Throughout the decades we have seen the role of women change dramatically in films, from early films such as The Phantom of the Opera (1925), to newer films such as Beauty and the Beast (2017). Throughout time we’ve seen the rise and fall of female characters from Maria in ‘The Sound of Music’ and Ella in ‘Cinderella’ to Alice in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and Jyn in ‘Rogue One.’


A key film in the 1920s was ‘It’(1927) which presented the times as the romantic relationship flails under the rumour that the female character is a unwed mother. This shows us how this would have been frowned upon at the time and a woman would be condemned for her actions. As well as this the entire narrative is focused on the female attracting the attention of the male through making him jealous. It could be argued that this is a strong stance however it also shows how in those times women’s sole purpose was to impress men and so were sexualised in films like these. This is added to because the actress Clara Bow is described as a ‘sex symbol’ of the time.

Marilyn Monroe (1926 –1962) is one of the most iconic actresses and models. She has starred in over 30 movies and rose to fame very quickly. Marilyn became one of the most popular sex symbols of the 1950's, with people magazine voting her to be the "sexiest woman of the century" in 1999.

She was Playboy's first "Sweetheart of the Month" in December 1953. Throughout her acting career she has become most known for playing comic "dumb blond" characters that find themselves in love with one of the male roles within the script. This idea conforms with all the stereotypical actions exhibited by women in earlier films, however Marilyn shows that women can be more confident with themselves and their body's, creating a new outlook for women on the big screen.

During the 1940s Katherine Hepburn was a very popular actress. One of her iconic films was ‘Woman of the Year’  (1942)  a romantic comedy-drama. The films plot is about a relationship between Tess Harding, an international affairs correspondent, chosen ‘Woman of the Year, and Sam Craig, a sports writer, who meet, marry and encounter problems as a result from her job. Like most films from then the film is based around love.

Another influential person within this era is Audrey Hepburn (1929 –1993) who was a British actress, model, dancer and humanitarian, and is a well-known fashion icon. One of Audrey's most famous roles has to be in the movie "My Fair Lady" in 1964. The story concerns Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl who takes speech lessons from professor Henry Higgins,  so that she may pass as a lady giving the impression that anything that doesn't follow the standards of being a lady is wrong.

However during the next few decades we see the most dramatic changes on the screen between the roles of women.

 In 1979 we saw the birth of one of the most famous sci-fi franchises ever made, Ridley Scotts "Alien" and its sequel "Aliens" that was released in 1986. Within these movies we see the main character Ellen Ripleys (Sigourney Weaver) fight against the alien xenomorphs that were brought onto her ship through a human source. Many people say that this is one of the first movies where we see a female taking on the protagonist of a more action based film, and it is important to see that women don't need to be overly sexualised to be a part of the movie business.

 Looking at Ripley’s whole attitude as a character, she challenges a lot of the stereotypes of the time such as how a woman should act, behave or interact with others. She is shown cursing, screaming, and talking about guns and machine vehicles. She is determined to prove the male characters wrong and is fighting for a greater cause, an attribute which is seen in almost every movie focusing on depicting the female strength at the time. In the first part of Aliens, when the boarding members are having a meeting with Ripley, and the leader Van Leuwin (Paul Maxwell) refuses to listen to her she bursts out:

God damn it, that’s not all! Because if one of those things gets down here then that will be all! Then all this – this bullshit that you think is so important, you can just kiss all that goodbye!

Thus Ripley became one of the first to crush many stereotypes of how women acted on the screen.

Moving on to the 90s we see a rise in women's roles, from comedies such as "10 Things I Hate About You"(1999) to dramas such as "Silence of the Lambs "(1991). Many of the films produced within this time show women to be independent and strong, Uma Thurman is a great example of this, she has starred in movies such as "Pulp Fiction"(Quentin Tarantino- 1994) and "Kill Bill" (2003) these rolls show her to be very strong, intelligent and powerful all of which did not apply to women in earlier films in the 1920s.

Frozen, Jurassic World, Beauty and the Beast, Rogue One; throughout the 2000s we’ve seen a range of fantastic films some that challenge sexism in a new way and some that surprisingly don’t.

If you look at Rogue One Jyn is a tough independent solider which contrast to Princess Leia, saves herself from disaster. And she wears a practical uniform that isn't there simply to satisfy the heterosexual male gaze.

Frozen is a controversial topic. If we look at the Bechdel Test it passes (where two named female characters have to have a conversation about something other than a male) but so do Cinderella, Brave and Sleeping Beauty. So why is everybody so obsessed with feminist Frozen?

It has two women as protagonists which is great but the reason people love it is because the Queen, Elsa, didn’t end up with anybody but since then films seem to now believe that they can’t have a protagonist who falls in love; in ‘Maleficent’ the witch wakes Aurora and ‘ Moana’ doesn’t feature romance. Is romance now tabooed in films for a female protagonist?

However a new feature ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is making strides for feminism in film as it features Emma Watson. She states that Belle:

 Keeps her independence; she keeps that freedom of thought’ despite being a female protagonist who falls in love.

Jurassic World caused a stir because many fans were unimpressed by the fact the female character ran in heels and slowly stripped throughout the development of the narrative only to gain the attention of the male protagonist and became a warmer person. However she did run the entire park and the director says "The real protagonist of the movie is Claire, and we embrace her femininity in the story’s progression."

We asked two young cinema goers Lottie and Abi, both 17 for their take on films today. They feel that women's roles are progressing:

I think a lot more role are positive now than they were before... women are more independent, like with the new Wonder Woman film coming out soon

They still want to see more roles for women challenging stereotypes though.

In Hollywood women took only 22% of leads in the top 110 grossing films (2016) and 33% of all speaking characters. A study in 2015 showed us that there fewer female writers, editors and producers since 1998. So have we been fooled into believing feminism is rising in film?

Written by Enya Dupree, 17, Abbey Malthouse, 17 & Holly Morgan, 16 from Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK. Created as part of the Pop Up Newsroom event from International Women's Day 2017 #popupiwd #IWD2017