Rethinking Representation — Part 1: Character
A film passes the Bechdel Test if it features two or more women talking about anything other than a man. The bar seems to be too low, except over 40% of films do not actually pass. Women’s representation in film has historically been poor, one-dimensional, and deeply dependent on the male characters in the film. The role of the woman is often limited to a love interest (stereotypically obsessed with the male character in question, or at the very least, with very little representation outside the context of and/or in interactions with the male character). If they have any arc of their own, it is often one that casts the woman in an unflattering light, shallow and one-dimensional.
Anime is notorious for its horrendous representation of women. Practically every female character in the overwhelming majority of anime exists solely as fanservice, to put a pair of comically large breasts on display for an audience to gawk at (anime are also deeply heteronormative, but that is a discussion for later). The protagonist is usually the center of an obscenely large harem of women that do little more than scheming and vying for his attention.
In the rare few instances where the female character’s main role is not necessarily sexual, they still have extremely underdeveloped personalities. The female lead in Naruto, Sakura Haruno, is an example of token representation at its finest. The biggest struggles she faces in her life are that she believes she is not good looking enough to get a boyfriend, and that the boy she loves likely does not love her back (Naruto is a show that deals rather heavily with themes of trauma, war, discrimination, and death, by the way). Her character develops very little over the course of the anime, and even the little development she receives is half-hearted and lazy. In Bleach, most female characters could be replaced with an expensive object and the story could progress with no noticeable change. Women in the show exist solely to be kidnapped and subsequently rescued by men, the ‘Damsel in Distress’ trope on steroids. They have all the personality of a burning candle.
In the James Bond films, women’s express purpose is sexual gratification. The women exist solely to further the protagonist’s (Bond’s, in this case) character. From Femme Fatale to Princess in the Tower, women’s roles in film are rarely more than plot devices in service to a male role. Even films with ‘Strong Female Characters’ suffer from representation issues. The female protagonist is usually a gender swap on a stock male character, often resulting in a muscular misogynist that is not much more than a male story in a female body.
Rey from Star Wars, though regularly complained about, is actually a very well written character. She is curious and has agency, driving the plot forward. Sex Education represents women’s issues in a respectful manner, and the characters are well written and presented.
The problem of poor representation of women in film is not monetary. In fact, films with better representation of women perform better at the box office. Part of the problem is that characters are often inspired by other works. Poor representation of film long ago resulted in very few female characters being created that could inspire future generations. Drawing from reality is a lot more important in modern filmmaking in the writing of female characters for film.