Although female-led films are on the rise, there’s still no accounting for how Hollywood often treats its heroines. It appears, you see, that screenwriters continue to fall back on stereotypes when depicting the fairer sex. After all, how many women do you know who can fight in high heels or run in pumps at a speed that would make Usain Bolt blush? How many sleep with full faces of makeup that mysteriously remain flawless even after hours of shut eye? And is it realistic that most of the Disney princesses have dead, barely mentioned mothers? Well, those are just some of the many things that the movies get totally wrong about women.
20. Heroines are always gorgeous
Unfortunately, in most cases, women who want to make it in Hollywood have to be at least fairly good-looking. And as a result, characters who aren’t supposed to be pretty end up being played by drop-dead gorgeous actresses in film adaptations. Not only that, but any perceived physical flaws are either modified or ignored completely. Take Mortal Engines’ Hester Shaw, for instance; while the original book reveals that she has a very noticeable facial scar and only one eye, the movie version sees her with two eyes and a blemish that doesn’t really diminish her beauty.
More problematically, this occasionally applies to real-life people who are portrayed in biopics. And this was the case with Joan Clarke – the mathematics expert who appeared in The Imitation Game. You see, the actual Joan was said to not be particularly attractive; indeed, a co-worker once harshly described her as looking like “the back end of a bus.” In the movie, however, she was played by the very good-looking Keira Knightley. So, where’s the sense of reality?
19. Women can’t drive
Women are no worse at driving than men, and statistics bear that out. But if you paid attention to films – particularly older ones – you’d think that every woman at the wheel was a halfwit. What’s more, for all the expert female drivers in movies – not least Letty in the Fast and Furious franchise – jokes about lady motorists persist on screen.
Even the beloved family classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang falls prey to this stereotype. “If women want to drive motor cars, they should learn to operate one,” Caractacus Potts tells Truly Scrumptious at one point. Luckily, these days, a comment like that would probably be met with an eye-roll if not a pointed word or two.
18. Women wake up looking flawless
Movie women often seem to have some magical power that grants them the ability to wake up looking beautiful. In reality, though, this is rarely the case, as anyone who’s emerged from bed with messed-up hair and eye gunk will tell you. And the notion of waking up with lipstick still on and perfectly applied would be laughable to most women – not least because the cosmetics would have likely rubbed off onto the pillow.
Fortunately, this trope is being subverted a little now. In hit animation Frozen, for instance, Anna wakes up looking a complete mess – just as most women do. Then there’s the fact that men in films also occasionally emerge from slumber with not a hair out of place as well as a noticeable absence of beard stubble. Maybe it’s time to follow the animators’ lead?
17. Women can turn evil when they lose a man
There’s a particular stereotype in film that involves a woman’s life revolving entirely around a man. And when the female character inevitably loses her object of her affections, she goes off the rails and may even try to murder him. Fatal Attraction gave audiences a word to describe this person: “the bunny boiler,” after a crime that Glenn Close’s character commits in that movie.
It should be noted, though, that other films have used the “bunny boiler” stereotype and run with it. My Super Ex-Girlfriend for example, jazzed up the trope by giving the obsessive woman superpowers. Yet Glenn Close regrets that she helped spawn the concept. In 2017 she told The New York Times that the ending of Fatal Attraction “[made] a character [she] loved into a murdering psychopath.”
16. Women don’t discuss things other than men
There’s a particular threshold for film critics called the Bechdel Test, which was named after its creator, Alison Bechdel. And for a film to pass the test, two or more named female characters need to talk about something other than a man. Yet while this bar may seem rather low, a surprisingly large number of films – even the Twilight movies – don’t clear it.
Yes, plenty of female-led films that are otherwise critically acclaimed still flunk the Bechdel Test – although some are on the borderline. La La Land, for instance, is thought by some to fail on a technicality, as most of its female characters are only named in the credits. So, if you’re an aspiring screenwriter, avoid this doom by making sure that you properly flesh out the women in your work.
15. Every woman wants to be a mother
Motherhood is hard, of course, and mothers are naturally worthy of respect. Not every woman wants kids, though, and that decision should be respected, too. Alas, movies often fall short in this regard. You see, women who are at best neutral towards having children often end up with babies by the time that the credits roll. And this even tends to apply to those who flat-out announce that they will never have children.
Jurassic World falls victim to this trope via the character of Claire, who initially says that she’s not sure she wants children. But her sister claims that she’ll ultimately change her mind, and by the end Claire is a surrogate parent to her nephews. The movie came under quite a lot of fire for this plot point, too, with some saying that the storyline was downright sexist. The fact that the film’s other non-motherly character, Zara, gets eaten by a dinosaur didn’t really help matters, either.
