Sex Roles in Motion Pictures

The concept of sex roles involves imposing behavioral expectations on each gender. In this concept, there is an approved way of behaving imposed on both men and females. Research has shown there is no direct relationship between biological sex and the various social aspects of sex roles. This has prompted some psychologists to recommend that the term sex be used to designate biological maleness/femaleness, as opposed to the term gender role, which refers to basic notions of masculinity and femininity.

According to sociologists, much of what we consider masculine or feminine is learned as a result of socialization experiences. Traditionally women have been regarded as more delicate and compassionate than men; stereotypes for femininity include domesticity, warmth, beauty, emotion, dependence, physical weakness and passivity. Men are thought of as being more competitive and less emotional than women; masculinity stereotypes can be described by words such as unemotional, physically strong, independent, active and aggressive.

Sex roles in motion pictures are little different; they reflect and reinforce the dominant ideology which includes the expected behavior of male and female characters. Stereotypically, men are cast in lead roles while women are cast in traditional roles where they are dependent and emotional. As gender roles change in society, so have sex roles in motion pictures. In the 1920s sex roles were very rigid and stereotypes of masculinity and femininity were hardly deviated from, but in the 1930s and 1940s there were several films where female were the central characters.

In such films, women were shown as wanting to gain independence from their families, to experience true romantic love. These were often melodramas, where the woman would eventually have to sacrifice her career for love or vice versa. This showed women that although they could want to both work and have love, it was not entirely possible.

In the late 1940s films featuring Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn portrayed women as competitors to men in the workplace and concentrated less on their sexuality. In the 1950s, sexuality of women re-emerged in film; women were often shown as blatantly sexual and seductive threats. At the time, women were categorized into two groups, the seductress such as Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, or as innocent and wholesome, like Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly.

The 1980s reinforced the sex roles of masculinity with a trend for action hero movies, all with multiple sequels, such as Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and Indiana Jones. Die Hard especially played into the role of the dominant male, with a wife who had left him to pursue a career, but in the end persuading her to return to the family.

The late 1980s and 1990s gave rise to some degree of feminism with the rise of the female action heroes as seen in films such as Thelma and Louise, Terminator 2, and the Alien films. Other films to have leading female characters included Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction saw conventional male and female sex roles challenged.

From 2000-2010, sex roles in motion pictures were challenged more than ever, as some female stars managed to break through the stereotypical barriers and take on roles that are not based on society's determined characteristics of their gender. This is evident in films such as Lara Croft and Kill Bill, where the leads were aggressive, strong and powerful females.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

All That Hollywood Allows: Re-Reading Gender in 1950s Melodrama
Jackie Byars.
University of North Carolina Press, 1991
Running Scared: Masculinity and the Representation of the Male Body
Peter Lehman.
Temple University Press, 1993
Cracks in the Pedestal: Ideology and Gender in Hollywood
Philip Green.
University of Massachusetts Press, 1998
This Mad Masquerade: Stardom and Masculinity in the Jazz Age
Gaylyn Studlar.
Columbia University Press, 1996
Media-Tions: Forays into the Culture and Gender Wars
Elayne Rapping.
South End Press, 1994
Transnational Chinese Cinemas: Identity, Nationhood, Gender
Sheldon Hsiao-Peng Lu.
University of Hawaii Press, 1997
Desperate Deeds, Desperate Men: Gender, Race, and Rape in Silent Feature Films, 1915-1927
Shrock, Joel.
The Journal of Men's Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1, Fall 1997
Duel or Duet? Gendered Nationalism in the Piano
Thornley, Davinia.
Film Criticism, Vol. 24, No. 3, Spring 2000
Wimps Whiners Weenies: Men in Movies Today
Feder, Don.
The American Enterprise, Vol. 13, No. 5, July-August 2002
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