Real Talk: Real Women

How the quest to represent everyday women only reinforces gender stereotypes.

My mom and I recently decided to go see the new Ghostbusters. Leading up to the release of the film, there was nothing but outrage at the fact that the reboot cast would be entirely female. I had no sentimental attachments to the first Ghostbusters, however it upset me that the new film, which had not even been released at the time, was already receiving so much negativity.

Once the film came out, I read a few good reviews online about how the jokes were clever and so on. Simultaneously, the film’s release brought more contempt for these women. Leslie Jones had to find a last minute designer for the premiere because so many haute couture designers refused to dress her due to her stature. Additionally, she pretty much quit Twitter over a slew of racist, derogatory Tweets that targeted her. These events, plus more online flack directed toward’s the film, compelled me to see the film for myself so I could make my own judgment.

Needless to say, I enjoyed the film. It’s not one of my favorite movies ever nor the funniest, but it was hilarious and oddly refreshing. For once, a mainstream comedy had no romantic subplot nor girls fighting over a guy. There was never a woman in the film who was just there for eye candy (actually the reverse was true with Chris Hemsworth’s hunky supporting role as the dimwitted receptionist). Finally, the interactions between the four women were just so real. But my evaluation of the film, how the women felt so real, led me to think about idealizing this so-called “real woman.”

Who is she? Does the media attempt to create her or reject her? What makes a woman a real woman?

About a decade ago, Dove launched the “Real Beauty” campaign, which aimed to clue in consumers to the narrow view of accepted beauty standards among women. They started this campaign after learning that only 2% of women find themselves beautiful. This new method of advertising consisted of using “real”-looking women, women who were curvy and had diverse skin colors. The goal was to challenge the notion that there was only a singular way to be a beautiful woman. However, it wasn’t long before consumers challenged the campaign as a simple marketing ploy, one that avoids the core issues. At that point, Dove decided to partner with various organizations, such as Girl Scouts an Girls Inc., to incite greater discussions about revolutionizing traditional beauty standards. In the end, the campaign and the conversation about real beauty lives on, but according to this instance, real beauty is anything that defies the perfect supermodel body.

The rigid standards that exist in the beauty industry translate into the media as well. The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film conducts annual reports about how women are represented on-screen by analyzing the top 100 grossing films of the year. In 2015, they reported the following:

  • Females comprised 22% of protagonists
  • 34% of major characters
  • 33% of speaking roles
  • 76% of all female characters were white
  • Overall, the majority of female characters were in their 20’s and 30’s, whereas male characters fell in their 30’s and 40’s

It’s clear that women, especially women of color, lag in terms of on-screen representation. Even though most of the statistics have risen a couple percentage points from previous years, women continue to make up less than half of the idols, heroes, and other notable characters on-screen. Additionally, the type of roles that women play impacts how women view themselves. In most movies, women are not the protagonist. They are sidekicks, love interests, or just oversexualized objects. Even when a woman is a protagonist, she is often in pursuit of a man.

It was not long ago that I found out about a helpful (and alarming) little tool called the Bechdel Test. The test was named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who created a comic strip about “the rule”, which is exactly what the Bechdel Test measures. The test measures female representation in media. To pass, a work needs to only pass three, simple questions:

  1. It has at least two women in it
  2. The two women talk to one another
  3. The topic of their exchange is about something besides a man

The irony of this little “rule”, as Bechdel herself called it, is that modern media continues to struggle to pass it. You’d think every book, movie, or show in the 21st century would pass this basic series of questions. However, this has not historically been the case. In 2015, 45% of the year’s highest grossing films failed the Bechdel Test. This statistic does not even account for films that missed only one or two of the requirements. Nor does it include films with anthropomorphic characters that appear female or have feminine traits.

From this information, it can be said that not only are women underrepresented on and off screen, but their little bit of on-screen time only portrays them in reference to men. So it’s no wonder I felt like Ghostbusters effortlessly portrayed real women: because women were organically interacting with one another, void of male-centric conversations.

But let me be critical of this “real” portrayal of women for a moment. Couldn’t it be said that there are real women out there who are dedicated wives, moms, and partners? Women who do devote their lives to their male counterparts? Women who have stories and lives where men play a heavy role? The simple answer is yes, but when women are shown exclusively as having lives that revolve around men, that becomes the standard for all women.

So who are these real women? Does she even exist?

The core issue is not that certain women are more or less real than others, but the fact that women are only portrayed in relation to men. They are almost never standalone, autonomous individuals. They are also rarely shown to have organic relationships with one another. The relationships they form are either through the man himself or in competition for the man. In this way, we dehumanize women. Regardless of what they do, they are tirelessly attempting to appease the man, explicitly or subconsciously. To show women solely in this way is the root of the plight of women in modern, American society.

Let’s put this framework into practice: the beauty industry. A major criticism of the Dove Real Beauty campaign was that it still made the pursuit of beauty the center of women’s lives. The fact that beauty is still portrayed as women’s ultimate goal and their key to happiness is a problem. Why is it a problem? Because looking beautiful is inextricably tied to appeasing men. Looking beautiful, within patriarchal standards, is a goal for all women. So much so, that “81 percent of 10-year-old girls are afraid of becoming ‘fat.’” Pursuing beauty is a lifelong endeavor that women are socialized to believe will give them the ultimate happiness.

When we frame this happiness as the end goal of beauty, women perform and behave in ways conducive to this standard. When the standard of beauty is set to “normal” or “natural”, this can be just as harmful as more extreme and feminine expressions. When companies talk about real women, they create a dialectic in which there is only one, precise way to be a woman. There is a stark contrast between actually accepting all women (on the basis of physicality and personality) and creating a right and wrong way to be a woman. By creating this “normal woman”, an unachievable and paradoxical norm, we inadvertently subvert women. Instead of looking for the real woman and extrapolating her as the end goal for all women, we must begin to recognize women holistically and individually. Society thinks that it has progressed because women are no longer forced into one narrow mold of beauty and perfection, however the fact that a narrow set of norms still exists is a reflection of how far we still have yet to go.

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