In Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, author Clarissa Pinkola Estes explains, “While archetypes may emanate through us for short periods of time, in what we call numinous experience, no woman can emanate an archetype continuously… Yet the trap requires that women exhaust themselves trying to achieve these unrealistic levels.” Here, Estates refers to an archetype, which is a very typical example of a certain person or thing, and explains her worldview on archetypes of women in film: Women are expected to be a perfect fit into an impossible mold. While female archetypes aren't necessarily always bad, many of us can't help but groan when we see a woman portrayed as senselessly helpless or just a pretty face to be won over by the male protagonist with no personality.
These specific female archetypes Estates refers to in her book go back thousands of years, and have been around since Greco-Roman times.
In their blog Myth out of Water, which interrogates central themes in film through an ancient historical lens, Frankie Rowsan highlights a few main harmful female archetypes. Specifically, I’d like to address two main groups of archetypes I noticed among their analysis: highly codependent women and highly independent women.
In her post, they outline six overall archetypes, giving ancient and modern examples of these women in text and media. First, Rowson cites three major archetypes that are all highly connected: the victim, the needy girl, and the damsel in distress. Commonly seen in Greek and Roman mythology, the victim is a woman or goddess who is in the eye of a god or man’s desire. Typically, it is a god that coerces a woman into sexual relations, or a romantic relationship, leaving them pregnant and alone at the mercy of the jealous god’s wife. The most popular example of this archetype is in the ancient Greek story of Medusa, who was cast out by the Greek goddess Athena after having an affair with Poseidon, the god of the sea. At this time, Medusa was a priest who took a vow of chastity to the temple of Athena. While Medusa did break her vow to Athena, thus angering her, she did it unwillingly, as Poseidon was a very powerful god and forced her into it. Often in modern-day film, this victim archetype is seen in horror movies, where a female character is gratuitously and violently murdered, playing into the common horror movie cliche of “tripping” over a stick on the ground that isn’t there.
In dramas, this victim archetype is seen in a more depressing manner, as a woman’s sexual assault is made as a joke or a “footnote” in the larger plot, as Rowson puts it. This is not to say the inclusion of a woman who has been the victim of hardship or abuse cannot be meaningfully portrayed, but more often than not, the script never plays out that way. More often than not, we’re left staring at the credits, trying to remember that character’s name. For example, Rowan highlights the movie Sixteen Candles (1984), where a passed-out female side character is left alone with a boy who wants to “have fun” with her.
In action movies, such as in almost every single James Bond movie, there is no shortage of female victims, or “damsels in distress,” as they are referred to. Often, they are literally used as bargaining chips in high-stakes situations, and their self-worth is degraded to a single plot point.
Furthermore, in dramas or romantic comedies, shallow portrayals of female characters are seen with the “needy girl” archetype. Similar to the previous two, the character bases herself on the perception of men and is written with little or no personal interests other than pining over a specific male character. And sometimes, when this character does not get the love interest’s attention, she disintegrates into nothing, as her character is based entirely on another person. These characters can also play into the “girl next door” archetype, who is usually a generic character seen in romantic comedies. She is often the childhood friend of the main male antagonist and is innocent, simple, and sweet. At times, she relies on the main character for saving and doesn’t get much character development on her own.
Breaking out of the victim archetype and swinging the pendulum to the other extreme is the femme fatale archetype. First seen with Circe’s appearance in the Greek epic The Odyssey, and later in the film, the femme fatale is highly dominant, hyper-sexual, and powerful. While these can all be interesting ways to portray a female character, the femme fatale is often in some way depicted as a malicious character that presents an obstacle, in the form of a sexual distraction, to the main character.
This archetype is harmful in two major ways. First, it can downplay a powerful female character in a position of leadership, which is very rare in film already, to a woman whose only value is serving sex appeal, which sends a harmful message when it is depicted in a villainous way. Secondly, it portrays women that are comfortable with their sexuality as two-faced or ill-natured. In fact, the femme fatale is sometimes even made to be a bi or gay woman, not for the sake of representation, but for the sake of the character coming off as more “wild” and “edgy.” In fact, Rowson includes an example of the film “Basic Instinct,” which features a major femme fatale character who is bisexual. When first released, it came under protest by gay rights activists for negatively and shallowly depicting bisexual women and their experiences. The femme fatale can often devolve into the crazy or vengeful ex-girlfriend. Often, these characters' sole purpose is to look crazy and chase after the protagonist, with little explanation or exploration of their motivation or past.
It’s clear that female characters are improperly portrayed in Hollywood, and often, it is non-white female characters that face niche, racist archetypes. Specifically, the “mammy,” the “dragon lady,” are two prominent stereotypes that plague Black and East Asian characters, respectively.
The Mammy archetype in film has direct roots in the Jim Crow era and is based on a racist portrayal of Black women. Composed of a heavier, maternal woman, this archetype was offered to show that Black women were content with serving as slaves to white families. Often, the Mammy was desexualized and considered by society as not attractive. Mammy was depicted as very dark-skinned in a society that valued whiteness and regarded Blackness as ugly. The main reason for Mammy’s appearance was to assure that the white wife in the family would have no competition, as slave owners and husbands during the time would often have sexual relations with light-skinned women who worked in the fields on plantations.
Besides the blatant racism present in this depiction of Black women, the mammy also had little life outside serving the family. Rather, this character lacked friends or a personal life goal and didn't seem to exist outside the bubble of the white family. This caricature of Black women during the era was not accurate whatsoever and was offered as more of a myth or propaganda to justify the institution of slavery and create friendly relations with Black women to avoid conflict.
