When women and girls see how they're portrayed on film, they glimpse society's view of themselves. Women learn how to behave, what careers are possible, how love works, or so they think. Dreams can sometimes awaken or be dashed and paths can either open or disappear. Women have been watching movies for nearly a century and who they see has changed with each decade.
Women had just earned the right to vote and the sense of freedom was displayed in the new silent films. Actresses wore make-up, shorter skirts and hair; smoked in public, and even worked. These "flappers" encouraged women to do the same and changed what was considered acceptable.
Hollywood's Golden Age brought glamour and sound to movies, and Mae West, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis played vamps and ingenues who desired and trapped men, while Ginger Rogers danced and Katharine Hepburn's witty banter brought laughter. People struggled with the Great Depression and these movie stars provided an escape from the dreariness of these women's lives.
The country was at war and movies reflected its spiraling emotions. Movies depicted women as either homemakers who were single and desperate for marriage, or as career women with no time for men. Film noir portrayed women as sneaky liars and psychotic killers. Certain melodramas, called "women's pictures," were made to specifically attract women ("Mildred Pierce," "Mrs. Miniver," "Now, Voyager").
Most films reinforced the message that women should be dependent on men. "Picnic" depicted a woman incapable of independence and desperate for marriage. Women identified, feeling marriage and family were a priority. They were mainly housewives and films were thought to support their lack of ambition to seek work outside the home.
It was a time of immense social change. Movies became more sexually explicit and popular artists provided soundtracks. Feminism was also evolving. Some films presented women taking birth control and satisfying their sexual desires ("The Graduate"). Others presented promiscuous women who sought abortions ("Alfie"). The world was changing and previous standards no longer applied.
A new wave of feminism brought more female leads. Feminists found marriage confining and the films reflecting this idea. Women were now portraying divorcees, union leaders and Holocaust survivors on paths of independence and self-discovery ("It's My Turn," "Norma Rae," "Coming Home").
The Equal Rights Amendment had passed and women now had more clout. Films were giving more authority to female characters and they were now seen as leaders, capable of the same physical strength as men, but still able to nurture. An example is Sigourney Weaver's Ripley from "Aliens," who battles both an extra-terrestrial and cares for a child.
Hollywood concentrated on more serious themes, such as AIDS, the Holocaust and war. Women became more influential behind the scenes as writers and directors (Penny Marshall, Barbra Streisand, Nora Ephron), so their characters became more professional, self-sufficient and competent (Clarice Starling from "Silence of the Lambs," Dr. Sattler from "Jurassic Park," Marge Gunderson from "Fargo").
2000 – today
A drastic change occurs. On screen, women are hyper-sexualized women and depicted as weak and interested only in weddings and shopping ("Bride Wars," "Confessions of a Shopaholic"). And, in the few cases where they are strong leads, they usually had a male friend who made them more likeable and who saved them (the "Twilight," and "High School Musical" series). Moreover, they defined beauty as skinny and young, ignoring older women and turning young girls toward eating disorders.
The notion in Hollywood that movies focusing on women's issues and starring women are not successful, was proved wrong with such female-empowering films as "Hunger Games," "Bridesmaids," "Trainwreck" and "Pitch Perfect." In 2015, women directed only 9 percent of the 250 top-grossing films. While that number fluctuated through the years, it was virtually the same since 1998. Only 11 percent wrote the films and around 20 percent were producers, who influence which movies get made. Women hire women, so having a women director would improve the depiction of women in film. Actress Geena Davis, who founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to study and rectify gender depictions in media, simply suggested going through a script and changing male names to female names.