The portrayal of women in film and television has undergone a very serious transition throughout the last several decades. Where once women were seen as either helpless and always needing a man to help them through life, now women are considered to be strong, independent, and fully capable of sorting out their own issues. The damsel in distress has given way to the modern woman that no longer needs to be saved, but might still need a companion. Women have gained a stronger and more persistent role in mainstream media.
One such pioneer that paved the way was the character of Ellen Ripley in “Aliens” (1986) that showed how women were fully capable of handling themselves in intense situations. Ripley was a strong-willed woman that did not go out of her way to make friends but still sought to prove herself worthy of her place in the overall situation. Brought in as a consultant in the second film of the franchise, she was obviously suffering from PTSD brought on by her experience with the xenomorph from the previous film. Despite this, she still managed to rally back and show that she was in fact far tougher than several of her male counterparts when it truly counted.
The only real relationship she seems to care about in this film is the one she develops
with the little girl named Newt. She could easily lose the soldiers and the commanders, but Newt
became her world very quickly as she reminded her of the daughter she had lost. Ripley did not
seem to fear much in this film other than the xenomorph, but when it came to losing Newt her
fear of the aliens took a back seat very quickly.
Another potential victim of severe PTSD is the character of Arya Stark from the popular
HBO program, “Game of Thrones” (2011). Arya is only eleven years old when her family is
uprooted from their home in Winterfell to move to King’s Landing, which is more than enough
to cause some dissention. Her problems only get worse however when a coup is staged, her
father is beheaded, and her family is broken apart. From that point on Arya is quite lost, though
Despite her young age and obvious frailty she remains determined to take her revenge on those that brought about the ruination of her family. The only stable relationship she has is with the man that abducts/saves her, the Hound. Ironically enough, he is also one of the men on her hit list. Through adversity she becomes one of the most dangerous characters by dint of her single-minded determination to see vengeance done.
The other end of the emotional spectrum is felt by Nicky Nichols from the Netflix hit, “Orange is The New Black” (2013). Set in a women’s prison, OTNB is the type of drama that acts as a comedic and suspenseful show that features a wide variety of characters and womanly issues that are sometimes hard to keep up with. Nichols however is a woman that struggles with her own sexual and pharmaceutical needs on a regular basis. As the show progresses she is shown to relapse time and again as she tries to cope with new situations in the prison and her own confusing love life. Her motivations seem to be based around little more than just surviving and seeing that her more base needs are met, but Nicky is a great deal deeper than she lets on.
Her relationships tend to be mostly sexual or more of the type of mentor-daughter
relationship she has with Red, the head chef at the prison. If Nicky fears anything, it is
disappointing Red in any way. This does tend to happen, but Red is always there to pick her back
up and brush her off. In many ways, Nicky is almost like an angst-ridden teenager that decided to never grow up.
Another emotionally-driven character is Maggie Bennett, the mother figure on another
Netflix show “The Ranch” (2016). She is also a conflicted character considering that she is
estranged from her husband Beau in the beginning of the series. She tries and fails to reconnect
with Beau after their youngest son Colt returns home from a failed semi-pro football career, and
eventually leaves during one point in the show to find out what she is missing in her life. It is a
little difficult to know what Maggie’s true motivations are largely because the writers of the show have penned her in as a no-nonsense mother figure, but also as a free spirit that feels confined in her current role.
Her relationship with her sons is sound enough, but her relation to Beau is a tumultuous
mess that never seems capable of being fully reconciled. It is very obvious that the two of them
care about one another, but the difference between them is hard to bridge. Her motivations throughout the series thus far are to finally look out for herself, as her sons are grown and capable of supporting themselves, and even Beau agrees that they are no longer good for one another. Her only real weakness is that she is highly susceptible to being taken advantage of, as the newcomer, Clint, has already shown near the end of the third season.
With one drama, a comedy, a science fiction story, and a fantasy tale, the odds of all four
women being similar in any way are surprisingly good. The two characteristics that all four
character share despite the vast difference in their surroundings is that they are emotionally
bound by those they care for, and they are not the type that will wait for a male companion to
“sort things out”. In terms of who is the most independent and inherently dangerous, the list
would begin with Arya, proceed to Ripley, and then end with Nicky and Maggie in that order.
Each woman is depicted differently in accordance with their surroundings and given story line, and as a result two of them become killers out of necessity, whereas the other two will always be the type to please those around them with slightly differing methods.
In the past women in film and television were often depicted as housewives and mothers that had one job, to be homemakers and ideal support for the husband and a good role model for the children. As time has gone by the role of women in media has changed drastically as they have become far more empowered. Their roles have developed to include a number of different responsibilities that were once considered the sole province of male characters, and the change has been largely positive. Scott and Dargis (2014) agree that women no longer need to appear subservient to men in film and television as they have taken the lead in many cases, as they have shown that they are extremely diverse in the roles they can fill.
In today’s media women are represented as tougher and in no way dependent upon men other than for emotional support and, depending on the film or series, for added financial support. The days of the damsel in distress have been replaced by the empowered woman that can make her own decisions and handle virtually any situation that is thrown at them. Women are shown as far more capable and willing to take on the added responsibilities that their characters are given, and have excelled in such roles that allow them to show that they are strong and independent. Women are no longer subservient to men in any way, and in some ways are shown to be superior.
This new and still-developing role of women is a huge step forward in how women can be positively represented in the media. The manner in which they are depicted is not always exceedingly positive, but it is far more realistic. By showing a more diverse female presence in film and television the role of women in society becomes even stronger.
Aliens. Directed by James Cameron, performances by Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Bill
Paxton, and Paul Reiser, 20th Century Fox, 1986.
Game of Thrones, written and directed by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, HBO Studios, 2011.
Orange is The New Black, written and directed by Jenji Kohan, Netflix, 2013.
Scott, A.O. & Dargis, Manhola. “Sugar, Spice and Guts.” The New York Times.
The Ranch, written and directed by Don Reo and Jim Patterson, Netflix, 2016.