Mammies began to make their appearances in film as early as the 1920s in movies such as The Golden West, released in 1932, and The Story of Temple Drake, released in 1933. Not only were the depictions of these female characters racist, they often lacked personal growth and played very little in the plot other than comforting the main characters. Even today, the legacy of the Mammy archetype is still seen; Brittany Terry, a researcher at Loyola University Chicago, explains that in movies that portray family life, Black actresses serve “the burden of ‘keeping everyone together.’’ They are often the matriarch, the problem solver, or the decision-maker. Interestingly, as Hollywood has evolved, there have been movies that have subverted the Mammy, such as Ma released in 2019. A horror movie starring Octavia Spencer, it plays into the mammy stereotype, depicting Octavia as a kind, caring material figure, and then subverts that stereotype as she inflicts cruelty onto the white teen characters in the movie.
The “dragon lady” is an archetype that has plagued East Asian characters for centuries. The dragon lady is portrayed as hypersexualized, dominant, deceitful, mysterious, and alluring, drawing heavy parallels from the femme fatale.
Asian women have been viewed as sex objects as early as the 1980s, with the Yellow Peril movement and the Pace Act of 1875. Both of these events in history created a negative stigma against East Asian immigrants, the latter even barring Asian women from entering the United States. Asian women were essentially depicted as threats to white supremacy at the time. Through the 1900s, they would be treated like prostitutes, who were considered crude and taboo. During this century, Hollywood had very few to no non-white actresses.
The most prominent Asian actress would be Anna May Wong, who mainly played female roles that leaned into the Dragon Lady archetype. Hollywood would send the message that Asian American women were sex objects, excluding any other character trait in film. Eventually, Wong would go on to refuse more “Dragon Lady” roles and play more minor roles. However, she is still remembered as the Dragon Lady, the most notable of her films showcasing this legacy being Daughter of the Dragon, released in 1931.
This archetype has largely impacted how Asian women are viewed in film, and thus in society as well. As they were and still are continually fetishized and sexualized, they are seen as less than human. Society’s aggression toward Asian women has grown. A hypersexualized narrative has led to a worsening of objectification and violence that Asian-American women have been facing for centuries. Morgan Dewey, NNEDV Development & Communications Coordinator, explains “41 to 61 percent of Asian women report experiencing physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime.” Dewey explains that this is due to the dehumanization these stereotypes cause, which creates environments that excuse and even encourage violence. In fact, the sexual violence Asian women face is significantly higher than any other ethnic group. Even worse, these stereotypes, which are made more popular through film, also make it harder to reach out for help; The Family Violence Prevention Fund reports that Asian survivors face cultural barriers and the normalization of abusive practices, which make it harder for them to reach out and hold abusers accountable.
Undeniably, downplaying female minorities to specific archetypes on-screen has material impacts in the real world, as it can normalize and belittle the racism and sexism Black and Asian women today already face.
Furthermore, Female archetypes that belittle women or paint them as one-dimensional characters are especially dangerous for children. with today's children growing up with the internet, a 2017 Commonhealth Media report that analyzed over 150 articles, interviews, books, cites that gender stereotypes in TV and film are long-lasting and persistent; “they're incredibly effective at teaching kids what the culture expects of boys and girls.” This is mainly because preschoolers that are just beginning to identify with their gender are seeing movies that portray characters with typical masculine or feminine appearances and stereotypical personalities, which impacts how children view their own identities. Furthermore, growing up without a favorite female superhero or TV show character doesn’t give young children the chance to admire someone that can set a good example, and a lack of representation can make kids feel like they aren't seen at all.
In teen years, the problem gets worse, as teens are more vulnerable and struggle with mental health issues, school stress, and relationships. Absorbing expectations of how they should behave from the media can lead to false characterization about a certain gender or insecurities about not being able to mimic what’s on the screen. Specifically, young girls who watch these archetypes play out, especially minorities, are told they aren't valued, and that society only sees them in the ways they are portrayed in film. The Commonhealth Media report concludes that oversimplifying characters over and over reinforces harmful ideas about “career choices, self-worth, relationships, and ability to achieve their full potential.”
It’s not all bad, though. While archetypes are still persistent, it's clear that films have certainly gotten better at portraying amazing, well-written, and diverse female characters. In September, Disney released a trailer for its new movie, Ecanto, which featured Luisa, a Hispanic female character defying the body types Hollywood usually portrays. She’s seen with big muscles, lifting furniture and exuding confidence. Excitingly, her character also incorporates feminine aesthetics such as wearing her hair in a bow, sending the message that a woman can be built “unconventionally” by Hollywood’s standards, but still enjoy things traditionally regarded as feminine. Shortly after, many on Twitter were quick to express their excitement at the portrayal of a woman of color who defies typical Hollywood expectations.
That being said, there’s still a lot of work to be done in improving media portrayals of femininity. Professor of film and television at San Diego State University, Dr. Martha M. Lauzen showcases the disparities between the roles male and female characters face: 46% of female characters’ marital status are disclosed, compared to 34% of male characters. Furthermore, three-quarters of male characters’ occupations are explained to the audience, whereas only two-thirds of female characters get the same treatment. Men are even shown significantly more at work and holding leadership positions than women.
This lack of representation in film is mainly due to the fact that there is a lack of women, especially women of color, in the writers’ room who are able to influence storylines and include female characters that represent more than just a throwaway plot point. This also persists in the lack of recognition female writers get, as this year, only 32% of the 205 non-acting nominations during the Oscars were made of women, and 9 of the 10 academy award nominations for best screenplay writing were allotted to men. Many women in the film industry are still paid less, thought less of, and taken advantage of. The best the film industry can do is empower women, especially non-white women, in spaces where they can show kids that women on the big screen can be complex, kind, strong, powerful, and embrace their feminity, all at the same time.