14. Unequal attractiveness doesn’t work both ways
Another tried-and-tested movie trope sees a relatively unattractive man married to a stunningly beautiful woman – although Hollywood standards usually mean that the male in question isn’t eye-searingly ugly. It’s the sort of thing that usually gets a laugh, too, especially if there’s a more classically handsome guy around. Mark Wahlberg’s character almost explodes in The Other Guys, for example, when he sees that the wife of Will Ferrell’s cop is played by Eva Mendes.
Meanwhile, the opposite state of affairs — average-looking woman with extremely attractive man — is hardly ever shown on screen. This, of course, is just not true to life, as relationships that last into marriage tend to be based on things other than just looks. And while Hairspray somewhat subverts the trope when plus-size Nikki Blonsky’s Tracy Turnblad gets with Zac Efron’s Link Larkin, Blonsky is far from unattractive herself.
13. Women often get hysterical
Many moons ago, the ancient Greeks believed that the uterus moved around a woman’s body, with this process subsequently bringing on uncontrollable hysteria. And while medical science certainly knows better now, the trope of the hysterical woman still persists on screen – especially in horror movies. Remember the Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer franchises?
The hysterical female character is usually a burden and annoyance to the people around her, too, with a slap to the face seen as the – obviously problematic – remedy. At least the whole stereotype is neatly lampooned in Airplane!, which sees people literally line up to snap a woman out of hysteria – and using sillier and sillier weapons as they go.
12. Childbirth is a cakewalk
You’d never guess that childbirth is actually agony from watching certain movies. When Luke and Leia are born during Star Wars film Revenge of the Sith, for instance, there’s no blood, while their mother, Padme, still looks pretty well made-up throughout, too. But, to be fair, there are some pretty good reasons for this cliché.
Back in Hollywood’s Golden Age, you see, it was forbidden by the Hays Code to show childbirth at all. And, let’s be honest, it does take quite a strong viewer to be able to stomach certain parts of the process. At least Children of Men shows a baby entering the world in a rather realistic manner, although that may make some wince.
11. Slim women are actually fat
The media is often accused of creating negative body images in women and girls, and movies can probably take at least some of that blame. For example, in The Devil Wears Prada the slender Anne Hathaway’s character is damned as being “fat.” And seeing a size six being labeled in this way may just have an effect on impressionable girls.
Even cozy romcom Love Actually sees this kind of body shaming, with Martine McCutcheon’s character, Natalie, called “plumpy” by her own dad. Yet McCutcheon defended the film’s script to Cosmopolitan in 2017. “Every woman thinks there’s something wrong with them when in actual fact… they are perfect and lovely as they are,” she said. “[Natalie] was meant to be the embodiment of that.”
10. Women can’t take showers normally
Women in movies don’t tend to just go about the normal business of getting themselves clean in showers. Instead, they tend to behave as if they know perfectly well that cameras are there and that others are watching. And such scenes aren’t typically intended to reveal that, yes, a woman takes care of her bodily hygiene, either; instead, they’re so the audience can see her almost naked.
The uber-example of this is of course the famous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, with its subtext of voyeurism and sex having been analyzed by film critics for years. However, when Janet Leigh filmed that scene, she was definitely wearing clothes – despite any assertions to the contrary. “Because the cutting was so fast and accompanied by that music, you’re, like, ‘By God, I saw her nude,’” Leigh told journalist Ed Gross in 1984.
9. Hair and makeup always stay put
The creation of the kick-butt action girl seems to have posed something of a conundrum to filmmakers. After all, people who are fighting tend not to look particularly pretty by the end; they’ll sweat for a start, and they may be covered in blood, too. Their makeup certainly won’t hold either. But as female leads should also be beautiful at all times, what to do? Well, just dishevel the hair slightly and make sure that any injuries a heroine incurs are small!
Even Princess Leia is not immune from this trope. During the first Star Wars film, she goes through a lot — imprisonment, danger and peril – and yet her hair, face and outfit all remain virtually flawless. How on Earth did those buns stay intact?
8. Women care too deeply about their nails
It’s a familiar scene: when an action heroine comes straight out of a fight, all she notices is that she’s broken a nail. Temple of Doom’s Willie Scott and Batman Returns’ Catwoman are among those leading ladies who bother themselves with a trivial concern that no real woman would be thinking of in the moment.
And while there are legitimate reasons for a woman to freak out over breaking a nail – the resulting pain, perhaps, or fear of the risk of an infection – you won’t see such matters discussed much in films. Instead, this cliché is used mostly to highlight the vanity of the female character in question.
