How Females and Males Are Depicted in Films


Men and women are assigned different roles in the society, mainly because of their different biological and psychological and emotional makeup. This assigning of different roles between the two sexes is referred as gender roles.

Gender roles can be defined as the behaviors and attitudes expected of the male and the female members of a society by that society. According to Reiter, they are the “set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity, and in which these transformed needs are satisfied,” (1975, 159).

The society expects a set of roles, attitudes, and behaviors from the males, which are different from the set of roles, attitudes, and behavior it expects from the females. When one member of the society behaves differently from what is expected of him or her, he or she will be frowned upon, and may be cast off. As Pomerance (2001) points out, gender is a “symbolizing attribute, reformulated through staging which “constitutes one of our many ways of dividing the world and then classifying and ordering the divisions” (p. 2).

These different expectations are very apparent in movies: because of their biological differences, men and women are portrayed in a wide range of roles, both traditional and non-traditional, for example, in the line of work they are allowed to hold, the way they act and dress, the way they talk, and in their social, family, and leisure activities.

There are many differences in the way male and female characters are portrayed on screen. In over a hundred years of film history, movies in general have often been seen as portraying certain roles for men and women. Movies have frequently defined what is beautiful, what is sexy, what is manly, and how men and women should act and react in any given situation to become truly women or men. Traditionally, women on the screen are often portrayed as housewives, mothers, secretaries, and nurses; whereas, men are shown as husbands and fathers and athletes. The man often dominates the woman by reason of his more forceful and aggressive biological ‘nature’.

Studies that examined the gender roles on screen have shown that the portrayals of women and men on the screen are quite different. Men are identified with the public sphere and associated with characteristics such as activity, rationality, forcefulness, independence, ambitiousness, competitiveness, achievement, higher social status, and the like. Women, on the other hand, are associated with being in the private sphere and are characterized, generally, as passive, emotional, care-giving, childish, sexy, subordinate to men, of lower social status, and the like (Broverman, et. al, 1972; Lueptow, et. al, 2001).

Moreover, film historians and researchers have found out that men play a great amount of leads and heroes. They were also depicted as employed professionals, whereas women were depicted as housewives (Broverman, et. al, 1972).

The gender roles, however, are not stable: throughout the years, the roles of men and women have changed dramatically. Society has experienced and is experiencing great changes and these changes are affecting how both men and women sort out what the new roles and rules mean to them. Women are no longer expected to be the keepers of the house; and the image built on the screen has also changed hugely. The impact of historical events on gender roles often appear in indirect and mediated ways in cinema. “Gender had become a mask that could be worn — and taken off — so that by the end of the twentieth century the entity that had once been as a solid biological fact was now a matter of cultural, linguistic, dramaturgical, and economic convention, a probability, a ghost”(Pomerance, 2001, p 2).

Also, different cultures impose different expectations upon the men and women who live in that culture, so the gender roles on the screen in different countries and different period are different. There are many reasons for these differences, such as cultural, economic, and film spectators (Adibisedeh, 2001).

In this dissertation, the inequalities by which males and females are depicted in film are described, and the representations of gender in a range of national and historical contexts, will be compared and contrasted.

This dissertation is constructed around four chapters. The first chapter will look at the methodological framework used in the study. The main methods to be employed include historical and national context analysis, close analyses of text, and theoretical engagement with gender. In this part of the dissertation, the key questions and the key assumptions will be discussed, as well as the phases of the research.

The second chapter reviews the literature related to gender and films. There are seven components of this chapter. The first component is discussion of gender roles and stereotypes, what they are, and some of the relevant researches on this topic. The second component will discuss women and their role in the historical development of films for a wider view of the industry as a whole. The third component looks at studies about gender typing stability; whereas the fourth component is about the acquisition of gender stereotypes. The fifth component discusses the theory of gender trouble, whereas the sixth component looks at some studies on women as depicted in movies. Finally, the seventh component looks at feminist film theory, particularly at the concept of female and male gaze.

The third chapter will study a series of cases about the gender depicted on the screen in three countries — America, China, and Italy — and analyze the differences genders on the screen among three different periods: 1940–1959,1960–1979 and 1980 to the present. The films reviewed in this paper include the following:

  • The Bicycle Thief (1948)
    • The Bicycle Thief is an Italian neorealist drama that is considered one of the best movies ever made. Written primarily by Cesare Zavattini and directed by Vittorio DeSica, both neorealists, the movie is about ordinary folks’ lives. The movie focuses on the relationship of the lead characters — a father and a son — as well as poverty and unemployment in Italy after the war.
  • The Man in a Grey Flannel Suit (1955)
    • The Man in a Gray Flannel Suit is about the life of Tom and Betsy Rath of Connecticut, USA and their TV-addicted kids (two girls and boy). The story revolves around their financial problem, Tom’s job and their domestic life, with some flashback to the past, especially Tom’s — his war-time love affair and his adulterous past which eventually causes woes in the family.
  • New Year’s Sacrifice (1956)
    • The movie “The New Year Sacrifice” is one of the 100 top Chinese films of all time, according to Asia Weekly. It is about a Chinese woman (Lu Xun) and the many trials that she faced since she was sold into a marriage as a young woman until she became a social outcast after her husband and child died. It is a story that gives a glimpse of the culture of China in the 1960s, especially in how its women are treated.
  • The Battle at the Villa Florita (Italy, 1963)
    • The movie, The Battle at the Villa Florita, is a 1965 Italian film starring Maureen O’ Hara. The story is about a married British woman who falls in love with an Italian widower. The woman decides to leave her family and join her lover in his Italian home. However, his daughter and her children tried their best to destroy their romance.
  • Klute (US, 1971)
    • Klute is a detective movie about a prostitute who assists an investigator in solving a murder case. Shown in 1971, it stars Jane Fonda, Charles Cioffi, Donald Sutherland, and Roy Scheider.
  • Two Stage Sisters (China, 1964)
    • This movie is about two Chinese women who worked in a theater. They were not blood relations, but were bound by fate and love.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer (US, 1993)
    • This 1990’s film is about a young and beautiful woman who fights off vampires and saves the day. A modern-day heroine, she had special skills and strength.
  • Along the Ridge (Italy, 2007))
    • This film is about a father and his two children who were abandoned his wife. Though he had terrible temper, the husband took good care of his children, and the family managed to live a seemingly peaceful existence. Until the wife returns.
  • So Close to Heaven (China, 2007)
    • This flick is about two Chinese men in the 1980’s who had move to urban China to look for better paying job. They manage to form a father-son relationship, which was threatened when the older man was robbed by a thug, and both men encountered a club singer by the name of Ruan.

Finally, the last chapter of the will draw some conclusions by discussing gender roles in the films and predicting the trend about gender and film.


The objective of this dissertation is to find out if there is a difference in the depiction of women in movies in three culturally diverse countries — United States, China, and Italy — across three periods: 1940–1959, 1960–1979, and 1980 to present. As such, in this paper, the selection of material was crucial. Here, materials chosen for the case study includes movies that are representative of the periods under consideration.

The movies were viewed, taking note of the scenes, particularly those that involved stereotypical depiction of men and women, as well as those that show deviation of their assigned roles in the society. The analysis was done using textual analysis. Textual analysis is a kind of analysis that uses any of the following devices: semiotics, rhetorical, ideological, and psychoanalytic approaches, among many others. Textual analysis seeks examine more implicit meanings of materials. It views culture as a narrative process where texts or cultural artifacts like movies and songs are linked, whether consciously or unconsciously, to larger stories at play in the society. Important aspects that textual analysis looks into are the originator of the message (who), the channel, the message, and the recipient or audience (Krippendorff, 2004).

The instances of stereotypical depictions as well as “deviant” or non-stereotypical depictions were analyzed using psychoanalysis theory, which is among the favored and widely used theories in feminist film analysis. As a theory, psychoanalysis gives good insights into the workings of the human subconscious.

Using the Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory as the main theoretical framework, this dissertation analyzes the depictions of women in the movies coming from three countries — United States, Italy, and China — in three different periods from the 1940s to present and looks at whether there was a difference in the depiction across cultures and time.

