Dress for Success – Does it Work for Women in Movies?

Everyone knows that men do better at the box office. It might even be true. Of course, men typically get bigger budgets, and budget is the single biggest predictor of success. But what if part of the problem is that female characters aren’t being taken seriously enough?

Last year Jennifer Kesler suggested that female action heroes do very well indeed when they’re dressed modestly and for action, instead of, you know, slutted up.

Is this true? Let’s find out!

The following is a list of female action heroes from 1992 to the present. (If I missed any let me know!)

To get on this list, the character must be:
• Female
• The main character (so no Sarah Connor)
• Not in an ensemble cast (so no Charlie’s Angels or Sucker Punch)
• In a film released wide in North America since 1992, so that it’s been reviewed by Kids In Mind for content (so no Aliens)
• In a film released in English (so no La Femme Nikita)
• In a film that is primarily an action film (so no Miss Congeniality, and, surprisingly, no Kill Bill Vol. 2 either) – when in doubt check the genre list on IMDb: the first genre listed should be “action”

Alien 3 (1992) – Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver)
Point of No Return/The Assasin (1993) – Maggie Hayward-Claudia Anne Doran-Nina (Bridget Fonda)
Cutthroat Island (1995) – Morgan (Geena Davis)
Tank Girl (1995) – Tank Girl (Lori Petty)
Barb Wire (1996) – Barb Wire (Pamela Anderson)
Alien: Resurrection (1997) – Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver)
G.I. Jane (1997) – Jordan O’Neill (Demi Moore)
Lara Croft 1 (2001) – Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie)
Resident Evil 1 (2002) – Alice (Milla Jovovich)
Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) – The Bride (Uma Thurman)
Lara Croft 2 (2003) – Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie)
Underworld (2003) – Selene (Kate Beckinsale)
Catwoman (2004) – Catwoman (Halle Berry)
Resident Evil 2 (2004) – Alice (Milla Jovovich)
Aeon Flux (2005) – Aeon Flux (Charlize Theron)
Domino (2005) – Domino Harvey (Keira Knightley)
Elektra (2005) – Elektra (Jennifer Garner)
Underworld Evolution (2006) – Selene (Kate Beckinsale)
Ultraviolet (2006) – Ultraviolet (Milla Jovovich)
Resident Evil 3 (2007) – Alice (Milla Jovovich)
Resident Evil 4 (2010) – Alice (Milla Jovovich)
Salt (2010) – Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie)
Hanna (2011) – Hanna (Saoirse Ronan)
Colombiana (2011) – Cataleya (Zoe Saldana)

The idea is that I will post this list, with representative pics of each, at www.filmcontentdatabase.com (a website I just set up using my Sex Doesn’t Sell database), and people can rate them on how professionally and practically they are dressed, then when there are enough votes that the scores are stable, I can post the mean scores, plus run them against box office, controlling for inflation, budget, and anything else that might matter, and we can see if how they are dressed makes any difference in how popular they are at the box office. I can also post links to other people’s analyses and discussions if they like.

I’ve got it set up to ask how *professionally* and *practically* they are dressed, but after gathering a bunch of pics off IMDb, I’m wondering whether it would be better to ask about *modesty* and *practicality* instead, since some of these women are a little too grubby to be professional. They would have looked office casual before getting down and dirty, but they sure don’t now.

So, my questions:

1. Did I miss anyone? Am I being too exclusive in the criteria? (You can search for films I’ve missed at Kids in Mind or at www.filmcontentdatabase.com in the list raw data section, if you’re keen.)
2. What should people be voting on? Professional and practical or modest and practical? Anything else?
3. Pics. I have very few pics from a few films, and lots from others (what was on IMDb). If you have pics of any of these characters you want included, you can send them to me at admin[at]filmcontentdatabase[dot]com.
4. Do people want a chance to see and comment on the pics before voting opens? I haven’t seen all these films, so I’m not always sure if the pics I have are representative. (It’s so much easier when they wear the same outfit for the entire film.)

