GIRLS ON FILM: A SHORT EVOLUTION OF WOMEN ON SCREENReading Time
You may have heard but football has officially come home to England. Only 56 years (ahem) after the men did it at the World Cup, England’s women won the European Championship 2022 and set staggering records for women playing the sport, as well as spectators watching it. Not only was Wembley Stadium packed with 87,192 fans in attendance, another 17.4 million of us watched at home as the Lionesses defeated Germany.
The squad members will have been dreaming of this moment since childhood and for the ones born before 2002, Bend It Like Beckham would have no doubt been a source of inspiration. On hearing that England had made it to the final, the film’s director Grind Chadha tweeted “Unbelievably excited! 23 years ago I struggled to get anyone interested in making a film about a woman wanting to play football and now the world is watching the game! So proud!” This tweet gave us pause and made us think about where or how we have seen girls on film.
Chadha continued to live-tweet throughout the game, and although her excitement was almost uncontainable, it was no match for Chloe Kelly’s celebration which came as she scored the second goal in extra time. After checking the goal was allowed, Kelly ripped her shirt off and swung it around her head, paying homage to retired USA footballer Brandi Chastain who did the same when scoring in the 1999 World Cup final. The pair may have both received a card for doing so, but this act of sporting rebellion now stands as a sports-bra-clad inspiration for all women in sport, that dreams can be achieved (and don’t be afraid to celebrate them).
Not Her Problem
With representation at the forefront, England’s sponsors EE put out an incredibly raw and real ad in the build-up to the Championship. Made by Saatchi & Saatchi, the ad focuses on the struggles female footballers face, including injury, juggling matches with motherhood, and tackling sexist criticism and hate. Every issue is described as a “problem” by commentators and players themselves, until the conclusion of the ad where Jordan Henderson, along with other members of the England men’s team, states that these are “not her problem”, and that “Sexist hate stops with men”.
Personally, I’ve never seen such a powerful ad, and one that doesn’t shy away from showing the gritty truth of being a woman. Whether you’re an athlete or not, you can relate to the content of EE’s ad. Ironically, as the ad tackles online abuse, half a second look at the feedback for this ad will show how many people missed the point, claiming that the final statement is abusive towards men. It’s incredibly disappointing, when in fact the message is that men have the power to stop the abuse towards women. I say here’s to more ads like this, which make their audiences sit up, pay attention, and, we hope, make a change for the better.
A Bloody Mess, Period.
A scene in the EE ad shows a player in white shorts (yes, you can see where this is going) getting her period mid-game. You see the blood seeping through the crotch and if you’re like me, you make a big pity sigh, having been there too many times yourself.
The depiction of menstruation on screen has always been a bit of a mess. Over the past hundred years, ads for period products have fed us a fair few problematic storylines; your “time of the month” has been taboo, something to be kept secret for fear of shame and ridicule. It took until 1985 for Courtney Cox to use the word “period” in a Tampax ad, the first time it was said on American TV.
Rock-climbing! Sky-diving! Gymnastics! You too can achieve these things with the right products! That’s what the big corporations tell us, despite a huge proportion of people who find it hard to leave the house when struggling with their period symptoms.
How many non-females, or even young females, do you think grew up believing that period blood was blue? Too many, is my guess. In 2017 Bodyform’s #bloodnormal campaign was the first to depict realistic blood in their advertising. Whether an ad shows it or not, at least the sting of period secrecy is lessening. This year, Tampax’s ad focuses on “Cubicle Confessions” where women confide in TV personality Scarlett Moffat through a cubicle wall. Light-hearted and friendly, Moffat and her guests myth-bust period problems, offering advise or simply support to those who watch: “It gets easier every time”.
Another gorundbreaking step in the menstruation movement came with the release of Disney’s Turning Red. It’s a puberty story, but one that shows the transition young women face not only in metaphoric terms, but with a literal mention of periods too. Set in 2002, 13 year old Mei discovers her family’s curse the hard way, transforming into a giant red panda when she gets overly emotional. At first she hides it from her mother but, suspecting her daughter’s period has started, mum Ming presents her with armfuls of period products.
Actress Sandra Oh, who voices Ming, said: “I love the way that Ming is a little nervous that it’s happening to her daughter and she’s completely ready and prepared for everything and then also the mystical, fantastical elements about the panda.”
Director Domee Shi confirmed that this bathroom scene had been in the movie from the very beginning:
“It was the first sequence that we approved and that went into production. It just felt like if we were going to tell an authentic story about a girl going through puberty, we had to talk about getting her period. We had to show these products and these objects that are so common in every household with women and girls and normalize this phenomenon.”
An intergalactic inspiration
Just a day before the Lionesses lifted the Euros trophy, actress and trailblazer Nichelle Nichols passed away at the age of 89. Nichols was most famous for her portrayal of Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in Star Trek, a groundbreaking performance for African American TV actresses.
