Image: Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson, Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer at a screening of Hidden Figures.
In 2015 male characters in box office films spoke twice as often as female characters in the same films, and male actors also had a substantially greater amount of screen time than their female co-stars. Despite media coverage of Hollywood’s representation issues, Tinseltown still offers a perverse mirror image of a society suggesting that women should seen and not heard. Which makes little sense, when you take into account evidence that female led films often out-perform male led movies in popularity.
Take, for example, the current highest grossing and most talked about films of this season: Damien Chazzelle’s La La Land and Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures. Two of the most highly discussed films of the 2016/17 award season, they highlight very different representations of women in film. Though the films differ in genre, it is easy to identify the tension between the two. La La Land, though modern, tries to situate itself in the retro; longing for the classic Hollywood era, and along with it, its outdated gender stereotyping. Though Hidden Figures is a historical biopic, in contrast, its actual narrative is progressive in nature.
La La Land’s ‘leading’ female character Mia (Emma Stone) plays the archetype of the struggling actress. On a surface level she may appear be progressively feminist, ranking her own career opportunities over traditional expectations and leaving a man to pursue her dream job. But then reality hits. Not only have we barely explored Mia as a character at all, but we have also mostly only seen her in relation to the men in her life and the influence they have on her.
Contrastingly, Hidden Figures’ leading ladies (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe) highlight a more truthful view of women and how we live our lives. We can see the daily struggles women go through to prove themselves in a male centred world when Katherine Johnson (Henson) wishes to attend classified meetings that would aid in her research and is told ‘there is no protocol for women attending’, or when Mary Jackson (Monáe) has her dreams of being an engineer squashed because there was no precedent for women being engineers at NASA. Hidden Figures is more about highlighting and breaking down these gender stereotypes than conforming to them.
The question is, if Hollywood is stuck in such a tense battle of representations, what sort of influence do these two very different films have on the society watching them? Particularly the young girls and women who are absorbing the images and messages presented by film and television.
Caroline Framke argues that La La Land’s Mia lacks individuality, personality or agency. Instead of getting to explore the struggles of Mia’s desired career through her attempt to create her own theatre show, the film chooses not to show her process, and instead we get glimpses mostly via the male perspective (crew members or her boyfriend Sebastian). Mysteriously, the film is happy to show us numerous scenes of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) writing songs and performing with his band.
Not only do we see more of Sebastian’s career then Mia’s, her career successes and downfalls are crafted around the men she has in her life. The average boyfriend she has at the start of the film reflects her failing career, Sebastian inspires her creativity, and her future husband echoes her success. The final flash-forwards/flashbacks highlight this male dependence placed upon Mia, where her life outcomes are guided by whether she stays with Sebastian or not. This kind of storyline seems primitively Old Hollywood, the idea of a man being so enticing that they inspire a woman to change herself. La La Land reduces Mia to the sort of gendered stereotype that we are working so hard to step away from.
Hidden Figures presents three women who are very different to Mia. Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan highlight that women can be many things in life, not just gendered stereotypes. They each have their own purpose, and are fighting against how men and society sees them. It is important to note that Hidden Figures exposes the insidiousness of both gendered and racial discrimination.
These women have agency and drive, something Mia is missing. Katherine struggles to balance her work/home life while dealing with a boss who won’t acknowledge her contributions, but continues pushing until she is heard and needed. When Dorothy realises that she and her co-workers will be out jobs with new technology entering the building, she takes it upon herself to learn everything she can so she is irreplaceable. Even though we know historically how this film plays out, the actual narrative feels fresh and progressive. Hidden Figures has not one but three strong women at its helm, empowering young women to pursue their dreams, particularly those with dreams of entering into STEM careers (maybe future grads will have been influenced by the film itself). Hidden Figures takes a step forward in the right direction and shows how Hollywood can deal with gender and empower women. It tells women’s stories.
So what now? Hollywood is stuck between systematic ideas of gendered stereotypes, portraying women who lack agency and need a man, versus women that can empower, inspire and influence the next generation. Shouldn’t we want Hollywood to step away from its patriarchal mirror of society and find the stories that represent the many different types of women there are in this world? Though films like La La Land are award show bait, Hollywood needs to realise that making more films like Hidden Figures is how we are going change the film industry’s representation of women for the better. It is also an important part of how we are going to change the world.