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Female Protagonists

The changing images of women in fiction film

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It is widely felt that female characters in film have been restricted to the easy categories that classical narratives and familiar genres demand of them (the typical complaint is that women in films are either 'virgins, mothers or whores'). There is certainly some truth in this view. However, across the history of British cinema we can see the development of an impressive variety of female characters and protagonists. One might even argue that by comparison with Hollywood, British cinema, with its perennial concern for realism, its desire to speak about ordinary lives and social concerns and its comparative lack of emphasis upon superficial beauty and glamour, has permitted a greater breadth of female representation. Thus today's British cinema finds a place for actors as varied as Helena Bonham-Carter, Kathy Burke, Judi Dench, Jane Horrocks, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Samantha Morton, Kristen Scott-Thomas, Maggie Smith, Alison Steadman, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

It's undeniable that, despite this variety, women on film have been more often restricted to familial or domestic roles than have men. While a number of famous female protagonists have been presented as strong models of motherhood (as in Poor Cow (d. Ken Loach, 1967) and A Taste of Honey (d. Tony Richardson, 1961)), we have rarely seen women whose priority is to pursue and develop their ambitions, talents or vocations (see, for example, The Red Shoes (d. Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, 1948), Educating Rita (d. Lewis Gilbert, 1983), and Little Voice (UK/US, d. Mark Herman, 1998)). Female characters who are uninterested in motherhood and domesticity are frequently depicted as lacking something or paying a price for their success. Those who do pursue larger ambitions are often portrayed as being in some sense naïve, manipulated by other (male) characters in the pursuit of their dreams.

As British cinema has developed, the number of female protagonists has increased, and female characters play a larger part in propelling the narrative forward. For example, where the British New Wave films of the 1960s largely confined their female characters to motherhood and domesticity, leaving the male protagonists to speak out about larger social concerns, many contemporary social realist films allow female characters greater power over their own destinies.

The representation of women in film depends as much on issues of production, institutions and genres as on social, political and historical contexts. Gainsborough melodramas, Carry On films, Hammer horrors, heritage films and recent 'Brit-grit' realist films all necessarily place limitations upon the kinds of roles open to female (and male) actors.

Yet even within the most conventional of studios and genres, and within the most unpromising films, it's possible to find women who offer alternative and positive representations: for example the powerful female characters played by Helena Bonham-Carter and Emma Thompson in 1980s and '90s heritage films, or the charismatic, if troubled, characters played by Julie Christie in earlier films like Darling (d. John Schlesinger, 1965).

The situation for non-white women is slightly less rosy, in that fewer representations exist, but we still have the varied and careful characterisations found in Burning an Illusion (d. Menelik Shabazz, 1981), Bhaji on the Beach (d. Gurinder Chadha, 1993), East is East (d. Damien O'Donnell, 1999) and Secrets and Lies (d. Mike Leigh, 1996).

Sarah Cardwell

Further Reading
Sue Harper Women in British Cinema: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to know (Continuum, London, 2000)

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