By Martha Strautman
In my film class this week, we watched Jaws, the blockbuster that chronicles the terror that one killer shark inflicts on a New England beach town. The film follows the police chief’s quest to stop the shark—a goal for which he teams up with a veteran fisherman and an oceanology expert. All of these characters, unsurprisingly, are men. The only female role that appears in more than one scene is that of the police chief’s wife; however, her character is only relevant in how she interacts with and supports her husband. Comparing Jaws to most other movies I have seen, I realized that this subordinate and contingent female role is the norm, rather than an anomaly.
In the first scene at the police chief’s home, the first shot of his wife features her rolling over in bed, exposing more of her bosom than she probably would display in public. This exposure draws her feminine physical features to the forefront of the viewer’s attention and makes her gender the most salient aspect of her character. Next, she wakes up to remind her husband of his household duties, which establishes her secondary significance in the film—how she affects and interacts with her husband.
The wife is also present in a later scene in which she tries to comfort her husband, who is desperately trying to research sharks after the second attack. She tells him, “enough,” and then hands him a strong drink, forcing him to relax. The husband is the protagonist, and because of this, the viewer identifies with him—sympathizing with his frustration at the shark and his desperate research. The husband is the one who is agential, the one who is trying actively to save the town and stop this shark, while the wife’s only goal is to soothe and comfort her husband. We see her as relevant only in that our protagonist needs someone to de-stress him so that he is better able to solve the problem himself.
The role of the supportive wife—especially as the singular female character—is pervasive in Hollywood. One of my favorite films, Miracle, follows one hockey coach’s underdog victory in the 1980 Winter Olympics. His wife is the largest female character—but again, she is only significant in how she supports her husband’s journey. She is there to comfort him when he is stressed and to remind him that everything will be ok; however, her role is clearly in their home. She is not depicted as pursuing any goals or dreams of her own.
The prevalence of these peripheral and nonessential female characters, although not obviously problematic, has the potential to have a significant negative affect on women and girls. How can we expect women to feel agential and capable when they are depicted as incidental in popular media? These secondary female characters are pervasive, and all send the same message to women: You are not the agent. You are not the doer, you are not the problem-solver, you cannot be the hero. Those are a men’s roles.
Although recently women have been entering more agential roles in society, there has not been an equal shift in depictions of women in media. The Bechdel Test, created by the writer Alison Bechdel, asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. Jaws would certainly fail this test, as would Miracle. In fact, as of April 2015, nearly half of the films judged by the Bechdel test failed at least one of its requirements. This failure clearly indicates that there is still a serious problem with the way that Hollywood depicts its female characters.
Feeling active, capable, and confident is an essential part of feeling fully human. In denying these female characters these characteristics, films dehumanize women. They are not full members of society or their communities—they are lesser than men, and their importance is contingent upon their relationship with men. This is a harmful message to send to women, and Hollywood needs to work to create more complex female characters who play active roles in their films.