Name your top three shows or movies from Netflix. Go.
What were the first things that popped into your mind?
If you’re anything like me, some of my favourite shows such as Mindhunter, Suits and The Big Bang Theory immediately came to mind. Yet, when I sat back and thought about it, I wondered why it is that so many of my favourite shows featured men as the main characters with females typically cast in supporting roles. Or if women were the main characters, they were typically cast in a less flattering light.
By now, I am sure you can tell what I am trying to get at. Why is it that so many movies and shows are filled with male leads? In addition, why are we, as viewers, made to dislike strong female leads?
To further examine this phenomenon, I will analyse some of my favourite movies and shows on Netflix.
The Big Bang Theory
First up is The Big Bang Theory. When I first started watching the show, I thought the show was about two quirky, socially awkward male physicists and the shenanigans they were up to in their lives. However, if we were to closely examine the interactions that the men have with women, we start to wonder if there is something underneath all the “jokes”. For example, Sheldon – one of the male leads – often takes shots at one of the female character’s emotional outbursts, implying that any time she is angry or upset, it is because she is on her period. We can all laugh at these “jokes” but at the same time, they signify a clear dismissal of women having feelings. Whenever a woman shows any type of emotion, it is played off as “hormones” or her having “the time of the month”, instead of acknowledging that the woman might be facing serious issues in her life.
The main problem of the show’s sexism is that it propagates what some experts have called “benevolent sexism”, a kind of sexism that appears harmless but normalises small instances of serious misogyny. On the surface, nothing seems wrong. These men are not explicitly discriminating against women. Yet, it pushes us to wonder just how society views women when we watch shows that subtly undermine women.
The Devil Wears Prada
Up next, we have one of my all-time favourite movies, The Devil Wears Prada, starring the gorgeous Meryl Streep. Again, up front, the movie seems like an entertaining comedy-drama where our hero, played by Anne Hathaway, gets her dream job and her dream man in the end. Unfortunately, the movie’s success relied on the old trope that only cold, “devil-like” women can climb up the ladder to positions of corporate leadership. In the movie, Meryl Streep plays a demanding, unfeeling, and unapproachable editor-in-chief of a famous magazine. Throughout the whole movie, Streep’s unfeelingness and demand for perfection were often played off as extreme and terrifying. But what if we were to replace Meryl Streep with any man? There would not even be a movie. He would just be seen as a person who is good at his job. He would be seen as assertive, forthright and a perfectionist.
For the exact same behaviour in the corporate world, different words are somehow being used to describe men and women. Furthermore, these tropes are not harmless jokes that only appear in the realms of a movie. They exist all too clearly out here in the real world too. Somehow, there seems to be a “feminine tax” where female CEOs are prosecuted for the very same traits that male CEOs are lauded for.
In my last example, I would like to touch on the classic film, Mean Girls. The film makes it look like teenage girls act obnoxiously because that is just the way they are. Most of the girls are also portrayed to emphasise stereotypes. The Plastics – some of the main characters – are a trio of caricatures: the dumb blonde (Karen), the Jewish American Princess (Gretchen), and the backstabbing popular girl (Regina). Young girls and women watching this show may then internalise such stereotypes and behave in such ways, or expect other women to behave according to these stereotypes, further reinforcing these stereotypes.
These movies and shows form a huge part of many young children’s entertainment during their formative years.According to the social learning theory developed by Albert Bandura, children learn how to behave in the world by observing role models. Today, these movies and shows play a huge part in influencing how people see they should act and present themselves. The characters played by both men and women play a critical role in emphasising societal expectations for both men and women.
I too, am guilty of loving all these shows despite the subtle sexism and gender roles they enforce. We cannot simply place all the blame on men for filling up the roles of the male lead in our entertainment industry. Rather, we as consumers – both men and women – need to call on the film industry to produce films with more diverse leads.
The way forward
One example of a step in the right direction is the revamp of Ghostbusters with an all-female lead cast. The only problem is that as much as these gender-swapped films free women from old Hollywood expectations, they box them into a new one: Their female protagonists must be admirable in that they have to break gender stereotypes and tick a whole checklist of being strong, successful, independent women. No such requirement was placed on the male characters.
For us to truly start combating sexism in the film industry, we need to start creating and embracing movies where women have the freedom to act as they wish to, free from the double standards of gender expectations in society.