Women in Cinema: Since the silent days of cinema, audiences have engaged in the mirth of watching big-screen actors caricature the woman. Comedic icons such as Chaplin, The Three Stooges and Fatty Arbuckle donned feminine garb for laughs. A century later and this gag has yet to retire, sending audiences tee-hee-ing at the sight of famous male actors dressed as women.
But what effect does it have on social perception of gender, among other things?
While this gag seems fairly innocuous to the average movie-theater patron in search of entertainment, it has a behemoth effect on how one sees gender. It aims to not only trivialize the female experience but to commodify femininity and reduce notions of transvestism into laughing matters.
Take Mrs. Doubtfire, or any of the countless examples of the last few decades (Some Like It Hot, Tootsie, Tyler Perry’s Madea films, Big Momma’s House, Juwanna Mann, The Nutty Professor films, White Chicks, Jack and Jill, Hairspray, etc.), for instance. Whether the actor plays or is impersonating a female character, there is a sense of gender assault, or genderssault, as I have termed. The female experience has been reduced to stereotypical connotations: dress, hair, makeup, voice, gesture. The on-screen woman is a hodgepodge of all the accoutrements patriarchal society has defined as feminine. In Mrs. Doubtfire, we witness Robin Williams’ character subject himself to the quintessential transformation, usually an amusing montage full of awful wigs, prosthetics and a “voila!” reveal at the swivel of a stylist’s chair. All the while, the audience is privy to the character’s biological identity. He has become impressionistically and characteristically what society attributes to being a woman. As the French feminist theorist Simone de Beauvoir once famously stated in her book The Second Sex
One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature…
Even in the case of Tyler Perry’s Madea character, in which he plays a female, he must use the guise of a woman. Yet no matter how concealing the adornments, the actor is only representing the idea of the woman, negating all the experience it requires to grow up in a patriarchal society as the opposite sex. The only thing particularly risible about these comedic films is the presumptuousness to presume otherness. Such films reinforce an economic industry that commodifies womanhood. From birth, the female is presented with feminine signifiers and exposed to a ubiquitous form of commercialism that abbreviates the female experience for capital gain. Film – a form of commercialism or, at least, great influence – enforces these notions.
My focus, thus far, has centered on the genderssault on females but what about male genderssault? Women are culprits also. Take, for example, the 2005 comedy She’s the Man, where Amanda Bynes’ character impersonates her brother to play on the men’s soccer team at his school. Her transformation is a clever montage of de-emphasizing both her female and woman characteristics: removal of makeup, shortening the length of hair, suppressing the chest with tight dressing. Throughout the film, Bynes’ character adopts a negative masculine persona often using sexist epithets, where even her male roommate points out why he/she is always speaking ill towards women. She can’t really believe that’s how all men talk, but by adopting a stereotypical masculine identity, no one can contend she is not a man. In this case, the man in question has sadly been reduced to an obtuse sexist, testosterone-driven archetype.
While a prevalent pattern of genderssault in mainstream cinema indicates a disturbingly negative depiction of gender, it also reflects the hurdles for women in patriarchal society. As aforementioned, women trivialize the male experience in film also, but my thesis has focused on men committing genderssault because it’s these type of films that do the most harm. Films in which women dress to impersonate or play men are usually focused to show inequality between sexes. Films like She’s the Man and Just One of the Guys, both based on Shakespeare’s The Twelfth Night, employ gender-swapping as a comedic plot-device, but there are other films with more serious, didactic undertones, e.g., Yentl, Motocrossed, Shakespeare in Love, Osama, The Ballad of Little Jo, Orlando, etc. Whether it’s to show that females can compete in a male-dominated sport or occupation (Yentl, Motocrossed, Shakespeare in Love) or to show that she is universally disgraced by her own society or has no means to the same opportunities and resources that men are entitled to (Osama, The Ballad of Little Jo, Orlando), women rarely dress as men just for laughs. [I should also mention that Orlando, from acclaimed feminist director Sally Potter, features Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I in a superlative performance that is never offensive and transcends definitions of gender-swapping roles.] Often this means the woman acknowledges her sex/gender is a hindrance to herself and her goals and must find a different means to meet her objective(s). Even in a film like She’s the Man, however crude, the female protagonist must adopt a guise because she cannot achieve her goal as a woman/female. You might offer a reverse argument of Juwanna Mann, in which a disgraced pro-basketball player disguises himself as a woman to play for a woman’s basketball team. The titular character is not transcending boundaries with this comedic role; if anything, it’s belittling an organization whose genesis resulted from exile of a male-dominated sport.
While such films can be important in highlighting a gender gap and pointing out notions of patriarchy that need to be corrected, they also aim, whether intentionally or not, to caricature niche communities. Specifically, the LGBT community. Far too few films showcase positive images of transgender and/or transsexuals. Films like Transamerica, The Crying Game and, most recently, Dallas Buyers Club –which earned Jared Leto a Best Supporting Actor Oscar earlier this year for his portrayal of an HIV-positive trans woman – are excellent exceptions, however. Cross-dressing has become an omnipresent gag in media, programs such as M*A*S*H and McHale’s Navy often employed it, and it continues to be utilized today. The other day, I watched a Saturday Night Live skit in which a famous musician impersonated a woman and kissed the episode’s male host…and I laughed. Tentative to say, I didn’t have a good answer when I asked myself afterwards why I laughed. Is this antithetical admission demonstrative of how hypocritical I am, or further evidence of how pervasive and invasive this gag has become? I realize how contradictory my actions are to my principles, but I also realize how disciplined we, as a society, are to view otherness. It’s easy to laugh at something because it’s difficult to acknowledge the hardships of someone not like ourselves.
It’s also difficult for studios to profit off hardships. The domestic earnings of Shakespeare in Love, Yentl, Osama, The Ballad of Little Jo and Orlando (Motocrossed was a made-for-TV movie) is nearly $150 million – the bulk of which comes from Shakespeare ($100 million domestically). Collate that to Tyler Perry’s Madea films (six in total, thus far), which have earned nearly $400 million domestically, and that’s more than double the cumulative gross of the five aforementioned films. The fact that Perry has found a captive audience for his celluloid alter-ego is also illustrative of how Hollywood continues to capitalize on this gag. Big Momma’s House and The Nutty Professor have had sequels and it was reported, last month, that Mrs. Doubtfire will get a sequel. The point is: comedy sells. And when something sells it has more influence, whether good or bad. Hollywood doesn’t care how many lines it has to unscrupulously cross(dress), as long as it meets the bottom line.