The division of period is the most logical. First, because an interval of more or less 20 years could show changes in the behavior of humans. Moreover, the early twentieth century saw the start of the first wave of feminism which gave women the right to vote. The second wave of feminism started in the 1960s and lasted through 1980s, where feminists fought for the inequality of laws. It was during this time that the feminist film theory (1970s) became popular (Freehand, 1996). The 1990s to present saw the third wave of feminism, where feminist fought, and continue to fight, for the things that they had not gained during the second wave of the movement.

The 1940-1959 period used in this paper, therefore, represents the first wave of feminism; whereas the 1960-1979, the second wave of feminism; and the last period, 1980 to present, the third wave of feminism.

In analyzing the movies, the historical backgrounds of the movies were looked into by examining the contextual literature to understand where the movie or the characters in the movie were coming from.

The movies were reviewed and examined according to country of origin. All movies from the United States were first analyzed using the concept of gaze as measure. This means that each movie was analyzed to find out whether both the male and the female gazes were present, and if yes, which gaze was used more frequently. Another measure use was whether or not there was reversal in traditional gender roles. It is said that there is reversal in gender role when a character does something that is the opposite of traditionally dictated role.

After which, the movies were compared according to period. For this step, the movie from the 1940–1950s was compared with the movie from the 1960–1970s period and the 1980-present period, again in terms of the concept of gaze.

After the initial step with the first group of movie was done, the same was done with the Chinese movies, and then with the third group, Italy movies. After the close analysis of the movie groups had been done, the movies from the three countries were again compared, still, using the concepts of gaze and role reversal. In this last-stage comparison, the movies were compared to find out which country was the most stereotypical, and in what period.

Literature Review

This chapter will discuss film and its development as background to provide an overview of the industry as a whole, provide in context gender roles and stereotypes, what they are, and the relevant researches on this topic. Another portion will discuss women and their role in the historical development of films for a wider view of the industry as a whole. Then, the paper will also look at studies about gender typing stability as well as the acquisition of gender stereotypes. The theory of gender trouble will also be presented, and studies on women as depicted in movies will be discussed. This chapter will also delve on feminist film theory, particularly at the concept of female and male perception.


Film history is traced way back in 1878 when in Leland Stanford financed Eadweard Muybridge to successfully photograph a horse named “Occident” in fast motion using a series of 12 stereoscopic cameras. A two second experimental film, Roundhay Garden Scene, filmed by Louis Le Prince on 1888 in Roundhay, Leeds, West Yorkshire, England, however, is recognized as the earliest motion picture available today. The first public screening of film is Jean AiméAcme Le Roy, a French photographer, “Marvellous Cinematograph” on February 5, 1894 presented to a group of about twenty show business men in New York City (Barnes, 1997).

During the era, movies under a minute long about a single scene, authentic or staged, of everyday life, a public event, a sporting event or slapstick, were viewed in temporary storefront spaces or through traveling exhibitors if not acts in vaudeville programs. Cinematic technique were still absent and there was no editing, with single camera movement, and flat compositions. The novelty of moving realistic photographs propelled motion picture industry before the end of the century (Barnes, 1997).

Before 1920, the first thirty years of film history had silent movies but accompanied by live musicians and at times, sound effects, or with dialogue and narration presented as intertitles. From 1895 to 1906, motion pictures had cinema moving from a novelty to an established large-scale entertainment industry representing a movement consisting of one shot, completely made by one person with a few assistants, towards films several minutes long consisting of several shots made by large companies in industrial conditions (Barnes, 1997).

The most successful motion picture company in the United States was the American Mutoscope company set up to exploit peep-show type movies using designs made by W.K.L. Dickson. The equipment used 70 mm. wide film with each frame printed separately onto paper sheets for insertion into the viewing machine, called the Mutoscope. They also made a projector called the Biograph, projecting a continuous positive film print made from the same negatives.

Movies made up of more than one shot started with films on the life of Jesus Christ made in France in 1897 followed in the same year by a film of the Passion play staged yearly in the Czech town of Horitz. It was filmed by Americans for showing outside the German-speaking world with the separate scenes interspersed with lantern slides, a lecture, and live choral numbers that increased running time to about 90 minutes (Barnes, 1997).

Action moving film with one shot joined to another is traced back to Robert W. Paul’s Come Along, Do!, made in 1898. By 1907 there were already some 4,000 small ‘nickelodeon’ cinemas in the United States shown with the accompaniment of music provided by a pianist or more musicians. A few larger cinemas were also shown in some of the biggest cities. In general, cinemas were set up in established entertainment districts either selling films outright or renting them through film exchanges (Barnes, 1997).

In 1912, actors in American films began to receive screen credit that signaled the creation of film stars. Longer than one reel films also contributed to this development. While these kinds of films were rare and restricted to film versions of the life of Christ, these were shown in special venue events supported by live commentary and music. Such was the case of 1906 film The Story of the Kelly Gang, made in Australia. It was a four-reel version of the career of the Australian outlaw.

Some Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC) members got around to agreed restriction occasionally producing longer stories in separate parts, and releasing them in successive weeks. This is exemplified by Vitagraph’s 1909 The Life of Moses made of five parts and five reels. This inspired the creation of other multi-reel films in Europe and elsewhere (Barnes, 1997).

Another major development in filming was when Selig, one of the MPPC companies sent a production unit in California in 1909. Independents and other members of the MPPC also followed suit to take advantage of the sunshine and scenery during summer. Major companies made films in all the genres, but some showed special interest in certain kinds of films such as use of wild animals from the zoo for exotic adventures where the actors are either menaced or saved by the animals. Companies such as Essanay specialized in Westerns featuring “Broncho Billy” Anderson, while Kalem had Sidney Olcott, a film crew and whole troupe of actors sent to places in America or abroad to film stories in places where they were supposed to have happened. Kalem through actress Ruth Roland pioneered the female action heroine in Westerns since 1912 (Barnes, 1997).

The world-wide boom in film had more countries join film production: Britain, France, and the United States. Ambrosio in Turin was the first Italian company established by 1905 that remained the largest in the country until today. Cines in Rome also started producing in 1906 making it its biggest rival. The strength of the Italian film industry are its historical epics with large casts and massive scenery such as the 1911 la Caduta di Troia (The Fall of Troy) of Giovanni Pastrone. It was big success world-wide followed by even bigger spectacles like Quo Vadis? in 1912 which ran for 90 minutes, and Pastrone’s 1914 Cabiria which ran for two and a half hours (Barnes, 1997).

In the United States, D.W. Griffith started directing at Biograph in May 1908 but first used of cross-cutting in 1908 The Fatal Hour. Griffith developed the device much further, gradually increasing the number of alternations between two and three sets of parallel scenes as well as their speed. While he did not invent the technique of cross-cutting, he developed it into a powerful method of film construction, describing it as ‘switch-back’ or ‘cut-back’ or ‘flash-back’ technique.

Griffith was considered the best film director up to 1913 with improved dramatic and artistic use of the medium using techniques such as the final scene mirroring the opening scene (A Drunkard’s Reformation, The Country Doctor). He also worked out significant and expressive natural gestures in rehearsal periods with his actors, before the film was shot as seen in The Voice of the Child (1911).

The increase in film production after 1906 brought specialist writers into film-making, However, film companies still bought stories from outsiders to have enough material for a greater variety of stories used in films. More complex stories from literary and stage works also contributed to developments in script film construction. The plots borrowed from novels and plays are simplified for maximum and straightforward narrative continuity.

However, difficult information lacking in strong dramatic interest was put into narrative titles before each scene both adopted by European and American films. Motion pictures were classified into genres by the film industry as established in other media such as stage. The main division was into comedy and drama further subdivided into slapstick or “burlesque farce” or “polite comedy” later referred to as “domestic comedy” or “sophisticated comedy”. In Europe, more restrained type of comedy was developed in France exemplified by the films of Max Linder for Pathé. Linder’s comedy relied on clever and inventive ways of getting around obstacles arising single-minded pursuit of a goal, often sexual in nature (Barnes, 1997).

Gender Roles and Stereotypes

An individual, in his or her lifetime, fulfills different roles based on race, social status, religion, educational attainment, and sex or gender, among other things: but of all the roles that he or she must fulfill, it is the role prescribed by his or her gender that sets in the earliest and endures the longest. Flerx et. al, (1976) point out that sex typing prescribes rigid and mutually exclusive sets of appropriate abilities, roles, and behaviors for both men and women, and these prescriptions are still prevalent to this day, even if the society has already become more flexible (Broverman et al, 1972); and even if the prescribed roles have negative effects on both sexes, particularly on women, who are often perceived as the weaker sex (Flerx,, 1976).

