This vs. That: Female Representation
Examples of entertainment media that represent women well, and examples of those which don’t.
Written by: Eric Seitz
Female representation in entertainment has no-doubt increased and improved greatly in the 21st century. From the first woman-led Star Wars film, to an all-female reboot of Ghostbusters, to Disney Princesses who are their own heroes, the entertainment world is blossoming with instances of more prolific (if not always better) representation.
But what makes good representation? Which TV shows, films, and video games have representation that stems from genuine efforts to improve the public’s perception of women, and which are merely empty, corporate cash-grabs, aiming to appease a progressing society? Below, read a this-or-that list of which pieces of entertainment represent women well, and which don’t.
This Works: Wonder Woman
The first major blockbuster female superhero film, “Wonder Woman” was a critical and commercial success, reinvigorating the DC Extended Universe. The film expertly foils Diana’s graceful might against the brutality of the male-dominated World War I. The theme of female empowerment is woven into the narrative itself, so the level of representation feels natural — like it’s supposed to be there.
This Doesn’t: Captain Marvel
“Captain Marvel” is a perfectly serviceable Marvel Studios film — and it wouldn’t have obliterated the box office records if it weren’t. It fails where “Wonder Woman” succeeded in that its theme of female empowerment feels grafted onto the rest of the plot. The film constantly reminds audiences that Carol’s been pushed down her entire life, hoping that when she accesses her full powers, viewers will understand this is a big moment. But the moment falls flat because of its lack of connection to the entire rest of the movie’s story.
This Works: Ocean’s 8
“Ocean’s 8” is a who’s who of Hollywood’s finest actresses. Starring Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Mindy Kaling, and I don’t have enough room to list the rest, this film had all the makings to be a cash-in on both the popularity of the Ocean’s franchise, and also the popularity of its cast (I mean, why else would Rihanna be in this film?). However, “Ocean’s 8” is an intricate, fun heist flick that maintains the DNA of previous Ocean’s movies, while incorporating a moving B-plot of female teamwork.
This Doesn’t: Ghostbusters (2016)
This Ghostbusters reboot promised that women could carry a comedy franchise, but the problem wasn’t that it was all-female — it was that it pretended like it wasn’t. If this were a generic ghost-battling comedy that happened to star all women, the story would be different. But the filmmakers made a conscious choice to cast an all-female reboot, so using the female-ness of the film to its advantage would have given it something special. Instead, the film tried to recreate what the originals had — but with women. And people hated it.
Female-Led Video Games
This Doesn’t Work: Metroid
While the Metroid games form a critically acclaimed franchise for their expert gameplay, combat, and exploration, their protagonist Samus is often a subject of controversy. While Samus has been around much longer than most other female video game protagonists, her status as a feminist symbol is questionable at best. For one, whenever Samus is on screen without her suit, she is portrayed in an overly sexualized skin-tight bodysuit. Additionally, the games that explore Samus’s personal life more deeply tend to show her as a weaker version of herself than how she appears with her suit on.
This Does: Horizon Zero Dawn
Horizon’s characterization, story, and world are so fabulous because of the fact that it frankly does not matter whether its protagonist Aloy is male or female. Aloy is not sexualized or fetishized, and she doesn’t look overly feminine. Further, she’s not a Mary Sue like many female protagonists are — she makes mistakes, acts rashly, and is deeply human. That makes her triumph at the end all the more emotional and real.
Animated Action Heroines
This Works: Raya and the Last Dragon
“Raya and the Last Dragon” ticks all the boxes for representative boundary-breaking in film: Southeast Asian cast. Female warrior. Female sidekick. Female villain. It does all that, but it goes further. The female warrior (Raya) learns to be an effective leader. The sidekick (Sisu) realizes her own worth. The villain is dynamic and unconventional. “Raya and the Last Dragon” champions progress, but it flies that flag of progress well beyond what’s expected. (And Raya doesn’t sing!)
This Doesn’t: Incredibles 2
The original Incredibles established Elastigirl as a competent superhero who easily fought alongside the men, and it established her civilian counterpart Helen as a wife who split the parenting responsibilities with her husband. The sequel attempts to take it a step further by putting Elastigirl into the spotlight that Mr. Incredible held in the original, but the plot deteriorates into a mere gender-swap of the first film. Reducing Helen’s time in the spotlight to a simple retreading of Bob’s footsteps is a disservice to what attempts the writers made at positive female representation.
This Doesn’t Work: 007
The entire 007 pantheon has had a troubled history with sexism and lack of representation. “Bond girls” especially tend to get the short end of the stick. And Bond’s love interest Madeleine in the final few Daniel Craig films fails to improve on this. Madeleine feels like dead weight being pulled along for the sake of having a woman by James’ side, even when her history is purposely intertwined in the plot. In “No Time to Die,” Bond accuses Madeleine of attempted murder and tells her he never wants to see her again, then shows up five years later asking for her back, and she just…falls back into his arms. The Bond films have never been — and never will be — about the Bond girls, but an attempt at making them into real, believable human beings would be nice.
This Does: Super Mario
Like the Bond series, the Mario series has a bumpy past when it comes to female representation. However, the portrayal of Princess Peach has come a long way from the kidnap, save, kidnap, save cycle of the 80s and 90s. In “Super Mario 3D World,” Peach was a playable hero. And at the end of “Super Mario Odyssey” when Mario and Bowser are childishly fighting for her affection, she leaves them both to fly solo and tour the world with her new gal pal Tiara — just two single ladies on a globetrotting adventure of their own. While Peach may never shed her nasty habit of getting kidnapped, the developers can (and do) come up with ways of ensuring everyone’s favorite parasol-wielding princess of mushrooms is more than merely an object for Mario to get.
This Doesn’t Work: Aladdin (1992)
Jasmine in the original “Aladdin” is one of the weakest Disney princesses of the modern era. Her role in the film is solely that of Aladdin’s love interest. The subplot of Jasmine wanting to free herself of Agrabah’s old laws only serves to put her next to Aladdin as his wife in the end. Despite her seemingly progressive independent spunk at the beginning of the film, she becomes the damsel in distress in the final act.
This Does: Aladdin (2019)
The course-correct that the writers did on Jasmine’s character for the live-action remake of “Aladdin” is second to none. With a few simple tweaks, Jasmine quickly became the most interesting part of the entire film. Her mission to become sultan makes such perfect sense in hindsight that it’s hard to understand why writers of the original didn’t choose that route in the first place. Further, her song “Speechless” is the spine-tingling culmination of her fight against Jafar and subsequent emancipation. Not only did the alterations of Jasmine’s story help in the film’s representation of women, but it improved the story as a whole.