Writing a Woman: The Minefield of Breaking Down Gendered Stereotypes in Media

Women have been featured in entertainment media for centuries. When it comes to storytelling, I would be hard-pressed to find a story that didn’t feature women in some way.  However, in an age where representation is critical in the fight for equality, the problem does not lie in the amount of representation, but in the quality and accuracy of the representation and how it is received by the consumer.

Representation in entertainment media is important as it’s meant to be a way for people to find similarities between themselves and the characters presented. This is especially important for those who historically have been marginalized by society, because the representation aims to show them overcoming barriers that have been historically significant and provide an image of increasing opportunity and equality for all.

Despite a recognition of how important positive representation can be, entertainment media still has a problem writing women. The primary problem isn’t actually in including more female characters, but in writing empathetic and realistic female characters that don’t fall into antiquated stereotypes and that resonate with their consumers. Writers have found it difficult to move away from outdated and sexist stereotypes of women as weak-willed and weak-minded sexual beings created for the male eye, without angering audiences in the process. One of the more popular criticisms is that writing intelligent and independent women in an effort to break down gendered stereotypes is pushing a politically motivated feminist agenda that can be harmful to men.[1]

But how could an effort to empower women through their portrayal in the media be simultaneously harmful to men? The answer seems to lie largely in conflicting understandings of the feminist movement and its true intentions.[2]

In a 2017 Forbes article, author Kathy Caprino discusses “Feminism” and why so many people don’t see it as a fight for equal rights, but rather a power grab by “forceful and angry women” that want to “overturn time-honored traditions, religious beliefs, and established gender roles” in an effort to “control the world and put men down.” [3] With these perceptions, some see feminists, and by extension, characters that represent feminist ideals, as an intolerable forced agenda.

In the last few years, there have been several movies, TV shows, and video games that specifically have been targeted and received major backlash for writing characters that embody feminist ideals. One significant example in film was Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s big-screen reimagining of the Marvel comics character Captain Marvel. Months before the film’s release, the movie’s star and eponymous Captain Marvel, Brie Larson, was interviewed for Marie Claire magazine. Larson commented that the reviewers of the movies she was in were “overwhelmingly white males,” and discussed her efforts to be interviewed more frequently by women of color.[4] Later, she discussed the importance of strong feminine heroes in the media,  and her hope that Captain Marvel would be relatable to young female viewers because of the titular character’s flaws.

These comments were immediately targeted by thousands of angry reviewers under the Captain Marvel page on Rotten Tomatoes.[5] Reviews included targeted statements against the writers who “ruined the story by taking the male out and putting in a female” and accusations that men are made the enemy in Captain Marvel because Larson is “a very vocal racist and sexist aimed at white males.” [6] The film’s page became so inundated with negative comments that Rotten Tomatoes made the decision to remove the comments section before its release. This incident is just one example of the ways in which representation that is intended to be uplifting can be targeted by anti-feminist sentiment.

Another example can be seen with this year’s release of Naughty Dog’s sequel to the wildly popular video game “The Last of Us.” The highly-anticipated “The Last of Us Part II” was slated to be one of the biggest games of 2020, but prior to its release, major plot points from its story and gameplay were leaked online. Immediately, writers, directors, and even actors for the game began to be bombarded by negative feedback on social media platforms, some of which “soon turned into death threats” over decisions to feature certain female characters in the story, instead of a fan favorite male character from the first game.[7] Many early reviewers also “review bombed” the game in outrage over perceived “feminist propaganda”, including the featuring of a lesbian relationship, and reviewers even lodged complaints about a main character having “a much smaller chest compared to her-real life model.” [8]

These examples show that breaking down media stereotypes of women is difficult, and that the problem is widespread. When films, video games, and other forms of popular media attempt to create better female representation, they may be met with anger and even hate speech. While all art forms should be subject to scrutiny and individual opinion, the consistently aggressive responses to non-stereotypical female representation in entertainment media seems to be indicative less of personal opinions and more of a mob mentality against feminist ideologies and positive female representation.

-B.R.C.


[1] Hughes, K., J. Cardiel, and C. Cardiel. “Myths and Truths about Feminism.” Myths and Truths about Feminism | Villanova University. https://www1.villanova.edu/villanova/artsci/gws/resources/myths.html (December 29, 2020).

[2] Yeung, Amy W. Y., Aaron C. Kay, and Jennifer M. Peach. 2013. “Anti-Feminist Backlash: The Role of System Justification in the Rejection of Feminism.” Sage Journals. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1368430213514121?journalCode=gpia (December 28, 2020).

[3] Caprino, Kathy. 2017. “What Is Feminism, And Why Do So Many Women And Men Hate It?” Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kathycaprino/2017/03/08/what-is-feminism-and-why-do-so-many-women-and-men-hate-it/?sh=2e3ae5557e8e (December 30, 2020).

[4] Claire, Marie. 2019. “Brie Larson On Superheroes, Success And Her Hollywood Sisterhood.” Marie Claire. https://www.marieclaire.co.uk/entertainment/tv-and-film/brie-larson-641750 (December 30, 2020).

[5] Bisset, Jennifer. 2019. “Captain Marvel Review Controversy Doesn’t Stop Marvel’s Latest from Being Certified Fresh.” CNET. https://www.cnet.com/news/captain-marvel-review-controversy-doesnt-stop-marvels-latest-from-being-certified-fresh/ (December 30, 2020).

[6] Caulfield, AJ. 2019. “Captain Marvel Already Getting Flooded with Negative Reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.” Looper.com. https://www.looper.com/145793/captain-marvel-already-getting-flooded-with-negative-reviews-on-rotten-tomatoes/ (December 30, 2020).

[7] Tassi, Paul. 2020. “The Last Of Us Part 2: What’s The Problem Here, Exactly?” Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/paultassi/2020/06/20/the-last-of-us-part-2-whats-the-problem-here-exactly/?sh=1eb8837e5ec1 (December 30, 2020).

[8] Hernandez, Patricia. 2020. “The Last of Us Part 2 Has Become a Minefield.” Polygon. https://www.polygon.com/2020/6/30/21307200/the-last-of-us-2-controversy-critics-press-naughty-dog-vice-review-leak-sony-ps4-playstation (December 30, 2020).

Image Sources:

Female Filmmakers – https://feminisminindia.com/2017/12/19/feminist-film-patriarchal-filmmaking/

Captain Marvel Headlines – https://www.worldofreel.com/blog/2019/2/w0zphubx4ltm3uzl537kx44mo9wshn

One thought on “Writing a Woman: The Minefield of Breaking Down Gendered Stereotypes in Media

  1. V Hudson says:

    Good grief! How did we come to the point where death threats are a natural expression of disagreement?

    There’s another angle to this as well, though–when male writers write female characters. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it fails spectacularly.

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