The more things change… A closer look at ‘strong’ female characters in film

This is a guest post from Chloe Darke, a freelance journalist and postgraduate student living in London. She likes books and watching crime dramas on rainy days, and hates hearing her twenty-something friends worry about wrinkles.

I worry that the rise of female superhero in film is not necessarily a sign of women’s independence and power: it seems film heroines of today haven’t changed as much as we think.

In 1987, Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction was the highest grossing film worldwide, making over $320 million by the end of that year. It shows a seemingly independent, childless career woman Alex (played by Glenn Close) become a needy stalker, setting out to destroy Michael Douglas’ character Dan’s marriage and family life (and the pet rabbit) after their affair turns sour.

As they left the cinema, men (should have) learnt not to have affairs, working childless women were told they needed a family, and everyone should have gotten the message that women’s sexuality was really all about being wanted by men. That was then.

But how much has the portrayal of women in films changed now? The women on our screens are ever more aggressive, powerful and lacking in ‘feminine weakness’: look at the rise of the female superhero in films such as Lara Croft (from 2001 onwards), and the recent blockbuster Lucy. But behind women’s new found bravado in these films, sexuality is still the key to their influence and power and, crucially, that power is always about seducing men.

Take Amy Dunne (played by Rosamund Pike), from David Fincher’s Gone Girl: on the surface she’s the perfect modern wife, blonde, a BMI slightly below normal, and in no great rush to have children. When she goes missing on her and her husband’s fifth wedding anniversary, he doesn’t appear to know anything about her – from her blood type to who her friends are or what she does all day since giving up her New York writing job (to move close to his dying mother).

In fact, she’s been plotting to frame him for her murder, and has made a run for it, bingeing on chocolate and popcorn in celebration of no longer being “the cool girl” sex object. She’s a femme fatale who runs to her ex-lover when her money is stolen (he provides her with hair dye and gym equipment so she can “look like herself again”), fakes a rape and ruthlessly slits said ex-lover’s throat during sex so that she can go back to her husband. Selfish, aggressive and lacking in traditional feminine altruism yes, but her ‘unfeminine’ actions are still all about using sex and sexual attractiveness to get attention from men, which hardly makes her independent.

While director David Fincher dubbed the film “a macabre on married life in the modern age”, it is, much like Fatal Attraction, a tale of a selfish man who finds his love interest to be actually a ‘psychopath’, told through a man’s eyes.

Though she has no empathy, the modern femme fatale nonetheless looks like the ideal woman. In Under the Skin, an alien arrives on earth disguised as the perfect seductress (Scarlett Johansson with a black wig and blood-red lipstick) ready to drive round Glasgow picking up men in a white van and lure them into an alien-like black death pool… You can tell it’s directed by a man (Jonathan Glazer)!

Johansson’s character starts to develop empathy as the film goes on, from walking past people drowning at the beginning to developing a curiosity about sex and her own naked body (which seems more like male voyeurism than anything else). But as she starts to understand human emotions she becomes vulnerable to exploitation by men. Having no clue how to look after herself on earth or understanding of what it is people do there (apart from wanting to have sex with beautiful women that is), she, like Amy Dunne, turns to an admiring man for protection, only to be gassed with petrol when the man who tries to rape her finds out she’s an alien.

Both films had rave reviews. “A sexy space alien hunts men in Scotland in this extraordinary malarial dream,” Xan Brooks from The Guardian said of Under the Skin, giving the film five stars, while reviews of Gone Girl praised its interplay of deception and different perspectives. Really, the film simply relayed the Fatal Attraction message: unfaithful men are forgiven by their wives and all women need the security of marriage.

It is possible to see how both these films are about how ridiculous ‘ideal’ women are, but I don’t think that’s how people see them. What worries me is how these women are presented as powerful, even feminist, because they are physically flawless and can manipulate men. Really, they’re just 1970s or 1980s women, still gratuitously sexualised with a tad more aggression.

We’ve long moved on from ’80s fashion, but little has changed when it comes to women on screen.

First picture is a still from Fatal Attraction, showing Michael Douglas as Dan and Glenn Close as Alex, talking in the kitchen, with kitchen utensils in the foreground. Taken from the film’s official FB fanpage.

Second picture is taken from Gone Girl official FB fanpage. It is of Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne and Ben Affleck as Nick, with her drinking champagne.