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The Contrasting Representations of Women in Contemporary Science-Fiction Films (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1, Prometheus and Passengers)

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Introduction

This investigation will explore the representation of women in the films: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (Lionsgate Film, 2014), Prometheus (20th Century Fox, 2012) and Passengers (Columbia Pictures, 2016). Films usually represent women in an over-sexual and derogatory light. This study will seek to prove that the opposing representations of women present in Sci-Fi films are due to the struggle between the rise in modern-day feminist & equitable ideals and the past traditional, patriarchal views on gender roles. The investigation will explore how the various traditional female stereotypes, like women being submissive, has changed over to time accept more positive representations, like women having the ability to be strong and in control. I will also analyze the possible perspectives that go against my argument to gain a better understanding of how the female gender is portrayed in the film industry. Judith Butler proposes the idea of Gender Performativity. It suggests that we all put on a performance. She says ‘by choosing to be different about it, we might work to change gender norms and the binary understanding of masculinity and femininity’ Gauntlett, 1997).

The Stereotypes in Past Science Fiction Films and Today

In past Science Fiction films, like the ‘Forbidden Planet’ (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1956) the female characters are portrayed in a stereotypical fashion. For instance, the female character in Forbidden Planet, Altaira (Anna Francis) wears revealing clothing and is considered a very naive girl throughout the movie. Steve Neale’s Genre Theory suggests that ‘much of the pleasure of popular cinema lies in the process of “difference in repetition” – (i.e. recognition of familiar elements and in the way those elements might be orchestrated in an unfamiliar fashion or in the way that unfamiliar elements might be introduced)’ (Brading, 2011). This means that stereotypes and conventions might still be carried out and portrayed but through unconventional ways to add a sense of intrigue and excitement. In more modern Science Fiction films, women have begun taking the lead and asserting their presence. However, like the previous quote suggests, these films likely contain hidden, encoded stereotypes and traditional conventions. The Hunger Games, directed by Francis Lawrence, is about empowering women and showing how the lead female character is strong and independent enough to survive and take charge. Additionally, the movie Prometheus, directed by Ridley Scott, is about a woman that has to be protected by a group of men from an alien monster. These case studies are perfect as they show how the media portrays women in different ways. One is shown as a strong independent warrior and the other as a helpless girl. However, the third movie, Passengers, directed by Morten Tyldum, shows how a man takes control and forces a woman to do something against her will for his own personal needs, which relates to Propp’s Character Theory as it places the female as the princess. The female only ‘exists as a goal’ (Wilson, 2011) according to Propp’s theory which is clearly seen in Passengers as the male desires the female. The main character is a male with an agency, he has a goal. The only named female character is a supporting character with no agency. She only reacts to what the male does because she doesn’t progress the plot. Now, this has been chosen due to the fact that the main Actress, Jennifer Lawrence, also starred as the strong, independent warrior character in the Hunger Games. Furthermore, this has been included to show another perspective so that the investigation can be analyzed critically.

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Stuart Hall’s Representation Theory

Through the use of Stuart Hall’s Representation Theory, these texts will be analyzed from a constructivist approach. Stuart Hall’s Representation Theory suggests that ‘the word ‘representation” refers to the production of knowledge (rather than just meaning)’ (Acosta, 2012). This means a representation is a figure crafted by the creator’s inner values rather than the actual meaning. Therefore, the productions of the film industry reflect the misogynistic and derogatory values of the directors and Harvey Weinstein, the man that has been the perpetrator of several sexual assaults, who also governs the film industry in Hollywood. These sexist beliefs are a result of the quondam traditional values created by men. It is reasonable to believe that some people would have been raised with such values and not having been taught ethics and moral truth in that: women are not an inferior species for men to abuse.

The Inferior and Foolish Gender in Prometheus

Harvey Weinstein’s inner misogynistic and abusive intentions promote a certain negative, representation of female stereotypes which has become ingrained in the traditions of Hollywood. An example of where these values have an effect would be the film Prometheus (Dir. Ridley Scott. 2012). The film Prometheus represents women as weak and inferior. This can be seen through the scene where Elizabeth Shaw (played by Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), as well as other crew members, are woken from a cryogenic sleep. Shaw is sat hunched over for the entire scene vomiting into a box, while Holloway and the other male crew have quickly recovered and are slightly more relaxed. This scene portrays how women aren’t as strong and conditioned to adventure as the male gender. While the male characters are able to move on and get to work, the only female in the scene is still in pain. This allows us to see how the director and writers view the female gender, in that women are frail and delicate. This relates to the Codes of Gender Documentary in that ‘femininity is superficial and weak’ (Jhally, 2009). This is further reinforced in a different scene where Holloway is explaining their scientific findings and conclusions to a group of men. While this is taking place, the character Elizabeth Shaw stands by his side nodding along in agreement. This shows how the man has taken control of the situation and the woman is supposed to be submissive. This links to Laura Mulvey’s theory of the Male Gaze in that the audience watches from the male’s perspective and denies the women a human identity. In the same scene, when Shaw finally speaks, her ideas and theories are dismissed as ‘bullshit’ by one of the men as the rest laugh. This highlights the stereotype of women being the inferior and foolish gender.

