The Evolution of the Portrayal of Women in Film


When women and girls see how they’re portrayed on film, they glimpse society’s view of themselves. Women learn how to behave, what careers are possible, and how love works, or so they think. Dreams can sometimes awaken or crumble, and paths can either open or disappear. Women have been watching movies for nearly a century, and who they see has changed with each decade.


Women had just earned the right to vote, and a sense of freedom showcased itself in the new silent films. Actresses wore makeup, shorter skirts, longer hair, smoked in public and even worked. These “flappers” encouraged women to do the same and changed what was considered acceptable.


Hollywood’s Golden Age brought glamour and sound to movies, and Mae West, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis played vamps and ingénues who desired and trapped men while Ginger Rogers danced. Katharine Hepburn’s witty banter brought laughter. People struggled with the Great Depression, and these movie stars provided an escape from the dreariness widespread in women’s lives.


The country was at war, and movies reflected its spiraling emotions. Movies depicted women as either homemakers who were single and desperate for marriage or as career women with no time for men. Film noir portrayed women as sneaky liars and psychotic killers. Certain melodramas, called “women’s pictures,” were made to specifically attract women (“Mildred Pierce,” “Mrs. Miniver” and “Now, Voyager”).


Most films reinforced the message that women should be dependent on men. “Picnic” depicted a woman incapable of independence and desperate for marriage. Women largely felt marriage and family were a priority. They were mainly housewives, and films were thought to support their lack of ambition to seek work outside the home.


It was a time of immense social change. Movies became more sexually explicit, and popular artists provided soundtracks. Feminism was also evolving. Some films presented women taking birth control and satisfying their sexual desires (“The Graduate”). Others presented promiscuous women who sought abortions (“Alfie”). The world was changing, and previous standards no longer applied.


A new wave of feminism brought more female leads. Feminists found marriage confining, and films reflected this idea. Women were now portraying divorcees, union leaders and Holocaust survivors on paths of independence and self-discovery (“My Brilliant Career,” “Norma Rae” and “Coming Home”).


The Equal Rights Amendment had passed, and women now had more clout. Films were giving more authority to female characters recognized as leaders, capable of the same physical strength as men but still able to nurture. An example is Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley from “Aliens,” as she battles an extra-terrestrial and cares for a child.


Hollywood concentrated on more serious themes, such as AIDS, the Holocaust and war. Women became more influential behind the scenes as writers and directors (Penny Marshall, Barbra Streisand, Nora Ephron), so their characters became more professional, self-sufficient and competent (Clarice Starling from “The Silence of the Lambs,” Dr. Sattler from “Jurassic Park” and Marge Gunderson from “Fargo”).


A drastic change occurs. On screen, women are hyper-sexualized, depicted as weak and interested only in weddings and shopping (“Bride Wars” and “Confessions of a Shopaholic”). And, in the few cases where they are strong leads, they usually had a male friend who made them more likable and who saved them (the “Twilight” and “High School Musical” series). Moreover, they defined beauty as skinny and young, ignoring older women and turning young girls toward eating disorders.

The notion in Hollywood that movies focusing on women’s issues and starring women are not successful was proved wrong with such female-empowering films as “The Hunger Games,” “Bridesmaids,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Pitch Perfect.” In 2015, women directed only 9 percent of the 250 top-grossing films. While that number fluctuated through the years, it was virtually the same since 1998. Only 11 percent wrote the films, and around 20 percent were producers, who influence which movies are made. Actress Geena Davis, who founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to study and rectify gender depictions in media, simply suggested going through a script and changing male names to female names.


The 2010s marked an interesting transition in the representation of women in film. Many movies still sexualized their female characters or relegated these characters to secondary roles, but some movies with strong ensemble casts like “Hidden Figures” or “Little Women” became commercial successes.

Hollywood made some significant progress in the representation of women characters in movies targeting a young audience. We saw strong female leads rise with characters like Katniss Everdeen from additional “The Hunger Games” films and Hermione Granger from the “Harry Potter” franchise. Even Disney reimagined the princess archetype with adventurous characters like Elsa and Moana.

However, portraying strong female leads came with its share of backlash. Movies like “Captain Marvel” or the gender-swapped “Ghostbusters” remake received negative reviews partly because of their powerful female characters.

Behind the scenes, the 2010s saw the rise of the female film director. Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman ever to win an Academy Award with “The Hurt Locker”in 2010. We also saw movies from women addressing serious issues, like Ava DuVernay’s “Selma.”

In 2017, the Me Too movement changed Hollywood forever. Many female celebrities came forward to denounce sexual abuse in the industry, and the movement also sparked a conversation about gender inequality. Since then, the number of women executive producers has increased. Unfortunately, the movement doesn’t seem to have significantly impacted the representation of women in film.


The 2020s are just beginning, but we’ve already had some significant milestones for women in Hollywood. In 2021, Chloé Zhao won an Academy Award for “Nomadland.” It was the second time a woman won this prestigious award and the first time ever that the academy nominated two women.

The industry seems to be on the path to becoming more inclusive, with milestones like Viola Davis becoming the first Black woman with two Oscar nominations for Best Actress. The recent success of “Everything Everywhere All At Once” was also a significant moment for the representation of Asian women on screen. It remains one of the rare movies featuring an aging woman as its lead.

When it comes to on-screen representation, some sources claim that women make up a third of characters, while others claim that women represent 47% of film leads.

In spite of some ongoing challenges, the 2020s are proving to be an exciting time for women in cinema, with new voices emerging. For instance, recent movies like Alex Garland’s “Men” could help bring the female perspective to the horror genre in a profound way. In contrast, Greta Gerwig’s upcoming “Barbie” promises to be a feminist take on the problematic toy line.


From Golden Age sex symbols to strong lead characters, women have come a long way on the silver screen.

There is still some work to do in areas like representation and pay. Some female characters also remain stereotypical, sexualized or two-dimensional. Still, thanks to comedic pioneers, feminist filmmakers and celebrities using their platforms to speak out, Hollywood is slowly becoming more inclusive.


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