Women and Violence in Popular Culture: How Violent is too Violent? How Sexy is too Sexy?

Friday 25th January 2019

On Friday 18 January, as part of the Academic Enrichment Programme, our students were treated to a lecture from teacher of History and Politics Dr Smith. The lecture, titled ‘Women and Violence in Popular Culture: How Violent is too Violent? How Sexy is too Sexy?’, attracted a full lecture theatre of inquisitive students from various year groups.

Throughout the lecture, Dr Smith used well-known films, television shows and characters to provide relatable examples of the representation of women in popular culture.

 

Popular culture shapes public perceptions, particularly of the ‘roles’ of different types of people, whether we like it or not. When life gets complex, we like to rely on popular culture to relieve us from stress, and inform us of the world around us.

However, Dr Smith explained that the time period that films are released in can impact the amount of agency they are willing to give to women.

 

The two examples she gave of this were the romantic comedy films 10 Things I Hate About You and 27 Dresses.

The 1999 film 10 Things I Hate About You came at a time of economic prosperity, millennium excitement and an acceptance of multiple female choices.

On the other hand, 27 Dresses was released in 2008 when the world was in the grip of an emerging economic recession, fearful of the spread of terrorism and needed to be comforted by traditional non-threatening gender roles.

 

“When the world does well, women are allowed to step out of the norm.” Dr Smith told our students. This statement alone provokes thoughts about our current global and political climate, and how this may be affecting the representation of women in popular culture today. “Although, I’m not telling you to stop watching romantic comedies!” Dr Smith reassured.

 

Dr Smith proceeded to introduce our students to the Bechdel Test, a test derived from a realisation by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1980s, that questions how a film or television series impacts how audiences think about women.

To pass the Bechdel Test, a film or TV series must include:

  1. At least 2 women with full names (a catch that some films often fail).
  2. These 2 women must talk to each other.
  3. And they must talk to each other about something other than men.

It is surprising how many popular films and television shows fail this test, particularly in the first point.

The test was inspired by the novel A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf and speaks to the idea of women having agency of being defined away from men.

It is not a measure of feminism but more about looking at measuring popular culture and how it impacts how audiences think about women.

 

Dr Smith showed our students an example of a television series that really pushed the boundaries of the representation of women in popular culture in the 1970s, in the form of Charlie’s Angels.

The main characters of this popular television series are three women who are clearly excelling in ‘masculine’ skills, having opted to join a ‘masculine’ and necessarily violent profession – police work. Yet, they were all then put into work which would be classed as ‘women’s work’ (for example, admin, working with children), rather than their true talents being used.

However, they still need to be rescued from this situation by a mysterious man rather than allowed to let their own abilities pull them out of their current situation. Nevertheless, the series made a bold statement with this opening segment and image showing the women clearly in offensive positions and holding weapons – leaving the audience with the clear idea that some violence will occur.

Although the television show Charlie’s Angels greatly pushed the boundaries of the representation of women in the 1970’s, it still surprised our girls how far the representation of women in popular culture had come since then, and how far it still has to go.

 

“Fantasy” Dr Smith told the girls “is the genre that is a woman’s’ friend”.

Fantasy and sci-fi films and television shows often create more female friendly characters because they are genres little constrained by the parameters of reality, which means technically, it does not have to be bound by the normal rules of popular culture and gender. ​

Fantasy and sci-fi often offer an opportunity for women to be at the centre of a narrative and often the genre is populated by writers who are women. ​

The female roles and stories in this genre are often critical of society, and are able to do this by disguising our world as another or setting it far into the past or future.

 

Some examples Dr Smith gave of female protagonists in popular fantasy and sci-fi films and television series’ who are positive representations of women include:

  • Katniss Everdeen – The Hunger Games
  • Rita Vrataski – The Edge of Tomorrow
  • Black Widow – The Avengers Franchise
  • Wonder Woman – Wonder Woman
  • Jessica Jones – Jessica Jones

Although strong, positive and equal representations of women in film and television are still fairly far and few, the fact that more and more independent, self-assured, and unapologetically sexual and violent women are appearing on our screens as positive images is something that the next generation will internalise.

 

“I think it is really important for us at Queen Anne’s to give talks on interdisciplinary subjects and make students aware of the role that popular culture plays in our lives when it comes to reflecting or re-establishing gender norms” Dr Smith explained, following her lecture.

“Today’s students face many challenges as young women with many expectations placed upon them, and it is worth highlighting figures in popular culture which can show women with choices and agency.

This is a generation that can make meaningful changes about what films or television shows are produced.”

 

“I hope that, by being engaged with a talk such as this, our students can critique the popular culture images they are absorbing and see where there are dangerous messages which could seek to remove their agency.

Our young women at Queen Anne’s have so many choices in their lives: they are in control of their lives and it seems only fair that they should see that reflected on the silver screen.”