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Wherefore art thou women on film?

Francine Crimmins |  02 April 2017


I can think of many films I saw in childhood which still resonate because of their morals and characters. The dark and dangerous fire swamp of The Princess Bride, where Westley must wrestle with rabid beasts to save the damsel in distress, taught me about bravery.

Emma Watson in Beauty and the BeastAdventure is found through a journey with Peter Pan through the second star to the right and into Neverland. The Harry Potter series shows a boy who has suffered a great loss but finds a sense of community and purpose during his time at Hogwarts.

There's something all these cinematic stories have in common: they were all movies about men, men and men.

The earliest recording of female-less theatre is the Greek tragedies. It was abhorrent to think of a woman taking the stage. So, to save the people from such a danger, men would play both the male and female roles. How chivalrous! Even Shakespeare's plays when first performed at the Globe Theatre had an exclusively male cast. I find it very entertaining now to think of Romeo and Juliet performed that way.

When I think of female characters in films from my own childhood I can remember misbehaving Madeline, who couldn't even stay in two straight lines with her classmates at her Parisian boarding school, or Snow White, who needed seven dwarfs to help her before she found her prince charming.

I can't say for sure whether the lack of authentic female characters in films and television has affected how I am today. I'd like to think I turned out okay, but perhaps I would be a mathematician or a train driver if I was made to think through film that women could do those things too. Our inspiration is often taken from other people's stories, so it's important for women to also see inspirational women in film.

For a long time it seemed it was more likely to see men depicted as the brave heroes who can enact real change in their lives and communities. It makes me wonder what all the women in these fictional realities were doing while the men were out saving the world.

The level of importance given to women through film is reflected in the minds, cultures and behaviours of the audience who watch and enjoy them. Women are not only actors in the films I've recently seen but producers, directors and writers.


"In the top grossing films of 2015 1 per cent were composed by women and only 7.5 per cent were directed by women. On average more lines were spoken by men, and male characters were more common than their female counterparts."


We're now seeing a self motivating heroine in Disney's live-action version of Beauty and the Beast (pictured), and Polynesian Moana, who conquered the waves against all odds, in the latest Disney princess animation. Walt Disney himself said 'Movies can and do have tremendous influence in shaping young lives in the realm of entertainment towards the ideals and objectives of normal adulthood.' The fair and equal representation of women in society is therefore a large burden on filmmakers and writers who choose to place them in their films.

Some film companies in the last decade have gone to new lengths to make sure their casting and storylines are more inclusive to all people who exist in our world. There is a lot of ground to make up. In the top grossing films of 2015, 1 per cent were composed by women and only 7.5 per cent were directed by women. On average more lines were spoken by men, and male characters were more common than their female counterparts. It's important to be critical of big films and the way they make us see ourselves and those around us. If we take films at face value, there's a chance of missing the way they shape expectations of gender in our world.

Mainstream films have a long way to go on representing different types of women, such as women of colour and LGBTIQ females. In the meantime the films we share with family and friends could be influencing the way we see our roles as both women and men in our relationships and society. In the real world, women make up 50 per cent of the population, so there's no reason we shouldn't also see equal represention on screen.


Francine CrimminsFrancine Crimmins is studying a double degree of Journalism and Creative Intelligence & Innovation at the University of Technology Sydney. She is on twitter as @frankiecrimmins. Francine is the recipient of Eureka Street's Margaret Dooley Fellowship for Young Writers.



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Submitted comments

Iagree we need to see women in brave and courageous movie roles. I would also like to see the woman's role as a mother and carer of her children, revered as a noble and dedicated career.

Bernie 04 April 2017

I have just enjoyed Hidden Figures. Not just women triumphing but women 'of colour'. Truly inspirational!

Jo Elliott 05 April 2017

Can't quite sympathize here. Disney's heroines have been responding to a feminist consciousness for many years, long before Francine was born. "Madeline" isn't portrayed as somewhat defective - she 'won't' walk in two straight lines, rather than 'can't". Did Francine ever read any children's books written after about 1970? "Tomorrow when the World Began" for example? Dozens of books (and often film versions) had strong, feisty, brave heroines. I'm amazed that a bookloving child didn't come across them!

Joan Seymour 07 April 2017

Love it, so true.I have often rolled my eyes at "yet another movie about men".Do women not have stories to tell?(Should we boycott movies on men to make the point?)When challenged by others on why women aren't writing their own stories, I tell them women are too busy doing the housework, the caring, being the cheerleaders for men;bereft of time to spend on their talents bc they are given (and they accept) unfair domestic workloads.We are influenced greatly by what we see.If, in movies and in real life, we only see men taking action, speaking out, being the role models, taking the dominant roles in society, we inevitably reinforce to girls that women are not meant to be as engaged with the external world as men.Giving permission to girls to not expect much of their talents, to be the supporters, not the doers.As a young girl I used to stay behind at the movies scanning credits eagerly for even one or two female names;at Church I look at all-male leaders on the altar;at work a heavily male list of managers.Movies can powerfully change our expectations of "normal" and encourage a new normal, so both genders can fulfil their God-given potential.

nimmi candappa 03 June 2017

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