Traditional roles assigned to men are more favorable than those assigned to women. Men are stereotyped as competent, adventurous, intellectual, and skilled in worldly affairs, whereas women were often viewed as illogical, dependent, and passive, and typically assigned household roles and child-rearing duties (Broverman, et al, 1972). Women who performed competently were frowned upon (Feather and Simon, 1975) and, if they performed successfully, their success was devalued (Deaux and Emswiller, 1974).

A widely cited study, done by Broverman et. al in 1970 among counselors and mental health practitioners, found that the perception of a mentally healthy woman is different to that of a healthy man. The study found that the counselors’ perception of a healthy adult whose sex is unspecified is the same as the counselors’ perception of a healthy man. What’s startling is that their perception of a healthy woman is different from their perception of a healthy adult (sex-unspecified) or a healthy man, suggesting that there exists a stereotypical view between genders, and that the females are at a disadvantage (p. 4).

Women and Their Role in the Historical Development of Film

Bowser (1990) mentioned that the history of film spans over a hundred years starting from the latter part of the 19th century to the beginning of the 21st. The motion pictures development is gradual — from a carnival novelty to one of the most successful, commercial and important tools of communication and entertainment, and mass media in the 20th century. Today, it is undeniable that motion picture films have had big impact on the arts, technology, and even politics to global extent.

While women’s cinema may refer directly to the work of women film directors, it can also refer to the work of other women behind the camera such as cinematographers and screenwriters and their influence on film development. The participation of women film editor, costume designers, and production designers is not considered to be important enough to justify the phrase “women’s cinema” but it still have a big influence on the visual impression of most movies (Acker, 1991).

Historically, Alice Guy-Blaché made the very first feature film La fée aux choux in 1896 of which more than 700 films followed, working in France and the U.S.. She is considered a filmmaker long before the word existed as she made her first film when cinema was still a newborn. She directed, produced and wrote more than 700 films of which “The Lost Garden” featured the story of one of film’s most fearless pioneers.

In 1910, she founded her own production company in America. Solax that became the biggest pre-Hollywood studio in the continent (National Film Board of Canada Production, 2008). Lois Weber, an American silent film actor, producer and director, and was the first woman to direct a full-length feature film when she directed The Merchant of Venice in 1914, was considered one of the most successful film directors of the silent era. In 1908, Weber landed a role in a film she had written called Hypocrites directed by Herbert Blaché. It also became the title of a 1915 film that Weber wrote, directed, produced and starred in.

Hypocrites addressed social themes and moral lessons considered daring for the time and other films such as Where Are My Children?, or The People vs. John Doe and Hop, the Devil’s Brew has themes on abortion and birth control, capital punishment, and alcoholism and drug addiction. Their controversial nature made these 1916 films successful at the box office. Also in this era, actresses like Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, and others were female stars with important roles (Acker, 1991).

In Hollywood history, the nineteen-twenties had large banks assume control of Hollywood production companies and production supervisors began to standardize the film industry. The introduction of sound demanded new investments which increased the control of the bank and Hollywood adopted taboos known as the Hays Code. While many unconventional film makers had a hard time and that women film makers could not afford economic failures, Dorothy Arzner was able to survive the crisis. She produced well-made yet formal and conventional films that also smuggled feminism elements into the films (Acker, 1991).

Other notable women players during the Experimental and avant-garde cinema include Germaine Dulac, a leading member of the French Avantgarde film movement after World War I, and Maya Deren with visionary films that belong to the classics of experimental cinema. Shirley Clarke known for her unusual work was also a leading figure of the independent American film scene in New York in the fifties. She directed outstanding experimental and feature films as well as documentaries that include A Moment in Love, Skyscraper, and A Scary Time.

Joyce Wieland who had a hand in the films Water Sark (1965), Rat Life and Diet in North America (1968), Dripping Water (1969 as co-directed with Michael Snow) and Cat Food (1969), was a Canadian experimental film maker. It was noted that the National Film Board of Canada allowed many women to produce non-commercial animation films while European women artists like Valie Export (Tap and Touch Cinema, Action Pants: Genital Panic) explored the artistic and political potential of videos.

The second-wave feminism during the late sixties started the New Left movement strongly opposing the “dominant cinema”, or Hollywood and male European bourgeois auteur cinema. Hollywood was viewed oppressive through dissemination of sexist, racist and imperialist stereotypes in popular films. Women formed their own film groups with feminist films focused on personal experiences as exemplified in Wanda by Barbara Loden, which is a poignant portrayal of alienation, a movie about a woman who experienced a string of abusive relationships, abandons her family and seeks solace in the company of a juvenile.

The second wave feminism also struggled to resist oppression of female sexuality. During this time, abortion was considered highly controversial in western societies with feminists against the control of the state and the church. Female sexuality is explored through focus on long-time censured forms of sexuality such as lesbianism, sado-masochism as well as showing what may be considered acceptable and normal heterosexuality from a woman’s point of view. Some of the more known directors and film makers include Birgit Hein, Elfi Mikesch, Nelly Kaplan, Catherine Breillat and Barbara Hammer (Acker, 1991).

Another concern of feminism films is of resisting patriarchal violence. Many feminists of the second wave have taken part in the peace movements of the eighties, as had their foremothers in the older pacifist movements but patriarchal stereotype of the “peaceable” woman was widely criticized. Women film makers documented the participation of women in anti-imperialist resistance movements such as the Kali films of Birgit and Wilhelm Hein that assembled footage from “trivial” genres considered as the only domain of cinema in which the portrayal of aggressive women was acceptable (Acker, 1991).

In African-American cinema, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust released in 1991 was the first full-length film with general theatrical release written and directed by an African-American woman which had been followed by several African-American women who have written, produced or directed films. These include Civil Brand of Neema Barnette, Down in the Delta by Maya Angelou, Eve’s Bayou of Kasi Lemmons, My Baby’s Daddy by Cheryl Dunye, Biker Boyz of Stephanie Allain, Soul Food of Tracey Edmonds, and City of Angels by Dianne Houston.

Nnegest Likke is the first African American woman to write, direct and act in a full-length movie Phat Girlz in 2006 starring Jimmy Jean-Louis and Mo’Nique about a smart-mouthed, frustrated, plus-sized, aspiring fashion designer obsessed with her weight and who struggled to find love and acceptance in a world full of widely popular and accepted “sexy” bodies (WMM, 2008).

Among Asian film makers, Mira Nair, Aparna Sen, Deepa Mehta and Gurinder Chadha are well-known Indian women filmmakers due to commercial success of their films. Other Indian women filmmakers who have with remarkable films that address a variety of issues include Nisha Ganatra, Sonali Gulati, Indu Krishnan, Eisha Marjara, Pratibha Parmar, Nandini Sikand, and Shashwati Talukdar (WMM, 2008). In Japan, Kinuyo Tanaka made feature films against fierce resistance as she was also a star actress. She used conventional genre showing women with a humorous affection and her films include The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), Sansho the Bailiff (1954), Red Beard (1965), Sandakan N° 8 (1975) and Kita No Misaki (1976) (Acker, 1991).

In Europe, Elvira Notari considered a prolific female filmmaker made over sixty feature films and about a hundred documentaries as an Italian cinema pioneer. Jacqueline Audry was the only woman to direct commercial movies in the “golden age” of classical French cinema while writer Marguerite Duras wrote the script for Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon Amour in 1959. She directed La Musica in 1966. Other known French women film makers are Agnès Varda, Claire Denis, and Nelly Kaplan but many French female directors were rarely screened outside France (Acker, 1991).

German woman filmmaker Helke Sander was also considered as a pioneer of the feminist movement along with film-makers Margarethe von Trotta, Helma Sanders-Brahms and Monika Treut who was recognized for her depictions of queer and alternative sexuality (Acker, 1991). Meanwhile, in Hungary Marta Meszaros made important films Napló apámnak, anyámnak (1990), and Unburied Dead (2004) (WMM, 2008).

