role to play within the society irrespective of the culture or country to which they belong. However, it has often been seen that they are not given their due importance in the society, which is also reflected in different mediums of popular culture. As the essay has discussed, the representation of women in films, the most popular form of popular, has been dismal. The essay highlighted the history of women’s representation in films especially in Hollywood and found that most films did not even recognize women as important parts of the production. They were perceived through the ‘Male Gaze’ as only sexual objects. The essay also found that during the last years of the 19th century, women had dominated the filmmaking industry but after the industrial and financial reorganization, women left their jobs and became subordinate to men. The essay also included the position of women in different societies other than the Western society and found the situation to be similar. In addition, the essay presented one positive example and one negative example of women’s representation in films. The analysis found that more than positive, negative representation abound the popular culture form.

References:

Bartyzel, Monika. 2018. "Girls On Film: The Real Lesson Of Gravity". Theweek.Com. https://theweek.com/articles/459017/girls-film-real-lesson-gravity

Dodds, Klaus. "Shaking and Stirring James Bond: Age, Gender, and Resilience in Skyfall (2012)." Journal of Popular Film and Television 42, no. 3 (2014): 116-130.

Ezzedeen, Souha R. "Portrayals of career women in Hollywood films: implications for the glass ceiling’s persistence." Gender in Management: An International Journal30, no. 3 (2015): 239-264.

Fisher, Howard D. "Sexy, dangerous—and ignored: An in-depth review of the representation of women in select video game magazines." Games and culture 10, no. 6 (2015): 551-570.

Forbes.com. 2018. "Women Still Ridiculously Underrepresented In Movies". Forbes.Com. https://www.forbes.com/sites/dorothypomerantz/2015/08/05/women-still-ridiculously-underrepresented-in-movies/#73739e330ea0

Funnell, Lisa, and Klaus Dodds. "The Anglo?American Connection: Examining the Intersection of Nationality with Class, Gender, and Race in the James Bond Films." The Journal of American Culture 38, no. 4 (2015): 357-374.

Hussain, Yasmin. Writing diaspora: South Asian women, culture and ethnicity. Routledge, 2017.

Imdb.com, Skyfall. 2018. "Skyfall (2012)". Imdb. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1074638/plotsummary?ref_=tt_stry_pl

Imdb.com. 2018. "Gravity (2013)". Imdb. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1454468/plotsummary?ref_=tt_stry_pl

Independent.co.uk. 2018. "Despite Female-Led Films Making More Money, Study Reveals Hollywood Tends To Give Women Pointless Roles". The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/gender-bias-hollywood-movie-industry-sexism-bechdel-wallace-test-charlize-theron-geena-davis-a7889956.html

Krainitzki, Eva. "Judi Dench's age-inappropriateness and the role of M: Challenging normative temporality." Journal of aging studies 29 (2014): 32-40.

Lee, SoJung, and Billy Bai. "Influence of popular culture on special interest tourists' destination image." Tourism Management 52 (2016): 161-169.

O’Grady, Lucy, Randi Rolvsjord, and Katrina McFerran. "Women performing music in prison: an exploration of the resources that come into play." Nordic Journal of Music Therapy 24, no. 2 (2015): 123-147.

Sharp, Gemma, Marika Tiggemann, and Julie Mattiske. "The role of media and peer influences in Australian women's attitudes towards cosmetic surgery." Body Image 11, no. 4 (2014): 482-487.

Simis, Molly J., Sara K. Yeo, Kathleen M. Rose, Dominique Brossard, Dietram A. Scheufele, Michael A. Xenos, and Barbara Kline Pope. "New media audiences’ perceptions of male and female scientists in two sci-fi movies." Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 35, no. 3-4 (2015): 93-103.

Singh, Neha. "Portrayal of women through the changing contours of cinema: Issues and concerns." Asian Journal of Multidimensional Research (AJMR) 6, no. 2 (2017): 85-92.

Wreyford, Natalie. "Birds of a feather: Informal recruitment practices and gendered outcomes for screenwriting work in the UK film industry." The Sociological Review 63, no. 1_suppl (2015): 84-96.

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