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Tropes About Women in TV and Film

Among the sea of movies written by the male gaze is a tidal wave of absolute nonsense. Most recently, I started to think about how so many movies and TV shows contributed to my view of society as an adult. So much of our expectations and our understandings of aspects of life stem from the movies and TV we watch—especially while we’re growing up. Why do we have expectations at all if not for something giving us a blueprint? Likewise, the way characters are portrayed in movies and television can fundamentally control how we expect people to behave in real life. It shapes stereotypes. I started rethinking the way I viewed movies recently. Looking at the writing and everything that goes into a character. The reason behind the color scheme, the hairstyle or the song. I started noticing a few common things. A few common things that I now cannot stop seeing. Specifically targeted towards tropes in movies and TV shows surrounding women. 

turned on LED movie projector
Photo by Alex Litvin from Unsplash

One of the first troupes I want to point out is the ice queen. As we all know in the classic rule of misogyny, “if woman has brain, then woman is threat,” so something has to be wrong. Women who have jobs, particularly powerful women who have higher up jobs in companies, can never also be a good mother, friend or she has to have some sort of horrible relationship with her family. You can see this obviously in movies like “Devil Wears Prada” and “Jurassic World.” Even the movie “The Proposal” reinforces, as its main joke, that Sandra Bullock is cold, unappealing and awful. Growing up, as I’m sure most women can understand, I always got so frustrated when I was called annoying or bossy. You could call me ugly over and over in kindergarten, but nothing got to me quite like annoying or bossy.

The reason being was that I knew what was annoying about me. What was annoying about me was that I was a girl who was speaking. Speaking loudly. Speaking passionately. It was almost reinforced to me growing up that being a girl just meant getting a little more frustrated about things than I should have to be. Or that gaining leadership and respect meant losing your friends or relationships.  If you have seen the movie “Jurassic World,” or better yet, any movie in which a woman plays a CEO, doctor, boss or even more specifically, if she is childless, try to remember if she was funny or nice to the people that work for her.

Odds are she was pretty distant, mean, cold. Then try to remember if the storyline that casually mentions her poor relationship with her children or lack thereof is actually foundational towards the actual plot of the story. Did it really matter that Bryce Dallas Howard’s character in “Jurassic World” hadn’t seen her family in a long time because of her job? Is that what caused the dinosaurs to eat everyone? No, but it was necessary because how could a woman be leading without also losing?  More importantly, how could a woman run from dinosaurs without also having her heels on and hair done the entire time. 

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This brings me to my next trope: the ponytail.  There are obviously a lot of wrongdoings in film and their portrayal of women, but the thing guaranteed to make me roll my eyes is this: women always have their long, styled hair down every time they are doing anything. By anything I mean, fighting crime, playing soccer, playing football, playing basketball and even escaping captivity.

Obviously, we know women are usually wearing latex form-fitting suits while doing anything somewhat male-dominated so as to not ruin the film for the men, but I have never screamed louder than when I saw Amanda Bynes play soccer with her hair down in “She’s the Man.” That movie is one of those movies where you love it so much, but you are just so aware of the point it’s completely missing. Like, yes, women can play soccer just as well as men. But, you will not earn that respect unless you change yourself completely and aren’t a woman anymore. And then, at the end of the movie, when it is revealed that she was, in fact, the man, she proceeds to play soccer with her long hair fully down. Just so we can tell she’s a girl when she’s playing… I guess. 

The third trope that reinforces sexist stereotypes is the disposable woman. By this, I mean a woman whose character purpose is to be kidnapped, raped or killed so that the male character can have some sort of enlightenment, revenge plot or purpose to show emotion for the first time. Reinforcing the idea that a woman’s purpose is what she can do for the man. Those purposes can seem very dark, and obviously, those scenarios don’t happen in all movies like comedies. So, how is this such a common trope? The less literal and dark tradition of this trope is as simple as the one woman in the movie is there for specifically a sexual or romantic reason. Do you know anything about Andy from “The Goonies” other than the fact that Brand and Troy like her and Mikey kisses her? I will say they redeem themselves a bit by having her character save the day. Whether or not it made sense logically that a 13-year-old boy would be more mature through all of this than the two 16-year-old women, though, is another discussion. 


The fourth and final trope I began to notice is the one that fascinates me the most: the coming of age story.  Typically, in coming of age movies that take place in high schools, if a man or multiple men are the protagonists, then the popular girls at the high school will be portrayed as nice. If the movie involves a female protagonist, the popular girl will always be mean. When I started thinking about this, it really hit me that this behavior reinforces wanting women to hate other women so bad. In the movie “Superbad,” Becca and Jules, the two female characters, are just very likable, nice, popular and funny. But, in the movie “The Duff,” Bella Thorne is basically some vindictive psycho who’s really hot and popular but just ruthlessly hates the lead character.

In “Camp Rock,” Tess hated Mitchie, and in “High School Musical,” Sharpay hated Gabriella. And we watched those for years since we were kids. In movies where women are the lead, women are who want to bring them down. If there isn’t one popular mean girl, the lead girl’s best friend will usually be the one who hurts her.

I don’t like that message. I don’t like that reality. Normalizing this in movies as character tropes and simple stereotypes isn’t funny when it’s been reinforced so many times that it feels true. And frankly, it isn’t true. It is taught.


I'm Julia. I am a sophomore journalism major at VCU. I love film, tv, and writing, and I tend to love writing about film and tv!
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