The definition of propaganda is “the systemic propagation of information or ideas by an interested party in order to encourage or instill a particular attitude or response. Also, the ideas and doctrines thus disseminated.” Propaganda takes on many forms presented in many different types of mediums. Examples of popular forms of propaganda include, but certainly not limited to, posters, pictures, literature and film. These forms are almost always presented to the masses and groups of people rather than focused on a certain individual in particular.[1] One easy way to reach a large group of people at one time is through film, especially since the goal of propaganda is to reach the people collectively/in masses.[2]

Movies and film often serve as entertainment. Some films may presented as a form of enjoyable and lighthearted entertainment, while others may serve purposes of displaying hardships and strife one may experience or showcase valuable life lessons. There is going to main purpose or message, main characters, and themes expressed through the film. Many of those factors included in a film will reflect the current state of the world in which they are/will be presented (these factors will coincide with the propagandic message aiming to be projected through the film). Unfortunately, those themes are not always as lighthearted or positive as one would like to believe. The industry tends to pinpoint and demonize a certain class or demographic of society that currently struggle or have struggled or are possibly troubled, and exploit them to send a certain message. However, the film(s) can collectively cast light on the status of those peoples and shed valuable insight of how they are viewed in society. What I want to focus on is the demonization of single, successful females in film. By demonization, I mean to focus on the attack or highlighting of a certain group of people to critique or express discontent with.

Women in film, from decade to decade, have shared a series of various looks and costumes. A standard for many years of female characters was portraying them as poised, clean and inherently subservient. June Cleaver, the female/mother character from popular 1950s television show Leave it to Beaver, is a classic example. Women had their hair in curls, wore a strand of pearls around their neck, and their wardrobe often consisted of pressed floral dresses with an apron tied around their waist. Those were the signifiers of the female character.

Barbara Billingsley as June Cleaver in 1950s TV show Leave it to Beaver
Barbara Billingsley as June Cleaver in 1950s TV show Leave it to Beaver

[3]

This portrayed the ideal woman as a happily subservient wife and mother. It’s a stereotype for women to be portrayed as mothers because it’s ultimately a very feminist position tied with a very loving and caring attitude, rather than portray a woman as a strong and independent character because it was not seen as appropriate. It is often noted as “June Cleaver syndrome.”[4]

As society has evolved in the last several decades, so has the film industry and the characters they write and portray in film. But evolution in the portrayal of women in society still has not caught up as far as one would think. There are still many stereotypes imposed on woman in film, and it can appear very critical of women in such a way because it portrays them as still being dependent on others (specifically men), among other things.

Women portrayed in modern film definitely are a “type” and share many similar characteristics. The stars most certainly appear to have a lot in common with each other. One critique suggests that their main commonalities are that “they are beautiful, obnoxiously anal-retentive, socially awkward, uptight and, of course, completely unable to ‘snag a man’ due to their career obsessions.”[5] Many Hollywood actresses do have a certain look and share certain traits of beauty. As evident in TV and film, women across the board are “more likely to be shown wearing sexy attire or exposing some skin, and body size trends were apparent.”[6] Most common signifiers for today’s women in film, and particularly the businesswoman, are straight hair, a wardrobe full of pencil skirts and streamlined dresses with pointed toed high-heels. They are also often seen attached to their Blackberries and iPhones, rushing from place to place or appointment to appointment. These are their most popular signifiers. When a character of this description appears on the screen, you are meant to automatically understand their character’s position or status. [Insert pictures depicting these females characters].

What also stands out most is that fact that the main commonality between the actresses’ characters is that they are so quickly tied to male character/protagonist in some way. It is part of the Romantic-Comedy formula. With any problem a female character may be facing in their film, the solution is nearly almost attached to a man. This turns into a problem for women in real-life because these movies, which demonize the independent and successful single businesswoman, attach gender roles to the characters. There is going to be a damsel-in-distress, who seems to be struggling in her life with a particular issue, and the only way to relieve her of that distress is a manly-man; who has all the answers, he appears as the only solution no matter how independent that damsel aims to be.

In The Proposal, a 2009 romantic comedy staring Sandra Bullock, Bullock’s businesswoman character Margaret Tate is immediately pinned as a “cold-hearted control freak” and “she is demonized into an inhumane she-monster.”[7] Why? Because she is “single, family less, and friendless” and because she is far too focused on her career.[8] Margaret Tate is approached with a problem facing her future at her workplace, and right away the only solution that appears to solve this problem is her male assistant, Andrew, played by Ryan Reynolds. Andrew “schools her about love, family, and proper femininity,” because those are characteristics and qualities she does not appear to have on her own. He makes her “kneel before him on the ground” and blackmails her into giving him a promotion.[9] She is even referred to “Satan’s Mistress” by another female character because of the way she appears and the manner is which she presents herself (those visual signifiers for the female character; the straight hair, sleek wardrobe, pointed toe high heels).

[10]

Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds in The Proposal
Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds in The Proposal

By the end of the film Andrew is portrayed as the one who saves the day and gets the successes because he is the one who turned Margaret into softer and more feminine woman. She is no longer a strong, single and independent businesswoman; she is a caring girlfriend. Would this happen if the roles were reversed? I very highly doubt that, because putting a man is such a degrading position is not something that could easily be seen as happening in today’s society. However (and unfortunately), having a woman beg and plead for help to be saved by an attractive manly man does not come as a shock to most audiences.

[11]

Bullock’s Margaret Tate, proposing to Ryan Reynolds’s Andrew Patton in The Proposal. Visual signifiers including her stark wardrobe and shoes, as well her straigt pinned back hair. She also has the Blackberry in her hand.
Bullock’s Margaret Tate, proposing to Ryan Reynolds’s Andrew Patton in The Proposal. Visual signifiers including her stark wardrobe and shoes, as well her straight pinned back hair. She also has the Blackberry in her hand.

