In this modern day and age, the world finally seems to be starting to understand that female stereotypes are offensive and not really entertaining — but not everyone in Hollywood has gotten the memo yet. In movies as recent as Jurassic World, Bryce Dallas Howard’s character of career-driven Claire Dearing inspired groans with her cold heart and frosty demeanor — just like all women who care about their jobs more than men, right?
Actually, wrong. Contrary to what decades of film would have us believe, women are so much more than whatever neat category men of one era or another have assigned them: the trophy wife, the ice queen, the manic pixie dream girl. When it comes to options for women of color, categories narrow even further: over and over, Black women are relegated to play the “sassy friend,” while Latina and Asian women have a history of being hypersexualized on-screen.
Things are getting better — for one thing, we’re calling some of these stereotypes out on screen, as Rosamund Pike did so memorably in her “Cool Girl” monologue from Gone Girl. But more importantly, we’re seeing more and more empowered female characters in films who actively defy these stereotypes. You’ll find plenty of people ready to tell you these stereotypical depictions of women (scattered allll across classic film) aren’t a problem, but movies and TV absolutely work to reinforce and suggest ideas about the world — and when stereotypes are put in action in real life, they can and do cause real harm.
In celebration of movies and TV that move the needle forward, here are some tropes for women on-screen we’re ready to leave behind.
A version of this article was originally published in April 2015.
The Perpetually Single Friend
We’re so glad this stereotype has pretty much been retired in recent years. The perpetually single friend just can’t catch a break when it comes to relationships due to their overexaggerated behavior or for no good reason at all. One example is Michelle (played by Kathryn Hahn) in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Day.
The sheltered princess is either exactly as it sounds or someone who’s so sheltered that they crave adventure and danger, something so foreign to them. One example is Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.
More than one woman likes a man? Obviously, the film has to have a man stealer who screws over their friend (imagine our eyes rolling!) Because obviously, romantic interest trumps friendship. This is a bit of a tired concept, and one of the biggest examples is in My Best Friend’s Wedding.
This trope has gotten so rampant that there are so many jokes about your man falling for his sexy secretary. One of the biggest examples of a sexy secretary that steals a man’s heart is in Love Actually.
Love Obsessed BFF
There’s always one in a fantasy or romcom, and she’s always there talking about the most romantic love out there. The biggest example is Idina Menzel’s character in Enchanted. She literally left her family, friends, and amazing job behind for a man she had just met to go into a cartoon world. Girl what.
Can we retire the evil stepmother trope once and for all? (Kate Bosworth agrees with this!) It’s outdated and there are so many amazing stepmoms. We’ll let Jennifer Coolidge’s evil stepmama in A Cinderella Story alide because of how iconic she is.
If you loved 27 Dresses, you definitely hated Malin Akerman’s character, where she lied and was basically an evil sister to her loving sister.
Of course, the woman has to take care of everything around the house, even if it’s not her own family. The caretaker role can become toxic quickly, with her taking care of everyone but herself like Scarlett Johansson’s character in The Nanny Diaries.
The Cool Girl
Taken from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl novel, Rosamund Pike delivers the “Cool Girl” monologue in David Fincher’s 2014 film as a way to skewer men’s real-life expectations of “coolness” — but it works for criticizing movie portrayals of women too, with Flynn citing Cameron Diaz’s beer-loving There’s Something About Mary character as one of her main inspirations. Kate Hudson’s basketball-obsessed How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days character, Cobie Smulders’ Robin in How I Met Your Mother, and Olivia Wilde’s Kate in Drinking Buddies all come to mind too.
Here’s the monologue in full: “Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.”
The bridezilla is a normally sane woman who loses her freaking mind due to the stress of wedding arrangements. She believes her impending wedding is “her day” and forgets about her fiancé as she mows down everyone getting in the way of her perfect day. Examples include Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway in Bride Wars.
Asexual Career Woman
Basically, this woman wants it all, and she sacrifices her youth and sex appeal to get it — because obviously women can’t really have it all, right? Um, yes we can, so just stop it, Hollywood! Examples include Anna Kendrick in Up in the Air and Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.
The Trophy Girlfriend
Movieweb‘s Julian Roman put it perfectly when describing the terrible stereotyping in the remake of this 1972 film: “The women in Superfly are sexually objectified and have no input whatsoever. They exist to be the same ‘bling’ that the male characters flaunt like peacocks.” The film’s main character, Priest, even has two girlfriends. Lex Scott Davis is one of the trophy girlfriends in Superfly.
