At a rehearsal for a show I wrote, the production staff and I were mulling over wardrobe for the main character. We were trying to decide on a dress for the young woman in question to wear in a bar scene at the start of the first episode, and the prevailing favorite amongst the women was a pink strappy dress printed with cupcakes. One of the males in the room wasn’t convinced (I’d like to disclaimer with the qualification that the guy in question is absolutely amazing, and lovely to women, and I adore him), and told me the dress was a “bold” statement for the character.
When I questioned him on this, he told me that so early on in the show, to introduce the main character in such a girly dress would be making a strong statement about the kind of woman she was. According to him, this was a statement I wouldn’t be able to backtrack from later. At the time, I was offended but I wasn’t sure why. At first I thought I was annoyed simply because I don’t like being disagreed with, but the more I think about it, the more I’m pissed off specifically as a woman.
The guy who expressed the opinion wasn’t trying to be offensive to women — I’m unequivocal on that — but he had inadvertently drawn my attention back to a trope of modern cinema that I take issue with time and time again: that women must be sifted and arranged into neatly compacted boxes. Heaven forbid a woman should have one of each of her legs in two separate boxes, and her arms flailing wildly above her head. And how dare she even consider leapfrogging out of one and landing in another! No; in mainstream film and television, for the most part, a woman must be one thing and one thing only.
It’s not the same for men. Indeed, we allowed James Bond, our most enduring icon of pop culture masculinity, to be an emotionless womanizer for four and a half decades, then we accepted, without question, that he was really just a softie at heart as we watched him fall in love in 2006’s Casino Royale. Even more recently in the Bond cannon, the man whose heterosexuality has been, for a full half century, so hetero it’s vaguely homophobic and definitely misogynistic, we were served the implication in 2012’s Skyfall that Bond might not be so straight after all. Our most consistent, stoic, enduring serialized character has, in recent years, been allowed to seamlessly morph into a dynamic version of his previously one dimensional self — because he is a man.
Not only do I not have a female counterpart to draw comparison to Bond, representations of women continue to be so flimsy in film and serial television the mind boggles. Even in shows that I profess to love–for instance, something like (and it pains me to say this) Breaking Bad–give us fairly static representations of women. Using the Breaking Bad example (again, shudder), we have Skylar, the nagging, wet-blanket of a housewife and Marie, the slightly softer, worrisome, maternal figure. And yet; Walt, Jesse, Hank, Walt Jr, Mike, Gus and even Saul ALL have conflicting personality traits and winding, unpredictable journey of development that give them a depth of character the women aren’t afforded. To offer another example I hate to use (because I love it so), The Walking Dead provides us with but one (from a very large cast of central female characters, mind you) evolving female character in Michonne (at a push, Carol, who gets barely enough screen time to qualify) and the other women are simply as they are: Andrea, the village idiot; Lori, the naggy wife/mother; Maggie, the tough as nails pragmatist and her sister, the cute blonde who can sing.
Maybe we haven’t paid stories like that of Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath their due. I am definitely a culprit of having rolled my eyes at her OCD storyline at the end of season 2, but in retrospect, it’s coming into stark relief that where Dunham went with Hannah was a bold, brave move, and while the execution might not have been perfect in a structural sense, she dared to go where few others have gone before her; she dared to change the inherent soul and indeed outward face of her leading lady. A girl that started off as a twee, bright eyed, romantic hopeful, a child of privilege with the world at her feet became a cloying, disgusting, heartbreaking mess, and in the end was driven to the brink with nothing but the madness in her mind, a complete, horrifying wreck of a person. My question is this: did we turn our noses up at this because the character undergoing this transformative experience was a woman?
Our desire is, inherently, to typecast women. To put them into boxes, because in boxes we are safe from them. Women, as a collective force, have not yet challenged us in film and television. Sure, we have the odd Hannah Horvath butting her head against the glass ceiling, but we haven’t yet been truly asked to accept women as fully active, autonomous, erratic beings within the cinematic sphere. We’re starting to see small, subtle shifts in the paradigm; for instance, the emergence of Orange Is The New Black this summer offers us a perspective of women with ogre-level onion-layers, coupled with an overarching queer narrative that is often much maligned in mainstream culture. OITNB could very well be revolutionary–but we need 20 of these shows a season to find an equilibrium in the cinematic representation of women.
Accepting that women, like men, are dynamic and multi-faceted is, disappointingly, still a feat to undertake for most. To accept that today a woman might fawn over cute puppies and tomorrow she could be singlehandedly fixing the plumbing under the sink–at this, the collective consciousness balks (again, something OITNB gracefully succeeds in). She must be the puppy lover OR the plumber; it’s too brash, too unwieldy, for her to be both. We relish in the disparity of character traits in men — a man who is both soft and hard is a true hero of his cultural moment– and yet a woman must be one thing or another, lest she drive those around her crazy as they try to “work her out”.
A wide, unquestioned acceptance of women as multi-faceted characters is somewhere that we’ve never been before, and it’s scary. And it’s not just scary for those who have trouble accepting women as characters in full relief; it’s terrifying for the women that have to be them. Because we’ve been (not always gently) thumbed down and pushed like putty into the corners we’re expected to inhabit, it can be an overwhelming task to maneuver our way out of them, especially when oftentimes, after wriggling herself free, a woman will find her self indelicately pushed back into a different corner. It’s up to us all then to find a way to not let, ahem, baby rot in these corners. It’s high time that we represent women as they really are: unpredictable, wild and any other damn thing they please to be whenever they please to be it.