There are only a few films of women in mainstream cinema for more than half a century since the beginning of sound cinema (Acker, 1991). While actresses enjoy a star status, some turned to directing like Barbra Streisand but in films such as Thelma & Louise and The Color Purple exhibited the acceptability of feminist themes as directed by men (Levitin, , Plessis and Raoul, 2003).

In addition, Kathryn Bigelow who made the films The Set-Up (1978), The Loveless (1982), Near Dark (1987), Blue Steel (1990), Point Break (1991), Strange Days (1995), The Weight of Water (2000), K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), The Hurt Locker; worked in male-dominated genres like science fiction, action, and horror. Dörris Dörrie became known and widely accepted in box office hit satire Men while Italian Lina Wertmüller directed a number of popular films on the war of the sexes (Levitin et al, 2003).

Sally Potter is a prominent British feminist film maker. British filmmaker Ngozi Onwurah explores the legacies of colonialism

Gender Typing Stability

Research results are consistent on the kinds of gender stereotypes that exist. Apparently, the most frequent stereotyped traits for the male were dominant, aggressive, competitive, independent, ambitious, self-confident, adventurous and decisive; whereas, female stereotypes include affectionate, submissive, emotional, sympathetic, talkative, and gentle (Lueptow et al, 2001).

Researches on gender stereotyping also show that men and women respondents hold the same sets of stereotypes (cf. Bem 1974; Lueptow, Garovich & Lueptow 1995; Rosenkrantz et al.1968; Spence & Helmreich 1978) quoted in Lueptow, Garovich-Szabo, & Lueptow (2001). This means that the people generally think of women and women as distinct from each other.

An interesting research about gender roles and stereotypes was outlined in Lueptow, Garovich-Szabo, & Lueptow (2001). A 1985 study by Werner and Laruza replicated an original study done by Sheriffs and McKee in 1957 about adjectives assigned to one sex or the other. The Werner and Laruza study found that the adjectives used to refer to the sexes by the respondents in the earlier study were similarly used by their respondents 30 years later. The same study was also administered in 1978 and 1984 (Baldwin) and no change was found.

In fact, according to Lueptow et. al (2001), “the observed scores over the period were essentially the same as in the 1952 standardization group.” There have been other duplications done and the conclusion had been essentially the same. The researchers, therefore, concluded that it seems that the gender stereotypes people hold are stable and thus, “the findings provided little support for the hypotheses that changes in the status of women would lead to less overall differentiation between the female and male stereotypes” (Bergen & Williams, 1991, 122). The researchers suggested that it might be possible that “while the stereotypes appeared stable, there might be change in self perceptions Garovich-Szabo, & Lueptow (2001).”

Another study outlined by Garovich et. al (2001) involved four meta-analyses of the stability of gender role stereotypes based on self ratings and personality over the extended period 1940 to 1992 conducted by Feingold (1994). It was observed that there existed stability in the perceptions of sex differences, especially with regards to assertiveness and nurturance which were independent of age, education and nation. Feingold concluded that “the personality dimensions that most strongly differentiated between the sexes were assertiveness and tendermindedness, which are nearly pure measures of agency and communality, respectively” (1994, 449-50).

The personality dimensions that most strongly differentiated between the sexes were assertiveness and tender-mindedness, which are nearly pure measures of agency and communality, respectively.

Acquisition of Gender Role Stereotypes

The acquisition of stereotypical roles happens at a very early age. Thompson (1975) suggests that children as young as three years old already have an idea of what roles and behaviors are assigned them. At this early age, children can already correctly apply gender labels. Moreover, by the time they turn three, they will already have developed toy preferences and are already aware of the different duties and activities that are expected of them depending of their gender. There is also evidence that at this age, children are already able to determine which type of object or activity is for what sex or gender. Nadelman (1974) adds that by the time a child turns five, he or she will already prefer to play with toys that are appropriate to their gender.

In a study conducted by Flerx et al (1976) among 122 children that examined the use of symbolic stimuli in modifying stereotypes in gender roles, it was found that indeed, some aspects of sex role stereotypes are acquired at age three.

However, it was also found that other aspects are acquired between the ages three and four. The study also found that the male participants exhibited more stereotyped responses than females. According to the study, the “egalitarian symbolic models in films produced more enduring attitude change on several measures than similar models in picture books” Flerx et al (1976, p. 998).

Gender Trouble

Gender Trouble (1990) is one of Judith Butler’s most influential book where she attacked one of the central arguments of feminist theory which supposes that there is an identity and a subject — women — requiring representation in politics and language.

For Butler, it is a mistake to assert that “women” are a group with common characteristics and interests, saying that to do so is to commit “an unwitting regulation and reification of gender relations” which shall reinforce “a binary view of gender relations” in which human beings are classified or divided into two distinct and mutually exclusive groups: men and men (Butler, 1990). According to Butler, such a feminist approach shuts down any possibilities for a person to form and choose his or her own individual identity.

Gender is a biological norm, but it does not mean that this biological gender should decide people’s fate. Butler points out an inconsistency in feminist theory. She finds it ironic that feminists would reject the idea that one’s biological sex charts or determines one’s destiny while, at the same time, developing a series of theories that masculine and feminine genders were built incontestably (and, because of their unchanging bodies, men and women can not change their destiny) and espousing the idea of patriarchal culture which assumes that culture would inevitably build masculine and feminine genders upon the ‘male’ and ‘female’ bodies. For Butler, such an approach makes the same destiny just as inescapable and argue that it allows no room for choice or resistance. According to Butler, “the very subject of women is no longer understood in stable or abiding terms.” (Butler, p.1)

Butler, instead, prefers to understand gender as a relation “among socially constituted subjects in specifiable contexts,” (Butler, 1990). She views gender as a fluid variable that can change or shift depending on context and time. “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; it is per formatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.” (Butler, 1990). For Butler, rather than looking gender as a construct that sprang from biological differences between the sexes or as a general definition of who ‘you’ are, it is better to look at gender as a performance; as something reflecting what ‘you’ do at a given period of time.

Gender, Butler says, is a social performance, a show that we put on, or a mask or a costume that we wear. She argues that we all put on a gender performance, and the performance can either be traditional or not. She adds that it’s not a question of whether we put on a performance but what form such performance will take.

In Butler’s view, gender as the identification with one sex, or one object (like the mother) is a fantasy, simply a set of internalized images, not of properties governed by the physical body as we see it, or its biological configuration. Rather, gender is a set of signs that are internalized, that had been imposed on the body and on the person’s sense of identity. Gender, she concludes, is but an attribute or a set of narrative effects, and not a category that divides humans into two distinct groups. Consequently, by choosing to be different about how we view this concept of gender, we might eventually be able to change the existing gender norms and the “binary understanding of masculinity and femininity” (Butler, 1990).

Film and the Women

Movies, as a form of mass media, have a tremendous influence on how the end-users — the viewers — how people view themselves according to their sex and gender, while, at the same time, reflects kind of constructs people hold with regards to sex and gender issues. While, during the last decades there had been a gradual shift in the portrayal of women in mass media, particularly in movies, many of the stereotypical roles assigned to each gender still persists.

Feminists noticed a subordination and oppression of women in movies in the predominately patriarchal world of cinema. As such, the late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed the mushrooming of feminist film productions as a reaction to these gender biases.

In their attempt to combat the problems that the so-called classic cinema, feminists established a different kind of film a ‘counter cinema. This was in accordance with feminist film theory produced by the wider feminist film movement. Feminist film groups and film festivals made the reach of these productions far, and established feminist cinema as a political film.

Many scholars have begun to explore the changing on screen images of women and develop a series of theories related to female representation and reception. According to Humm (1997), “film’s powerful misfiguring of the female is what feminism seeks to disempower. The visual is therefore a crucial visible part of any feminist theory” (p. 3).

Feminists have, therefore taken many different approaches to the analysis of cinema both in elements of the film as well as the theoretical underpinnings in the film. During the past 20 years since Laura Mulvey’s germinal vision of Douglas Sirk’s films, theorists drawing on psychoanalysis have argued that mainstream cinema encourages an “inevitably voyeuristic male gaze and reproduces fetishistic stereotypes of women” (Humm, 1997, p. 3).

