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Part 1: Just Because There's a Female Character, Doesn't Mean We Have to Sexualize Her

Scarlett Johansson sexualized as 'Black Widow' character

Photo Credit: Moviestore/Shutterstock

We all know the trope. It could be in a TV show, movie, or book that you’re reading. You’re introduced to your main characters, a group that consists of a gaggle of men and one lone female. As a woman, instead of feeling included, I feel dread, because I know what’s about to happen. That woman is about to be overly sexualized.

You see it all the time. In a misguided attempt to appeal to women, a female character will be included to give female audience members someone to relate to. But instead of being any semblance of relatable, this female character comes at us completely through the male gaze — she’s sexy, alluring, and drop-dead gorgeous, while somehow still being “just one of the boys.” We’re subconsciously told to be just like her, exhibiting the (typically male) writer’s choice favorite features of the feminine, while still embodying the traditionally male traits that would make her the ideal mate for any average schlub. This girl won’t make you stop watching sports or hanging with your boys; in fact, she’ll fit in with them perfectly, cheering right along next to you on Super Bowl Sunday. The embodiment of Gillian Jacobs’ oft-quoted “cool girl” monologue from Gone Girl.

None of us realized we were reacting to depictions of femininity that were offered to us through the gaze of a male creator’s fantasies — depictions that often have nothing to do with the reality of what women are really like.

It’s this type of depiction of women that led many girls of my generation to reject feminism in a misguided attempt to appeal to the males around them. “I’m not like other girls” or “I don’t like hanging out with other girls” were mantras repeated by such young women, having ingested media with these poor female representations to model themselves after. Of course, none of us realized we were reacting to depictions of femininity that were offered to us through the gaze of a male creator’s fantasies — depictions that often have nothing to do with the reality of what women are really like.

This trope is perfectly illustrated in every iteration of Stephen King’s It — the book, the Tim Curry lead TV miniseries, and especially the recent movies. Despite being a member of the Losers Club, Beverly Marsh is the epitome of a young boy's dream girl, nowhere more so than in the 2017 movie adaptation. That Beverly is attractive, effortlessly cool, and can hold her own with the boys. It doesn’t really add up that this girl would be considered a loser, especially considering the amount of swagger that she navigates the world with. Beverly is ogled by all of the boys in the movie, with the camera uncomfortably slow-panning her adolescent body multiple times throughout the film.

The movie not only sexualizes the adolescent female character, but it does so by sexualizing the young actress who portrays her. This is very problematic. Of course, instead of the boys, who are supposed to be her friends, treating her as an equal, it is a plot point that pretty much all of them find her attractive, with two of them, in particular, competing for her romantic affections. This takes away from Beverly’s character in her own right; she can’t just exist as her own character with her own merits. Her existence is mostly characterized by what she means to the boys/men around her, their reaction to her, and the actions that catalyze within them.

Stephen King’s response to the controversy the scene has garnered over the years has been, to put it mildly … not great …

When you take into account the much-maligned “child orgy” scene from the book, where an adolescent Beverly has sex with all six of the male members of the Losers Club in the sewers after they first defeat It, the character gets even more problematic. The complete lack of understanding of the physical anatomy and its limitations when it comes to an 11- or 12-year-old girl is appalling. Never mind the obvious consent issues concerning preteens and sexual activity, which is a huge issue in itself, and that kind of sexual activity and the extent of it would most likely be painful and not pleasant for an adolescent girl.

Worst yet, the “sex” is presented by King as Beverly’s idea, with her having to convince the boys to go through with it, in a disgusting display of the male gaze depicting a female character enacting a popular male fantasy — one where a desirable female is the sexual aggressor. He presents it as an almost magical act, with one of the boys remembering how to get out of the sewers afterward. Even when depicted as children, female characters still can’t escape sexualization.

Stephen King’s response to the controversy the scene has garnered over the years has been, to put it mildly … not great, with one of his most recent statements being: “It’s fascinating to me that there has been so much comment about that single sex scene and so little about the multiple child murders. That must mean something, but I’m not sure what.”

What that statement tells me is that King lacks the understanding of the actual issue people have with the scene. You’d be hard-pressed to find sane people in this world who are not against the murder of children. However, the fact that King at any time felt it was appropriate to depict sexuality in children in the way that he did is potentially more disturbing than any of the horror elements in any of his works.

This post is part one of a three-part series that examines the sexualization of women in entertainment. Continue the unsettling deep dive in part two and part three here. 


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