Constructed Gender Stereotypes and Sexism in Comedy and Films
The Cycle of Sexism: Gender Ideologies in Modern Cinema
In a sense, all films are propaganda. The characters, storyline, and themes in cinematic pieces, especially those of mainstream variety, exist to present one idea; the director’s opinion. Ideologies in media are fed to the masses with such subtlety that this act of indoctrination is indistinguishable. Previously coded social scripts encourage the audience to interpret the gender roles presented to them with nonchalant reception. According to Andre, the stereotypes shown in film negatively assess women as a result of their comparison against white men (76). Through the production of seemingly harmless movies, such as Iron Man 2 and Knocked Up, ideologies that affirm the current standards of gender power the vicious cycle of sexism.
The concept of gender is easily distinguishable within Iron Man 2. From the title alone, one can assume that the film focuses on a powerful male character; conveyed by iron’s connotation with indestructibility. Delving into the plot, male characters constitute the predominant action sequences. This begs the question, how the movie would have been recepted if the roles of antagonists Ivan Vanko and Justin Hammer were fulfilled instead by women. Even Pepper Potts’s appointment as CEO, which could be considered a shift in ideology, rather reinforces the notion that women assume responsibility only when a man is unable to carry out the task himself. Moreover, the film’s ending reflects the expected script of the male hero saving the world and simultaneously winning the girl (Palmer).
How it works
In spite of female superhero Natasha Romanoff’s portrayal as outside gender normality, she succumbs to the sexualized role of women. Her tight-fitting, black leather suit which accentuates her curves also diminishes her credibility. As soon as her character is introduced, she is belittled by Stark’s boxing partner, Happy Hogan, and objectified by Stark, via his utterance of “I want one” in reference to Romanoff. Kellner insinuates that Stark and Hogan are not held accountable for their actions because society has espoused this deprecation of women (3). Equally discernible is Iron Man 2’s opening sequence, the sexual movements of scantily clad female dancers is nothing short of objectification and yet is brushed off as a dance performance (Wilson). Behind the dancers, an American flag waves valiantly; implying that these are the ideologies which America holds dear. According to Hall, representation is synonymous with symbolization; thus displaying the symbol of freedom intimates a thumbs up from the home of the brave (14).
Whereas the romantic comedy Knocked Up conforms to gender roles indirectly, stereotypes are nevertheless reinforced; the most apparent being protagonist Alison Scott’s portrayal as the controlling, career-driven woman (Lewis). Despite Alison’s negative representation, there is something to say for her character’s independent nature; Alison’s indifference towards her single relationship status differentiates her from the role of the dependent woman. The audience must be cognizant, however, when seemingly positive stereotypes are exhibited. Andre warns against all manners of stereotypes, as their intransigence stunts critical thinking (78). Regardless of Alison’s self-supporting lifestyle, the film affirms the idea that pregnant women cannot execute tasks with comparable efficiency, as expressed by Alison’s ploy to hide her pregnancy from her boss. Not only does the film depict pregnancy unfavorably, but it also paints older women adversely. The second time that Debbie and Alison venture out to the nightlife scene, they are denied entry to a club on the tacit account of Debbie’s age and Alison’s pregnancy.
The father of Alison’s child, Ben Stone, fills the male stereotypical mold; expressed by his laziness and disinterest in Alison’s pregnancy. Intrinsically, the film excuses Ben’s lackadaisical attitude; the porn website on which Ben and his male friends work serves as a symbol of masculinity. This facet is eloquently delineated by Soles, who illuminates that “the geek (protagonist] acts as a Trojan horse for rampant misogyny, racism, infantilism, and reification of white male centrality and privilege” (92). As expected, the ideology only shifts in the latter half of the film, when Ben finally assumes responsibility for his impending fatherhood. By taking a serious issue and turning it into a laughing matter, sexism in comedy is particularly dangerous. As Belton points out, American comedy is the genre of the people; promoted ideologies are thus propagated with ease (173). Symbols of gender, such as high heels, should be expunged from action films like Iron Man 2, where the female character serves a higher purpose than mere eye candy, and women should not be depicted as uptight and castrating for the purpose of male entertainment, as shown in Knocked Up. The cinematic industry could benefit from an assessment of their values, vis-à-vis their depiction of males and females on screen, and an understanding that the gender ideologies which are presented impact the pliable mind of the audience.