Films in the 1950s portrayed women as merely a shadow of the men. Hollywood cinema reinforced the stereotypical role women played, like the emphasis on the importance of femininity and a tamed independence bordering on meekness and being submissive to get a man. As a result of most film directors being male, female roles and identity were dictated by them. It comes as no surprise then that women were portrayed as object of sexual desire, their presence mainly important “as a means of reflecting the sexual hierarchy” (Kaplan, 2000). Smith points out: “from its beginning they [women] were present but not in characterizations any self-respecting person could identify with” (cited in Kaplan, 2000).

The Feminist Film Theory

As a social movement, feminism has had big impact in film theory as well as film criticism. Within the sphere of film criticism evolved a theoretical framework called the feminist film theory, which was derived from feminist politics and theory. Feminists used different approaches in their analysis of films. They varied in the movie elements they take into consideration as well as in the theories they use in their analysis.

Early feminist criticisms had been directed at how women were depicted in films (Haskell 1973/1987, Rosen 1973). They pointed out that the representations of the women in movies and films were objectionably distorted, and this, they argued, would have a negative impact on the viewers, especially the females. They believed that the cinema was full of misrepresentations about sex and gender, that is, women and femininity and men and masculinity. Hence, they called for a more positive image of the women in cinema.

The feminists eventually learned, however, that more than positive images in cinema were needed to positively modify the underlying structures in film. They tried to understand the reasons for the all-pervasive power of patriarchal imagery in films, using such structuralize frameworks like semiotics and psychoanalysis. Because these frameworks had been very helpful in the understanding of the sexual differences that are encoded in classical narrative, structuralisms’ frameworks, particularly psychoanalysis, became the dominant framework used by feminist in their film theory for over a decade.

Recently though, there had been a move from a binary perspective in looking at sexual difference to what is known as multiple perspectives, identities, and spectatorships. This move resulted in the upward trend in the concern for questions of masculinity, hybrid sexualities, and ethnicity (Smelik, 1999).

Among the key themes of the feminist film theory is the concept of gaze, especially male gaze.

The Male Gaze

Mulvey (1989) sees Hollywood as a “monolithic construct,” that reaffirms the structures of the male psyche, reflecting the unconscious desires as well as the fears of the patriarchal power that controls the narrative.

In Hollywood movies, the women are depicted as objects of unconscious desires brought about by the patriarchal society that shapes it. Mulvey calls this objectivation of women in film the “male gaze.”

Mulvey’s argues that the woman is often presented in films as the object of the “male gaze,” thereby being “rendered passive in the frames of the narrative,” (Mulvey, 1989). In the film-text, the “male look is the gaze on women in a position from the camera, the spectator comes to identify with this male gaze and objectifies the women on the screen (Jacobson, 1999).

To illustrate his argument, Mulvey says that “one can talk of three different looks associated with the cinema: the one of the camera (usually controlled by a man, either the director or even the camera man deciding angles and views on the object), the one of the characters looking at each other within the illusion presented on the screen, and the third one is the one of the audience/the spectator, influenced by the previous looks of the camera and the characters” (Mulvey, 1989). She explains that in all of these, the woman is simply there as the passive recipient of the gaze whereas the man is the woman’s active spectator, the one objectifying her.

Indeed, scopophilia — defined as the predominantly male gaze dominant in Hollywood cinema, which enjoys objectfying or reducing women into mere objects to be admired (with sexual innuendo) rather than subjects with their own voice and subjectivity — is undeniably a prominent feature in cinema. The woman is regarded as an object, subjected to the gaze of a man.

To illustrate, scenes in movies that depict women as object of a man’s desire are an example of male gaze.

According to Mulvey, the things we watch in the cinema (particularly with regards to gender role) are a “production of the society and its laws,” both consciously and subconsciously. The pleasure of looking, she says, has been divided between “the active male spectator and the passive female, and the gaze is not only an activity restricted to the audience, but also the situation among the characters in the movie, and present in the camera’s view of the actors, (Mulvey, 1999)

Mulvey furthers that “the determination of the erotic was coded into the language of the dominant patriarchal order” (Mulvey, 1999). According to her, the acidophilic pleasure in cinema takes the woman as an object, rather than a subject, and subjects to the male gaze.

The Female Gaze

In her paper, “A Female Gaze,” Jaconsob (1999) wondered if there is also such things as a female gaze, particularly in contemporary movies. The female gaze, obviously, is the opposite of the male gaze. Here, it is the woman, not the man, who finds pleasure in gazing at a man, objectifying him, and subjecting him to her desires and pleasure of looking.

With the advent of women’s movements, the inequalities between men and women had been put forward, and the past decades had witnessed the success of these movements in uplifting how the society views women, as well the societal roles assigned to women. These movements have fought for — and succeeded in attaining — women’s right to suffrage; now, women, like their male counterparts enjoy the right to choose their candidates and to vote for them. In most countries in the world, women now enjoy high positions in their respective governments.

Women’s movements have likewise achieved a great deal in their lobby for equal rights in the job market, and for a share of responsibilities in the domestic sphere. This achievements and changes in the status of the women has been acknowledged in cultural production, such as in the movies.

The question now, is whether or not these changes could be considered a female gaze.

Mulvey argues that “according to the principles of the ruling ideology and the psychical structures that back it up, the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like” (Mulvey, 20).

However, Jaconson (1999), in examining the movie Fatal Attraction, showed that in many scenes of the movie, the female gaze was apparent, like when it was the one of the female characters who was making the initial moves to get the attention of the male lead character.

On the other hand, to some degree, Muvley’s argument about man being reluctant at being the recipient of the gaze is also valid, as toward the end of the movie, it was again the male character that was redeemed.


This chapter will focus on the specific period, as well as films for review and analysis.

1940-1959 Period

The bicycle Thief (Italy, 1940’s)


Set in the post world-war Rome, The Bicycle Thief is a movie with a very strong social relevance. Released as Ladri di biciclette, is a 1948 Italian neorealist film directed by Vittorio De Sicaabout a poor man searching the streets of Rome for his stolen bicycle, which he needs to be able to work. With father-son relationship as its central theme, the movie depicted ordinary day-to-day life in Rome, Italy right after the World War II. The movie tackled such issues as unemployment and social and emotional struggle.

In the movie, Antonio is accepted for a coveted post that required him to have a bicycle. To secure his bicycle which was at the pawnshop, his wife pawned their household linens.

On Antonio’s first day at work, however, the bicycle was stolen. Because the family was very poor and the bicycle was their only chance for him to keep the job, Antonio and his son roam the streets of Rome in search of the bicycle. The search is marked by a series of frustrating episodes, and tension and desperation. As time passed by, their chances of finding the bicycle diminished. Eventually, though, they found the bicycle, but with nothing to prove their ownership of it, they eventually had to let go of their claim. In the end, Antonio thought of stealing a bicycle, but he was caught by the owner.

All throughout the movie, the characters’ humanity glowed, especially towards the end. Anyone can relate to their misery, because their despair had the ability to mirror that of the viewers.


In this movie, the role of the wife is very limited. In some ways, this could be interpreted as dictated by the fact that the focus of the movie was the father and the son, and not the woman. On the other hand, it could also be indicative of a patriarchal treatment of the movie. The woman could have been given bigger exposure in the movie if the director had thought of giving her some ‘important’ task to do while the father and the son searched for the missing bicycle.

Crowther (1941) film critic for The New York Times, lauded the film saying, “Again the Italians have sent us a brilliant and devastating film in Vittorio De Sica’s rueful drama of modern city life, The Bicycle Thief. Widely and fervently heralded by those who had seen it abroad (where it already has won several prizes at various film festivals), this heart-tearing picture of frustration, which came to the [World Theater] yesterday, bids fair to fulfill all the forecasts of its absolute triumph over here. For once more the talented De Sica, who gave us the shattering Shoeshine that desperately tragic demonstration of juvenile corruption in post-war Rome, has laid hold upon and sharply imaged in simple and realistic terms a major—indeed, a fundamental and universal—dramatic theme. It is the isolation and loneliness of the little man in this complex social world that is ironically blessed with institutions to comfort and protect mankind.”

While the concept of gaze may not be very apparent in the movie, it could be gleaned from the roles given the woman that during this period, in the Roman society, as reflected in the movie, women were the ones assigned to do tasks that lowers the self-esteem of the man. In the movie, it was the woman who went to the pawnshop to pawn their linen in exchange of their vehicle.

