Recent films have pushed the bounds of visual storytelling by – in part – pulling from the past. For instance, the flashback of Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok (courtesy of and kudos to RSP for their masterful visual effects) is straight out of neoclassical paintings and supports the symbolic weight of the scene! The story of Ares from Wonder Woman also drew ingeniously upon art history (with help from Platige Image). Seeing these scenes piqued my interest in the relationship between artistic symbolism and cinematic storytelling. As I delved down the rabbit hole, it became clear that, historically speaking, films have not done justice for their female characters the way Ragnarok and Wonder Woman have. Part of the problem is that many filmmakers have used women solely as the symbols rather than fully fleshed out characters, which leads to weak one-dimensional female characters as well as problematic storytelling. To better understand why characters like Wonder Woman and Valkyrie have been so sparse on-screen, we need to venture back to a time before film.
There is an age-old question: Does art influence culture or culture its art?
Visual motifs have been used since the ancient world, and the image, not the mind, of women was emphasized through Greco-Roman art. Women were portrayed as symbols only, whether it was as the perfect wife, the model mother, or the goddess-embodied, and Grecian art emphasized an ideal that Roman sculptors took to the extreme. In some cases the sculpted heads of individual women were placed upon stock and standard statues of female bodies that encompassed the “ideal.” Think of it as early Photoshop or Instagram filters. Sadly, the pressure to look a specific way is nothing new, ladies. And films like Gladiator and 300, while visually stunning, mirror Greco-Roman ideals by setting up the female characters as the ideal Spartan woman or perfect family unit to gain or lose. The female characters are defined in relationship to the male protagonist’s values and point of view and do not exist outside of the cultural ideal.
But Greco-Roman symbolism isn’t the only one to shape art and impact modern film. Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola heavily featured Catholic imagery within their secular films. This particular visual tradition began in the Byzantium Empire and continues today. A key innovation of the Byzantium Empire was the development of the religious icon. Everything rendered within an icon, from flora to hand gestures, carries symbolic weight. Filmmakers, such as Scorsese, Coppola, and even Zach Snyder/every superhero movie ever, have utilized poses from Byzantium icons, such as that of Jesus bearing a cross, to add deeper meaning to the protagonist’s struggle. Eve and the Madonna have frequently transcended the religious icon, having been used in other artistic movements to add symbolic weight and metaphor. The problem with this is when films use female characters purely as symbols of Mary or temptresses creating the pitfall for the protagonist. Real life women are seldom so static.
Greco-Roman symbolism continued shining past the long faded legacy of Rome. With archaeological excavations in the 1700s, there was a renewed interest in Roman architecture and symbolism. Baroque and Rococco were dead. All hail Neoclassicism! The Roman ideal was back, and women once again graced paintings, sculpture, and architecture as symbols (as if they had ever stopped), the way they adorned the bows of ships as figureheads.
Later, painters in the late 1800s lead by Paul Gauguin picked up the Symbolic literary movement, reacting against the constraints of romanticism. These artists sought to express universal emotions such as love, fear, and unrequited love. Once again, there was a renewed interest in tales from the ancient world, particularly Greek myth and Biblical stories. Women, in particular, became a favorite symbol, as stated in the symbolic manifesto Le Figaro. These symbolic women vascillated between innocent virgins and femme fatales with no middle ground. When is the male gender itself ever used as a symbol? Instead, individual men are used as ideals, such as Herculean strength, or else victims of feminine wiles. They have names while women remain virgins or temptresses.
Jumping ahead to the 1920s, art bled into a fledgling film industry. The roaring ’20s, filled with Art Deco and abstracted symbolism, found a return to neoclassical motifs. Women were once again a symbolic favorite. One woman in particular, Audrey Munson, served as a primary muse for the 1920s American art scene. Her image as the world’s first supermodel spans from New York to San Francisco, even crossing into the early film industry. Both the art and film industry consumed her image and discarded her. It was only recently that her biography was rediscovered, while her image has seemingly always haunted New York.
One can only wonder what happened to the artistic muses of earlier centuries.
The first films were silent, and their visionaries drew heavily upon artistic motifs and symbolism to help convey meaning since they lacked sound. They borrowed hand gestures and poses used in icons, visual scenarios from Renaissance and new classical paintings, and the ornamental/aesthetic quality of women.
There has perhaps not been a more polarizing (racist) pioneer in the film industry than D. W. Griffith. From Birth of a Nation to Intolerance, his films were steeped in symbolic poses, framing, and lighting taken directly from earlier artistic movements. The result? Women were symbols to help further the depth of the story and nothing else. They existed only as innocents/victims, temptresses, or tragedians. As the forefather to narrative cinema, Griffith helped launch this trend.
Back to Present.
In the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp, we can clearly see the fallout of treating women as nothing more than ornaments and symbols insidiously promotes objectification (e.g., dehumanizing) of women: sexual assault, patterns of abusive behavior, body dysmorphic disorder, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and so much more. In short, it’s incredibly damaging to women and our society as a whole. So heads up – women are real people with real lives, and we’re the protagonists in our stories. We watch films just as much as men, watch TV just as often, yet our voices still aren’t accurately represented.
Now for a last thought: I’ve stood nearby as people critiqued classical renditions of The Rape of Lucretia and intellectualize the painting techniques used. I’ve been there as people discuss statues like Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne and point out how supple and life-like the cold marble flows. For myself and so many women, however, one vivid thought will cross our minds:
I’ve never identified with someone so much.
So when will we start shifting the conversations? Rape isn’t symbolic or a plot device! Women are not simply symbols or decorations!
And film is no different. Use symbolism to comment on a story, sure, but don’t sacrifice a character to symbolism. Treat your female characters with respect. It leads to better art.
And better film.
And better culture.
So let’s use art to influence culture.
Until next time, happy and better filmmaking.
Keep an eye out for Part 2 of Divorcing Women from Cinematic Symbolism, where we’ll look at the influence and history of literary symbolism in film!