7. Most stepmothers are wicked
It’s true that children who have lost their mother may feel that their father’s new partner is trying to replace her. And as a result, kids may well see their stepmom as evil. Yet, of course, stepmothers are typically far from horrendous ogres in real life – despite what big-screen fairy tales may suggest.
Yes, in Cinderella and Snow White, the respective stepmothers have their work cut out for them – or, at least, they certainly do when it comes to earning children’s trust. Luckily, there are still several films that celebrate non-biological parents. Disney’s Enchanted – a parody of the House of Mouse’s own princess movies – even has the main character becoming a stepmother.
6. Younger women always date older men
A number of actresses have spoken out about the inherent ageism of Hollywood. In 2015, for instance, Maggie Gyllenhaal told The Wrap that at 37 she’d been dismissed for a role in which she would portray a 55-year-old man’s lover. Rather astonishingly, though, she was considered suitable to be the romantic interest to a then 65-year-old Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart. And that’s by far the only example of a woman being paired with a man decades her senior.
Plus, when an age-appropriate couple comes along, they raise eyebrows. When Monica Bellucci was cast in Spectre, for example, the media expressed some astonishment that an “older woman” had scooped a Bond girl role – despite the actress only being three years Daniel Craig’s senior. It was largely business as usual, though, as the other two Bond girls in the film were each a couple of decades younger than Craig.
5. It’s not hard to fight in a skimpy outfit
When female superheroes are dressed up as eye candy, audiences don’t always follow. Catwoman saw Halle Berry forced into a truly ridiculous and highly impractical costume, for instance, and yet the movie was a complete box-office bomb. Yet studios still persist in ensuring that kick-butt women fight while scantily clad.
After Olivia Munn was cast as Psylocke in X-Men: Apocalypse, however, she explicitly chose to wear the clingy leotard that her character sports in comic books. “I can see the way that she’s dressed, but it has nothing to do with how strong she is and how powerful she is,” the star told Collider in 2016. Even so, a one-piece is more practical in battle than Catwoman’s bra and pants.
4. Mothers are simply forgotten
Look closely at Disney movies, and you’ll find something curious: Pocahontas, The Little Mermaid’s Ariel and Aladdin’s Jasmine, to name only a few, are all motherless. And while sometimes late moms are mentioned in passing, these losses have little bearing on the stories being told. It’s almost as though Disney heroines never think about their mothers, in fact.
Nevertheless, it seems that Disney has got the memo, as many of its more recent princess characters have moms that are still alive. And in the live-action remakes of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, the previously barely remarked upon dead mothers are finally talked about on screen, too.
3. High heels are practical
Rather weirdly, big-screen female warriors who are otherwise sensibly dressed will wear high heels into battle. But why? They’re difficult to walk in, let alone fight in. And perhaps the most bizarre example of this phenomenon comes via 2015 blockbuster Jurassic World, in which Bryce Dallas Howard somehow manages to run away from a T. rex while in pumps that are several inches high.
Still, this trope was given a neat twist in The Dark Knight Rises. In the superhero flick, Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman is mockingly asked by a goon, “Those heels make it hard to walk?” She responds, however, by disabling him with a stiletto boot and then replying, “I don’t know. Do they?”
2. Women don’t have body hair
Even in movies that are seemingly tailor-made for female audiences, women don’t seem to ever have unshaven armpits or legs. In certain ways this is true to real life, of course, but on occasion the smoothness really stands out. Some fans have questioned, for example, why Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman has no body hair – not least because she was shielded from such societal pressures when growing up.
But this particular screen cliché may slowly be phased out. At the very least, Domino from Deadpool 2 openly sports armpit hair, with this coming at the suggestion of actress Zazie Beetz. Only time will tell, then, whether filmmakers let their stars follow in Beetz’s lead.
1. Most women are fine with stalking
Yes, Hollywood movies have implied that stalking and coercive control are perfectly legit ways of proving your devotion. In Passengers, for instance, Chris Pratt’s character Jim decides that he wants to share his life with Jennifer Lawrence’s attractive space colonist. How does he achieve this? By essentially trapping her on a ship with him without her consent. Yikes.
And there’s yet more harassment presented as romance in The Notebook. At one point in the beloved weepie, Ryan Gosling’s Noah warns that he will kill himself if Rachel McAdams’ Allie doesn’t go out with him. Now that’s a big red flag, to say the least. But that’s not all, either; Noah also writes Allie a letter every single day even though she doesn’t want to talk to him. In real life, though, if you ever encounter a Noah or a Jim, run for the hills.