I’m really hoping this could be a lot of fun, plus also ammunition for people in the industry. And if we wanted and it worked out, we could do one for male action heroes too (I’m pretty sure they should be keeping their shirts on), or for women in other genres.

Comments

  1. says

    I think this is very exciting!

    I’ve got it set up to ask how *professionally* and *practically* they are dressed, but after gathering a bunch of pics off IMDb, I’m wondering whether it would be better to ask about *modesty* and *practicality* instead, since some of these women are a little too grubby to be professional. They would have looked office casual before getting down and dirty, but they sure don’t now.

    Hmm, the word “modesty” could trigger concerns about slut shaming. What about “appropriateness” instead of “modesty?” I’m not sure that’s quite it either – maybe someone else will have a suggestion.

  2. Saira says

    What about “competent” instead of professional? I really dislike the word modest because of it’s slut-shaming connotations.

  3. Azzy says

    Jennifer Kesler,

    How about “believable” instead of “modest”? I only suggest this because I’ve noticed that female attire tends towards the unfeasible in most media, moreso than male clothing. I’m curious if other people think the same.

  4. says

    I think this is an awesome and I’m excited to see the results.

    I assume that modesty and professionalism are both words for the same concept, the opposite of scantily-dressed. So that you’re trying to figure out if a woman in a chainmail bikini / skin-tight catsuit does better or worse than a woman in sensible armor / clothing. To avoid slut-shaming, perhaps something about the male gaze? This might be too complicated a concept for a simple yes/no answer. Hmm. Because the question is really, “Did she dress for success? Or to look good?” I’m not to sure how to phrase that simply, either.

  5. says

    I like “believable”, because the first thing I do – and hear others do – when a heroine shows up with her vital areas exposed and stiletto heels is express disbelief that anyone would purposely wear those clothes if she does a lot of physical fighting.

    There might be some confusion over just what’s meant by “believable”, though, so it might need to be followed by something like “i.e., is it plausible she would wear this outfit to fight in”? That even leaves room for the kind of thing that happened on Alias all the time (but I’ve never seen it in a film): she would be disguised in clothes that were not ideal for roundhouse kicks, but the disguise was necessary to the mission, and when disguise wasn’t necessary, she wore entirely practical clothes. So even though she sometimes fought in tight dresses, it seemed “believable.” Whereas, you know, someone wearing bikini armor to a bloodletting without apparently being suicidal is just not “believable.”

  6. Anna M says

    Why only films in English? Getting Bridget Fonda instead of Anne Parillaud seems like a bad idea. Also, aren’t there films like Crouching Tiger; Hidden Dragon that might get a look in if other languages had a chance? Agreed that the word “modest” seems wrong to describe practical clothing.

  7. SunlessNick says

    I agree with Saira about competent, and Azzy about believable.

    Did I miss anyone?

    Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) – Samantha Caine/Charley Baltimore (Geena Davis)
    Haywire (2011) – Mallory Kane (Gina Carano)

    Am I being too exclusive in the criteria?

    What about allowing all-female ensemble casts? I’d think it would still constitute a test, as the draw still can’t be attibuted to a man. Although Sucker Punch would rate hella low on the outfits’ believability and practicality.

    What’s the reason for disallowing foreign language films?

  8. says

    I’m sure Anemone will answer for herself whenever she checks in, but *I* thought the purpose of disallowing foreign language films was to narrow the sample group to a collection of films that could sensibly be expected to perform at the same level – all things being equal BUT the wardrobe. Foreign language films can’t expect to compete on the same level as English-speaking ones simply because of the worldwide dominance of Hollywood and the English language in media.

  9. says

    Azzy,

    I’ve heard sexy clothing referred to as “inappropriate” in a slut shaming context (see also: most any clothing on fat women, or women with particularly big breasts or hips), so I opted for “suited to the task” to make it very clear what we’re only judging the wardrobe choice in terms of how it accommodates her movements, not anyone’s opinion of how nice girls should dress.

