Representation of female celibacy in Television and Film
After a recent discussion explored the representation of women in film punished for their choice to have sex versus men, another question sprung to mind – what is there to say about representations of female celibacy in the media? The choice not to? Today, young women are more punished for their choice to say yes, than to refrain and remain a virgin, but interestingly representations of the latter in today’s media are also few and far between.
Sex sells. This is a statement that rings true for (especially western-centric) society. It is one mired in the images present in our advertising, and the media we watch. The place of television and films in this are no exception, and a woman of consenting age succumbing to sexual temptation is a narrative that is common.
Not to be confused with asexuality, or aromanticism – orientations of which there are a small, but thankfully increasing representation across books, film and television – female celibacy in film and television are less than common. Celibacy in the media when it comes to women are either done for religious reasons (think Sister Act), a mere stop-gap before puberty and relationships really take hold, or older female characters (Minerva McGonagall in Harry Potter) most-times of the evil variety (Gothel in Tangled). For younger female characters, the choice not to have sex is one that is rarely taken seriously, and there hasn’t ever been (good) representation of a female character who abstains from sexual encounters and sticks to her decision (rather than being ‘seduced’ by a wily, virile female or male character).
When trying to think of female characters to use as examples, it is often difficult. A reason for this is that celibacy might largely be seen as uninteresting, or juvenile – especially if you are focusing on a woman in a plot above consenting age. Indeed, the lists of self defining females who fit this category are largely children or young adults. They are ‘celibate’; not that we could really be imagining Disney’s Moana or Elsa to be exploring their sexuality – or acting on it – in films such as these; murky waters that are best left far below the abstraction layer.
However it is worth noting that being ‘celibate’ is not the same as ‘omission’ – i.e. just because the actions of any given character is not discussed, it does not mean they are celibate. A well known TV show Jane the Virgin trades in on this premise of celibacy; the first that does so in any largely recognisable way. The titular character, Jane, is a devout Catholic women waiting until marriage, the TV series plays on this trope and inverts it after she (spoilers!) finds herself accidentally artificially inseminated. This is a plot device that drives the opening series’ narrative, and one played for satirical laughs. Yet, it is worth noting that this subverted ‘waiting for marriage’ trope is used as a plot device – and whilst it takes a different avenue for comedic value – it is still an important and interesting diversion from the norm.
Strong female protagonists?
Character from Disney films, like Merida from Brave, Elsa from Frozen, or Moana from, well…Moana, are all characters on the cusp of adulthood; all of whom reject the stereotypical sexualised gender roles other female protagonists in past Disney films have explored. Unlike Disney female protagonists of the past, they are given no romantic partner. They are the lead in their own narrative; a welcome change that has a different important love explored – love of family and friends – but still one that has yet to fully take hold in wider media.
Ripley in Ridley Scott’s Alien is another character that springs to mind; a stalwart figure in sci-fi. She has been discussed at length in many critical contexts, her celibacy and “virginity” being analysed as key aspects of her character. Her sexual ‘chastity in Alien […] is matched by her maternal role in a manner that evokes the mythological’ one literary criticism work reads.
Then, there are more recent, and incredibly popular TV series, like HBO’s Game of Thrones. Whilst a book series, the TV series – like the novels it is based off – is one that is filled with sex. Yet, the characters of Arya and Brienne are excluded from this. It is not that they are not subject to sexualised remarks (G.R.R.Martin’s world rarely allows for them not to be) but by being more tomboyish in character, or ‘uglier’ than the other women in the series like Sansa or Margaery, they are separated from the other women in the series as decidedly ‘non-sexual’, veering on masculine. Importantly, they are both physically strong women who take up a sword – in the Game of Thrones world, this is a decidedly masculine role. Their femininity is flattened, and so points about their celibacy is quashed (or mocked in the case of Brienne).
This begs the question; why? Why are certain representations of ‘strong, female characters’ linked to abstinence? Does this make them better for it? More popular? Possibly not. After all, the briefest of Google searches for terms like “celibacy” and “female characters” yields comparatively little in the way of helpful information. Yet, it makes a refreshing change and one that more representation of could not hurt.
What do you think? Leave a comment.