Missing from film: have you seen this woman? She’s average height and weight, has a multitude of interests, emotions that run deep, and a life that doesn’t revolve around love interests. This is the real modern woman, so why has she not been depicted in film? The answer is simple: it doesn’t sell. It is no secret that the entertainment industry feeds on unrealistic and, oftentimes, sexist caricatures of women, particularly the 20-something single, heterosexual woman who lives in her sweatpants and drinks wine while multiple suitors come banging at her door. Yes, Bridget Jones, I’m looking at you. This form of media is oftentimes entertaining and relatable, but it seems to be causing more harm than good. While shows like Fleabag have been praised for their innovation and authenticity just like Bridget Jones, Fleabag is, at its roots, the same trope. Instead of being a sad, single, and sexually-frustrated woman, Fleabag is an independent and single “slut”. And though Fleabag is a commentary on this cliché, with the main character attempting to be one-note to cover up her true depth, the single-slut view of women ultimately prevails.
These tropes, however damaging, are undeniably entertaining. They sell, and they sell a lot. Winning 57 awards since its release in 2016, Fleabag is nothing short of a cultural phenomenon. Just like Bridget, Fleabag is relatable to many women. My friends would even watch episodes and say that the protagonist reminded them of me — whether that’s a compliment or not is for you to decide. But why do we relate so intensely to these seemingly one-note characters? Put simply, we have been trained from a young age to find characters we relate to in the media. We are taught that doing so will enhance the entire experience. This means that when a single woman watches another single woman on screen, they already have a connection. This is nowhere near enough to pique the interest of viewers, though. Characters must have depth that is revealed slowly throughout the film, keeping everyone watching on the edge of their seat. This is exactly what is missing in the romance genre — these characters are nothing more than the figures that surround them.
“Little space has been created in the rom-com and rom-dram genres for multi-faceted women, and it shows.”
Despite many women feeling tied to these characters in one way or another, they are nothing more than a façade; a one-page manuscript missing the hundreds of pages that make up a real woman. We are instantly drawn to these characters because we find one or two similarities in personality, but it never extends past this point. Little space has been created in the rom-com and rom-dram genres for multi-faceted women, and it shows.
Another glaring issue must be addressed on the topic of modern women on screen. Where is the diversity? Women in these films are constantly seen prancing around their New York studio apartments, out for brunch at chic new restaurants, and embarrassing themselves on blind dates. Yet, in all of these scenes, a sea of white faces stares back at viewers. The white male machine of Hollywood chooses time and time again to roll out skinny blondes and brunettes instead of showcasing more realistic images of female-presenting persons. This is also the case for LGBTQ+ romance films, which often depict exclusively Caucasian relationships torn apart by familial disapproval. Not only is the plot incredibly predictable, but I’d also allege that more than a few movies immediately come to mind when reading that description. The funniest part of all of this is that production companies would potentially make much more money if they simply made films more diverse. It has been proven, potentially most notably by the release of Black Panther, that there is a high demand for diversity in the film industry, and that most everyone benefits from cinematic inclusivity. The long and short of it is that viewers love to see themselves on screen — it’s part of what makes cinema so magical.
“I felt empowered watching I’m Your Woman, a film which follows a woman’s journey of independence as she learns to fend for herself when her husband disappears.”
Yet, there is some hope. With shows like I May Destroy You and the recent film, I’m Your Woman, female characters are depicted as more complex and more than just accessories to the men in their lives. Although both of these examples have plots kick-started by men, they are not the primary focus. These women go on emotional and introspective journeys that completely enrich the viewing experience. Having repeatedly seen how the trope of the mob boss’s wife plays out on screen, I felt empowered watching I’m Your Woman, a film which follows a woman’s journey of independence as she learns to fend for herself when her husband disappears. Although she has a son, the focus is not just on her as a mother, but her as an adult, single woman facing up to the dark world she lives in. She isn’t just tough and independent, she also has her breakdowns and moments of fear. This is similar to I May Destroy You. The plots may be different, but the idea remains the same. These women have to be introspective, learn to adapt and become strong in the face of violence. Although these are not rom-coms, screenwriters can easily look to these as examples of what women in film can be. Keeping women inside the box of single or taken does nothing to change the way audiences see womanhood, and sadly, does more for solidifying the idea of things as fitting into a binary. In fact, it diminishes what women believe they can do, or are meant to do, within society. When a young girl sees a film in which women are portrayed as strong, independent, mature, emotional, and funny, they realise that is who they can be as well. Rom-coms must break women out of this box and share with the world the power female characters can bring to the screen.