There has been a lot of recent talk regarding the challenges faced by women in the film making industry. As movies that portray a strong central female character continue to struggle with being made, Meryl Streep is speaking out with her opinion on why. She believes that male audiences have been conditioned to empathize mostly with male characters based upon the stories they’ve been exposed to growing up. This includes literature and history, as well as film.
During a panel moderated by Jon Stewart at the sixth annual Women in the World Summit, Streep joined the conversation with “Selma” director Ava DuVernay and Pakistani documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. In the clip below, Streep explains why she thinks that female directors have had a difficult time breaking into the industry.
“A lot of it has to do with imagination. This act of empathy, that women go through from the time we’re little girls – we read all of literature, all of history, it’s really about boys, most of it. But I can feel more like Peter Pan than Tinker Bell, or like Wendy. I want to be Tom Sawyer, not Becky!” She goes on to explain, “And we’re so used to that act of empathizing with the protagonist of a male driven plot. I mean, that’s what we’ve done all our lives.”
Women have been taught to empathize with male characters, while men have little to no exposure to strong, female leads. Films with female protagonists are condescendingly dubbed as “chick flicks” and often immediately discarded by male viewers. Women who want to make movies about women barely get through the door in a world of male writers and directors, because let’s face it – writers write about what they know.
I come from a household of writers. My father is working on a novel featuring a male protagonist. My brother has written multiple screenplays and is in the process of filming and directing one of them independently. It features (you guessed it!) a male protagonist. I can hardly fault them for this. As men, it’s what they relate to. The novel that I’m writing features a female protagonist. It’s hard to break out of the boundaries of your own mind and imagination.
But the problem is not just the lack of strong female characters – it’s how they are portrayed when they do make it into the story. As a 26-year-old male who’s new to the industry, my brother, Guthrie Hartford, expressed his concern on the subject. “I absolutely agree with the fact that women are underappreciated and even frowned upon as leads in any film. And on the rare occasion that they are the lead protagonist, it’s not generally in a positive light. They’re used as sex objects. It’s all about how they look… Look at how major female characters are packaged – Black Widow from the Avengers played by Scarlett Johansson in skin tight clothes. It’s not about her character. It’s about how sexy she looks.” And there’s no shortage of this type of example. “Look at the old Tomb Raider movies with Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft,” he continues. “Every one of her outfits is aimed to please the eye in a sexual manner and its target audience is young adult to middle aged males.”
There are certainly exceptions to this, and recently some of the most notable examples have come from adaptations of young adult fiction. Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games trilogy, as well as Tris Prior of the Divergent trilogy, are good examples of strong female protagonists who stand up for what they believe in without being overly sexualized in the process. Both book series were written by women, and both female authors were involved with the film adaptations. The industry can’t deny that the established followings of these stories will result in profit, so the movies are made, but it’s important to note that all seven of these movies are being directed by men.
One truly unique example of a young adult adaptation is The Fault in Our Stars. The poignant and heartfelt story is written from the first person point of view of a sixteen-year-old female cancer patient, and the author’s name is John Green. That’s right – an adult male wrote a massively successful female driven plot without sexualizing the female lead in the slightest. It can be done. Green addresses the subject in the FAQ section of his official website with, "In truth all fiction is an attempt at empathy: When I write, I’m trying to imagine what it’s like to be someone else more than I’m trying to express what it’s like to be me. So in that sense, it’s very helpful for me to write from the perspectives of characters who are at least a little different from me."
I’m left to wonder if feminist campaigns such as He For She, led by actress and activist Emma Watson, can’t be of some help with providing opportunities for women in the film-making industry. The campaign focuses on how men can contribute to the equality of both genders in every day life, and it’s time to shift these ideas to a large scale movement. Media and the film making industry has an enormous impact on how our culture views an endless number of topics. By enlisting male writers and directors to champion their female counterparts, we can add gender equality to that list.