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Misrepresenting Women in Film: the Damsel in Distress, the Femme Fatale, and the Angry Black Woman

Nowadays, many people are already aware of the importance of representation in the media. Giving more exposure to the underrepresented can help break stereotypes that often limit individuals. With this rising awareness, we notice that more actions are done to provide diverse representations in the media. However, it is important to reflect on the ways certain groups of people have been represented in our society, one of which is women. Though women have always been present as important characters in various movies since a long time ago, there is still an issue of being underrepresented, and cinema is still a limited medium for women to express themselves. Although the trends of female representation are increasing, we still frequently see stereotypical, one-dimensional, female character archetypes that do nothing to contribute to a proper representation for women being used. Some of the types of female characters are a damsel in distress, femme fatale, and angry black woman.

The first and perhaps the most common misrepresentation of women in film is the damsel in distress archetype. It is a theme where a female character is portrayed to be helpless after being placed in danger by a villain, and therefore she needs a hero to save her. This trope is very common, to the point where it is normal for us to see women characters like the ones that need to be rescued by someone else, typically a man, no matter the genre of the film we’re watching. Too often, female characters are portrayed as passive characters who cannot save themselves. Female characters that fall into this category are reduced to just another plot device for the hero’s character development, who are almost always male. Their portrayal tends to give the impression that they are there as none other than a prize or trophy for these male heroes. Damsels in distress do not get to control their own story, sending a message to the viewers that women are powerless on their own. It, therefore, is never a good representation of female characters and should not be normalized.

The second type is femme fatale, notably characterized as a beautiful woman who seduces men, usually for negative purposes. At a glance, this type gives the impression of a strong female character. Unlike damsels in distress, femme fatales have control over who they are and what they do. But it is important to be critical of how femme fatales have been portrayed in films because they are quite harmful as a representation of women. The main reason why many strong female characters get classified as femme fatale is mostly because their creators like to reduce women’s strength to their sexuality only. A femme fatale’s character development tends to revolve only around her sexuality, which resulted in a shallow characterization. Moreover, a femme fatale often gets to be treated like the villain in movies, and even when they are not the villain, their acts of sexuality are rarely put in a positive light. This gives the impression that when a female character finally gets to have power over men, they will be vilified as if they will never be allowed to have power over men. Additionally, if we examine more closely regarding femme fatale archetypes in film, we can argue that some of these portrayals are meant only as an excuse for male writers or content creators to personify misogynistic fears against women. Therefore, the impression that a femme fatale is a strong female character to look up to is far from the truth.

The third type is angry black women, in which filmmakers portray black women in film as sassy and ill-mannered, which is why this character type is also called the “sassy black woman.” To clarify, there is nothing wrong with having a sassy, blunt personality. However, when a single type of character is constantly given this as their one and only trait, it can turn into a negative stereotype. In reality, no black woman is the same. They are just as complex as any other human being, with their own unique characteristics, and yet filmmakers like to portray them as a  sassy and ill-mannered caricature way too often. Black female characters are reduced to a single archetype that is not even true to life. It pushes black women into a negative stereotype, which further harms them in real life. And just like the femme fatale, we can examine more closely as to what does this stereotype often tells about the filmmakers behind them. We can then argue that it is a manifestation of non-black-women filmmakers’ perception towards real-life black women, that treats any of them who are challenging social inequalities as irrationally angry. Hence, this archetype has harmful social implications and needs to end.

In conclusion, while the quantity of female representation is something we can appreciate, we also have to pay more attention to the quality of representation. Having a diverse representation of characters in media is important, but the purpose of these representations will cease to be of any use if these representations are not done properly.

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