  10. Anemone says

    I left foreign language films out because they do less well at the box office (what Jenn said) and it’s like comparing apples and oranges. No to animated films for the same reason (they tend to do better than live action).

    I added The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) (thank you!), also The Net (1995) and The Next Karate Kid (1994); I didn’t add Haywire because it’s not reviewed by Kids in Mind.

    What about The Quick and the Dead (1995)? It’s action – is the female character clearly the lead?

    Ensemble casts (Sucker Punch, Charlie’s Angels 1 and 2, D.E.B.S., Bad Girls): how to score them when they dress differently from each other – the average or the lowest common denominator? To really be thoroughly objective, you’d have to rate each character individually then combine scores both ways to see which fits the data better. I figure it’s easier to leave them out. (But make a case for including them if you think it matters.)

  11. Anemone says

    On the subject of what to rate them on:

    No one seems to have a problem with practical. Good. Practical is one criteria.

    I had wondered whether to rate them on a third criterion: how nice or approachable they seem to be, since this is something women are graded on that men aren’t, and both women and men seem to like women who are approachable more than women who are condescending or cold. And this can be enhanced by clothing choices. However, this may be irrelevant for action films (I bet it’s important for rom coms, though), and no one else has mentioned it here, so I just mention it to see what people think. I had already decided it’s probably better to leave it out.

    This is how I have the questions phrased right now:
    1. How professionally would you say she’s dressed?
    From 0 (stark naked, or pretty close) to 10 (neutral business suit or neutral office casual – see Mark’s Work Wearhouse catalogue for examples of office casual if you’re not sure).

    2. How practically would you say she’s dressed? Can she move, do stunts in these clothes? Will she fall out of her clothes if she moves?
    From 0 (not at all practical) to 10 (extremely practical).

    Some of the suggestions here are a repeat of 2, or a combination of 1 and 2, and I do think 1 and 2 need to be considered separately. Look at Lara Croft, who may be sexed up on her posters, but at the same time those are very practical outfits, with flat heels, and she even has her hair pulled back out of the way.

    I do not understand the problems with slut-shaming here. Jenn stated quite clearly in her post that the problem with female leads may be the way the studios sex them up, because they think sex sells (it doesn’t). From a purely business view, is it more effective to *not* sex them up? Or does clothing matter at all? (It may be steamy sex scenes that are the problem. This is why I want to include Kids in Mind scores as a control.) The question does need to be asked.

    I could use “professional”, or “modest”, or something else that means the same thing and nothing else, or I could reverse score and use “sexed up” (which is of course not the same thing as sexy). The problem with “sexed up” (or even “modest”) is that it would be very useful to have a comparison group of male action heroes, and for that you need to phrase the questions the exact same way, and “modest” or “sexed” up will not work for men. (At the same time they do sometimes wear tank tops or go bare chested, and that is “sexed up”, but people may not see it the same way.)

    I think the whole thing with professional confuses people because most people are not aware, or don’t remember, that European men used to wear cod pieces to work, and probably spent all their time posturing and not getting any work done. Toning down your sexuality really is essential in order to work effectively as a team at work. Men figured this out and switched from dressing like peacocks to dressing like they can get things done a long time ago, but modern women are still torn between looking nice, looking attractive, and looking effective. (And yet there are stereotypes of primitive tribes, on more than one continent, where when the family travels, the man carries his spear, and the woman carries everything else, so I bet in those cultures women aren’t torn at all. They need to dress like work horses, period.)

    I don’t know anything about how “professional” intersects with race and class, or at least I don’t see what that has to do with this study. Can someone help me with some links?

