If you look at the current cinematic landscape, you might notice that Hollywood has resurrected a sort of contemporary version of 1980’s objectification. The 80s, of course, was something of the topless female heyday, thanks to comedies like Porky’s and Private Lesson and Spring Break and the action movies like Conan the Barbarian, where it wasn’t unusual for a woman to remove her top, sometimes for no apparent reason at all. Locker room scenes seemed almost mandatory.
The box-office was more R-Rated friendly during that time. Now we see with the likes of Michael Bay and the epidemic of 80s remakes a return to that type of culture and, of course, the friendliness of R-rated movie again (see, for instance the success of four of this summer’s R-Rated comedies), only now the sexualization is reframed as female empowerment. In some cases, it that may be true. In other cases, particularly where it involves Michael Bay or Zack Snyder, it’s bullshit. That is not, however, the focus of this post.
Looking back, the 90s were a sort of oddly Puritanical decade. It was a post-recessionary period, and the studios played it wildly conservative. That is why many consider the years between 1992 and 1998 to be the worst time period for film in cinema history. Take Tarantino out of the equation, and it really was a creatively bankrupt and uninspired era until the jumpstart in 1999 (and with American Pie, so began the slow resurrection of random toplessness). Take Nolan out of the question, and cinema historians may put the years of 2008-2011 in that category some day, as well.
But, what we also saw during that period of the 90s, especially in action films, was the de-objectification of the action-movie actress. I’m not suggesting that the women of those movies weren’t attractive — they were. I’m saying that there was more focus on character than on cleavage. The women in these movies were more objects of affection and less objects to lust after. In other words, it wasn’t exactly a great decade for pin-ups. There are exceptions, of course; Sharon Stone owned that decade but even she was less Megan Fox and more Barbara Stanwyck. There was also Madonna in Dick Tracy, and even Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies, but the mild objectification of her character was mostly done tongue-in-cheek.
But what you didn’t see in the 90s were a lot of lingering shots on cleavage or the shampoo-commercial hair flips or the now cliche shot that starts at a woman’s high heels and slowly works up her body. Granted, there’s something to be said for those angles, and my heterosexuality has a lot of sympathy for them. But those kinds of movies were in the minority during this period. Indeed, the women in 90’s action movies were more doctors and athletes and less Scarlett Johannson. Laura Dern, for instance, would never be cast as a scientist today; it’d be more along the lines of Natalie Portman, and she’d almost certainly wear her lab coat open with a low-cut blouse underneath (see, e.g., Thor).
Allow me to demonstrate my point with these 10 fine examples:
Nicole Kidman — Days of Thunder: A doctor, most frequently seen fully clothed, in jeans and or a doctor’s coat.
Linda Hamilton — T2: Judgement Day: A mother, most frequently seen in comfortable, asexual clothing and a pony-tail. Also, holding a weapon.
Laura Dern — Jurassic Park: A paleobotanist, most frequently seen in Mom shorts and long sleeves.
Janine Turner — Cliffhanger: A mountain climber, most often seen in layers and layers of climbing gear.
Sandra Bullock — Speed: A bus passenger, seen only in the outfit pictured.
Helen Hunt — Twister: A scientist and storm chaser, most often seen in a long-sleeve shirt with wildly windblown hair.
Julianne Moore — Jurassic Park: The Lost World: A paleontologist, seen in a brown jacket and jeans.
Téa Leoni — Deep Impact: A reporter, most often seen in very conservative reporter attire.
Carrie Anne Moss — Matrix: A hacker, most often seen in sexy but not sexualizing black leather.
Geena Davis — The Long Kiss Goodnight: A schoolteacher and mother, most often seen in a heavy coat holding weaponry.