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Could the ‘token female’ barrier in film be overcome?

ByEleanor Parker

May 11, 2017

Last month saw the cast and crew of the latest Avengers movie descend on the streets of Old Town to film scenes for Avengers: Infinity War, due out in May 2018. The usual cast of superheroes will return, with family favourites such as Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hawkeye and the Hulk. That is an overwhelming amount of testosterone to pack into one sentence and this is one of the recurring issues becoming increasingly apparent within the action-movie genre as a whole.

Thank goodness they managed to tick off the ‘token female’ box then with Scarlet Johanssen’s starring role as Black Widow. This follows a sequence of films which present a set formula casting with several men and one attractive, skinny, probably white woman. It is difficult to see whether this shows progress on the ever-precarious gender problem, or illustrates an industry that is failing to offer enough space for strong female leads.

However, this issue is not a recent one. It emerged in 1991 as the ‘Smurfette Principle’ in the New York Times from Katha Pollitt, a mother worried about the role models present for her three-year-old daughter in a popular culture where ‘girls exist only in relation to boys’. Natasha Romanoff, or Black Widow as she is more commonly known, is the sole role model within the film for the female target audience.

Following a similar pattern, Free Fire was released in the UK in March earlier this year. Brie Larson plays Justine, the only female role among a colourful group of male crooks whose clumsy machismo spirit causes catastrophe during a gun deal in an abandoned warehouse. In a press interview, Larson was asked how she dealt with testosterone levels on-set. In her answer, she herself refers to the problem formula of films starring a token woman ‘and then a bunch of dudes’. She knows it; it’s common place. But it shouldn’t be.

To an extent, these female characters are involved as ‘diversity box-tickers’ in the acting industry, a concept present by anonymous author ‘Miss L’ in The Good Immigrant. This issue goes much further than the gender divide, covering race, sexuality and disability; they rarely cast marginalised figures, and often only do so because there is uproar if they don’t.

The female characters we watch are often denied the complex character exploration which male characters enjoy because they are restricted by their ‘feminine’ status. This is perpetuated in Black Widow’s gender conventional storylines, seeing her act as ‘carer’, romantic interest and damsel in distress. What a heroic combination.

Marvel Studios appear to be ploughing their way through a checklist of lady-appropriate sufferings. Tick, tick! Throw in a few period cramps and she’ll be good to go.

Larson’s character is in a similar position; Justine is the bad-ass ‘cool girl’ attractive blonde reminiscent of Gone Girl’s Amy – beautiful, witty and willing to play with the boys. Cue Justine to laugh at a predictable masturbation joke.

However although this highlights the issue of using one sole character to encapsulate womanhood, it shows that production are beginning to incorporate story lines which relate to a wider demographic. While Justine is an advocate for women who do not wish to be boxed into the ‘feminine’ category, brief hints at Black Widow’s infertility make her hugely relatable to a totally different audience. These women are advocates for two totally different bands of modern women, and so their attribution to such intrepid characters shows real progress.

In addition, the presence of Johansson and Larson as two strong feminist advocates within the film industry further amplifies the potency of their characters in their respective films. Larson’s refusal to applaud Casey Affleck, who has several sexual assault allegations against his name, after presenting him with his Oscar this year was a strong silent protest to survivors of sexual assault, while Johansson has repeatedly publicly called out interviewers for their gendered questions on ‘rabbit food’ dieting and inappropriate references to her underpants. Though Johansson and Larson’s characters are not able to condense the complexity you could write into these films over three or four (or god-forbid five) female characters, the potency of their presence is promising.

Over the course of The Avengers franchise, Black Widow is the only character without a stand-alone movie and this is a glaringly obvious omission. Johansson herself puts it down to a matter of personal timing, rather than a direct issue of misogyny, and promises a film in the future, but with the DC Comics franchise releasing Wonder Woman in July, it is questionable as to why the franchise have not felt it necessary to step up to the competition.

With each film from the Marvel Cinematic Industry grossing an average of $769 million each, it is not a matter of profit. These films are guaranteed successes, with a wide fan-base of both men and women. Laura Bates, in her bestselling book Everyday Feminism, says that whether we like it or not, we live in a society where ‘the media is written by men, for men’ and this all too often places gender bias on what is produced. Not only is the cast male dominated, the production team often is too and this is where the problem lies.

It is shocking to see that opportunities for women working in top-level film production have not improved much over the past twenty years, with the 7% of female directors in 2016 down 2% from 1998 and 2015 figures (Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film, San Diego State University.) However, in some areas of the globe it is looking more promising. For example, in Sweden, the head of the Swedish Film Institute Anna Serner has achieved her organisation’s goal of distributing funds equally between male and female directors in only three years, the Sundance Institute and Women in Film in Los Angeles has an initiative to encourage women behind the camera, and back to the UK, Free Fire was co-written by Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump.

The Bechdel Test measures whether a film has at least two named female characters having a conversation with each other about something other than a man within it to justify their standalone purpose within the film. The Avengers, released in 2012, did not pass this test, but Captain America: Civil War, released last year, did pass (barely), and we can pray Infinity War will make a further improvement.

With a growing female cast, this is a real possibility. Elizabeth Olsen joined the Avengers cast in 2015 as the Scarlet Witch, making next year’s movie her third; Avengers: Infinity War will see Brie Larson as Captain Marvel for the first time, with the announcement that Larson will star in the lead of a Captain Marvel film to be released in 2019. With a growing female cast and production team, this is a very promising step of progress and one that will hopefully inspire less ‘token’ females and more everyday role models in the future.


Image: MarvelousRoland

By Eleanor Parker

Ellie is a fourth year History undergraduate and former Lifestyle editor.

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