Editorial: 50 shades of gender stereotypes

Awards season is reaching its motion pictures pinnacle on Feb. 22 with the 87th Academy Awards. While the primary focus is often on the glitz and the glamour of the event, it also leads to an ephemeral resurgent focus on the larger implications of films. The hype surrounding topics such as “Selma” Director Ava DuVernay’s Best Director snub, a category which notably consists of only men for the first time since 1999, paired with the recent release of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” brings issues pertaining to gender to the forefront of the film buzz.

Taking a step back, it becomes clear that many films that include women in dominant roles tend to portray them with particular stereotypes. Typically, female characters are portrayed in a manner where they are submissive, essentially focused on their male counterparts, or in more of a background role. While talking the stereotypes over with a roommate, Alison Bechdel created the Bechdel test, a set of questions that help identify whether or not movies maintain prevalent gender bias. The questions include:

“1. Are there more than two named female characters?

2. Do the two female characters have a conversation at any point?

3. Is that conversation about anything other than a male character?”

If the film is able to answer yes to all three of those questions on numerous accounts, it is considered a good representation of women as individuals who talk about topics other than men. Such topics might include work, their health, and other menial, daily complaints. In addition, it means that the women’s presences are substantial enough that they warrant personal names and attention in the script.

These standards seem basic enough—even “Fifty Shades of Grey” managed to pass it on numerous instances. However, a 2014 piece published in FiveThirtyEight discussed a study where they analyzed a random selection of 1,615 films released between 1990 and 2013 in terms of the Bechdel test. Their finding was that only 53 percent of the films passed the Bechdel test (that is, answering yes to all three questions) of their sample size. BechdelTest.com additionally ran the test on approximately 5,000 films and found that 56 percent passed the test.

These statistics show that women in cinema are often portrayed in a certain subverted role. The depictions resonate as influences on society’s perceptions, offering viewers, regardless of gender, a set of standards and norms that they should either expect in the opposite sex or attempt to embody, further perpetuating the gender binary.

The same stereotypes lend to the common misconceptions and misconstrued standards that many maintain today. During Feb. 17’s “Beat the Blame Game” talk in Trout Auditorium, Heather Imrie discussed victim blaming and the tendencies some have to blame victims of sexual assault for what was done to them. Although it would be unfair to say that the portrayal of women in cinema directly leads to this mindset of victim blaming, the social scripts they write have a substantial effect on their audiences. Something as simple as the commonly watched romantic comedy can lend to this, not only films where females are blatantly objectified.

It is additionally important to note that men can also be on the receiving end of these negative norms. For example, Imrie pointed out that many believe that “real men” would never be raped. This same misconception derives from the norms that surround us as well, such as the often-portrayed alpha-male, macho character in films. While subverting the female characters, these same films also perpetuate male stereotypes, leading many to assume that rape is something that only a woman can be the victim of.

Although most films are predominantly created to serve as sources of entertainment, it is important to take into account the larger, widespread effects they can impose on the current norms evident, such as the perpetuation of the stereotypes that lead to the very “blame game” many individuals, including students, subconsciously participate in.

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