Actress Jessica Chastain was a juror at the 2017 Cannes Film festival. She has been outspoken in her opinions on the 20 movies she watched.
“One thing I got to take away from this experience is how the world views women, from the female characters I saw represented,” the Academy Award-nominated actress said at the festival’s final press conference. “It was quite disturbing to me, to be honest.”
Yet, Filmmaker Sofia Coppola won best director at the 2017 Cannes film festival recently for the movie Beguiled, a remake (surprise, surprise) of a 1971 film with the same name starring Clint Eastwood. So what is Jessica talking about you might wonder?
Well let’s dig deeper. Coppola is also the first woman to win Cannes Best Director since Russian director Yuliya Solntseva got the honor in 1961 — and they are the only two women who’ve won that category in the festival’s 71-year history. Jane Campion is the only female director ever to win the Palme d’Or for The Piano.
“I hope that when we include more female storytellers, we will have more of the women I recognize in my day-to-day life,” Chastain said. “Ones that are proactive, have their own agencies, don’t just react to the men around them. They have their own point of view.”
Chastain has a point. For so long female acting roles in film were very clichéd and typecast. They were either beautiful love interests in the damsel in distress mould, or when the actress got older, they would play a mother figure. For many years women of colour only ever played parts as cleaners, or maids. Art imitating life?
Women’s roles have changed somewhat in the last few decades. Thanks to feminism, we have characters with more power for women. The love interest is more likely to be feisty and career oriented, and the mother instead of fawning over her husband is more likely to be trying to juggle a family with her professional life.
But we rarely get women villains, that weren’t bitches or witches. If they play a crazy person they’re generally in a mental asylum. You rarely see women in any type of sports or antisocial role. When women in film speak, it’s generally about their relationship with their boyfriend or husband. We are yet to really see same sex female relationships portrayed realistically in film. Homosexuality seems to be a luxury only afforded to men.
But despite all that, If you are a budding actress in Hollywood, the most important thing for you is to be attractive and slim ahead of having a great acting range. So many breakout stars make a name for themselves playing a character that’s sexy and on TV shows like Suits, or box office smashes like Transformers.
Just look at the various Saturday night talks shows in the US hosted by David Lettermen, Jimmy Fallon, Craig Ferguson and James Corden. Nearly every actress interviewed is wearing a short skirt exposing tanned crossed legs and they all act giddy and flirty with the host. Why? Because they are selling the most important commodity for a young actress in Hollywood – beauty and sex appeal. That’s what gets them cast, not their ability to recite Ophelia monologues from Hamlet. If a female actress is ever asked to endorse something its always a beauty product. Sad but true. Beauty is still paramount in showbiz.
Why is this? Well let’s be honest. Hollywood’s powerful players are STILL all men. The executives are men, the producers are mostly men, the directors are mostly men and the writers are mostly men. Is it any wonder that women characters are idealised so much? Men don’t want to spend their hard earned money going to the movies to look at weird unattractive female characters. But on the same note, women don’t particularly want to watch unattractive short skinny male characters either. Or do they? Male geeks are cooler now thanks to shows like The Big Bang Theory.
However, things are progressing slowly for women too. There have been more interesting roles for women in recent years albeit on the small screen. The TV show Big Little Lies centers around three female characters; portraying more realistic issues that women face on a day-to-day basis – marriage problems, parenting problems, depression and stress. The man is not necessarily needed here to save the day.
We are starting to have female comedy stars (Melissa McCarthy, Kristin Wiig, Amy Schumer) carrying a film themselves. This is definitely a step in the right direction.
Apart form Sofia Coppola, there are other female directors of some clout working today – Kathryn Bigelow has made some excellent action and drama films ( Point Break, The Hurt Locker)
Catherine Hardwicke helmed Twilight, while Jodie Foster and Angelina Jolie have both made strides into directing.
But more needs to change. We need more female writers who write about ordinary non-glamorous women. We need more producers putting together projects about average real life women. Will this sell? Only time will tell. The role of women in Hollywood will only evolve when more women are making the decisions that matter.