Left to right, top to bottom: Sharon Stone, ‘Basic Instinct’ (1992); Katharine Hepburn, ‘Bringing Up Baby’ (1938); Cate Blanchett, ‘Carol’ (2015). Amy Schumer and Bill Hader, ‘Trainwreck’ (2015)’ Asta Nielsen, ‘The Abyss’ (1910). Bae Doona, ‘A Girl at My Door’ (2014); Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche, ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’ (2014); Vivien Leigh, ‘Gone With the Wind’ (1939); Michael Douglas and Glenn Close, ‘Fatal Attraction’ (1987). Charlize Theron, ‘Mad Max — Fury Road’ (2015); Michelle Pfeiffer, ‘Scarface’ (1983); Meryl Streep, ‘Manhattan’ (1979). Chrissie White and Alma Taylor, ‘Tilly the Tomboy’ (1910); Emily Blunt, ‘Sicario’ (2015); Agnès Varda, ‘Cléo de 5 à 7’ (1962); Carey Mulligan, ‘Suffragette’ (2015)

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A century ago, the film star Alma Taylor was voted the most popular British performer by the magazine Pictures and the Picturegoer, rated higher than Charlie Chaplin. She’d been a child actress, first gaining recognition for a series of comic shorts, Tilly the Tomboy. Looking back in a 1931 interview, Taylor enthused about film’s place in social history: it had “completed Mrs Pankhurst’s work by establishing the modern girl’s right to a good time and evoking her capacity for enjoying one”. More than that, “the authority of fathers, husbands and brothers over their womankind came definitely to an end with the opening of the cinema”.

Were she around today, Alma Taylor would be bemused that, even as the new film Suffragette delivers a 21st-century view of that period, its stars — including Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan — give interviews in which they deplore the lack of challenging screen roles for women, as well as the disproportionately low numbers of women in film-making jobs, and their lower pay. Streep recently drew attention to the cycle whereby young women study film, graduate and then can’t find work as directors; she has also funded a programme for female writers over the age of 40.

Female advancement in the industry is one thing but what happens in front of the camera also gives concern. The British Film Institute this week launched a symposium, jointly led by the British organisation Women in Film and Television and the American actor Geena Davis’s Institute on Gender in Media. Davis is concerned with the way global films (ie Hollywood) have “a huge impact on our perceptions, and on our social and cultural beliefs and behaviours . . . reinforcing negative gender stereotypes with movie audiences of all ages.”

How could this happen? It’s not as if women have ever been in the minority as cinemagoers. In 1926, the British critic Iris Barry, in her popular volume of essays, Let’s Go to the Pictures, noted that three-quarters of the audience were female and asserted, albeit wryly, that cinema “exists for the purpose of pleasing women”. Yet even then, she identified a paradox: American cinema was disproportionately concerned with love leading to marriage but not beyond (for marriage, she noted, is often the beginning of difficulties).

Commercial American film, then, was a “daydream for the dissatisfied”. British films were more substantial in their representation of life rather than fantasy, while continental movies — and she cited The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) and Les Misérables (1925) among them — were rarely concerned solely with the business of getting a man. In that sense she anticipated the Bechdel test, an idea devised in the 1980s by US cartoonist Alison Bechdel, which rates a film on having at least two named female characters who talk to one another on a subject other than a man.

By comparison with what’s available in popular films today, the women of the silent era often seem subversive and complicated. Alma Taylor’s early success in the Tilly the Tomboy series in 1910 was based on the premise that she and Chrissie White, as anarchic teenagers Sally and Tilly, were elemental forces of mayhem, proto-punks in pinafores, as gleefully destructive as Dr Seuss’s Thing One and Thing Two.

That same year, a Danish actress, Asta Nielsen, became an international sensation in The Abyss, about a woman who forsakes bourgeois marriage for a gaucho dancer and, while the story’s not going to end in smiles, celebrated sequences include a wonderfully expressive — erotic, angry — dance with her rakish paramour.

Asta Nielsen, ‘The Abyss’ (1910)

This liberation wouldn’t last. Though Cecil B DeMille’s The Affairs of Anatol (1921) features a delightful dark-eyed vamp, Satan Synne (Bebe Daniels), who leads the feckless hero into her boudoir (the “Devil’s Cloister”, stocked with absinthe and a leopard) but has her own story and motivation too, the very next year Will H Hays became president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. The days of Satan Synne and her like were numbered. By 1930, the industry had adopted the so-called Hays Code on moral standards.