Whilst Nichelle Nichols was on our screens, Martin Luther King Jr was leading civil rights marches on the streets. The actress met King on one occasion and shared with him that she was thinking of giving up the role, fearing it was a waste of time when she could join him and the movement instead. Nichols recalled the meeting many times in interview:
“He said, ‘no, no, no. No, you don’t understand… You are marching. Do you understand that this is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to stay up and watch? You are reflecting what we are fighting for.’”
Whilst in her role as Uhura, Nichols made history in 1968, sharing a kiss with white co-star William Shatner. Although it’s hard to prove it as the actual first interracial kiss on TV, it’s considered so as it reached such a wide audience. Nichols recounted that after the episode, positive fan mail poured in; there was just the one negative letter received which stated ‘I don’t believe in the integration of races and the fraternization of the races, but anytime a red-blooded American boy like Captain Kirk gets a girl in his arms that looks like Lieutenant Uhura, he ain’t gonna fight it.’ It may not be perfect, but it’s progress.
In 1975 Nicols formed Women in Motion, an educational initiative which later expanded, thanks to a grand from NASA, into an astronaut recruitment project for women and ethnic minorities. One of the thousands who applied was none other than Sally Ride, a.k.a. America’s first woman in space. We can say with absolute confidence that Nicole Nichols’ inspiration will live long, and many, many women will prosper.
Another 23 years passed before we saw our first lesbian kiss on TV screens. This appeared on LA Law in 1991, and the shows network NBC received praise from GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). They said the ″historic smooch makes attorney C.J. Lamb … the only recurring gay or bisexual female character currently on television.″
Take a Bechdel Test
As Uhura made history on Star Trek, other actresses were also hitting milestones on the small screen. Another member of our Wonderful Wall of Women Mary Tyler Moore released her show in 1970 and for the first time showed that women in TV could have their own careers and their own lives, beyond being a wife or a mother. Lucille Ball had tried to do similar with her show over a decade before but despite taking the reins, the I Love Lucy star remained the butt of the joke often, whether she’d written it that way or not. MTM was different. She was sharp and witty, and fast became a feminist icon.
Tyler Moore may have paved the way but not everyone followed. Still to this day, you may find yourself watching a film or TV programme where women are more of a prop that anything else. For comic Alison Bechdel, these films simply don’t cut it. To measure whether a film is supportive of their female characters or not, she put together her own test. It may have many names (Bechdel Test, Bechdel-Wallace Test Bechdel Rile or Mo Movie Measure) but whatever you call it, the test is simple; in order to pass, a film or show must demonstrate the following criteria:
(1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.
Sounds simple enough right? Sadly no. Here’s a list of some of the most popular films from the past few years that fail…
- The Adam Project
- Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore and The Crimes of Grindelwald
- Dear Evan Hansen
- Free Guy
- No Time To Die (C’mon Bond! We thought you’d changed your ways!)
- The Power of the Dog
- Red Notice
- The Trial of the Chicago 7
- The Witches
- The Irishman
- Marriage Story
- Queen & Slim
- Sound of Metal
- Spider-Man: Far from Home and Into the Spider-Verse
- Deadpool 2 (That’s strike 3, Ryan Reynolds)
Which on the list surprises you the most? Even those that don’t surprise (I could’ve guessed Fifty Shades Freed would make an appearance), the box office heavyweights should be doing better. Whether it’s the big or small screen, check in with the test every now and again.
Trans Women are Women
Le-gen-dary. That’s the only word I need to describe FX’s show Pose. Before its first episode aired in 2018, Trans people on TV had been depicted in ways that did more bad than good for the community, with storylines taking the Trans characters down paths of crime, overtly sexual activity, mental illness or simply ridiculed. This was not helped by a wave of cis-gendered actors playing Trans roles.
“…The trans person on television and film, those sort of representations of transness may incite rage in a viewer,” said Chase Strangio, an American lawyer and trans rights activist, speaking as part of the incredible Netflix documentary Disclosure. “And that viewer doesn’t have access to the character; they have access to the person on the street. I think that makes it especially important for us to be pushing for material redistribution, otherwise all we’re doing is elevating some people into the sphere of the powerful and not in any way working to disrupt the systems that exclude most trans people from material survival.”
Whilst individuals such as Laverne Cox and Candice Cayne made strides on their own, Pose came at us in full force, with a cast where trans women of colour were in the majority, and characters were inspired by real people, many of which made cameos in the show. Many believed it was snubbed at awards shows, but its impact will be felt not only as a reflection of true representation of trans women, but of the queer community as a whole, through a period of time that’s often faced with stigma. One of show’s writers, producers and directors Janet Mock said the following, and we couldn’t have possibly said it better:
“We’re archiving ourselves, and so in that sense we’re all saying collectively that we did something; that we’re here and that we’re deserving of taking up space.”
What about you? Do you remember the first time you noticed a woman on film who you could relate to? What changes do you think the film and TV industries still need to make?