“She Breathes Through Her Skin”- The Costume Design For The Strong Female Character.

Originally written for and posted on Film Inquiry.

I remember walking into the living room one day around Christmas time, my sister was sat on the sofa playing video games. One character, in particular, caught my eye. She stood out because she was wearing a bikini top and ripped trousers next to several men dressed for heavy combat. My sister told me that her name was Quiet, she couldn’t speak. Probably guessing that I was going to question the costume design for this character she told me that the reason was “she breathes through her skin.” Now, although this is a video game which is a whole other ball game in terms of discussing sexism in character design, this is something prevalent in the films we watch at the cinema, mostly action/adventure films.

What is a “Strong Female Character”?

A term that is tossed around  a lot in terms of the women in these films is that they are a “strong female character” But what does this mean? What is not my definition of a strong female character is throwing together an overly sexualised outfit for a female actress and giving her a gun and some one-liners and then declaring that “sexism is over”. It’s such a broad term, in fact, that it’s thrown around constantly in film reviews when a female character appears to have her own mind

It’s often said that the representation of women on-screen is far better than it used to be. We have seen recent films such as Mad Max: Fury Road depict women as equals, strong and capable without the need to sexualise them or degrade them in any way. The titular character becomes secondary to Charlize Theron’s fierce Furiosa and her mission to protect the women she has saved from the villain in the film. Similarly, in Star Wars: The Force Awakens no female characters are subjected to impractical or sexualised costumes. Daisy Ridley’s character Rey’s costume is fully designed with functionality in mind. The tan-colour lets her blend into the desert surroundings, the design of her trousers and boots that make her look like a capable character who isn’t restricted by unnecessarily tight clothing. The belt, the one thing that adds a “feminine” curved shape to the outfit is also practical and is used by the character at points in the film. Everything the character does in the film – fighting, running, jumping – is more than believable due to the design of her clothing.

Sexual Empowerment vs Sex Appeal

But this is where it gets confusing. There has been a surge in female superheroes on our screens in the past few years from Halle Berry’s portrayal of Catwoman, to more recently, Scarlett Johansen’s portrayal of Black Widow across the Marvel cinematic universe, such as in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers , and while that’s great, it wrongly suggests that the representation of women on screen in these genres is no longer an issue.

"She Breathes Through Her Skin": The Clothing Design Of The So-Called Strong Female Character
Avengers: Age of Ultron 2015) – source: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Often, women appear to be empowered: they are the protagonist or antagonist, carry great strength and dialogue. However, although the actress appears to be acting on her own terms, i.e. owning her sexuality, in reality, her movements, particularly while fighting, are sexualised, and the camera will pan up and down her body, focusing on aspects of her tight fitting or revealing costume that are pleasing to the heterosexual male viewer. It caters to the male gaze; a term coined by Laura Mulvey in her 1973 essay titled “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, in which she explains that in film, women are typically the objects, of gaze rather than the possessors of it. This is due to both the choice of the typically male filmmaker and the assumption of heterosexual men as the default target audience for most film genres.

This concept, when applied to these action/adventure characters was summed up by Caroline Heldman in the documentary Miss Representation, in which she explains “When you peel back a layer or two you discover it’s not really about their agency, I call this archetype the fighting fuck toy because although she is doing things supposedly on her own terms she very much is objectified and exists for the male viewer”. This takes away much of the appeal of these characters because when you build a character on the basis of appearance and sex appeal there is little left for the audience to empathise, creating a dynamic in which the audience objectifies rather than sees this character as a human.

Looking to the Future

The most recent example of ridiculous costume for a woman in an action/adventure film, a promotional image released from the upcoming Jumanji in which actress Karen Gillian stands in tight, skimpy clothes inappropriate for her surroundings with three fully clothed men (much like Wonder Woman with the rest of the Justice League at the top of this article). After backlash to the image, she took to Twitter to say “Yes I’m wearing child-sized clothes and YES there is a reason! The payoff is worth it, I promise!”

"She Breathes Through Her Skin": The Clothing Design Of The So-Called Strong Female Character
Jumanji (2017) – source: Sony Pictures Entertainment

However, I’m not so convinced, it’s  likely another “She Breathes Through Her Skin” or “She Owns Her Sexuality” style excuse but time will tell on this occasion. The main problem with these costumes on these women in these films is that it sells an idea of what a strong female character is whilst also selling her short. Giving less to character development and less to showcasing an actresses performance in order to focus on looks and sexual appeal.

Because at the end of the day, when I see a film, I don’t want to see a strong female character. I want to see a human character. Someone who is multifaceted and relatable whilst also able to hold her own in an action/adventure story and due to costume choices and choices made by the directors of these characters are being sold short and I believe they can do better.