It was the moment when two forces within popular entertainment coalesced to shape the depiction of women with a legacy that lingers in Hollywood today. The first was conservatism in the face of rapid social change, with politicians, the Catholic church, academics (and, to be fair, women’s groups, too) warning of rising delinquency and family breakdown apparently exacerbated by the screen’s potent images.

The other pressure was commercial: comedies and romances had already, by the 1920s, become an elegant division of advertising — the glorious interiors, the clothes . . . all these were available in consumer versions, pushed in celebrity promotions via the new medium of film-goer magazines. The best models for a flawless complexion could hardly appear flawed, on- or off-screen. Still today you can walk through an airport duty-free shop past a gallery of airbrushed images of screen beauties promoting perfumes and cosmetics. Some of them may be applauded for their “no make-up” performances at awards season but the expectation is still that they can (and should) look superhumanly perfect to retain our admiration and attract our cash.

In the 1930s, Hays Code strictures drove female characterisation into intriguing areas, like the tough, resourceful showgirls of the Gold Digger films, while physical contact was sublimated into musical sequences. Female characters were amusing and alluring, yet plausibly real with the help of great tailoring, whipsmart dialogue and innuendo. A line of wilful women runs through many of the most popular films of that decade, including It Happened One Night (1934) and Bringing Up Baby (1938), Gone with the Wind (1939) and even the gangster picture Scarface (1932).

From the 1940s onwards, though, leading females are increasingly fetishised from the mysterious dames of film noir, the Gildas and Lauras who appear from nowhere to befuddle hapless men, often confused second-world-war veterans. The art of looking beautiful and blank (the better to reflect audience fantasies) has always been a screen strength but those unknowable, sexy Hitchcock women of the 1940s and 1950s proved enduringly influential and, at the same time, limiting. The French New Wave may have shaken up film-making but it didn’t always provide much scope for women. There’s Jeanne Moreau in Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold (1958) or Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962) certainly, but many of those women struggled for real agency. Jean-Luc Godard’s maxim (which was borrowed from the early film director DW Griffith, just one of the American idols of the French New Wavers) that cinema is “a gun and a girl” may have been a joke but the reductive formula was true not just of Bande à Part (1964) but a series of later films in which a beautiful (if slightly troubled) girl hangs out with smart guys as they play with the gangster genre.

Film studies have recognised this female passivity onscreen since the 1970s, when academic Laura Mulvey identified the dominant male gaze in cinema. We know about it — we ironise it (as with the sexualised robot created by the — male — AI expert in Alex Garland’s recent film Ex Machina), feminist and LGBT cinema defies it but in popular entertainment it’s still there.

There were during this time attempts to establish screen presences to reflect the feminist debate — Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman (1978) among them — but they were always a minority stand against the conformity of popular entertainment. And they could be lampooned as self-obsessed or solemn. Meryl Streep makes a brief but daunting impression as Woody Allen’s determined ex-wife in Manhattan (1979), but he still gets the laugh when he describes her as “the immoral, psychotic, promiscuous one”.

‘Basic Instinct’ (1992)

In the 1980s and 1990s, Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction or Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct were serenaded as terrifying exemplars of female assertion — but the characters were also crazy and had to be destroyed. And then there’s the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”, a term first used by critic Nathan Rabin in 2007. She’s the default young female of 21st-century American indies — so unpredictable, so cute, so sexually available to the young male protagonist, as desirable and disposable as the latest kitchen gadget. The MPDG’s lineage runs back to the screwball comedies (without the vein of realism that anchored them as Depression-era distractions) via Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and Diane Keaton. The 21st-century version is all tics, though, not really a woman, more like a collection of apps — which is what makes Spike Jonze’s operating-system romance Her (2013) so acute. There the operating system is the smartest guy/girl in the room — gender is simply the packaging.

Impressive female-led narratives do exist, of course — at the London Film Festival this week, Carol, Brooklyn, Room and the German feature Victoria were among them, as well as Suffragette. The real problem, as ever, remains in the multiplex, where genre (which is what sells, along with superheroes and sequels) tends to keep women in their allotted place as someone to tidy up and kiss it better.

