Who doesn’t love a good underdog story? It seems we all have a certain proclivity towards loving the underdog; we love to cheer on the unexpected hero. Underdog movies are some of the top grossing movies of all time. It hasn’t gone unnoticed, though, that almost all movies pre-2000’s with an underdog protagonist feature male leads. This gender bias must change.
Take stories like Rudy, Rocky, and Jerry Maguire—probably three of the most beloved and acclaimed underdog tales of our time. One thing they all have in common is that the female role goes undetected. She plays the cheerleader or the gal who pushes the man to be his best, but does so on the sidelines and out of the spotlight. Adrian from Rocky worked in a pet shop while she supported Rocky, and then she was met with an untimely death. The relationship between Adrian and Rocky was full of love and support, but her role in his life was to be his cheerleader, and her own life was uneventful. The same can be said for Dorothy in Jerry Maguire. She spent her days waiting at home for Jerry. She would complain about him to her book club friends, and then let him back into her life after he gave her a cheesy line. Despite my love for these two classic movies, the way women are portrayed in them is less than impressive.
That being said, starting around 2000, the role for females in film seemed to begin to fit a different mold. We started to see films like Erin Brockovich, Little Miss Sunshine, and Pitch Perfect. In these films, women were able to fit a bigger and more important role than strictly “cheerleader.” These women—and girls—overcame the truly impossible and created the best opportunities for themselves and their families.
Despite the wider representation of females in leading film roles, there is a part of the population being neglected. A black woman is rarely ever featured leading an underdog film. Black women in the United States are arguably the most repressed and neglected group of people, so to see this lack of representation being carried out even in the film industry is unfair, and it is something that needs to change. When they are represented in film, they are portrayed in a negative light. Most times when black women are featured in film they are over-sexualized, not in positions of power, or cheerleaders. The film industry must show that black women are more than these minor, degrading roles.
However, a step in the right direction is being made with the release of Hidden Figures. This film features three NASA mathematicians who battle against race and gender issues in order to succeed in their work. The leading women portray strong, perseverant, and intelligent underdogs. This film shows the importance of equal representation in underdog films in regard to gender and race.
Putting women of all sizes and races in powerful movie roles that feature them overcoming obstacles, facing the impossible and succeeding anyway is incredibly important. For women, everyday is a harrowing underdog tale. Film representation of strong, powerful, driven women will help society get to a place where gender equality is the norm, not the goal.