The Ice Queen
The ice queen has a cold heart and a frosty demeanor. She’s often career-focused because, let’s face it, career women can’t be focused and feel love, right? That’s a favorite insult for scorned men to sling when the ice queen turns them down. Bryce Dallas Howard in Jurassic World is one example of the ice queen.
The Spicy Latina
Hollywood loves Latin women… as long as they stay within Hollywood's narrow cultural parameters. The most common Latina trope is the spicy Latina, a hot-tempered, sultry temptress with emotional baggage. Examples include Salma Hayek in Fools Rush In and Michelle Rodriguez in the Fast and the Furious franchise.
The Dirty Old Woman
The dirty old woman exists to prove that old women have nothing left to do with their lives except reminisce about their raunchy past and make crude jokes. Sometimes this character is played by a man in drag (think Martin Lawrence in Big Momma's House) because the dirty old woman is so dried up, you don't even need a real woman to play her. She is usually willing to completely debase herself for a roll in the hay or a stiff drink. An example is Susan Sarandon in Tammy.
The Sassy Black Woman
The sassy Black woman is hilarious and full of life and never misses an opportunity to land a punch line, but this is 2018 and we know Black women have a lot more to offer than some advice and a B storyline. An example is Wanda Sykes in pretty much everything she’s ever done, including Monster-in-Law.
Hooker With a Heart of Gold
A sex worker with a big heart often becomes a love interest for the main character. Beneath her sexy exterior is a damaged woman who just needs a chance! Examples include Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler and Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.
The Awkward Virgin
If you’re a nerd, as far as Hollywood is concerned, you’ve never gotten laid… and you will very likely do anything in your power — including compromising your very character — in order to correct that mistake later on. An example is Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed.
The Disposable Woman
The disposable woman is usually the wife, girlfriend, mother or daughter of the protagonist. She only exists to be kidnapped, raped or murdered, giving the protagonist a reason to seek revenge. Goldie in Sin City is a disposable woman.
The Crazy Cat Lady
The crazy cat lady is on the cusp of spinsterhood. She lives alone because she’s usually socially awkward, and who else would want her? An example is Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone.
The hero used to date her, but now he just can’t even, because she’s totally crazy and probably stalking him. The psycho ex-girlfriend gets turned into the villain all the time, and we’re so over it. Examples include Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction and Uma Thurman in My Super Ex-Girlfriend.
The Advice Sponge
This delicate flower is basically unable to think for herself, and after reading or hearing some outlandish piece of advice, she takes it too much to heart and sets off on some clumsy adventure that usually leads her to some kind of happily ever after. Anna Faris in What’s Your Number? is an advice sponge.
The Gorgeous Klutz
This woman is perfect on all fronts — except she’s clumsy, which is supposed to make us all feel like we’re just a blow-dry away from being her. Examples include Rachel Weisz in The Mummy and Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada.
The Femme Fatale
The femme fatale is sexy and she knows it! She’s in every film noir movie, like, ever, and she always gets her man. Of course, she’s also super lethal, but she manages to manipulate and confuse the hero with her undeniable feminine wiles. Examples include Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct and Madonna in Dick Tracy.
Damsel in Distress
This woman is put into immediate danger at the start of the film and is the main reason the plot goes into motion. The hero will go to hell and back to save the damsel in distress while she whimpers in captivity — as in almost every fairy tale ever written. Examples include Salma Hayek in Wild Wild West and Robin Wright in The Princess Bride.
This character presents herself as the nice girl but is eventually revealed to be a spoiled, immature brat or outright villain. Examples include Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls and Sarah Michelle Gellar in Cruel Intentions.
Manic Pixie Dream Girl
This bubbly, shallow, free-spirited fantasy girl exists solely to help a quiet, introverted protagonist come out of his shell. She is 100 percent male fantasy. Examples include Natalie Portman in Garden State and Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer.
These women devote their lives to protecting the villain, only to find that their sacrifice means nothing to him. Examples include Rebecca Romijn in the X-Men franchise and the Fembots in Austin Powers.
The Black Widow
A black widow is almost always a cross between a con artist and a serial killer. She spends her life seducing, marrying and murdering men for their money. Examples include Madeline Kahn in Clue and Joan Cusack in Addams Family Values.
Bound & Gagged
This woman spends a portion of her screen time restrained (by rope, handcuffs, chains… you get the picture) and gagged so that she can’t cry out for help. Examples include Qi Shu in The Transporter and almost every woman in a 1980s action movie.
The gold digger spends all her energy trying to hook up with a rich dude just so she can mooch off his money and status. One example is Mrs. Quickly in Nanny McPhee.
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