The act of pawning a property could “lower” the self-esteem of a man. It is admitting, even subconsciously, that he is not able to provide for his family. Hence, instead of doing the task himself, it was the wife who did it in order to save the husband’s ego.

There are scenes in the movie that indicate gender stereotypes, especially in the part of the male. In the movie, the father goes into fight with other male, particularly the suspected thief. It is one typical stereotype that men settle their arguments through violence.

It should also be noted that the wife was a typical stay-at-home mother, a role given to women by the society.

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (US, 1950’s)


The Man in a Gray Flannel Suit is a story about an ordinary couple — Tom and Betsy Rath — and their TV-addicted kids (two girls and boy). Set in 1950’s Connecticut USA, the story revolves around their struggles as a family, as husband and wife, as ordinary folks. The story gives an emphasis on the financial problem of the family.

Feeling that her husband’s pay wasn’t enough, Ruth convinced Tom to apply for a bigger company, which he did. He was accepted for the position on probation.

In the movie, there were flashbacks about Tom’s past, particularly the episodes in his life as a soldier during the war, where he had had adulterous love affair. Toward the end of the story, it was revealed that he had a child by another woman. The revelation deeply upset the family, especially Betsy.

In the end, the wife learns to accept her husband’s mistake, and together, husband and wife tried to continue with their life, facing strongly the challenges that came their way.


The movie depicts a typical family scene whose reality is as true today as it had been when the movie came out. Financial problems are as realistic now as it was then. What is so striking about the movie is that it could have been a movie of the modern time. Straying husbands is still a relevant theme today.

The wife in the movie is a stay-at-home mom, and it is one of the aspects of the movie that, while still relevant today, no longer as typical as it had been when the movie came out. Many housewives already hold government, community, or corporate positions, and make as much money as their husbands. They now help their husbands in financing the needs of the family.

One aspect of the movie that is noteworthy is the fact that the wife eventually accepted her husband’s adulterous past, after becoming upset initially. This is a typical role given to women, especially in earlier days. However, with the advent of feminism and with women now having more choices, the chances of the wife accepting her husband’s mistake and forgiving him is now slimmer.

New Year Sacrifice


The movie, “New Year Sacrifice” is about the life a poor woman who endures much in her life. The movie revolves around how the ordeals of the woman affect her throughout her later years. It also gives focus into her fears of how her present life will affect her in the afterlife. Sold into marriage as a child, she is left a young widow and enslaved by her mother-in-law, who sells her to a poor peasant after her husband’s death.

Upon her husband’s death, she decides to leave her remaining kin to work for a family. Her widowhood automatically made her a second-class citizen, who is looked down upon by every one.

Her stay with the family, however, was cut short when she was kidnapped by her kin and was forced to marry another man against her will, and against her beliefs. She gives birth to a son, which she loved dearly. Despite her not wanting to marry a second time, the woman again learned to become content with life, and she settled with her new family. But soon, fate intervenes, taking away her husband and son.

Now seen as a bearer of bad luck, the woman becomes a social outcast. She goes back to the family she used to work for, but this time, a broken person lacking the spirit she once had. Here, she lived a miserable life, too miserable that soon she is forced to question her beliefs, particularly what would happen to her in life after death.

Toward the end of the movie, the woman approaches the narrator of the movie, who was educated and asks difficult questions.

I stood still, waiting for her to come and ask for money. “You have come back?” she asked me first. “Yes.” “That is very good. You are scholar, and have travelled too and seen a lot. I just want to ask you something.” Her lustreless eyes suddenly gleamed. I never guessed she would talk to me like this. I stood there taken by surprise. “It is this.” She drew two paces nearer, and whispered very confidentially: “After a person dies, does he turn into a ghost or not?”

The narrator manages to sputter a “maybe as a reply, as it is what they traditionally believed. The woman concluded that ifpeople turned to a ghost, that it means there must be a hell. He then asks: “Do family members see each other after death.”

The narrator is not sure of how to answer the question.

“Well, as to whether they will see each other again or not….” I realized now that I was a complete fool; for all my hesitation and reflection I had been unable to answer her three questions. Immediately I lost confidence and wanted to say the exact opposite of what I had previously said. “In this case… as matter of fact, I am not sure…. Actually, regarding the question of ghosts, I am not sure either.” In order to avoid further importunate questions, I walked off, and beat a hasty retreat to my uncle’s house, feeling exceedingly uncomfortable.

In the end the woman dies, leaving the narrator wondering still about her questions.


This 1950s Chinese movie is an indictment of old Chinese beliefs. It poignantly shows how women during this time are treated, especially those who have been widowed.

Chinese women held a lower status than the men. And women were treated like a commodity as shown in the film, when as a young girl, the woman was sold to marriage. As a married woman, she became her husband’s ‘property,’ hence, upon her husband’s death, his kin’s property.

The woman running away from her dead husband’s kin is an indication of rebellion of her role as a widowed woman. It is a bold move, but one that her husband’s kin did not appreciate. So she was kidnapped, and forced to marriage a second time.

The woman giving birth to a boy and loving her child deeply is indicative of society’s outlook that woman’s main role is to ‘bear and rear children’. And the sex of the child — a boy — is again, an indication of sexual preference. It reflects the Chinese’s long-held tradition of preferring boys to girls.

The woman living a wretched life, especially toward the end, shows just how much gender discrimination can do to crash a woman’s spirit. The woman’s circumstances per se had been so bad, losing both her husbands as well as her son. But what made her situation much worse was the society’s low regard on women. But what makes the movie doubly sad, other than the woman’s ordeals, is the underlying message that it is difficult to change the tradition/culture, as indicated by how the woman had to give in to her first husband’s kin, as well as when the woman was unable to do anything toward the end to change her life. She was reduced to wondering about what life after death could be like — if there was indeed a life. These questions are very common. Everyone asks them. But it was different when the woman asked them toward the end of the movie because it showed her hopelessness of her present life.

1960-1979 Period

The Battle at the Villa Florita (Italy)


The Battle at the Villa Florita is a 1965 Italian film starring Maureen O’ Hara. The story is about a married British woman who falls for a Widower Italian. The woman decides to leave her family and join her lover in his Italian home. However, his daughter and her children tried their best to destroy their romance.

In a quiet British village, Moira two school-age children lived, together with her diplomat husband who was always away. Moira was a typical woman, seemingly content of her life as a wife and mother.

But when a famous Italian composer — Lorenzo — comes to their village to accept an award during the Festival, Moira sees him, and immediately she felt something special for him. She thought he was the kind of man who could make her forget everything that had been important to her. The same is true with Lorenzo. He, too, felt something special for Moira. A widower for years, Lorenzo had never opened his heart to any other woman, until she met Moira.

The two surrendered to their feelings. Moira was now burdened about how to tell her husband what had happened.

Moira’s husband — Darrell — when told what had happen and what Moira wanted to do, decides that the only way to handle the crisis is to allow Moira to go to Italy with her lover.

At the Lorenzo’s mansion in Villa Fiorita, in Italy, the lovers’ dream-like honeymoon begins. Basking in Lorenzo’s love and open adoration, Moira is transformed from a shy village woman into an elegant lady, who radiantly and unashamedly basked in her lover’s arms as she had never been for years.

Back home, however, Moira’s children are unhappy to discover what their mother had done. When their father leaves for a diplomatic function, they raise money and travel to Italy to bring home their mother.

Lorenzo’s daughter is likewise not happy with his father’s relationship with Moira. Together, the three kids try every trick to separate the lovers. Thus “the battle of the Villa Florita” begins.

The lovers try their best to preserve their love and happiness. But when the children sailed on a stormy ocean, the frightened mother decides to back down and go home with her children.


While there are aspects of the movie that adhered to socially constructed norms with regards to gender role, like having the father being the bread winner whereas the wife simply stays at home with the kids, the movie depicts major reversals in gender role.

For one, in the movie, there is an instance of female gaze, or the gaze by female toward male, objectifying him, making him the center of her desire. Upon setting eyes on Lorenzo, Moira already knew she wanted him. And while both were attracted with each other, that moment of self knowledge on the part of Moira is worth noting.

Also, here, the role is reversed. It is often the case that it’s the man who engages in adulterous relationship, not the wife. The woman having an affair with another man, and leaving her family for that man is a major gender role reversal.