What do you think about the promotional image released for Jumanji?


Women in the Film Industry.

This is a subject I’ve been wanted to discuss for a while now. Recently the Geena Davis study into women in film  had it’s results published. The study showed that only 21% of filmmakers are female. There have been several studies into women in the film industry, the documentary Miss Representation stated in 2011 that only 16% of all Directors, Producers, Cinematographers and Editors are women. Furthermore, Stephen Follows investigated the percentage of women in film crews in July 2014, discovering that the number of women in a film crew has actually DECLINED in the last 20 years.

Now as an aspiring female filmmaker these statistics are incredibly disheartening, especially noting that just under half of the people on my filmmaking course are female so, it’s not as if  the vast majority of people studying the subject are men.  However, this has made me reflect on the work that I’ve done and been a part of, very few people I’ve worked with in a filmmaking environment are women. So these statistics makes a lot of sense.

Full info graphic can be found here: http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2014/9/infographic-on-gender-bias-in-media

It is quite frustrating knowing that women, who make up half the world’s population are not represented in this industry which is only of the most widely accessible and widely consumed art form and media outlet along with Photography and Graphic Design. It is incredibly important that women break into this industry because currently mainstream film is full of very male dominated stories, and the stories that do feature a prominent female character are still often controlled by male filmmakers.

So there is still a lot of progress to be made and I think it’s important that these issues are discussed.

An article from Little White Lies magazine:


Here is a great video from youtuber Rosianna Halse Rojas discussing the Stephen Follows report on the gender of film crews:


Feminist Society Documentary

Screenshot (51)See the documentary here: https://emilysteelefilm.wordpress.com/video-gallery-2/

From the start I knew I wanted to make a documentary about Feminism in University. The only thing that changed throughout the project is how I structured the film and the topics within Feminism that the documentary addressed. At the beginning of the module I had recently watched “Miss Representation”, A Sundance documentary that resonated very strongly with me in its topics and style. However, that was an hour and a half whereas mine was a maximum of 8 minutes so obviously I could not mention the majority of the topics within the film from a student perspective so I decided that my project would, although be inspired by “Miss Representation” be covering a Feminist Society at University which is something not mentioned in “Miss Representation”.

I was fortunate because a week after I had decided to make a documentary on Student Perspectives of Feminism the Student Union Website posted that a Feminist Society was being formed at the University. I attended the initial meeting although I was not allowed to film anything during the meeting so as not to make anyone uncomfortable whilst discussing sensitive issues in Feminism. I did catch the founders of the society at the end of the meeting which began the filming process of my documentary. The society was very supportive of this project in the hope that it would be able to help tackle some of the misconceptions of Feminism and encourage more people to either join the society of simply be less afraid of the word Feminism.

I think one of the main issues I had whilst making this Documentary is that the topic of Feminism is so broad it was incredibly difficult to cover anything in 8 minutes or less. Also, there are so many different sectors in feminism that people align themselves to it was difficult to not sway to any of them. What I wanted to portray was that at a simple core level, Feminism is inclusive and strives for equal rights for all genders including non-binary people. Another issue was that I was conflicted between making the documentary a discussion with Feminists and Non-Feminists or whether I should just have it from the Feminist Society’s point of view. As a Feminist myself I tried to keep my own opinions out of the way but I don’t think I was very impartial. I did decide in the end to make the documentary very focused on seeing a Feminist perspective into University life which is something that highlighted a lot of issues that I don’t think many people knew even existed as we simply accept the aspects of University that include LAD and Rape Culture as a given without saying that this behaviour is not acceptable. This was again something I wanted to highlight in my documentary.


Miss Representation (2011) Review

I recently watched the Sundance Festival documentary “Miss Representation” by Jennifer Siebel Newsom who is a filmmaker, actress, speaker and advocate for women, girls and their families. She is also the writer, director and producer of this documentary that explores how the media’s misrepresentations of women have led to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence. The documentary is incredibly well researched with an impressive, diverse range of people interviewed such as Jennifer Pozner, Jane Fonda and Rosario Dawson. There are many examples of limiting sexualized portrayals of women in the media which added to a very persuasive narrative that was easily accesible even to someone who is unfamiliar with the concept of feminism and whether it is still an issue today. All in all, a brilliant documentary that highlights the the exploitation of women in the media.

“Something I’ve learned myself in making this film is sometimes people have a hard time listening to what we have to say because they’re so concerned about how we look. I think that’s a challenge that women in particular have in our culture. ” – Jennifer Siebel Newsom