The Strong Woman in the Hunger Games

However, in the Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (Dir. Francis Lawrence. 2014.) the main character is a powerful woman who is in control. One of the ways this is shown is through the props. In the movie, Katniss Everdeen’s (played by Jennifer Lawrence) favoured weapon is the longbow. Not only does it represent an element of danger, but it also shows strength, accuracy and speed. These are usually elements that are stereotypically masculine showing how the film subverts traditional feminine stereotypes. This can also be seen through the costume of the main character. Jennifer Lawrence’s character wears fully black armour. The armour shows how that she encounters precarious situations frequently and the fact that the costume covers her whole body without exposing anything portrays Katniss as a respectful character who isn’t over sexualized. This completely dismisses the theory of the male gaze, which says that women are portrayed as sexualized objects for the man’s pleasure. Furthermore, the colour of her costume is black, which connotes power and confidence, traits usually seen as masculine. Moreover, the quote ‘Nobody told her what to do’, said by Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), is said regarding the way Katniss makes her decisions. This quote implies that she is smart and independent enough to make her own judgment choices. Usually, decisiveness is a trait of men but here they use it for a woman to go against the past traditions. This all links to the concept of Modernism. Modernism is a philosophical movement of altering and rejecting tradition. However, this does beg the question, can women be strong and break tradition without exchanging all their feminine traits for masculine? Additionally, the simple fact that the female characters pass the Bechdel test shows how the increase in feminist ideals has allowed the empowerment of the female gender. To pass the Bechdel Test, ‘films need to satisfy three requirements: #1 It has at least two women in it #2 who talk to each other, about #3 something besides a man'(Friedman, 2015).

Misogynistic Values in the Passengers

Although, the movie Passengers (Dir. Morten Tyldum. 2016) contradicts my argument as this film is a very modern film that still sticks to past traditions of gender roles and stereotypes. These misogynistic values are portrayed through the name of the lead female character, Aurora Lane (played by Jennifer Lawrence). The name Aurora relates to the trivialized story of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, in which the ‘sleeping beauty’ is named Aurora. The original is story majorly about the theme of objectification which plays out here. This film generally comes across as a modern Science Fiction rework of the Sleeping Beauty story. We know this due to how the main male character, Jim Preston (played by Chris Pratt), wakes up early from is cryogenic sleep on a space trip to a new world. After a year of feeling lonely, he finds the sleeping Aurora Lane. He sees her as a beautiful and interesting woman and decides to wake her up about 80 years ahead of schedule, without her consent. This relates to Vladimir Propp’s Character Theory and the idea of the Princess archetype. The theory suggests that the Princess, or damsel in distress, is ‘often sought for during the narrative’ (McCarthy, 2013). This objectifies this helpless female character and represents her as a prize to be won rather than a living, breathing individual. Moreover, it is a clear example of Laura Mulvey’s theory of the Male Gaze is ‘where women in the media are viewed from the eyes of a heterosexual man’ (Sampson, 2015) and objectify the woman. Aurora Lane is objectified for the pleasure of a lonely man. This is further reinforced by a clip of Jennifer Lawrence wearing a mostly transparent bathing suit as she goes for a swim. This portrays her character as an over-sexualized creature for the male’s pleasure, again relating to the Male Gaze theory, ‘Men do the looking, and women are to be looked at’ (Sampson, 2015). The Male Gaze Theory suggests that women are ‘objects of male desire’ (Sampson, 2015), they only exist for the pleasure of men and the “needs”. Furthermore, the film has been edited to display a montage of 3 consecutive sex scenes between Jim Preston and Aurora Lane (Figure 6). This puts the audience in the perspective of a heterosexual man to gaze upon the female during a scene of vulnerability. Whether or not they are a homosexual man or a straight woman, the audience is still positioned in this way due to the actions of the director. Moreover, in a later scene, Aurora Lane is shown caressing Jim’s face. This relates to The Codes of Gender documentary through the quote ‘when women are shown holding something, it often looks as though it is just resting there – not being held in a strong manner’ (Jhally, 2009). This shows the viewer that women are stereotypically gentle; they only brush objects and features with their hands they never grip or grab, when it comes to stereotyping, women are weak and gentle. Additionally, the actors Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt are known for their stance on gender equality. For example, Lawrence has fought for equal pay (an example being the essay she wrote for Lena Dunham about earning less than her male costars) and brought huge media attention to the issue of the gender pay gap while Pratt has spoken about the need for gender equity in multiple interviews. This shows the grip of the traditional sexist values of society. These representations fortify the status quo that’s cultivated by the dominant ideology, that dominant ideology being the patriarchy. George Gerbner’s cultivation helps explain this idea due to the fact the Cultivation theory suggests ‘high-frequency viewers of television are more susceptible to media messages and the belief that they are real and valid’ (Davie, 2010). After centuries of being conditioned and restricted, women are now accustomed to falling into and accepting these submissive and false gender roles. The pressure of society on gender roles as well as mass media cultivation had pushed women to accept and follow the conventional stereotypes.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is clear to see that the conflict between modern feminist values and traditional patriarchal views has created a series of contrasting representations of women in a film genre that is usually venerated for its visionary ideas. The movie: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (Dir. Francis Lawrence. 2014.) presents the emergence of a powerful main female character hat takes control and shows that the female gender isn’t weak or submissive like tradition suggests. Whereas, the main female character in the film Prometheus (Dir. Ridley Scott. 2012.) is represented as an object of pleasure for the male gender. She is also portrayed as submissive and inferior. This shows how the conventional values of objectification have created the perfect stereotype from the perspective of the superior male. This reinforces my hypothesis because it shows that despite the two films being made around a similar time, they both create a very divergent set of stereotypes. Albeit, the film Passengers (Dir. Morten Tyldum. 2016.) shows that this isn’t always the case due to the fact that, despite it being the most recent of the three movies, it still portrayed the main female character as part of the conventional stereotype. Furthermore, the main female character of Aurora Lane relates closely to the most objectified female character in fairy tales, Sleeping Beauty. Although, the thesis applies to the majority of films in the Science-Fiction genre undeterred by the odd exception of films like Passengers. It is also worthy to note Jon Spaihts was the writer for both Passenger and Prometheus, making it apparent that his sexist and traditional views are what shaped the outcome of the two movies.

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