Women in film and television: cliché or supporting role // Sunday Thoughts

Anyone who has seen the Netflix series Stranger Things knows that without strong women, the world would have long ago fallen into the hands of Demogorgons. Eleven rescues, fights, telekinest and bleeds out of his nose like a real superhero - but is that enough in the feminist sense?

Read this article in deDeutsch

M aybe you just do not suspect sexism in Stranger Things, but nevertheless the series uses subliminal patterns that are very typical of women’s roles. Stranger Things is not the best example to perform sexism about women in film and television. But it is the best example to show how inconspicuous the same patterns repeat on the canvas. Even in one of my new favorite series. All over. Sometimes clear, sometimes toned down. That it does not seem to attract much attention is all the more depressing.

Stereotypical storylines in Stranger Things

As I suspect from my T-shirt, I like Stranger Things anyway. I just wish, once, at least, a gang of girls would save the world.   And take the lead roles. It’s not enough that a few interesting women characters gather around the real stars of the show, because these are still male. The storyline revolves around the small high school nerd gear of a small American town in the 80s. The boys save Eleven – as a tough female character – first. One after the other, one of the protagonists increasingly falls in love with them, although the screentime is consistently male dominated. In the second season, the boys gang meets after Eleven’s disappearance on a new girl, which now occupies the “female quota” of the group. Subliminally, Stranger Things uses his plot with several clichés that can be found too often in film and television.

And in real life? Millie Bobbie Brown, the 13-year-old actress who plays the girl Eleven in Stranger Things, was named “Sexiest Actress” by W magazine (More). Such names for a child are simply wrong. On screen or outside: women and girls are strongly sexualized.


(This article was translated from German with Google Translate)

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Typical roles of women in film and television

Choose your heroine: the princess in distress, the sexy babe or the crybaby from the romantic comedy. 

“Damsel In Distress”

A little stranger “virgin in danger” in German is the stereotypical role of a woman in distress who needs to be rescued (by men). You will find this narrative in all shapes and colors over and over again. Eleven represents an unusually tough Damsel in Distress, which is increasingly developing her independence. The horror film IT, which plays in a similar setting – boys gang, 80s, small town – you can see a stronger example: There, the young girl is kidnapped and waiting for his rescue. Oh, by the way, of course, it is also the crush of the gang of boys and is shown in underwear. She plays a child, too.

The men are the rescuers and the women are the rescued.

“Object of desire”

Often, women are just the accessories of the main male characters, with the function of bringing some sexy spice into the storyline . Eleven is wonderful as a strong female character, but I wish her figure had not been adapted to this stereotypical role. Do women and girls always have to be the love interest of at least one of the male protagonists? Women are more than appendages. Women should not be seen on the screen because the production wanted to have some decoration for the male audience. 


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Underrepresented secondary characters

According to a new German study, women represent only a third of the main characters on German television (More). Men as protagonists: That’s the way it goes with the boys gang in Stranger Things, that’s the way it is with the guys in IT, that’s how it is with various national and international films and series. The ratio of female and male screentime is also very unbalanced. Another frequent criticism is that in stories with male groups as protagonists, there is often exactly one female character that fulfills the “women’s quota”. At Stranger Things this is Eleven, then her successor Max in Season 2. This article analyzes this problem of the series wonderfully. How could Stranger Things improve? In Season 3, when Max and mix Eleven with the boys.

The crybaby

Women may have a chance of starring when it comes to romantic comedies. The men go out and save the world, the women meet for the girls’ evening and tell their men’s stories. Believing most TV and film productions, the universe of female characters ranges from bed to altar.

Do not you just talk about affairs, tampons and mascara all day long? Is not the only thing that makes your life meaningful again, that HE calls you back?

Apparently, the women’s roles in the 60s stuck. The German study also shows that women’s characters are shown more often in connection with issues such as relationship and partnership.

Like a line on paper

… just as one-dimensional women are sometimes portrayed. Interesting character with passions? No indication, one resorts to clichés. Bad parking and make-up instead of strong, own opinion. And if you thought that headline would refer to the slender ideal of beauty: that’s just as much a problem in the movie industry as racism.


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No country for old women

A graph of the Institute for Media Research in the article “Men act, women come before” (worth reading!) shows you how much the female part of the actors decreases with their age. Women over 80 are in the end only with 20% represented. It refers to every type of role – not just main roles. Women are young and beautiful, but from the first pregnancy, they should be off the screen.

Wannabe Feminism

And if a woman can save the world, it’s only to play a wet dream in feature length. From Wonder Woman to Lara Croft: the focus is always on male viewers. Short costumes, hot slogans. Shown femininity and feminism are NOT a contradiction, but strongly sexualized protagonists of the male gaze are anything but feminist. On the contrary, it is rather a bad joke – maybe even dangerous – to portray such roles as feminist at all.

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Film and television have enormous power

If you are showered daily with certain role ratios, from childhood on, it absorbs them. We women are constantly being led to suggest that we can only choose between Damsel in Distress, the object of desire, or the role of crybaby. What’s left for us as a Girl Power movie? The female remake of Ghost Busters? 

A first step towards equality between men and women in film and television is to raise awareness of existing sexism. We need viewers who notice this sexism at all and criticize it – how else should a change prevail?   A clumsy “It’s just that” mentality has never brought us forward as a society.

The Bechdel Test

If in doubt, you can do the Bechdel Test in every movie you watch: Are there at least two women’s roles? Are they talking to each other? Do you talk about anything other than a man? In the newer version, Do the women have names? If not all the answers are “Yes,” the film falls right through. The quick feminism check shows you what a frustratingly low claim level many movies already fail. Two women with names who only talk about something other than a man once? That should be easy, you think. On average, only about 58% of the films pass all questions. Over the last few years, the average has improved only slightly. Here you can read exactly how ridiculously many films already fail at the lowest level of feminism.

…and Stranger Things?

Although Stranger Things is a series that offers more opportunities and time for female action than a film, the first season does NOT make it through the Bechdel test.

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