Sexist Tropes in Mainstream Cinema

Photo by Cindy Leah

The world finally seems to understand that female stereotypes are offensive and not entertaining — yet not everyone in Hollywood has gotten the memo. Mainstream cinema still represents female characters in a stereotypical fashion. Call it storytelling shortcuts, sloppy writing, or internalized misogyny, but even characters who are supposed to appear ‘empowering’ end up falling under these sexist tropes.

One of the popular tropes is the Plus size woman trope – this trope relegates plus size women to comic relief. Their entire personality is centred around their weight. The character’s story usually revolves around being funny, promiscuous and supportive. The majority of funny lines from these character tropes stem from the socially accepted and extremely ignorant views on fat people. And for some reason, the character does not have a love interest. This ignores the thousand other roles plus size women have to offer and how like everyone else, their stories are multi-dimensional. Not too far from this trope is the Sassy Black Woman.

The Sassy Black woman is also the Black best friend. She is hilarious and full of life and punch lines. She is curvy, bold, audacious and always a supporting character. She exists to make you laugh. TV tropes describe this trope as “never too busy to lend an ear or come along in your wacky schemes. She is flawless to the point of being unreal’’. This character does not have problems of her own, she exists to offer sympathy and outrageous humour. The sassy black woman is dramatic and most times, an interesting part of the show but the real humankind black women are complex, opinionated, ambitious, self-respecting black women and this trope does nothing to reflect that.

Strong female character – When a strong female character manages to surpass her male counterparts, she becomes the Ice Queen or Queen with the iron fists. She is feared, badass, emotionally unavailable, has no sense of humour, no character, no depth. She’s only career-focused because let’s face it, career women can’t be focused and be any other thing, right, Hollywood? The origin of this trope is traced to the rebellion against traditional roles. Yet somehow, it ends up in rejection of femininity and portraying the more feminine characters as weak.  An improved version of the portrayal of successful career-oriented women is found in Jacqueline from ‘The Bold Type’. She is successful, respected, without being an ice queen. She is approachable, she even plays the role of a mentor and guide to other young women. 

The Damsel in Distress trope is found in every Princess story ever written. She is a helpless woman who needs a male hero to save her. She does not attempt to do anything to save herself. Enter – all Disney princesses. It is boring because she is more of a plot device to give the hero an objective, than an actual character.  An improvement in the portrayal of girls here is Elsa. Unlike many other princesses, she takes charge and rescues herself and everyone else without a Prince on a white horse. Because, yes, that’s possible. Women can save themselves.

Flip the Damsel and Distress trope, you’ll get the good girl whose role is to repair the bad body. A woman who goes over and beyond to win a man’s love even when he treats her wrong. She is incomplete without him and her happily ever after only exists when he is in the picture. Her sole purpose is to rescue emotionally troubled men. The danger in this is the need for a woman’s happiness or completeness as a human must still involve a man’s presence.

The Femme Fatale – She is sexy and she knows it! She’s in every film ever made, and she always gets her man. Think of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. She manages to manipulate and confuse the hero with her undeniable feminine wiles. This character is usually portrayed by a conventionally beautiful female character.  

Besides the fact that this trope is unrealistic, a deeper look reveals that this heavy use of femininity and hyper-sexualization blurs the lines of sexual harassment.The man in the movie who she is trying to seduce always wants sex, fostering the myth that men always want sex and the harassment they get from these women when they express disinterest is harmless and inherently funny. This is of course false; men can be raped and it is not harmless.

Speaking of sex, the toxic idea that it is the utmost humiliation for a man to be treated like a woman is reinforced in the popular comic trope of women raping men as some kind of gender-flipped comedy. This is an abhorrent  way of ‘passing a message’. Sexual assault should be taken seriously regardless of the frequency of the crime or gender of the perpetrator.  

When conventionally beautiful women sexually assault men on TV,  it is made to appear as a conflict between fantasy and personal restrictions for the man. When it’s a younger boy and an attractive older lady, it gives the boy reputation and attainment of manhood. He is even congratulated for being assaulted which leads to unrealistic expectations to keep up to maintain status. 

When the assaulter is a woman who is not conventionally beautiful, it’s an entirely different trope. Enter – The abhorrent admirers – too fat, too ugly, too old, too masculine to be desirable. Which is incredibly sexist. The message is tying the value of women to sexual desirability to straight men, or that people who don’t meet Hollywood standards of beauty should dare want sexuality at all.

“Different from other girls” tropes – Cobie Smulders’ Robin in How I Met Your Mother comes to mind here. She is cool and accepted by the men for being hot yet ‘different from other girls’.

Here is a monologue where it is clearly articulated : “Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2 because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.”

This trope is unrealistic. It’s created to suit what men find acceptable which is all around sexist.

The “Exotic” Asian Woman trope is also known as the Lotus Blossom stereotype. She is a docile, sensual and submissive woman who exists to add intrigue to the white men whose story is being told. Asian men on the other hand are desexualized and removed from the equation. Case in point, Raj from the Big Bang theory. These women are oversexualized and fetishized.  Better portrayals of Asian women are found in Christina’s character Yang in Grey’s Anatomy. A career-oriented, yet complex character who isn’t a mere object of desire.

The Duckling to Swan metamorphosis – think of the girl who instantly becomes many degrees hotter immediately she ditches her glasses, lets her hair down and squeezes herself into a dress. In reality, these makeovers simply make them more in line with the beauty standards idealized by the industry, which are also highly sexist.

No, it’s not just fiction. Our world mirrors the entertainment media and vice versa. The mainstream cinema is our reality because all too often, these tropes show up in the real world with actual consequences – instigating  sexism, racism, fatphobia and homophobia. The best way to kill these tropes is creating a better representation of reality.

This means diversity in the writers’ room. It means less tokenism which is essentially diversity without inclusion. It’s not enough to have many people who look different from one another in a movie; their stories must be well told. The dream is for fiction to reflect the world we live in.

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