Recognizing Gender Representations in Introduction to Film; or When “I Never Realized” Becomes “Now I Will Notice It”

Recognizing Gender Representations in Introduction to Film; or When “I Never Realized” Becomes “Now I Will Notice It”
This entry is part 7 of 16 in the series Essays / Analyses.

Students in my traditional and online Introduction to Film courses take three exams, each of which includes at least four types of questions — clip, multiple choice, short answer, and identification — all designed to target the various learning styles that my 200+ students possess (e.g., visual, aural, kinesthetic, reading-writing). Here are some samples:

Clip Question: Referencing any two of the eight “gender categories” that we covered in class, discuss in detail the representation of men/boys and/or women/girls in this wizard-chess scene from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Christopher Columbus, 2002).

Multiple Choice: In Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, a policeman asks a heroin addict, “Are you going to tell us where you did the drugs, or are we going to have to tear the place apart bit by bit?” The next shot shows the addict’s house torn apart. What editing technique is used here?

A. a match-on action
B. elliptical editing (or ellipses)
C. shot/reverse shot
D. parallel editing
E. Both A and C

Short Answer: From Double Indemnity, Phyllis Dietrichson dresses elegantly, exudes sexuality, and endangers men. What noir character type is she?

Identification/Application: Why do we consider the ending of Citizen Kane omniscient (or unrestricted) narration? See image below.

Sometimes though, I add another type of question to the exams — one open to pure opinion, one that requires no right or wrong answer. Some instructors might consider this a throwaway question, but honestly, it’s the one that I most look forward to reading/grading. Here’s the version found on Exam 3:

Of the four sections covered on this exam — film movements, race, gender, and industry — which did you find most stimulating, and why?

I’m sorry to report that the answer film movements rarely makes the cut. Although many of the students seem to find lectures on German Expressionism, French Surrealism, The New Hollywood, etc. interesting, they’re apparently not the “most stimulating.” On occasion, race yields high marks as it did in this student’s response:

I have experienced that type of stereotyping in my life as a black male. Seeing how African Americans are depicted and were depicted in Hollywood opened my eyes to many things. Learning of Sidney Poitier breaking the color barrier that was raised and to see progression of the roles that many blacks have today is amazing.


But this spring, the answer race didn’t get as many votes as it normally does. Rather, the answers were split almost evenly between industry and gender. One law student, for instance, found the lecture on industry (production, distribution, exhibition, censorship) fascinating because of what Hollywood “gets away with”:

This section interested me the most because of the way the studios and MPAA have a large control over the industry as a whole. I don’t agree with this and therefore thought This Film is Not Yet Rated was very enlightening. It is amazing what a corporation can get away with when most people don’t know it and when the government tells them what is good for them. I think people should be able to make their own decisions about themselves and their own families.

Another student found industry studies stimulating because she “learned a lot about the strategies that are taken to make a movie successful” (seasons, timing, promotion) and didn’t realize “how much thought is actually placed into the release and advertisement of the films, often more than the production of the film itself.” Likewise, a third student thought this lecture “opened [his] eyes to how the film industry is still basically vertically integrated and still controls much of the production, exhibition, and distribution in the industry.” Moreover, from studying and screening This Film Is Not Yet Rated, he evidently realized “the unfair ways films are rated” and concluded “that some sort of reform with that process is very much needed.”

I appreciate these responses, and, like some of my film students, I too enjoy watching This Film Is Not Yet Rated and talking about block booking, high-concept films, and ancillary markets. But, it’s not this information that I most want my students to take away from the class; rather, it’s the discussions on gender and race. I want them to see how they — as men, women, members of ethnic groups, etc. — are represented onscreen. I want them to read these (often simple and stereotypical) representations of themselves and their society more critically than when they first entered the classroom. As a result, I’m always thankful to see that a large number of students find the section on gender “the most stimulating.”

Granted, there are some answers that are a bit wobbly, like this one from a female student:

While I don’t consider myself to be a feminist, I do consider myself to be a strong, independent woman. I think Hollywood’s portrayals of the different genders can be somewhat ridiculous. It was interesting for me to learn what the classic portrayals for women and men are/were. I enjoyed Bonnie and Clyde because it definitely challenged the average woman’s role, especially at that point in time. It also challenged the man’s role with the scenes about sexual impotence.

Still, despite the student’s misreading of the term feminist, she is able to interpret Hollywood’s often “ridiculous” representations of gender and has learned that there is a difference in the way men and women are filmed. Other reactions mostly echo the one above, but they generally begin with or include somewhere the phrase I never realized… or something of that ilk:

I never realized how different men and women are treated in movies. Growing up, that is just how it has always been. So I never thought anything of it. This really opened my eyes to how different sexes are treated.

I did not realize how the majority of the movies made are created for the male audience. […] I also realized that even though movies such as Tomb Raider, Catwoman, and Charlie’s Angels feature strong, independent women in the lead roles, the female characters are still represented as sex symbols by the ways they dress and look — and that in the end, they’re made for a male (not female) audience. Overall, this section was an eye-opener to me, and I must say that I am much more aware of the situation now when I watch new movies.

I never realized the gender stereotypes that occurred in movies until taking this course. Looking back on movies I’ve watched or even movies I’ve watched after learning of this issue (with the exception of American Gigolo), I can’t think of one movie that doesn’t step outside the boundary of a woman being a whore or a mother.

I liked that this chapter shined light on how the female body is looked at. It also made me see the different ways that women are objectified, some I’ve never thought of. Now when I watch movies I pay attention to this and often get offended.

I never really thought about the idea that most movies were made for the male demographic and that women were many times portrayed as being weaker characters, there for men’s sexual desire. I believe this idea of male dominance in unfair and that films should work toward balancing male and female representations on screen.

I liked learning about the gender stereotypes. It never occurred to me that these were portrayed in movies.

I have always been interested in the role of women in the media, but studying the different categories of representations opened my eyes to certain elements I had not considered or seen from that perspective. Fetishization, for example, was something I had not noticed directly before and had only sensed a difference between the way women and men are shot.

I had not noticed before the different gender roles played out in the movies. After reading the discussion board and doing the content I have become aware of how different male and females are displayed in film. […] Also I had not noticed that the males were usually the protagonist in films. Now that it has been brought to my attention, I will notice it when I go to the movies!

This is what I LOVE to see.

This is why I like teaching Introduction to Film.

This is why I spend so much time on the gender (and race) lectures.

And this is why I tell my students every single semester, “These two lectures are perhaps the most important of the entire term, for it is here that you learn what Hollywood thinks about you — and for the most part, it’s not very pretty.”

Indeed, it is exceedingly gratifying when the phrase I never realized… turns into Now I will notice it and Now I pay attention to… and finally, I am much more aware of the situation…