I first saw this documentary about five or six years ago, it was a period in my life when I was starting to really figure out what feminism was, why it was important, and what it meant to me. It asked a very important question that still rings in my (along with every other feminist out there) ear:
What are the consequences for women when they are strong and when they are the central actors of their own lives?
I remember as a little girl idolizing figures such as Wonder Woman, Buffy Summers, and Xena. Sure I watched other TV shows where women weren’t the central figure, but when I look back…I found I didn’t enjoy them nearly as much. With the exception of my sister, I was pretty much surrounded by boys. My neighbors were boys, and all of my cousins were boys. Sure when I got to school I made friends who were girls but for the most part, the people who I played with and spent a lot of my time with were boys. I remember the occasional “oh you can’t do this because you’re a girl” quip, or not being allowed into the fort because I was a girl, but I never really thought about it too much and pretty much did it anyway because my parents never made me feel like my gender mattered. Not only that I had some pretty awesome women in my family who took no shit. So it was natural for me to watch female figures on TV that reminded me of the women in my life.
As I got older and life attempted to beat me, I began to have sort of an identity crisis of sorts. 2001 was, in my opinion, the shittiest year ever. My mother died in March, and it (obviously) caused a major upheaval in my life. I was so lost and so confused and angry and sad. I sought solace in the women on TV that I so adored. Unfortunately, the networks had other ideas.
In the spring of 2001 all of those women who were part of a resurgence of female power on TV died; within WEEKS of each other, it was just like this carnage on TV. Buffy sacrificed herself, Xena was brutally murdered, it was shocking. At the time I had this feeling that I couldn’t really identify, so I sort of just let it pass by the wayside after all I was still young and trying to figure myself out. This feeling would resurface several times during movies and other TV shows and I couldn’t figure out what was bothering me until I watched this documentary.
Sit back, and grab something to drink because I’m going to pick apart this documentary. I’m going to talk about some of its findings and how, even though the documentary was released in 2012, some it’s findings still ring true today.
Let’s start with the 70’s second wave feminist movement, this was responsible for some amazing female-centric TV shows. It only seemed natural that the Wonder Woman TV show would be the Herald, leading the charge and showing networks that female-led TV shows could bring in a profit. The Wonder Woman TV show was responsible for the birth of other shows like The Bionic Woman, and Charlies Angels. Now while I wasn’t alive during this revolution, I watched re-runs of those shows. Yes the writing wasn’t fantastic, and yes there were some flaws, but at their core, they were shows that showed women they could be something more than what their families or society told them.
Then…the 80’s happened…
So the 80s were pretty bad. I won’t go into the politics of the time or anything like that, I’m going to just discuss the media and pop culture. If you look at the majority of the movies from the 80s, they featured this hyper-masculine and muscular hero. I never really thought about it until the documentary pointed out that this was a response to the feminist movement of the 70s. When you really think about it, and not allow your emotions or whatever get in the way, it makes sense. Men (white) have been in charge since…forever. They have gotten used to and abused this power, they have silenced those who would challenge them, and they have laughed off any attempts at change. So when a significant opponent appears, they get scared. They would never admit it out loud of course but they really don’t have to: their actions show their fear.
Thankfully in the late 80s and early 90s we had characters like Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor who sort of challenged that and answered the question: Can a woman take the role that a man traditionally takes? Then came Thelma and Louise. This film registered a change, these women were (quite literally) fighting back and taking the law into their own hands. Fast Forward back to the 90s, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that Thelma and Louise sort of spurred the movement of this resurgence of powerful female figures on TV.
Thelma and Louise also sort of introduced this idea of sending powerful women off of the cliff. Seriously.
The documentary took a look at women in action films over the years. While there are several women in action movies, there are very few action heroines. Before you throw examples at me, please hear me out.
Nearly 30% of the heroines studied were killed off. The disturbing part? The way they were killed off: in this self-sacrificing way. Some of these characters even begged to be killed off, they couldn’t handle their power and they asked the male hero to kill them. The woman gives up the most she can give up: her life, to this dominant male hero. Don’t believe me? Then you clearly never watched the steaming pile of garbage that is X-Men 3.
To quote the documentary:
The hero is the model for the ideal of a community. To die, whether it be by their own hand or someone else’s is to remove yourself from it, to say that the community is best served by your nonexistence.
Some of the most popular female heroes were created by men. This is not to say that women aren’t capable of doing this, it’s just that people with access to those resources have traditionally been men. In 2012, or around that period, 3% of the decision making positions in the media were held by women. That still hasn’t changed much, I found that in 2017 the statistics hadn’t really changed much over the years. Because of this, we have this:
You have this brief window where female heroines are strong, but that fades into something that is much more sexualized.
In comic books, you often see women who are big-breasted (seriously girl how do you walk?) and are these hyped-up versions of male fantasies. One guy in the film said this and promptly followed up with: “But so are the men.”
Allow me to enlighten you, sir:
Yes, men are also often drawn as muscular and handsome, but they’re also shown as being active and saving the day. Women are shown in very little clothing and often tortured, raped, etc. So to say that men are just as sexualized really isn’t true because they aren’t subjected to that sort of treatment of their bodies.
Yes, that sort of thing has (maybe) died down a bit in today’s comics. Image Comics, who is known for it’s edgier and genre-defying content, have several comics that feature women in an active role. And to their credit, DC and Marvel have somewhat improved their treatment of their female characters. It’s progress, but that doesn’t mean we can comfortably stop.
In reality, as quoted by Gloria Steinem, girls need superheroes much more than boys do. 90% of the violence in the world is against women. The World Health Organization lists an almost never-ending fact sheet about how damaging this is to not only women but the socio-economic infrastructure.
In order to become the real-life version of a superhero, you need to see it represented in media. Girls need this so that they can know that their gender or race isn’t a limitation, but rather a strength.
So back to that feeling I mentioned earlier.
It was a feeling of injustice, it was a feeling that I wasn’t being properly represented and that if I did show my power it would be silenced. For a long time, I witnessed helplessly as women were silenced and told they couldn’t do things because of their gender.
Thankfully, that time is nearing its end.
Though this documentary does show it’s age occasionally, I consider it’s mission and it’s beliefs timeless. It shows that we, while we have overcome many hurdles, still have a long road ahead of us. I think it’s a necessary watch for anyone who needs some history about women in media, or just some general facts about a part of feminism that some people sometimes don’t think about.
I hope that this has encouraged you to make your own media, to show that your gender is not a fault, and to lift up others who are struggling. Give this documentary a go, I promise you it will change your thinking.
If you would like to purchase this amazing documentary you can do so here: