Disappearing Women: Tracing Femininity and Women’s Gender Roles through TV and Film Media in the US And Japan
books teach us how to imagine,
tv media how to interact,
music how to feel,
and videogames how to think.
I first gave this talk in January of this year. I was grappling with the multifaceted and often oppositional if not antipodal portrayals of and messages about women in visual media, which featured female protagonists and feminine target audience. After ruminating on the idea, I saw the emergence of three categories divided along the lines of how the protagonist dealt with the idea of femininity and her struggle with her feminine identity. I saw a lessening in the depiction of women’s physical attributes/identity, while the mental and emotional side of women grew stronger. Lets trace this disappearance.
Step One: Breakthrough Women Breaking
The strong female protagonist, with whom the female target audience identifies, struggles with doing it all, and suffers a break–physical or emotional–from overexertion. The character tries to balance personal and familial life with professional ambition, and something has to give.
In Japanese media, we see several examples of this in a range of popularity and across demographics. Japanese media targeting female audiences are split into two demographics: shoujo, which targets girls ages eight to sixteen , and josei, which targets women ages seventeen to fifty-five. Examples of shoujo media with this theme include The Wallflower, a story (released as a manga, anime, and j-drama) of a woman who hides away her femininity in her pursuit and love of all things horror. Also Kaichou wa Maid Sama (manga and anime) and Hana Yori Dango (the manga, anime, and j-drama of which have been popular for over two decades) both feature high school-aged female protagonists who at one point suffer exhaustion from working jobs, having active after-school lives , and studying, to the point of being hospitalized/given medical care to heal.
For the josei demographic, we have the series Pride, where a woman has a good career and supportive friends, but lacks romantic development, eventually descending into a relationship with domestic violence; Anego, in which the career woman protagonist outright says her professional life gets in the way of her securing dates; and Gokusen, where the female protagonist must hide her familial life to keep her dream job as a teacher of high school students.
In US media, the examples abound. With the narrow category of female protagonists who sacrifice personal/familial life for their professional development, there are major motion pictures such as The Devil Wears Prada (2006), The Iron Lady (2011), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Widen the scope of the dilemma and even more popular films fit this category: In Mona Lisa Smile (2003), the female characters are presented with a choice of professional (academic) ambition or familial life, but no depiction of a balance of the two is portrayed. Dreamgirls’ (2006) empowered women protagonists could have good careers or good family lives (i.e. good husbands) but not both. The first three installments of the Twilight saga (2008-2012) in an artistic twist of this theme, set up the choice of financial security or family (i.e. the ability to bear children.) Even the acclaimed Frozen (2013) featured a female protagonist who, for 95% of the film, had hide her emotive side (often seen as a feminine trait) in order to be a good ruler.
With all these examples of women having to give up part of themselves in order to be successful, are we addressing the struggles of women or teaching our daughters that they must adapt themselves in order to survive in a man’s world.