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By Sheana P.

The struggle for gender equality has been prevalent in our society for many years. This is especially evident when examining the roles of men and women in theater and in TV and movies throughout history. The roles of the actress and the female playwright haven’t always been what they are today. In fact, for centuries, they didn’t exist.

There was a time when women weren’t permitted to participate in theater. Female roles were played by young boys at that time. It wasn’t until the early 1600’s that women first appeared on the stage in England. However, English audiences were unable to accept their presence, as it went against their social and religious beliefs for a woman to display herself in such a manner. The outrage led to a ban on theater altogether. Being that theater had become a luxury to Puritans at that time, it was difficult for them to give up one of their favorite pastimes. They would hold secret, private performances in their homes, allowing women to participate. After the English Restoration in 1660, King Charles II would become the first ruler to allow women to portray female roles on stage. Even then, actresses were looked down upon and labeled as prostitutes.

The Restoration brought about a new era of theater which focused highly on sexual situations. Known as Restoration comedies, this type of entertainment indulged the people. One of the most famous actresses of this time was Eleanor “Nell” Gwyn. She was a huge player in the development of women as professionals, as well as the development of actors and actresses as celebrities. Even though women were breaking into the professional world, it was still the men who were in charge. Male playwrights and theater managers controlled every aspect of theatrical performances. This meant that women were sexually exploited and objectified. They were made to play only seductresses and victims. This didn’t help shed the image of actresses as prostitutes. It did, however, open the door for opportunity.

The introduction of the actress to the stage gave women a chance to have a career and earn money. This helped them to create their own social identities, leading to the development of the first female playwrights. Aphra Behn was one of the first highly successful women to write in theater. Being part of the Restoration era of theater, a lot of her writing was scandalous and sexual in nature. Following Behn was Susanna Centlivre, who was also known as a very successful female playwright. Her writing had far less sexual content, and portrayed smart, quick-witted women.

In the 1700’s, women weren’t given the same respect as men in theater. They were often held to a much higher standard. In addition to being able to act, they were expected to be skilled dancers, readers, singers, and public speakers. Not only were the requirements harsh, the field was very competitive because there were far fewer female than male roles. Often women would fight over roles and costumes. This continued throughout the first half of the 18th century, until the beginning of the era of Romanticism, which lasted until the mid 1800’s.

Romanticism brought many opportunities for both men and women. It was an era of artistic expression and experimentation, as well as political reform and the Industrial Revolution. There were also more jobs opening up for women in the theater. All of this combined allowed women the freedom to express themselves artistically. It was during this time that actresses started to gain more respect in society.

The late 1800’s and early 1900’s saw a huge influx of job opportunities for women on stage and in the newly developed film industry. One of the most notable actresses of that time was Sarah Bernhardt, sometimes referred to as "the most famous actress the world has ever known." Sarah glamourized the profession, making it seem unobtainable to the average woman. During the first years of film, acting became a highly coveted career.

The past century has seen the biggest changes in the portrayal of women in theater and film, modern film having a very large range of female characters. The first years of film saw women portrayed as the ideal woman. Traditional gender roles were consistently reinforced. Women were portrayed as housewives and mothers, until the 1920’s ushered in a new era.

The “Roarin’ Twenties,” as they were referred to, brought about many significant social changes that affected the lives of women all over the country. The Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution was implemented and women were given the right to vote. Women’s suffrage ushered in a new era that encouraged women to adopt a new way of living that was drastically different than the outdated way of life they had been brought up in. Indulging in this newfound freedom, actresses in movies began to influence young women more and more. Known as “flappers,” they started cutting their hair shorter, wearing heavy makeup, and dressing more provocatively. Gloria Swanson and Clara Bow were major influences to young women during this time. They portrayed liberated, independent women who were glamorous and beautiful, with new fashions and lifestyles.

The 1930s, 40s, and 50s were the peak of The Golden Age of Hollywood. Everything was glamourized and actresses were idolized by women and desired by men all over the world. During this time, sexuality was heightened and movie stars became symbols of sex and power. Actresses like Marilyn Monroe, Jane Mansfield, and Veronica Lake became known as blonde bombshells and were the epitome of sexuality. In movies, they played sultry seductresses and women in society tried to mimic this behavior.

The Civil Rights and Feminist Movements in the mid-1900’s fought to eliminate some of the gender inequalities in society present during the first half of the 20th century. It helped to reinforce the idea that women are more than just mothers and wives or objects for men to sexualize. This was also reflected in theater and film. Women began to play more heroic and independent roles. The resurgence of feminist movements led to an increase in female protagonists that were career-minded and independent. Women were able to say what they wanted and actualize their dreams.

The 1980’s and 90s saw the emergence of the teen comedy and the romantic comedy, or “chick flick.” Young men would scheme to try and get a date with the perfect girl in teen comedies, and we would see them falling in love in the romantic comedy. The 90s was a huge decade for romantic comedies. These movies were geared toward women’s interests and featured women from all different angles, from strong, smart, and independent to wild and carefree women of all ages.

Since the 90s, there hasn’t been a huge shift in the way actresses are portrayed in movies. Gender roles are still enforced to an extent, but nowhere near as much as in previous decades. Actresses have fought for centuries to ensure they have a respected place in society. We’ve come a long way since the days when women were banned from the stage in 17th century England.


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