The 1980s were quite an influential time for American film. Iconic movies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Fatal Attraction shaped the ways we see women in the world. When we all think of the 80s, we remember iconic teenage films like Footloose, colorful fashion, and a rise in entertainment (MTV, etc.). It was a time of exploration and change. Women gained roles outside of the home and had a name for themselves. Sadly, beauty standards and objectification were always prioritized. Along with these films, there was an increase in women’s rights advocacy. However, there was quite harsh criticism that came with the progress.
Equal rights amendment
The Women’s Liberation movement was founded in the early 1920s based off Abigail Adam’s “remember the ladies” letter, which I mentioned in my previous article about Roe V. Wade. The mission was simple: to attain equal rights and freedom from “oppression and male supremacy.” This should be an understandable mission (that we still haven’t reached today), but adversity was met. They faced criticism in the early 1980s when conservative Reagan became president. Additionally, the Equal Rights Amendment didn’t pass because 35 of the 38 states were required to ratify the amendment. Phyllis Schlafly was a primary reason for this, claiming she was defending the “real rights of women” to only have a place “in the home as a wife and mother.” Her book, A Choice Not an Echo, was a contributor to the rise of conservatism. She is one of the reasons that the term ‘liberals’ has a negative connotation today.
HIV/AIDS crisis response
Along with this increase in narrow mindsets, Reagan did not handle the AIDS crisis well. The HIV/AIDS Crisis was not acknowledged “in earnest” by Reagan until 1987, a full six years after the first cases were documented in the United States. He named the epidemic the “gay plague,” scoffingly remarking to The New York Times that “medicine and morality” are the only guides needed in “preventing AIDS.”
23,000 deaths occurred before his minimizing ‘acknowledgement.’
Separating himself from his citizens, Reagan and his administration did not address the public during the discovery of this terrifying disease. Needless to say, the 1980s were a politically intense time. Some of these prevalent themes were present in the films from the era.
The male gaze
In an English college class, I learned about films from this time period and the stereotypes depicted. Filmmakers (still) give men most of the main roles with women as the ‘eye candy.’ However, these films were the first times where women acquired defining roles. Although some films let women voice opinions (Alien, Footloose, etc.), there is a double-edged sword. The male gaze is always the top priority.
The male perspective has become so inherent that it is hard to identify. I quite often pick out my flaws when looking at other girls on social media. Misogynistic culture values having a thin figure and doll-like features which have been engraved in our minds as young girls and throughout adulthood. Now I question, who am I trying to impress? I know that having the ‘perfect body’ is not healthy if it deprives me of eating what I need to function properly. Traits of being innocent and impressionable are notoriously affiliated with what men desire. I’ve now realized that these characteristics stem from pedophilia. We see objectification and hyper-sexualization quite often as women, extending into the rest of our lives. I am living for myself, not for anyone else. My mind has the most value. However, films from the 1980s have largely contributed to this objectification, physically and emotionally.
(Beautiful) damsel in distress
Pretty Woman was one of my favorite movies growing up. Vivian goes from rags to riches, meeting the man of her dreams. Her iconic red dress made me dream of looking like her. I know how deranged the ‘ideal’ woman is now. When I see actresses in films, I have to remind myself that part of their occupation is to look desirable. They have insurmountable pressure to submit to the male gaze. Vivian’s goal to be the ‘perfect woman’ is not progressive by any means. She recognizes her internal value, that is for certain. She does not need his approval to live freely. But, the film discloses that we are only valuable when beautiful. And one fact is for sure in this film: the woman has to be the damsel. It will take quite a lot of work and time to change this mindset.
La Femme Nikita was quite a different experience from other representations of women. Unlike Pretty Woman, Nikita is the main character of her own story. Becoming a spy for the French government, she transforms from a criminal to a professional assassin. Nikita also reveals her own struggles and emotions when she has her freedom taken away. Being the main character of an action movie was also quite rare, I’ll give the film that. However, the beauty standards are still domineering. Nikita has to transform her looks before becoming a ‘true’ woman. Of course, none of those requirements were there for men. She has to be in revealing clothes during her action scenes, running in high heels and all. As the makeup artist declares, “we’ll be able to make you into a human being.”
As if she was not capable before then.
Change to come
In all, the depictions of women in film are certainly progressive. Despite the forceful conservative movement, these films depict women with their own valid thoughts and emotions. There are still many areas for improvement, especially relating to beauty standards. I wish we could say that there has been a significant change, but it has been extremely minimal. When the public considers a woman’s looks in a higher regard than her mind, internal implications in the audience are sure to follow.