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Reel Empowered Women

Kerry Bennett writes with me at ParentPreviews.com, and is an avid supporter in a variety of other areas related to helping families better understand the role of media in their lives. After doing research for a university paper on the roles of women in popular movies, she wanted to share what she learned with a larger audience.
--Rod Gustafson


In June 2008 Angelina Jolie blasted her way across theater screens as an assassin named Fox in the movie Wanted. Second in command in a secret fraternity of killers, her mission is to maintain the balance between good and evil by disposing of individuals deemed unnecessary or troublesome. Her assignment in the film is to recruit a nerdy, neurotic accountant into the group in order to revenge his father's death.


Following in the footsteps of other empowered female action heroes like Lara Croft (another Angelina Jolie protagonist), the elusive Catwoman, a revengeful executioner in Kill Bill and a hard-hitting trio of crime fighters in Charlie's Angels, Fox packs guns, throws punches and, to use the colloquial term, "kicks butt".


But while many a real-life cubicle worker might fantasize about being whisked away from a hum-drum job by the likes of Angelina Jolie, this type of tough new role model--with her high-powered pistols and tough attitude--is a far cry from reality.


Rob Vaux of Flipside Movie Emporium calls Wanted an "empowerment fantasy for teenage boys (and teenage boys at heart)." Eric Melin of Scene Stealers calls it "every nerdy fanboy's fantasy come true." Ty Burr of the Boston Globe says, "Wanted is quite happy to judge a man by the size of his gun. The irony is that the biggest one here belongs to Jolie, and her Amazon smile indicates she knows exactly how nervous that makes the boys." Rather than offering a role model to a new generation of female audiences, this woman protagonist appears to be pandering to the interests of young male movie consumers.


Backed by a cast of male executives, many of these female empowerment films seem to have little if any input from women in the industry. In a study conducted at San Diego State University by Martha Lauzen Ph.D, male directors, producers, cinematographers, writers and editors all significantly outnumbered their female counterparts on film projects. Of the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2006, women made up only 7% of the directors while 92% of the films had no female directors. Although 22% of the films released in 2006 had no women executive producers, producers, directors, editors or cinematographers, all of the films in the study had a man in at least one of these key positions. In particular, films that promoted characters like Lara Croft, Catwoman, Elecktra and Charlie's Angels were predominantly produced by men.


But do all those "tough girl" antics really matter?


According to Martha Coolidge, director of films like The Prince & Me and Material Girls and the first woman to serve as president of the Directors Guild of America, "the audiences that studios have cultivated are young men. Young men, they feel, are easy to please. The seek out action." Journalist and author Susan Faludi agrees, "what people usually see on screen is not women as they are, but rather a male idea of women, and how men perceive them and wish them to behave."


Many times this male-oriented view of women begins with a movie's promotional material. "Women are the stuff of ocular spectacle," says Nol Carroll, a film theorist and American philosopher, "there to serve as the locus of the male's desire to save them visually."


Movie posters for films such as Planet Terror, Elektra, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Resident Evil, all depict female characters in provocative poses. These highly seductive stanches, combined with portrayals of violent interactions, may lead to undesirable social responses as well as contribute to negative attitudes toward women, according to journalist Susan Brownmiller. In Psychology of Women Quarterly, Janet Lawrence and Doris Joyner reported that exposure to sexually violent material not only affects males' attitudes toward women in an adverse manner but can also lower compassion, increase acceptance of violence toward women and contribute to sex-role stereotyping. Other researchers found that more importantly, the frequent depictions of women portrayed in violent interactions with male counterparts may result in violent behavior between men and women being regarded as normal and socially acceptable. For some viewers, this aggressive, sexualized empowered female becomes a model on which they base their real life interactions.


These hard-hitting protagonists can also influence female viewers, many of whom accompany boyfriends or partners to these types of films. Like many other fictional portrayals, these characters are the epitome of female perfection--something that normal women may have difficulty achieving. Studies have found that these depictions of ultra-thin or perfectly shaped women can cause real women to be dissatisfied with their own physical appearance and can, in some cases, be one factor in eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. In studies conducted on the impact of media depictions, researchers discovered that the thin-ideal woman is typically 15% below the average weight of women and would be biogenetically difficult, if not impossible, for most women to achieve. Jean Kilbourne, a media activist, points out that female bodies are also often dismembered into legs, thighs, or breasts, emphasizing the idea that women are objects rather than whole beings.


Fed a constant diet of unrealistically thin, sexual, violent or powerful women, young girls' view of their own sexuality can be colored by the depictions. In a  report released by the American Psychological Association, researchers analyzed a variety of media studies over  an 18 month period and found that even body-baring doll clothes for preschoolers, tweens posing in suggestive ways in publications and the publicized sexual antics of young celebrity role models contributed to the way the girls regard their own bodies as sexual objects.


While films are fantasy, the lines between real life and reel life can begin to blur for heavy entertainment consumers. Although only one type of character in an array of   big screen personalities, these empowered characters are showing up more and more often in movie theaters and for home entertainment. Helping young viewers understand the effect these depictions can have on real life relationships is a challenge. For parents, taking time to watch with and discuss the motives of the characters, their lack of normal life activities and the absence of consequences for the destruction they cause, both to individuals and property, can be one way of helping children and teens distinguish between the fantasy of these overtly aggressive characters and the reality of real life relationships.


Kerry Bennett

Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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