  12. Anemone says

    I’m going through the IMDb list of action films and have found: Whiteout (2009), both Miss Congeniality films (for some reason I thought they were comedy first but they’re listed as action first), and Adventures in Babysitting (!). Buffy the Vampire Slayer is still out (action is listed third). :(

  13. Maria says

    Anemone,

    Oh my

    Anemone: I think the whole thing with professional confuses people because most people are not aware, or don’t remember, that European men used to wear cod pieces to work, and probably spent all their time posturing and not getting any work done. Toning down your sexuality really is essential in order to work effectively as a team at work. Men figured this out and switched from dressing like peacocks to dressing like they can get things done a long time ago, but modern women are still torn between looking nice, looking attractive, and looking effective. (And yet there are stereotypes of primitive tribes, on more than one continent, where when the family travels, the man carries his spear, and the woman carries everything else, so I bet in those cultures women aren’t torn at all. They need to dress like work horses, period.)

    Oh my Christ. Are you serious? Because modern women in the workplace NEVER get panalized for not looking feminine enough. Also, WTF, “primitive.” Guess you’re seriously taking the white/Western/middle-class as the norm and aren’t at all going to think about the ways in which female Othered bodies are marked as animalistic (“work horse,” really?) and not professional (so when white men in the West look like they’re going to do some work, they’ve “figured it out” and when women in other cultures it’s a “need” that’s forced on them and they’re “work horses”).

    I really think you need to rewind and think about how you’re locating your project and be clear about the biases you have with your definitions and concepts.

    I’m also thinking you need to look at some gymnastics, ballet, modern dance, and non-Western professional attire, to get a sense of what different norms are and how costumes “you can move in” look.

  14. says

    Anemone,

    Oh, yeah, The Quick and the Dead definitely felt like Sharon Stone’s story to me. Gee, I’d forgotten that movie – thought it was more like 1990, too.

    Okay, Anemone, you do need to listen to what Maria’s telling you, and she’s been generous with her time to supply those links. Toning down your sexuality is not something women are in control of. Remember the woman a year or so ago who got fired from Chase bank for being too sexy? That is actually the reason they GAVE her for her termination. She had never violated the professional dress code; when asked, she even frumped herself down a few more notches (thus adhering to a stricter code than other women were required to). But she was Latina and had a great body, so the entitled white men couldn’t stop thinking about her, so the bank let HER go instead of the men. She did everything she could to look undistractingly not-sexy, but it didn’t work, and you know why? Race (combined with gender).

    White men feel ESPECIALLY entitled to the bodies of women who are members of additional minorities (race, class, etc.). They’re allowed to get away with so much nastiness when it comes to white women, but the more minority status a woman has, the more a man figures he can get away with (and both the law and culture generally let him).

    Remember that women who wear burkas still get raped, and it’s their own damn fault for somehow failing to be unsexy enough (an impossible task). Consider this:

    –The burden of toning down one’s sex appeal is NEVER heaped on men. Frankly, I’ve seen top male actors bumming around town between projects here in L.A., looking like they’ve just rolled out of bed, but they’re STILL sexy as hell because they’re just so good-looking, but if I can’t work with them because I’m too busy wanting to jump them, that would be my fault, right?
    –The burden of toning down one’s sex appeal is also IMPOSSIBLE for women, because some men are just going to think of us as sex objects no matter what.
    –In an ideal world maybe I could agree that not *flaunting* one’s sexuality is a good idea in some situations, but in this society, it’s not at all clear when one is or isn’t doing that because we get accused of and blamed for it every time a man fails to rein in his own objectifying impulses.

    Hope that helps, but in any case, now that I know how you’ve phrased your questions, I think what you really want to ask is:

    –Is her outfit designed to titillate?
    –Is her outfit practical?

    The titillation question gets at what you’re calling professionalism, but makes it very clear you’re asking respondents to judge the intentions of the filmmakers, and not to rehearse the usual cultural judgment scripts upon a fictional character like we do so often with real women in real life. That’s what this really comes down to – asking if it looks “professional” invokes stereotypes about race and class AND gender (since Dolly Parton could also never “look professional” with her big breasts, a point made beautifully in 9 to 5), AND it invites people to rehearse the scripts we need to be getting OUT of our heads.

  15. SunlessNick says

    I left foreign language films out because they do less well at the box office (what Jenn said)

    Ensemble casts … how to score them when they dress differently from each other

    Ok.