Another popular film example is The Ugly Truth, another 2009 Romantic Comedy, starring Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler. The plot of the movie is similar to that of The Proposal. Katherine Heigl’s character, Abby, is facing a problem at her workplace as a TV producer whose show is on the verge of being cancelled. Another major plotline for her character is that she is unlucky in love and stuck in a rut. Gerard Butler’s character, Mike, appears as the ruggedly handsome solution to both her problems in this classic Romantic-Comedy situation.

While a classic Romantic-Comedy formula on screen, the poster for The Ugly Truth movie also immediately expresses many visual signifiers and signals that are inherent to the formula of the Romantic Comedy.

[12]

 

Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler in The Ugly Truth, a poster full of visual tropes and signifiers.
Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler in The Ugly Truth, a poster full of visual tropes and signifiers.

Heigl’s Abby has straight hair, is wearing a sleek and beautiful dress with pointed toe high heels. Butler’s Mike is dressed casually yet looking quite put together. What is important to note in this poster however, is the red heart that actors are both holding; Heigl’s by her head, and Butler’s under his belt. These hearts immediately signal to the attitudes and character traits the characters possess. The poster alone applies and signals gender roles and where each of the character’s strengths are supposed to lie. This particular motive in relation to this film implies Mike is successful because of his sexual knowledge and promiscuity while Abby is at fault because she uses her brain too often than her more feminine and emotional side. But this is still a Romantic Comedy and at the end of the movie, the couple is romantically united, while on a hot air balloon ride, no less, and all feelings of hostility or tension between the couple are dissolved. An ending typical of the Rom-Com formula.

[13]

The Ugly Truth's "happy ending"
The Ugly Truth’s “happy ending”

As films continue to apply these stereotypes and gender roles on women in the 21st century they continue to demonize them for being strong, successful and independent. Because these are films that are generally supposed to make you feel light hearted and happy for the characters because they have found true love or something of the like, you might forget about who the characters actually are and who they represent in society. It is important to remember that women are not all weak, desperate or broken.[14] Women are not prizes to be won. Being single and/or independent should not hinder one’s ability to succeed inside or outside of the workplace. Women are fully capable of being single, successful and independent, regardless of what message a movie is trying to send to its audience.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

  1. Who is your favorite female character on TV or in a Movie? Why?
  2. What do you believe makes a woman powerful?
  3. To what extent do you believe a woman can be successful on her own? What about a man?
  4. Is there any kind of media that you can think of that portrays men and women as equals, rather than subordinates?

For More Information / Further Research

  1. Female Stereotypes in Romantic Comedies (Essay)
  2. Representation of Women in Media (Miss Representation, Documentary Video)
  3. Gender Stereotypes in Your Favorite Disney Movies (Weblog)
  4. Male and Female Stereotypes in Film (Academic Research Paper)

[1] Furhammer, L. & Isaksson, F. (1971). The image of the enemy. In Politics and film (pp 201-216). New York: Praeger. Pg. 201.

[2] Furhammer, L. & Isaksson, F. (1971). The image of the enemy. In Politics and film (pp 201-216). New York: Praeger. Pg. 201.

[3] June Cleaver. http://absorbant.rssing.com/chan-1377193/all_p27.html

[4] Carina Chocano. “Housewives, Rebranded.” New York Times, NYtimes.com. Pub. November 18, 2011. Accessed on September 20, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/20/magazine/housewives-rebranded.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[5] Jen Sabella. “Why Hollywood Hates Career Women.” After Ellen on LOGOLINE. Pub. August 3, 2009. Accessed September 17, 2014. http://www.afterellen.com/why-hollywood-hates-career-women/08/2009/

[6] Nina Bahadur. “Women In The Media: Female TV And Film Characters Still Sidelined And Sexualized, Study Finds.” Huffington Post, huffingtonpost.com. Pub. November 13, 2012. Accessed on September 21, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/13/women-in-the-media-female_n_2121979.html

[7] Anonymous, Professor What If. “What if strong, successful females were not cast as domineering bitches? A review of The Proposal.” Professor, What If…? Blog. Pub. December 28, 2009. Accessed on September 17, 2014. http://professorwhatif.wordpress.com/2009/12/28/what-if-strong-successful-females-were-not-cast-as-domineering-bitches-a-review-of-the-proposal/

[8] Anonymous, Professor What If. “What if strong, successful females were not cast as domineering bitches? A review of The Proposal.” Professor, What If…? Blog. Pub. December 28, 2009. Accessed on September 17, 2014. http://professorwhatif.wordpress.com/2009/12/28/what-if-strong-successful-females-were-not-cast-as-domineering-bitches-a-review-of-the-proposal/

[9] Anonymous, Professor What If. What if strong, successful females were not cast as domineering bitches? A review of The Proposal. Professor, What If…? Blog. Pub. December 28, 2009. Accessed on September 17, 2014. http://professorwhatif.wordpress.com/2009/12/28/what-if-strong-successful-females-were-not-cast-as-domineering-bitches-a-review-of-the-proposal/

[10] The_Proposal.jpeg http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Proposal_(film)

[11] http://www.justjared.com/photo-gallery/1187011/sandra-bullock-ryan-reynolds-the-proposal-15/fullsize/

[12] The Ugly Truth. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1142988/

[13] http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/the-ugly-truth/images/19444161/title/ugly-truth-screencaps-screencap

[14] Emily Neeland. Top Ten Worst Stereotypes of Women. eBaum’s World. Accessed on September 21, 2014. http://www.ebaumsworld.com/blogs/view/83032601/

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