Women in Film

Published 30 Jun 2017

In her book, Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess, Linda Williams (1991), discussed the concept of excesses in three genres of film. According to her, these three genres of film fall into the categories of film she regards as ‘too gross’, in the sense that these movies are quite sensational and tend to give the body an ‘actual physical jolt’. The three genres of films she isolated for discussion are pornography, horror and melodramas. She posits that these genres of film are deemed excessive for seemingly different, but similar reasons.

Pornography deemed excessive for its display of violence and sex; horror films are considered excessive in their displacement of sex onto violence; while melodramas are deemed excessive for their gender and sex-linked pathos and the naked display of emotions. Obviously, these genres fall into the culturally considered ‘too gross’ for the overdose of sex, violence and emotion exhibited or displayed; that there can be no logic or reason for the existence of such excesses except for their power to excite the human body.

However, the author chooses to discuss these three genres, because, she argues, that there may be “some value in thinking about the form, function and system of these seemingly gratuitous excesses. For if as it seems, sex, violence and emotions are fundamental elements of the sensational effects of these three genres of films, then the designation ‘gratuitous’ is itself gratuitous” (Williams, 1991 p.112). She argues that by comparatively analyzing these genres of films, it might be possible to see beyond the sensations and to explore the structure, system and perhaps the effect of these genres on the bodies of such films’ audiences.

Building her argument for the exploration of the structure, function and bodily effects of these types of films, the author pointed out the primary features of bodily excess shared by the three genres of film. This included the spectacle of a body caught in the grip of intense emotions or sensation, such as the pornography’s portrayal of orgasm, horror ‘s portrayal of violence and terror, and melodrama’s exhibition of intense emotions such as crying. The exhibition of these three forms of bodily excess, she argues, if explored, could give birth to a new direction in genre criticism. She also argues that the visual narratives and pleasures found in these portrayals of bodily excesses could raise questions about gender construction, and gender address in relation to basic sexual fantasies.

These genres of films raise questions about gender construction and gender address because, though pornography is aimed at the active men, melodramas aimed at passive women, and horror aimed at adolescents that traverse the gap between the two ‘masculine and feminine poles; in all of the genres, the primary figure is the woman’s body. She started that the bodies of women figured on the screen in these movie types’ functions as the “embodiments of pleasure, fear and pain” (p.114). The main thrust of this argument, as she clearly sets out in subsequent sections, is that the woman acts as the primary focus of these movie genres. It is the emotion, the pleasure or the pain of the woman ‘victims’ in these film types that creates the anticipated effect of spectators. She posits that each of these genre of films ‘hinges on a spectacle of “sexually saturated” female bodies, though this is effected differently in the three genres discussed, the results is almost always the same.

In making sense of the movie, ‘The Contender’, one the genre of melodrama as discussed by Williams (1991) comes to mind. While the movie in a sense belongs to the genre of thriller (political thriller to be precise) it invokes the emotions and the centrally placed figure of a woman’s emotions and struggles as discussed by Williams (1991). The movie highlights the travails of a lady Vice President. Senator Laine Hanson is depicted as intelligent, smart and principled, but after her nomination for the post of the Vice President, she becomes a victim of vicious attack on her personal life. She is accused of sexual immorality that threatens her post as the Vice President. She becomes torn between fighting back or sticking to her high principles and thus, refusing to comment on the grave allegations.

The primary spectacle that cut across the movie is the emotions of a woman. She has face victimization and intense emotional moments, which characterize such genes of films, but later coming out victorious. However, countering the general notion that it is the tears and emotions involved in this movies types that creates the pleasure derived from such movies by spectators or that it is the weeping woman that appeals to the abnormal perversions of the masochism in female viewers, Williams (1991), assert that concepts point to the ambiguity in using perversion in describing the normal pleasures of movie viewing. She argues that it is the emotion involved in these film types that create the desired effect on the viewer. And that what sets these movies out is the fact that the bodies of the spectators are caught in an involuntary mimicry of the emotion displayed on the screen and the success of such movies is measured by the degree to which the audience sensations mimic what is shown on the screen.

What is obvious from the foregoing is that emotions in these genres of movies produce similar sensations in the audiences. This can also be used to explain Maureen Dowds (2008) article about how Hillary Clinton seem to be using tears as a tool to win her presidential ticket. The concluding remark of the article “At her victory party, Hillary was like the heroine of a Lifetime movie, a woman in peril who manages to triumph” depicts the typical scenario of the melodrama genre, where a victimized and tortured woman after series of emotion soaked moments, finally triumphs over her situation. It also points to the fact that the woman tears indeed exact some physical effects of the body of the viewers, in reality, as it does in watching a movie.


  • Linda Williams (1991). Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess. Film Quarterly, 44(4): 2-13.
  • The Contender (film). [Online Essay]. Accessed Feb. 6 2008.
  • Dowd, Maureen (2008). Can Hillary Cry Her Way Back to the White House? Accessed Feb. 6 2008.
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