    The titillation question gets at what you’re calling professionalism

    It’s also distinct from an attempt to evoke sex appeal via character qualities or the fact that the star is (in all likelihood) attractive whatever she’s wearing.

    Speed 2 on Imdb list Action first in the genres and Sandra Bullock first in the cast.

  16. Anemone says

    Does titilate work for men, too? Or is it not possible to find a term that works for both sexes (because of how gendered things are)?

    Speed 2: Is it Bullock’s show, or is it a team up with her male partner? I haven’t seen it but figured it was a team effort.

    I’m finding more on the IMDb action list too. The River Wild (1994). Doomsday (2008). Catch That Kid (2004). Who knew there were so many examples? Of course most male action heroes are completely forgettable.

  17. says

    Anemone,

    Do you mean, would people understand what you meant if you asked, “Do you think his outfit is intended to titillate?”, the problem is that there’s no male equivalent to lingerie or slit skirts. Men can be sexy in cowboy costumes, military costumes, farm boy costumes, three piece suits… but as convinced as I am that shows like Young Riders and the rash of hot young cowboy movies that followed were meant to leave het women drooling incoherently, it’s hard to look at the outfits and say, “Hell, yes, I think that’s what that wool jacket was all about.” Or look at Mal’s costume in Serenity, which is so damn flattering it very subtly highlights absolutely everything that’s right with his body. But it’s only when we see him nekkid in one ep of Firefly that you’d get very many people calling it titillation. Even then, I’m sure many people just saw it as comedy.

    I’m not sure how to get around this. “Is the outfit designed to highlight the actor’s sex appeal?” would get “yes” on everybody, because I know I would assume that’s always the case, even when it’s too subtle to call “titillating.”

    Speed 2: Bullock’s star power was solidly ahead of Jason Patric’s, and it’s what they were relying on, since she was the carryover from the first film. I never saw the movie, but if they stuck to the shooting script I read, I read it more as her film than Patric’s. He got some heroic moments because we mustn’t let a guy be totally outclassed by a girl, of course, but she drove a lot of the story. Did anybody actually see that movie? :)

  18. Anemone says

    I’m up to 36 films now. Yay! I think that’s plenty.

    Titillate. Mal Reynolds. Somehow I don’t see it. But then I don’t find Brad Pitt attractive either. I’m thinking more of guys like Conan, in the sword and not much else pics. But I wouldn’t call that titillate either. I usually either ignore it or get fed up with it. “Stop showing off already and get on with the story!”

  19. Anemone says

    Maria, I was actually familiar with most of those issues, but I guess we see them across a cultural divide. I was thinking there was something more I hadn’t seen and couldn’t figure out what it was, so that’s why I asked. And I knew I wasn’t entitled to help figuring it out. I guess you didn’t know I knew. Sorry to annoy you, and thanks for the links.

    If I say anything more about Dress for Success I’ll just make things worse, but I am looking at this from the pov of someone who has been unemployed continuously for almost 12 years who has never been able to get DfS to work herself. Yet for some reason I still believe in it. I guess because it seems like about half the women out there (mostly the taller half) can get it to work, and that’s better than nothing.

  20. M.C. says

    Do you mean, would people understand what you meant if you asked, “Do you think his outfit is intended to titillate?”, the problem is that there’s no male equivalent to lingerie or slit skirts.

    How about leather pants? People usually pay alot of attention to a man’s ass when he’s wearing those *cough*Farscape*cough*. Or maybe it’s the association with fetish wear?

  21. says

    M.C.,

    Good point – and I honestly don’t know! Bikers wear leather pants, and that’s not meant to be titillating, but rockers wear them and I think it probably is. There was a brief trend in the late 70s, early 80s for male actors to wear incredibly tight jeans, which I would guess was also for titillation. And then there was the “arm porn” when the guys on SG-1 started rolling up the sleeves of their ever-shrinking tee shirts, but I’m not sure people who didn’t care even noticed.

