The Astonishing Sexism of Hollywood and What it Means for Girls

By | April 16th, 2011 | 50 comments

Every once in a while, an article comes out that is stunning in its honesty about a problem that people try to deny exists. On April 11, the New Yorker ran an article about the comic actress Anna Faris which, among other things, revealed the astonishing sexism of the film industry. I was shaken by this story. It is a must-read, in its entirety (it sits behind a pay wall), for anyone who cares about girls.

Inherent in these observations of the film industry are powerful messages about what it means to be female in the United States. In this “post-feminist” era, where we are frequently told the problems of girls are yesterday’s news – that girls are awash in the largesse of civil rights, and it is boys who really require our attention — it is worthwhile to consider the comments of these executives and writers. Perhaps because this article is about an industry, rather than society itself, and because the film business seems both powerful and trivial, can it say such jaw-dropping things about the sexist ways women are treated, talked about and portrayed.

Below are some choice excerpts, along with my thoughts on what they mean for girls right now:

Nicholas Stoller, the director of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Get Him to the Greek,” says…“You need to make the actress completely adorable, or else she’ll be thought of as the straight man or the bummer….

To make a woman adorable, one successful female screenwriter says, “You have to defeat her at the beginning. It’s a conscious thing I do – abuse and break her, strip her of her dignity, and then she gets to live out our fantasies and have fun. It’s as simple as making the girl cry, fifteen minutes into the movie. Relatability is based upon vulnerability, which creates likability.”

What girls learn: 1. Women can’t be powerful, confident or even self-possessed without getting knocked down a peg to ensure everyone knows they’re humble, not conceited and know their place. 2. Women cannot be liked unless their moods and behavior are pleasing to others above all.

How that plays out right now: Girls put themselves down constantly, either socially (“I’m so fat”) or in class (“I’m not sure if this is right, but….”). They do it to earn a compliment (because God forbid you actually act like you like yourself) or affirm their modesty. Many girls avoid expressing negative emotions in order to preserve their likable image in others’ eyes. They feel they are a “downer” to friends if they are too unhappy.

“Often, the woman is in a movie just to make sure the audience knows the guy isn’t gay,” the actress Catherine O’Hara says. And Helen Hunt observes, “If I really looked at how many comedies are driven by thirty-year-old men, with the necessary homophobic joke where they almost hold hands and then scream and run away, I’d probably just take my ball and go home.”

What girls learn: 1. Women are accessories to male adventure, which is the central and most important part of a narrative. 2. Being gay is disgusting and worthy of mockery. 3. Real men aren’t affectionate, emotional or intimate with other men.

How that plays out right now: Girls and boys liberally use the term “gay” to describe anything weird, odd, stupid or lame. Children and teens ridicule and shame male intimacy.

Faris gets million dollar offers for roles she calls “the girl,” or “bounce card roles,” after the reflective sheet that softens the light around an actor, because the whole job is to giggle, simper and coo. She told me, ‘I feel I did that in ‘My Super Ex-Girlfriend’ – a 2006 film in which her role consisted of allowing Luke Wilson to admire her ass and then turning with melting eyes as he ran off to have sex with Uma Thurman….[she said,] “These roles are destroying a generation of boys, who think we’ll forgive any kind of assholey behavior.”

What girls learn: 1. It’s okay for men to act in whatever way serves their sexual or romantic needs. 2. Playing down your strength and focusing on your sexual or physical worth is what gets you attention from others.

How that plays out right now: 1. Many girls focus their blame on other girls when their boyfriends stray, letting their boyfriends off the hook and thus preserving the relationship above all else. 2. Some girls act weak or ditzy in front of guys to get and keep male attention.

The Bechdel Test, established in 1985 by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel and her friend Liz Wallace, is a way of examining movies for gender bias. The test composes three questions: Does a movie contain two or more female characters who have names? Do those characters talk to each other? And, if so, do they discuss something other than a man?….[A]n astonishing number of lighter entertainments…fail, including “The 40-Year-Old-Virgin,” “The Proposal,” “The Hangover,” “The Truman Show,” “The Wedding Singer,” “The Princess Bride,” “The Big Lebowski,” and “Marley & Me.”

My point is not that Hollywood is to blame for everything. But let’s not pretend that girls and women live in a world where they are equal and have the right to reach their full potential. You can change every law we have, but until the attitudes and decision making changes at the highest level, we haven’t come that far, baby, not at all.

Related: “Hollywood Insiders Admit Hollywood Hates Women” (Jezebel)

50 Responses to “The Astonishing Sexism of Hollywood and What it Means for Girls”

  • A. says:

    What I don’t get is how frequently *women* pay for movie tickets to go see movies that demean our gender.

  • Jonathan says:

    My 2013 resolution was to not watch any film that doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. So far so good!

  • Leah Oviedo says:

    I have no problem blaming Hollywood. I also blame everyone who pays money to see films and watch TV where people (mostly women and anyone who isn’t fair skinned) are constantly belittled and stereotyped.

    I used to love movies, but I got sick of the mainstream media and it’s attacks on my gender. I barely watch anything from Hollywood anymore, save for a few kids movies or an occasional comedy.

    It’s time for people to boycott this crap in the media just like people boycott pesticides and sweat shops. How often do we have to say enough is enough?

    • Emily March says:

      I realize your comment was posted 3 years ago – but I really need to express how relieving it is to see another woman saying this. I’ve seen countless comments of women saying that “women don’t suffer anymore” so “feminists should stop complaining”, and what makes me feel so hopeless about this is that these girls/women are convinced that the way we’re being socialized is equal and normal. They argue’women have equal rights now’ etc etc. but politics doesn’t change people’s attitudes. I really think media has way more power over society than politics does. Because politics is a dirty word and films, games, TV, music and magazines are worlds of worship.

  • […] Rachel Simmons elaborates: “[Girls learn that w]omen can’t be powerful, confident or even self-possessed without getting knocked down a peg to ensure everyone knows they’re humble, not conceited and know their place.” […]

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