Moreover, the man agreeing to his wife’s running away with another man, and being the one to tell his children why their mother is not home is a also a major factor that needs analysis. Why didn’t the husband beg the wife to stay?

However, while the movie defied set gender roles to a shocking degree, it could also be pointed out that the resolution of the movie shows typical scenes with regards to gender roles. In the end, Moira decided to give in to her children’s want. And so, she decided to go back to her family.

In movies where it’s the man who lives the wife for another woman, it is always more difficult for the man to go back.

Also, it is worth pointing out that it was the children — not the husband — who did their best to win back their mother. It was not a heart-broken husband who was sorely missing his wife, realizing how much he had neglected her that saved the family. It was the children. It is noteworthy that even in a movie that dared depict major role reversal, the ego of the man is still preserved.

Klute (US)


A corporate executive Tom Gruneman disappears. His wife hires a detective-friend, John Klute, to act as private investigator and search for him. During the search, a typewritten obscene letter is found in the desk of the missing man. The piece of paper leads Klute to a prostitute named Bree Daniels to whom the obscene letter was addressed.

Klute secretly followed Bree, renting a place near where she left. In the course of the investigation, Klute becomes drawn into Bree’s seedy world. He discovers that several of Bree’s fellow prostitutes have been murdered by sadist, presumably Gruneman.

The two eventually worked together. When another prostitute-friend of Bree was murdered, the investigation had a better lead, which eventually helped them find who the murderer was.

They also found the Gruneman was dead, killed by the sadist murderer.

During their time together, Klute and Bree developed an unlikely romance, and eventually found themselves falling for each other. But Bree was reluctant to let herself fall in love, because everything is so new to her, because she fears that if she let her self fall in love, she will not be in control of her life anymore.


In this movie, it is interesting to note that the main character, Bree, has had made rules about not falling in love because she didn’t want to ‘”lose control of her life.” For her, being a prostitute is good because she is in control of things, unlike her dream job which she never got — modeling — because there was always someone else calling the shots.

In this movie, male-female gaze is employed. One day, Bree arrives wearing an alluring gown, and as Goldfarb watches, she seductively removes her dress, while relating a story about a romantic interlude with an elderly man. Here, while it is the woman who is being watched by the man, hence, the male gaze, it is the woman — Bree — who is in total control of the situation. Hence, the male gaze is as much as a female gaze, with Bree deliberately seducing Goldfarb.

Another interesting part of the movie, with regards to gender role, is the fact that it was Bree herself, who climbed into Klute’s bed. While it may not come as a surprise that it would be Bree who would initiate the sexual relationship in themove, because of her profession, it could still be considered as a form of role reversal. This is heightened when, in the morning, Bree tells Klute that she didn’t have an orgasm because he was just an ordinary “john.”

There is also a role reversal aspect in the scene where Bree is nuzzling a man at a club. In here, while she is being portrayed in the film as an object of sexual desire, it is her, not the men in the film, who was in charge.

Lastly, there is a scene in the movie where Klute lunges at Frank in jealousy. Annoyed, perhaps because of her growing feelings for Klute, which she can’t seem to control, Bree lunges at Klute with a pair of scissors, hurting him mildly. In this scene, Bree attacking in a fit of violence is defying big time the role the society has given women.

Indeed, in this movie, many acts of feminism are shown. Only, there is also a softening in Bree as whenever she is frightened or threatened, she would run to someone for comfort — her psychiatrist, as well as Klute.

Two Stage Sisters (China, 1965)


A young widow — Chunhua — who was about to be sold by her in-laws, escapes. She becomes an apprentice to an all-female theater troupe where she becomes friends with one of the actresses — Yuehong — who plays the male roles. They became very close like sisters.

When Yuehong’s father dies, Chunhua and Yuehong are sold to a Shanghai opera theater. They are to replace Shang Shuihua whose luster was then fading.

Yuehong finds herself falling in love with their stage manager, Tang, who is very manipulative. This lead to the sisters having a quarrel, which eventually leads to their falling out and eventual separation.

Chunhua continues with her career in the theater. Inspired by a radical journalist, she starts putting some political flavor to her performances.

Tang, manipulative as ever, attempts to blind and ruin Chunhua by using Yuehong’s testimony in court. Although the attempt failed, Yuehong is deeply humiliated by the ordeal.

By then, the revolution is starting. To escape it, Tang goes off to Taiwan, abandoning Chunhua.

Now abandoned, Chua goes to the countryside to wait out the end of the revolution. When Shanghai is liberated by the Communist, Chunhua tracks down her sister. In the end, the two sisters reconcile.


This movie does give a lot of insights into the culture of China, as well as the status of women. Like in the earlier movie (New Year’s Sacrifice, 1955), this movie is reflective of the social status of the women.

Women are like commodities that are sold. When Chunhua’s husband died, her in-laws planned to sell her, and it would have happened if she did not escape. When Yuehong’s father father died, she and Chunhua (who was then like a sister to her) were sold to another theater troupe.

Through this movie, it becomes apparent that the woman’s social status, and how others would treat her, depends largely on the male who ‘owns’ her. Upon the demise of her ‘owner,’ the woman’s value diminishes, and the next kin can do whatever he wants with her, like sell her.


Buffy the Vampire Slayer (US, 1992)


Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a movie about a popular cheerleader — Buffy — at a Los Angeles Highschool, who has been having dreams about past Slayers.

One day, Buffy is approached by Merrick Jamison-Smythe who informs her that she is a vampire Slayer. He explains that as a Slayer, she is to fight vampires using her special strengths and skills.

Now aware of her being a Slayer, Buffy runs into Pike, who becomes the “damsel in distress.” Buffy rescues Pike many times. And despite having a basketball player for a boyfriend, Pike becomes Buffy’s new love interest.

Buffy undergoes training. Soon, is she is drawn into conflict with Lothos, a local vampire king. Lothos has killed a lot of slayers in the past. The real battle between Buffy and Lothos begins when the latter kills Merrick. Buffy defeats him and his minions.


Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a film that challenges gender role in many respects. For one, the lead character is a female, one who is beautiful and popular.

Buffy is every man’s frustration. With her special skills and abilities, she is far stronger than any of the men around her. Not a single man could feel strong and adequate enough when near her.

One important aspect of the movie is the fact that it is a woman who does the rescuing, not the other way around. Moreover, it climaxed with a battle between a man and a woman, with the woman clinching victory. Indeed, it is one movie that challenges gender stereotypes on a grand scale.

Also noteworthy is the fact that Buffy exhibits the female gaze. Having rescued Pike several times, Buffy eventually finds herself very interested in him. Fully in control of the situation because she is both powerful and beautiful, it is Buffy who objectifies Pike.

Her defeat of Lothos is also worth looking into, as the very reason of her winning is by being true to her own contemporary style. She ignored the conventions and limitations of the Slayers before her. This is a powerful allegory of female empowerment, which is reflective of the power that women now hold in almost all aspects of life in the present time. By ignoring the conventions and limitations set by the society, the modern woman can now defeat anything. She can be anything she wants to be, and she will always succeed, and win.

Along the Ridge (Italy, 2007)


Along the Ridge, is a story of a father and his two children who were abandoned by the very woman they needed and loved the most — their mother and wife. The father and the children go through mixed emotions of fury, loneliness, and confusion, but through it all, they managed to stay united. Their love for one another was always there, even if it was left unspoken. Father-children bond remained strong, even if the father had uncontrollable temper and was an unjust disciplinarian, which was among the reasons why his wife left them. That, and her infidelity.

With their mother gone, the children are left to their own device whenever their father is away. The older of the siblings, a female, sometimes bullies her younger brother who is the story’s narrator. Soon, father and children settled into a routine over their motherless home. But just as they were getting used to their motherless existence, the mother suddenly and recklessly reappears, once again upsetting their precarious existence.


Like all the other movies considered in this paper, Along the Ridge likewise challenges gender roles. In the movie, it seems that the women are more ‘powerful’ — albeit in a negative way — than the males.

The story’s narrator is seen being bullied by his older sister. While the age factor could be factored in as one of the reasons for the bullying, it still remains a clear role reversal, even if it is in a negative way. Aggression, after all, is often depicted as the domain of the male gender. And that is to say that the aggressive behavior shown by the father in the movie is very much indicative of a stereotype.

