Why are there so many headless women in Hollywood?

One woman is taking action against the relentless objectification of women in posters for films and TV

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By Amy Jones on

There’s an old, cruel trick you can do with a frog. It goes like this: if you put a frog in a pan of boiling water, it immediately jumps out because the water hurts and the frog knows it’s dangerous. However, if you put a frog in cold water and slowly heat it up, the frog doesn’t jump away. The water heats up so gradually that the frog becomes used to it, and doesn’t realise how horrible and painful everything is until it’s too late.

I felt like (an admittedly less dead version of) that poor theoretical frog last night when I saw this tweet by @MarciaBelsky and investigated her project, @HlywoodHeadless.

I was aware of the occasional film poster where a woman’s half-naked body was the focus and her face wasn’t even shown, sure, but I would just roll my eyes at it and move on. It’s annoying, sure, but not the kind of thing I would get overly stressed about. It’s not until you see poster after poster….

…after poster, after poster…

…after poster, after ohmygodhowisthisstillgoing poster…

…after poster after poster after poster that you realise how we’ve become surrounded by headless, half-naked women and not even realised. It’s become such a common way to advertise a film that it’s been accepted as the norm, rather than something that’s actually seriously messed up. In the posters for Kingsman: The Secret Service, a dog with about four minutes of screen time gets its own poster but an important female character was reduced to a bum and a pair of legs. This should not be seen as normal. This is absolutely not OK.

As Belsky points out: “To constantly take women’s heads out of sexualised images of our bodies does so many things. It signifies to us that not only are our desires not important, they don’t even exist. It teaches us to strive for an ideal body whose reward, if achieved, is becoming interchangeable.” And this is the point – it’s not the trope, but the fact that it’s become so common that makes it such a worry. Sometimes a silhouette of a woman can be powerful or fit the tone of the film, such as one of the teaser posters for Wonder Woman. But Wonder Woman is the exception and not the rule, and the fact is this trope is used so frequently and so often on half-naked women acting as props for fully dressed men. This is what makes it dangerous. It sends a very clear message to the world about who we should care about and who is important – in films, sure, but life imitates art and it’s very easy to carry that feeling over to real life.

In the posters for Kingsman: The Secret Service, a dog with about four minutes of screen time gets its own poster but an important female character was reduced to a bum and a pair of legs

There are a hundred other problems with these posters – the women are overwhelmingly white, they conform to incredibly narrow beauty ideals – but my biggest gripe is this: posters like this aren’t just being used on films about sex or spies, films stereotypically made by men for men, but also on female-led, women-focused films such as A League Of Their Own and John Tucker Must Die. Even the films made for us use our bodies as props and tell us that the fact we have heads with brains and minds and personalities is secondary to our sexy bodies. John Tucker Must Die was a teen movie. Why is it OK for us to send these messages to our teens?

If you’ve got a stronger stomach than I have or just feel like you haven’t been furious enough lately, you can see the full collection at Headless Women of Hollywood. Meanwhile, I’m off to get myself a pair of human-sized horse blinkers so I can block out the world – although, according to Hollywood, I don’t even have a head to balance them on, so they’re just going to fall off. Foiled again, I guess.


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women in the media
Sexism in the media

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