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Ugly Duckling or Independent Swan: Five harmful Stereotypes of Women in Film

You know that old saying: if it looks like sexism, walks like sexism, and quacks—or sounds like sexism, it is sexism. Maybe that's not how it goes, but it certainly reflects the way stereotypes of women in film persist. The film industry, largely dominated by men, perpetuates harmful perceptions of women through tired and repetitive tropes.


There is a striking lack of representation of women in the influential boardrooms where key storytelling decisions are made. According to a report from San Diego State University, as of 2022, only 24% of women held production positions—a shockingly low representation.

Many statistics and research on gender representation in film focus on gender and race separately, overlooking the intersectional depictions of women of color in film. It is crucial to note that, according to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, while Black women make up 6.5% of the US population, only 3.7% are cast as leads in the top 100 films of the past decade.


We must consider the portrayal of all women in film. After all, how can women be adequately represented when not everyone's stories are being told?


Without women directors, writers, and producers, the integrity of female characters often gets lost. Here are some of the most common stereotypes of women found in film and the continuous problems they pose.


1. Ugly Duckling


Everyone is familiar with the childhood story "The Ugly Duckling," but shouldn't we all mature beyond it? The Ugly Duckling trope revolves around a woman who fails to meet societal beauty standards, undergoes a drastic makeover to become conventionally attractive, and suddenly, she is showered with love and respect. This trope is particularly disconcerting because the character often attains success only after her transformation, reinforcing the notion that women must conform to Western beauty ideals in order to lead fulfilling lives. Examples of movies that prominently feature this trope include "The Princess Diaries" and "Clueless," both of which revolve around young women who find love and success only after undergoing a transformation, as if they weren't deserving of these things from the start.


2. Manic Pixie Dream Girl


She's not like other girls—and somehow, that makes her superior to them, right? Wrong! The Manic Pixie Dream Girl, or MPDG for short, is portrayed as quirky and different, exuding an elusive aura of mystery and ultimately transforming the male protagonist for the better. This stereotype reeks of sexism, as it implies that a woman's sole purpose is to improve a man's life. Notable examples of popular manic pixie dream girls include Zooey Deschanel's character in the movie "500 Days of Summer" and Ramona Flowers from "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World." The most damaging aspect of the MPDG trope is the devaluation of "normal girls" who appreciate popular things, suggesting that their preferences are unattractive.


3. Damsel in Distress


From a fire-breathing dragon to being locked away in a tower, the Damsel in Distress relies on a man to come to her rescue! Is that snoring I hear? This trope is so boring and overdone, tarnishing the world of literature and every storytelling format. The damsel in distress is portrayed as completely defenseless against the whims of the primary antagonist, requiring rescue by the male protagonist. Furthermore, this trope depicts the damsel as a helpless, hopeless woman who simply waits patiently for her knight in shining armor. It perpetuates the idea that women are incapable of fighting for themselves, rendering them inadequate and powerless. Additionally, the damsel is often objectified as a prize that the main character gets to keep or marry by the end of the story. While this stereotype can be found in classic movies like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, it unfortunately persists in modern films like Star Wars and Spider-Man as well.


4. Evil Stepmother


Did someone mention a gold-digger? The evil stepmother stereotype, popularized by Disney movies, portrays women as child-hating villains. The stepmother desires the father's love more than that of her stepchildren. She is often excessively sexualized and emphasizes a significant age gap between herself and the father, implying that the father's wealth is the primary motivation for their relationship. This stereotype perpetuates harmful beliefs about women, depicting them as jealous, money-hungry, and attention-seeking. Additionally, it reinforces Western ideals of marriage by suggesting that divorce is negative and that stepmothers have immoral intentions. The most recognizable example of this archetype is the evil stepmother in Cinderella, but modern films like The Parent Trap and Nanny McPhee also employ this trope.


5. Cool Girl


She's just one of the guys—because being a girl is never sufficient. The Cool Girl trope, similar to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, embodies a male fantasy. She mirrors the male protagonist's preferences: skateboarding, drinking beer, carefree, and attractive. However, what stands out is her lack of depth as a character beyond her impact on the male protagonist. This trope found its way into one of my former favorite movies, How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days. The female protagonist, Andy Anderson, initially charms the male protagonist with her love for sports games and burgers. However, she loses his interest as soon as she starts behaving like other girls—leaving pink frilly things at his apartment, eating vegan, and being perceived as needy. This example is highly problematic, as it creates the notion of girls who enjoy mainstream things as "the other" or inferior, similar to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. It is not to say that women don't enjoy activities stereotypically associated with male interests, but the issue arises when a character lacks depth beyond these interests and their physical attractiveness. Furthermore, the cool girl trope imposes unrealistic standards on women, expecting them to cater to male interests and the male gaze.


These stereotypical portrayals of women in film are tiresome and must be eliminated. The most effective solution to this problem is to increase the representation of women in production roles within the film industry. By providing women with the opportunity to write female characters and stories, we can ensure more accurate and less harmful portrayals.

Therefore, let's discard worn-out stereotypes like the ugly duckling and move towards an industry that allows well-rounded, independent individuals to shine.


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