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Editorial: A new role for female characters

One of the most difficult issues surrounding the role of media in society today is the question of whether news and entertainment lead in shaping the way people think, or whether they merely reflect the thoughts and opinions that are already...
August 1, 1997

One of the most difficult issues surrounding the role of media in society today is the question of whether news and entertainment lead in shaping the way people think, or whether they merely reflect the thoughts and opinions that are already there.

In the entertainment sector, given the staggering costs involved in bringing even the most modest product to market, it’s difficult to imagine studio executives, for one group, taking the huge risk of developing a project on the basis of how they believe the public will be thinking or how they believe the public ought to be thinking.

But if leadership is interpreted to mean drilling as deeply as possible into the consumer psyche, far beyond the surface of what people say in focus group clinics, and developing projects on the basis of what people truly think and want then yes, the media can lead. And in this sense, it means leading us all out of the past and into a more relevant present.

Illustrations of how entertainment companies do make progressive steps forward can be found in a number of upcoming film and television projects described in this issue. All relate to the changing way that females are portrayed.

Three of the more interesting are Disney’s feature film Mulan, slated for release next summer, Nelvana’s August release of Pippi Longstocking and Warner Bros.’ fall television series The Legend of Calamity Jane.

In all of these shows, the lead roles are played by strong-willed, enterprising females, well-defined characters who conquer their worlds by tapping into their own considerable internal resources.

If a brief segment from Mulan screened earlier this year during the Annecy Animation Festival in France is indicative of the rest of the movie, this could become one of the more powerful performances in contemporary animation.

Set in ancient China, Mulan is the story of a girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to join the army to restore the family’s honor. The lead character fills the screen. Apart from the role playing as a boy, and other sex-role portrayals that are necessary for historical context, gender fades into, at best, a side issue. The lead character is defiant, self-possessed and, in every respect, a compelling figure. And the character works because she will make a connection with her audience. She will move and inspire people. Her appeal is universal.

That studios feel comfortable now in casting female characters in such roles in spite of the legitimate concern that this might lead to stigmatization and the fearful label of ‘girls movie’ is reason enough to feel that progress has been made.

That this issue comes up at all is reason to feel there’s still much to be done.

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