The film industry has perpetuated socially entrenched gender stereotypes for decades, whether through lacking female representation or bolstering sexist tropes. Yet the adoption of empowering female stories by male and female directors alike has become increasingly common. This is important, as the female narrative gives women a platform to share their stories. This past year, award season favorites like “Nomadland,” “Promising Young Woman,” “I Care a Lot” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” all featured female main characters. Though these female leads aren’t written solely as love interests or victims, one must still ask if these movies portray their complex protagonists authentically. Furthermore, it is important to note the differences between female characters as directed by men and women.
To measure female representation in films, viewers can use methods like the Bechdel test. Typically, a passing movie features two named women who have a conversation about something other than a man. This is the bare minimum for gender representation in fiction; it is the place to designate “rock bottom.” The Bechdel test is an easy place to start, but substantial films must go beyond this. The film industry needs to feature women with atypical stories and complex lives. Female life supersedes the stereotype of reliance on men. The stories of women don’t revolve solely around men, so their stories shouldn’t be told as such. Films worth watching normalize the female narrative as one of empowerment, resilience and authenticity.
Though male-directed movies predominantly tell male-driven narratives, in 2020, two such award season frontrunners are about women: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “I Care a Lot.” Directed by George C. Wolfe, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is based on August Wilson’s 1982 play of the same name. The film is loosely inspired by the life of 1920s jazz artist Ma Rainey. As one of the first Black women to be signed by a white-managed record label, Rainey was an activist and icon. She was a champion for LGBTQ rights, openly dated women and redefined what it means to break social barriers. The queer female experience is not widespread in movies, and when it’s shown, it is often through stereotypes of shame and undesirability. While “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” has the potential to tell a great story about the “Mother of the Blues,” it falls short. It portrays Rainey (Viola Davis) as unworthy, allotting more screen time to her male bandmates and scripting her to seem gluttonous and rude. In order to produce a film with representation, directors must avoid typecasting and perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Wolfe directed a film about a woman, but it accentuated misogyny by reducing Rainey to a fraction of the person she truly was.
“I Care A Lot,” directed by J Blakeson, is also primed with the potential to be refreshing — so long as one overlooks the inclusion of the Russian mob. The film follows Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike), a caregiver to elderly individuals who she eventually scams. It all goes wrong when her plan is challenged by a few gangsters and a film full of misogyny. The film’s portrayal of Marla is a cheap attempt at rewriting the “cool girl” stereotype. Marla is depicted as shallow and manipulative, as the film attempts to render female manipulation as feminist. This isn’t to say that every girl has to be portrayed as the girl next door — male directors should write female villains. Yet they must do it in a way that isn’t completely performative and flat. When the main character is written solely to prove a poorly executed point about an unjust capitalist system, she becomes a hollow pawn in an unfair game. What is the point of creating a character if her existence was simply a device for false activism? This film absolutely screams that it does not, in fact, care a lot about women.
The female narrative as told by women also graced the screen this awards season. “Nomadland” by Chloé Zhao and “Promising Young Woman” by Emerald Fennell are two particularly searing examples. Similar to Wolfe’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Nomadland,” a Golden Globe winner for Best Drama, is inspired by an actual event: the Great Recession. However, its portrayal of the lead female character, Fern (Frances McDormand), doesn’t succumb to any sort of pretense. It’s raw, intricate and emotional.
Likewise, “Promising Young Woman,” directed by Emerald Fennell, is a feminist thriller that sheds light on rape culture in American society. Fennell’s work may be juxtaposed with Blakeson’s “feminist” thriller. However, the antihero of “Promising Young Woman,” Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan), isn’t trivial. Her fight for social injustice isn’t desultory, and her motivations are evident. On the other hand, Marla in “I Care A Lot” is a female villain who lacks a conscience, which exemplifies a stark difference between the male and female portrayal of these villainous women. One film is propelled by vengeance buried deeply in a moral subtext. The other is fueled by gender stereotypes and tells rather than shows a lackluster statement.
It is exhilarating to see so many female-directed movies about women being released alongside male-directed films. When viewed in comparison to their female-directed counterparts, it becomes harder to appreciate the topical feminism apparent in these male-directed movies. This isn’t to say that men can’t or shouldn’t write real females — they can, and they should. Yet it needs to be with precision, thought and a deeper understanding of female stories. Female-driven narratives as told by women are significantly more complex and thoughtful than those told by men; they aren’t imbued with clichés or a sense of false activism. The eradication of gender bias in Hollywood begins with the writing of authentic female characters by both male and female directors. The film industry needs to create female leads that are complex, valued and irreplaceable to the plot. Write her as the hero, the villain or the nomad. Write her without being perfunctory. Write her as the main character.