Johannesburg – Women in the TV and Film industry have revolutionised the term “leading man”. In our contemporary world, we see all types of females on our screens – strong, wealthy, liberated women are the theme of most of the 21st century female characters.
However, this was not always the case. A mere 50 years ago, women were fighting for positive representation in films and television. Since women first appeared in movies around the onset of the 1900s, their characterisation has been shaped in relation to their male counterparts. Such had been the unmistakable influence and impact of patriarchy in society.
So patriarchal was the television and film industry that it was hopelessly susceptible in its deliberate exclusion of women from our screens for an awfully long time, with impunity, nogal.
The struggles for women’s emancipation had historically been waged on many fronts, taking various forms and shape through the years.
For example, in early films, women were portrayed as simple-minded and inferior. Their roles were oftentimes confined to servitude or objectification, where women were seen as mere prizes for lucky men. Damn! They were also frequently constructed as the “damsel in distress” in need of saving.
Although the theme is still ironically consistent in the movies and television shows we see today, the representation of females has substantially improved, and the status of female thespians has soared.
Our screens are filled with notable and enticing women that not only show a transformation in our social conventions but indicate notable entrenchment in the societal conventions that construct female characters. This has not only been seen in children’s films such as “Mulan” and“ Brave”, but also in the emergence of the plethora of female superheroes.
This is also evident in more mature shows such as “How to get away with murder”, “Insecure” and “The Fixer”, which starred powerhouse characters such as Olivia Pope. Closer to home-brewed productions, which reflect largely our own context of life, we continue to see the domination of women in television through characters such as Lindiwe Dlamini-Dikana and Harriet Khoza (superbly played by Sindi Dlathu and Connie Ferguson in the series “The River” and “The Queen” respectively).
The fame, or infamy, of female characters, is of equal importance in television and film. It speaks to a more realistic portrayal of women, one that doesn’t see females as one-dimensional or idealistic, but rather embraces the diversity and complexity that women embody naturally. Furthermore, it is vital that we, as a society, come to grips with the narratives and lived-realities that televised women present.
The socio-economic and political struggles that women face are finally at the forefront of film and television, and it is of the utmost importance that society engages in these discourses, and centres them in the engagements on societal development.
Females are at a critical juncture in society. One that not only lays bare the entrenched hostilities that they grapple with, but also centres their autonomy and their self-definition; the ability to shape their own sexuality, rather than construct this in relation to men.
We see this in shows such as “Killing Eve” and “Queen of the South”. A film such as “The Woman King” (starring the irrepressible Viola Davis) proves to us that women on our screens are vital to the construction and reshaping of our social and ontological norms and conventions. They are iconic characters that directly shape the present, and future, of women in our modern society.
Development is a dynamic process, thereby never static. As society develops particularly into modernity, it vital important women’s ability and expertise is judged “on the content of their character” – to borrow from Dr Martin Luther King Jr – rather than on their gender.
This form of education needs to start in the home, dispensed among the young ones as they grow, so that they may never know bigotry and respect all people in equal measure.
Tswelopele Makoe is an MA (Ethics) student in the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice at UWC. She is also a gender activist.