    See, the thing here is, if a film serves up some guy as a sex object, het men get very offended. So you CAN’T have signals like “lingerie” or “slit skirts” because then the het men would walk out, declaring the movie to have been made for gay men and, as an afterthought, perhaps het women. The signals have to be subtle, so it may be hard to find something that people universally agree is a titillation signal on men.

  22. Anemone says

    Azzy,

    I will put it up in the next couple of days. I will leave the poll open forever, and let people know when there is enough data to start analysing.

  23. says

    It’s up. http://www.filmcontentdatabase.com/dressforsuccesshome.php

    I used professional, but rewrote it, and added in a third question: Do you *like* how she’s dressed?, which should help.

    I also left Speed 2 out because when I went looking at clips online, I saw an awful lot of him saving people, including him saving her at the end, like in the first Speed film. Sorry Sandra – you didn’t make the cut on this one.

    There were a few bugs when I first loaded it, but I think I got them all.

    Hope you enjoy it!

    Happy winter solstice!

  24. says

    Anemone,

    I’m sorry, I don’t understand what the “like” question is supposed to accomplish. From the viewpoint of Hollywood’s target audience, that answer will be exactly flipped – 10 for skin-baring catsuits, and 0 for army fatigues. It’s so subjective, your audience could be judging on any number of factors.

    Also, in your intro you say “no Miss Congeniality“, yet it is one of the movies being judged.

    I still feel like “professionally” is a difficult question because I’m judging all occupations against how well they match the “business casual” standard. Demi Moore’s outfit would be terrible in an office but is perfect for the army, where she works.

  25. says

    Anemone, I have to agree with Sylvia. I appreciate that you made an effort to avoid the stigma issues we talked about, but then you describe in such detail what “professional” means to you that there’s no point having a survey.

    I think you just need something very simple, like, “Do you think her outfit is designed to look professional or practical? 1 means ‘sexy with no thought for practicality’ and 10 means ‘practical with no thought for sexiness’.”

    Something like that?

    I also don’t see the point in asking what people “like”, because that won’t necessarily reflect on how they see the character (a woman might be thinking, “God, I want that outfit”, for example, even though it’s a perfectly silly outfit for an action hero). Maybe something more like, “Do you think the outfit is suitable for this character?” Or leave it out altogether.

    Sorry for all the criticism – fwiw, we’re just trying to be constructive and helpful. :) And I also think more people will respond if the questions are quick and simple.

  26. says

    Also, in your intro you say “no Miss Congeniality“, yet it is one of the movies being judged.

    Yikes! Fixed. Sorry, I meant to fix that a long time ago. I originally misread the imdb genre categories for that film.

    As I said already, I believe that sexed up/not sexed up and practical are two different variables, and that combining them may obscure things somewhat. So I am keeping them separate. As for the rest, what’s the worst that can happen? No one participates? Another person here thinks ze can do better? (You need mysql and php, which you can get for free at xampp and elsewhere, and if you’re nice to me, I’ll give you my code, but give me credit for it please.) Or perhaps some academic will come along, say “I can do better” and do so? It’s an experiment. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. Only one way to find out.

    Enjoy your holidays. I’m going offline for a couple of days, so hopefully there aren’t any more bugs.

  27. says

    Anemone,

    Uh, you asked what we thought people should be voting on, and that’s what we were responding to. We weren’t commanding you to do it a certain way. We were just giving feedback that you requested in the initial article.

    Believe me, I know how overwhelming it can be to get requested feedback on this site, because we have a lot of smart opinionated people. But no one was putting down the effort you’ve made. We’re only trying to help make it successful.

  28. Heath Cowled says

    Couldn’t find a way to send a message on the site, so I’m posting here.

    Anemone, is the order of presentation randomised (is it even possible to randomise)? It’s just that after seeing a few of the picture sets, I find myself judging them differently (e.g. I thought that Weaver in Alien 3 had an unnecessarily low neckline, but after Tank Girl that outfit seems incredibly tame).

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