The mother running away from the family is of course the movie’s main challenge on established gender roles. Not only did she break away from the traditionally assigned role of a woman — to be meek and submissive — she also showed that women too can do the roles that used to be solely assigned to men.

The scene in the movie showing the father doing traditional woman’s jobs — ironing clothes and fixing breakfast — are the movie’s greatest departure from the typical.

So Close to Paradise (China, 2007)


So Close to Paradise is about two Chinese farmers from the rural China, who go to large cities of the country, together with hundreds of thousands of men, for higher-paying jobs as a result of the country’s economic reforms in the 1980s. The younger of the two, Dong Zi, is ill-equipped for city life. Good thing he manages to strike a kind of friendship with an elderly man, Gao Ping. The two developed a father-son sort of relationship.

In the city, Dong Zi works as a ‘shoulder pole’ — a derogatory term used by city folks to refer to laborers who carried cargo in their back with the aid of a pole. With this kind of job, he was paid very little, but his income seems enough for him.

Gao Ping, on the other hand, chooses to do shady jobs. He always has lot of money, but Dao Zing doesn’t know where he is getting them, and exactly what he does for a living.

One day, Gao Ping gets robbed of a large amount of money. Wanting revenge, he solicits the help of his friend to find the thug. Together, they trace the vanished robber to an exotic club dancer/singer, Ruan Hong, but Ruan doesn’t want to tell them the whereabouts of the thug. So the friends kidnap her and drag her to Gao’s apartment where Gao rapes her.

Later on, Ruan, who is initially set for a singing career but fails to snag one so she settles singing in the club where the friends kidnap her, falls in love with Gao Ping. The two become a couple, but still, the woman wouldn’t tell him the whereabouts of the thug. Dong Zi is also in love with Ruan, but doesn’t pursue her because of Gao Ping.

The eventual confrontation with the thug leads to Gao Pings death. As for Ruan, the nightclub where she sings is raided. She is shamed as a prostitute even if she isn’t. And Dong Zi remains ill-equipped for city life, his desperation and frustration visibly etched upon his face.


Set in 1980s China, this story talks about the life the characters led, which may be the life of many other common folks in the city. The roles of the main characters are so realistic that anyone who has experienced hardship could relate to it.

Gao Ping’s shady activities reflect a very typical depiction of male gender role. His aggressive behavior (kidnapping Ruan and raping her, which left even Dong Zi horrified) as well as his decision to work on the underground all indicate gender role bias.

Ruan’s unwillingness to inform Gao Ping of the thug’s whereabouts, even after he has fallen in love with Gao Ping, is indicative of being well-trained by the thug who might have been her friend. Was it fear that kept her giving the information her lover desperately needed? Or was it loyalty, however misplaced, to her friend?

That Ruan fell in love to her kidnapper and rapist is a twist that is not that easy to comprehend. Rape victims often harbor negative feelings toward their rapists, but instead of harboring that kind of feeling, Ruan instead fell in love with him.

Ruan’s shaming when the club she was working for is indicative of how lowly women were treated.


The 1960s saw the rise of the second wave of feminist movements, questioning the inequality of laws and demanding for equal treatment of the males and females (Humm, 1995). It was also during this time (in the 1970’s) that the Feminist Film Theory started to take shape (Freehand, 1996). It was therefore expected that the 1980s would show women holding positions contrary to the stereotypes.

As shown in the Discussion section of this paper, the 1940s depicted women with stereotypical roles. In the 1940’s Italian film A Bicycle Thief, the wife had very little part, which indicates she was not that important in the movie, when today’s woman could have embarked on a separated journey to look for her missing husband’s bicycle.

The wife in the 1950’s US film, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, likewise held a typical role in the household. Though she had more air-time than the wife in the Italian film, she was a stay-at-home mom, who convinces her husband to look for a better paying job as his income was not enough for the family. Indeed, the wife was just a shadow behind her husband. And when the husband’s long-ago tryst with another woman was revealed as the movie climaxed, the wife was deeply hurt, but soon she settled down and learned to accept and forgive her husband’s mistakes.

The Chinese woman in the A New Year’s Sacrifice fared no better. Though she had a lot of airtime as the movie revolved around her life, she experienced things most modern-day women only learn about in books. She was sold to marriage when she was a girl, her husband’s kin planned to sell her when her husband died, she was ostracized, kidnapped, again sold to marriage, and then treated like an outcast. Her whole life spelled misery, that she started questioning her faith, and redirected her thoughts on afterlife. From the three movies from different countries, it is easy to see the inequality in the treatment of the women and the men even in movies.

Do movies in the period 1960-1979 depict women better? Or, better yet, is there a role reversal in this period, perhaps as a result of the second wave of feminism and the birth of feminist film theory?

In the movie Battle at Villa Florita, a shocking role reversal is presented. Here, the housewife falls in love with another man, and runs off with that man with her husband’s blessing. However, glimpses of patriarchal approach to the movie/story is still evident when the husband let the wife go (which is not the case when the roles were reversed; the wife would have begged the husband not to leave, or even staged some schemes to make him stay) and when the woman had to go back to her family when her children and her lover’s child got in the way.

In the US movie, Klute, role reversal is also evident. The prostitute Bree climbing to the detective’s bed shows an empowered woman, although it could be also pointed out that the character’s profession contributed much to her behavior. Another part that definitely shows a doing away with stereotypes is when the same female character had a violent fight with the detective, where he was injured. Gun and knife wielding women in movies defy stereotypes. It should also be noted that throughout the film, the female lead character had always wanted to be in control at least of her life, so that, she was still reluctant to go with the detective whom she learned to love towards the end of the movie for fear of losing her ‘control’ of her life.

In the Chinese movie, Two Stage Sisters, change in gender role is not very apparent. The theme of selling women is still present, like the 1940s movie. The women seemed to be valued according to who owned them. In the absence of an owner, the next of kin automatically owns her and can do whatever he or she wants with her. Glimpse of fighting against unfair treatment is very slight, and only in the form of running away from the new owners, as is the case of Chuhuan.

The period 1980-present, on the other hand, presents exciting changes in the depiction of women in films.

In the US movie, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we see a very powerful, strong yet beautiful young woman who saves the day. The lead character, Buffy, does the saving; the complete opposite of Cinderella. And she saves, among others, a young man who would later become her love interest. And, finally, she fights a male vampire, and she wins. These things, among other things, depict how much power the modern-day women (in the US, at least) now have. They are equal to — and in many instances — even better than, their male counterparts.

The Italian movie, Along the Ridge, likewise shows a big role reversal. In the movie, the mother leaves her aggressive husband and her children for another man. Here, the husband is shown doing typical woman chores like ironing clothes and preparing his children’s meal, among others. Although the movie still has glimpses of ‘male dominion’ like the husband’s aggression, it is now apparent that changes has taken place with regards to women’s role in the household.

Finally, the Chinese movie So Close to Paradise does not show much of a role reversal. The woman in the movie gets raped and shamed, but she still eventually found herself falling in love with her perpetuator. The movie does not show much of an empowerment of the female lead character. However, it should be noted that compared with the earlier Chinese films, the woman led better life in this movie.

Looking at the trend, it is apparent that women are becoming more empowered in the movies, especially in the US and the Italian films. The latter movies had shown role reversals which were not present in the earlier movies. Strong women are now respected (Buffy), men are already shown doing roles that used to be the domain of the women alone (ironing, preparing breakfast) and women are already depicted doing things that used to be done by men alone (fighting, aggressive behavior, infidelity). Moreover, women also exhibit the female gaze, or the objectifying of men, like when Bree (Klute) climbs to the Detective Klute’s bed.

It should also be noted, however, that with increased empowerment also comes heightened femininity. Today’s women know that being beautiful and sexy and desirable while being intelligent and smart are a powerful combination. So now, in cinemas, we see women who have these. We now have women heroes in movies, women who wield their own swords and handle guns. Women who take challenges calmly and strongly, women who do not run to their husbands when things go wrong, but knows how to fight on their own, or alongside their male partners, if need be.

But while these are all true, the male gaze is still prevalent in today’s movies. Women are still being viewed with desire, and they are still projected as desirable and sexy. But so are men these days. In the recent years, men have become conscious with their looks that being desirable and sexy are now a man’s quest as well.


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