10 Film and TV Actresses on the State of Female Characters

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A recent study from the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism reported that only 28.4% of the 4,475 speaking characters in 100 of the most successful films in 2012 were female. It was a 4.4% drop since 2009. On-screen women are still struggling to have a voice in media, but the actresses who play them have plenty to say off-screen about the state of female characters in Hollywood and television. We looked to ten different actresses for their thoughts on the difficulties and successes women experience when playing women.

Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman discussed the pressure of playing up to the token “strong” woman in cinema during her recent interview with Elle (via The Mary Sue), responding to the notion that if a woman shows weakness or vulnerability, she’s not a feminist:

“I want [female characters] to be allowed to be weak and strong and happy and sad — human, basically. The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a ‘feminist’ story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.”

Ellen Page

When speaking about her role in the Brit Marling-scripted crime-drama The East, Ellen Page noted her feelings about the lack of roles for women in Hollywood and the importance of finding complex parts that don’t feed stereotypes:

“Considering there are so few roles for women and the roles that do exist can be so narrow in their idea of what a woman can be, it is extremely important to me to be involved with projects where the girl is in charge of her own destiny and is honest and well written.”

Emma Thompson

Early in her career, Emma Thompson put pen to paper for several TV projects, but her screenwriting debut came in 1995 for Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. The British actress also had a lead role in the Oscar-winning movie. She didn’t want to craft a story about “a couple of women waiting around for men,” so she added her own touch to the Jane Austen tale. In a 1995 interview, Thompson spoke frankly about the part:

“There are a lot of highly intelligent women who can act. There are not too many roles to fill — that’s the problem. I wrote [a role] [for Sense and Sensibility], and then I bloody well played it.”

Glenn Close

There have been numerous discussions about the TV “takeover,” which Glenn Close responded to during an interview about her legal series, Damages. When commenting about the show’s standout women, Close praised the small-screen medium for offering more dynamic roles to actresses:

“It seems to be a great time now [for female characters]… we have Claire Danes in Homeland, Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep — strong women. It’s funny that television, particularly cable, is the place where women are finding great parts.”

Photo credit: Georges Biard

Kerry Washington

Black actresses and actors made up 13% of roles in film and television in 2011. The numbers are dismal, and The Last King of Scotland and Scandal star Kerry Washington discussed the burden of these casting decisions when speaking to The Guardian earlier this year:

“I have had, and still do, experiences where someone will say, ‘You know, we just don’t really see this character as black. We don’t want to go black with her.’ Some of it I respect, because this is a visual medium, so I don’t believe in color-blind casting. But I think sometimes people make that decision out of fear, or laziness, or just not wanting to have to travel down roads that aren’t familiar.”

Rashida Jones

Parks and Recreation star Rashida Jones talked to The Playlist’s Melissa Silverstein about creating genuinely compelling and realistic female characters in Jones’ co-scripted romantic-comedy Celeste and Jesse Forever:

“It’s hard to find female leads that are flawed and interesting and dynamic. We wanted to write something that was in the vein of Judd Apatow — you talk like you actually talk with your friends — but with ladies… I want to do that and not just be someone’s girlfriend or wife. I want to be the one to go on the journey.”

She elaborated on the matter, beyond the scope of her own film:

“Anything public, entertainment especially, is always a little bit behind. And now there is this trend towards women… Movieland is harder for everything. You can’t be an openly gay moviestar. You can’t be an openly gay pop star really — minus Ricky Martin. I am happy to take whatever this new trend is for women and claim it and make it ours. I hate calling it a trend because it is a reality. The trend is that it is now being reflected in Hollywood.”

Photo credit: NoHoDamon

Mindy Kaling

The Mindy Project creator has reconsidered her character’s likability in the Fox series, but her initial intentions were to expose every flaw:

“So many of the female characters that I see on TV, they’re just kind of put-upon and boring. They’re so worried about viewers not being able to handle them being nuanced or occasionally selfish. But every woman I know is occasionally selfish — and also can be heroic and funny. I just try to make her interesting and nuanced, and if some people think she’s obnoxious sometimes, well, people are sometimes obnoxious, and they can still be heroes.”

Going into the second season, Kaling told Slate that she’s learned a thing or two:

“That’s one of the things you learn. Unfortunately, if you’re a woman, there are some things that people don’t want to see. There’s a sense of protecting the female character that I hadn’t really anticipated. Some of that is bullshit, and we need to stretch what we expect our female characters to do. But you want the lead character who’s a doctor, who’s going to find romance, to be someone you respect and who does noble acts. We all come from comedy cred, and we have that side of us where we think, ‘Oh, we should just do edgy stuff.’ But at its heart it’s not that kind of show. So the character has evolved a little bit.”

Lena Dunham

Dunham on the illusion of female relationships in the media:

“I feel like a lot of the female relationships I see on TV or in movies are in some way free of the kind of jealousy and anxiety and posturing that has been such a huge part of my female friendships, which I hope lessens a little bit with age.”

Laverne Cox

In our own interview with transgender actress Laverne Cox, the Orange Is the New Black star spoke about the importance of audience rapport when it comes to LGBT characters:

“I have a major suspension of disbelief when I see a non-trans actor playing a trans character, and that’s fine having that as a viewer, but it’s so much more fulfilling for me to see a trans person playing a trans character, as an audience member. And I understand the politics of it from the producer’s perspective, too. There’s all kinds of politics in terms of getting projects made. It’s a business. It’s all these intricacies in the business part of it, but I do understand that it’s really powerful for people in the audience to see people like themselves up on the screen….”

Jennifer Lawrence

The Hunger Games actress recognized the potential age limitations of her character in a different era of Hollywood when speaking to Collider:

“I feel like, not only have we gotten to the place where we have a strong female lead, like Lara Croft being the female James Bond, we have somebody who’s not even the female James Bond. She is somebody who is literally really a young girl, being thrown into this situation and not knowing if she’s going to survive it. That says a lot.”