A welcome exception is the new thriller Sicario, in which a woman police officer (Emily Blunt) is not defined by her romantic relationships with men. (According to the Bechdel test website, however, Sicario fails the test because Blunt’s character is the only named female in the film.)

Cate Blanchett, ‘Carol’ (2015)

Though Hollywood now has a number of women who can “open” big films, including comedians Kristen Wiig and Amy Schumer, even supposedly feminist comedies such as Bridesmaids or Trainwreck prefer their rebels eventually subdued with an economically stable mate. Successful romcoms still have to end, as Vincente Minnelli’s wicked 1952 Hollywood satire The Bad and Beautiful recommended, with “a kiss and black ink in the books”. Sandra Bullock as an action figure in Gravity (2013) remained unfeasibly well-groomed, magazine-cover standard even in space underwear, testing the tenacity of waterproof mascara through a spacewalk and re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere.

Is it about marketing? Guillermo del Toro, director of the forthcoming Crimson Peak, spoke recently of the difficulties of getting big-league finance for a film that was tricky to categorise (gothic romance) and female-led. On the other hand, George Miller, creator of Mad Max, told me that having Charlize Theron in effect lead the action in Mad Max: Fury Road was no obstacle to funding, perhaps because the film kept its testosterone title. Yet, when Theron turned in a fine performance as a foul-mouthed alcoholic ghostwriter returning to her home town in Young Adult (2011), critics and audiences were confused by the film’s mix of comedy, sex and drama. Writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman were the same team that had been praised for the endearing teen pregnancy story Juno (2007) but Young Adult was altogether less adorable. And it couldn’t be shut away in the “searing drama” category of say, Monster, Theron’s 2004 Oscar-winning performance as a serial killer.

Nuance and contradiction in female protagonists are more likely to come from outside mainstream anglophone cinema (such as Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, 2009) and even more likely from abroad: in the past months we’ve seen The Second Mother, a Brazilian film about a maid for a wealthy São Paulo family whose ambitious educated daughter comes to stay. Then there was the recent Korean drama, A Girl at My Door, a challenging variation on the new-cop-in-a-corrupt-small-town format. The so-called “weird wave” in Greek cinema has produced a series of fascinating female characters, including the duo in Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg (2010), whose animalistic antics are neither manic nor pixie but underpinned with emotion. From France, Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (2014), about girl gangs in the Paris banlieue. In a more popular vein, crime (long the preserve of literary women) has provided some of the more challenging, interesting international female roles, from the original Dragon Tattoo to long-form television from Nordic noir to Top of the Lake.

Meryl Streep, ‘Manhattan’ (1979)

A new generation of actors seem to be choosing well, waiting it out until something interesting comes along. Kristen Stewart turned in a thoughtful performance as Julianne Moore’s daughter in the Alzheimer’s drama Still Alice and was impressive opposite Juliette Binoche in Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), banishing any lingering Twilight shadows; Jennifer Lawrence progressed from a serious debut in the gritty Ozark drama Winter’s Bone to balance The Hunger Games with David O Russell’s firecracker films, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle (even if she didn’t get equal pay to the men) and Carey Mulligan broke away from Austen period drama to the early 1960s for An Education. Her role as a bright, knowing schoolgirl involved with an older man brought an Oscar nomination; she went on to work with the Coen Brothers on Inside Llewyn Davis and with Steve McQueen in Shame. These young women are successful, they can afford to be picky, and their choices are intelligent.

Carey Mulligan, ‘Suffragette’ (2015)

Mulligan recently expressed distaste for the description of certain female characters as “strong”, as though strength were an anomaly. Film needs more complicated women onscreen, whether forceful, pusillanimous, devious or whatever (preferably all the above and more). The fact that an actress doing a “make-up free” photo shoot attracts front-page headlines suggests an era still craving airbrushed images and characterisation. That compact, the enduring “daydream for the dissatisfied”, is the one that audiences and film-makers must be strong enough to break.

Francine Stock presents ‘The Film Programme’ on BBC Radio 4

Photographs: Getty/Alamy/Allstar/Mirrorpix

Letters in response to this article:

Warrant Officer Ripley and an unforgettable line / From Robert Buist

Striking images / From Brian Palmer

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