What Movies Taught Me About Femininity

Kate Farr is a first-year journalism major and writes "Face to Face" for the Daily News. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the newspaper. 

"Behind every great man, there's a great woman."

The expression has been thrown around, adapted and tirelessly used since its origin in the first half of the 20th century. 

Dustin Hoffman's character uttered the phrase in 1982's "Tootsie," a movie about an out-of-work actor disguising himself as a woman to secure a job on a soap opera but only to be exposed to the misogyny and injustice women face. Through a series of twists, turns and sexist tropes, a man whose eyes are opened to the complications of being a woman begins to challenge misogyny in the workplace and urge feminist messages, so women can be taken more seriously.

All it took was the hard work of a man to call out and open the dialogue of sexism while the women of the film were still overshadowed.

While this is just one example in film and media, the many variants of the phrase center in on one idea: A man is being credited but owes his success to the woman in his life. 

Why are the great women always behind the great men, and why are we being left behind in representation?

That's something I really began to notice before I even reached my pre-teen years. Media greatly shapes adolescent and social identity. Movies teach us how to aspire, how to dress and talk, what to yearn for, and I yearned to see myself as more than a character that had to stand behind a man.

To put it plainly, I was one of those kids that fell in love with movies. 

I watched Tim Burton films on repeat, being the neurotic child I was - fascinated with gothic fantasy plots and horrific themes centered around death. The many voices of Johnny Depp swirled in my head before I was even 5 years old, enamoring me with scenes of undead femme fatales whose overarching story was seeking love and securing marital vows.

I would sit down excitedly and watch old Westerns with my dad where I was faced with the epitome of masculinity: John Wayne - smoking a cigar and sporting his wide-brimmed cowboy hat - with his rugged, frontier heroes attempting to save, and sometimes sire, female leads like Joanne Dru. 

I remember putting on tapes, planting myself in front of the television and watching as the princess got woken from her slumber because of true love's kiss, or a prince bravely rescuing the damsel in distress from her evil stepmother or a daunting dragon she possibly couldn't overcome on her own - the tape within the plastic VHS shell whirred. 

In "Gone With The Wind," I saw the vain and self-centered Scarlett O'Hara, portrayed by Vivien Leigh, be roughly pulled into one of the most "romantic" kisses in cinema history with Clark Gable's Rhett Butler as the orchestral music soared in the background.

I got used to the idea that being a woman meant being saved, married by the end of the film or possibly being the prize driving the film. Before the credits rolled, the woman was finally in the arms of the main male protagonist - a standard ingrained into my subconscious.

I was movie-struck, and I became so greatly fascinated with the stories and characters presented before me. I learned a lot from my starry-eyed stares at the television screen. I absorbed a lot about the paradigms of men and women - some things I've had to learn to dismiss or unlearn all together.

As I've grown out of adolescence and learned a lot more - especially on the treatment and stereotypes put on me and other women - I've reflected on what I saw on the silver screen.

I watched "Breakfast at Tiffany's" a few days ago. Besides the blatant racism - as seen with the incredibly cringy performance by Mickey Rooney - the movie caused me to reflect a lot on how women and femininity were oftentimes portrayed. 

Holly Golightly is the epitome of mysterious, alluring, intriguing. She is fascinating, an object of lust for male roles in the film. While she represents so much for female empowerment - using sexuality to advantage, liberated and unrestrained in her actions - she is still so heavily reliant on social hierarchy that was built and is propelled by men. At the end of the film, she gives up on her refusal to be the domestic ideal, living on the terms of a man.

Even with two women driving the plot of a film on balancing one's life and career, "The Devil Wears Prada" - a film that came out almost a half-century after "Breakfast at Tiffany's" - taught me to consider giving up careers and aspirations, so I don't step on the toes of my boyfriend. It vindicates the toxicity of the modeling world, couture and even diet culture but leaves us with an ending that reaffirms worn out gender stereotypes. When your boyfriend becomes resentful of your success in a fiercely competitive industry, apparently it's best to give up on your ambitions to appease your partner.

Instead of perpetuating these lessons movies instilled in me, I'd rather recognize them and, one day, hopefully move past them.

Women can transcend the stereotypes placed upon them. Movies that place female writers and editors at the forefront of green lighting productions can shape sublime female characters with rich backstories, riveting passions and memorable dispositions that exceed male-dominated patterns of women only being the lovers, the mothers or the two-dimensional objects. 

This can be seen with Sophia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides," Chloe Zhao's "Nomadland" or Patty Jenkins' 2017 adaptation "Wonder Woman." Instead of allowing Hollywood to remain by and large a boys' club, pushing toward equitable film sets unfurls these stories of women being represented by women.

Women can be the heroes, or women can be dangerous. Whether it be Bette Davis' temptresses or the complex, desire-filled leads of Thelma and Louise, the portrayal of femininity doesn't always have to be delicate. Women can also save the day, or win the struggle for power.

Women don't have to be complicit, and we aren't there to be kissed. We don't have to fantasize about the princes that will come. Our sexuality or saunter or adoration by men don't have to be at the forefront of our depiction. We're allowed to be more, more than forced kisses and intimate grabs, being told to stay behind the hero or being the quiet caretakers.

Movies entertain, they educate and they let us delve into critical social ideas. They make us howl with laughter and weep with sorrow. Characters ingrain in us their stories and imprint us with ideologies. 

It's time to let the power dynamic fully fall. Women deserve more than a second-rate status in the art of filmmaking.

Contact Kate Farr with comments at kate.farr@bsu.edu or on Twitter @katefarr7.

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