Female Breakthrough Roles in Film - Breakthrough Week


By Lisa Autz

Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Image courtesy of Chihiro.

Film crafts a narrative into a dance of visual pleasure. Audiences sit in dark theaters, bathed in the brilliance of shifting figures and patterns of light that foster a voyeuristic journey into a separate realm.

Often, at the height of cinematic tension, the female body appears. By exuding her visual presence on screen, the woman freezes the flow of action for a moment of erotic contemplation.

Sigmund Freud discussed in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality that the pleasure in watching people as objects, subjecting them to a controlled gaze, is an instinctual human enjoyment. He called it scopophilla, a type of voyeuristic satisfaction both children and adults have when they peer in on others unnoticed.

Film plays into that interest of being a hidden spectator, usually casting women as the dangling fruit of desire to gaze at. Yet, the onslaught of alternative cinema taking form challenges this male-dominated perspective. Certain new narratives offer a progressive take on roles of women as proper characters–not merely visual objects.

The blatant imbalance portrayed in mainstream cinema derives from a history of men imprinting themselves into every construction and foundational structure of the film industry. Battling the unleavened industry is similar to conceiving a new language while still caught, unconsciously, in the words of the past.

When you begin to break down the industry statistically, the magnitude of male-centricity becomes obnoxious. In 2013, the New York Film Academy analyzed the top 500 films from 2007 to 2012 and found that 95 percent of the directors, 85 percent of the writers, and 98 percent of cinematographers were all male. That is about a 90 percent disparity in three vital elements of film production.

Women have been epitomized as the visual representations of beauty in this respect. Film producers work to capture that objectifying aesthetic. However, to analyze and deconstruct beauty is to destroy its hypnosis, if only for a moment, and pose one source of power towards greater fairness.

Amelie by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, for instance, depicts a female protagonist that battles patriarchal construct through much of her action in the film. In one scene, the actress, who plays a French cafe waitress, meets a blind man on the street and begins describing the scenery that surrounds them, a symbol for the film itself as a chance to view life through a female-controlled gaze. Yet the struggle is evident as well in the film, as she weeps at a recounting of her life on television completely narrated by an omnipotent male voice.

Though the script is written by a man, the film has no close-up shots of Amelie’s body in explicit clothing or dialogues about needing a man. The narrative goes about the story of the character’s efforts to conduct her life independently in order to find her own sense of happiness.

Miyazaki’s magical animation of Spirited Away also presents an unconventional female lead. The young girl, Chihiro, breaks assumptions of female behavior when she travels to a new world alone. There, she has to channel an inner spirit of strength in order to save her parents and herself from being trapped in this new dimension. She changes her name to Sen and battles spirits, plus her own fears, using her new channeled energy.

There is no romantic interest in the film or any sexual connotations. Chihiro transcends gender in a sense and becomes a universal journey of courage in the face of adversity. The film speaks to an inner bravery that’s often not addressed to young girls, a demographic that is usually encouraged to seek help rather than solve things on their own.

Spirited Away refreshingly breaks stereotypical definitions of women as fragile, ethereal beings and fosters an alternative place of limitless ability. The perspective allows for a greater capacity of a girl’s power to define herself.

Hetero-normative conventions that films, and society in general, project onto young women is inherently effective in defining the person that girl becomes before she has a chance to define it for herself. At risk is not only the development of these girls’ identities, but also the remainder of society that maintains these norms without consciously challenging them.

The Bechdel Test was created in 1985 by Allison Bechdel in order to assess female presence in a film. It proposes three simple questions: Are there two or more female characters in the film with names? Do they talk to each other? Do they talk to each other about something besides men?

If the plot of a movie passes these three questions, it shows a base amount of female perspective. Though these standards seem simple, it’s actually astonishing how many films don’t pass this test.

Did you know that Wall-E, When Harry Met Sally, Pulp Fiction, and Lord of the Rings all fail the Bechdel Test? Such diversity in mainstream movie titles represents how heavily catered film production is to male viewers.

A critic has little to work with but the outline of the production process by which the silencing of feminine desire and perspective is inscribed. However, alternative films with progressive female leads bring forth discussion and hope for a way to re-conceptualize women in the industry. Nevertheless to question, still, the luring visuals of a movie gets us closer to the roots of the challenge in fighting an unconscious structure such as film.