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New Roles, Old Stereotypes

LOOKING over the Academy Awards' choices for Best Actress, I have no quibble with the quality of this year's crop of nominees. My problem is with the roles they have to play. Just think about it: Meryl Streep plays a woman accused of her child's murder, Jodie Foster plays a woman who is gang-raped, Glenn Close portrays an aristocrat who gets ahead by sexual scheming, Melanie Griffith plays a secretary, and Sigourney Weaver is a gorilla expert.

A common thread runs through all these roles. Each one is a variation of some tired female stereotype. Mother, victim, seductress, secretary, and finally, the deviant woman who doesn't fit into convenient categories.

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Wait a minute, you might say. Streep's character ran counter to our conception of feminine virtue. Glenn Close was no man's fool. Melanie Griffith conquered the corporate world. Sigourney Weaver, as Dian Fossey, had a mind of her own. Even Jodie Foster was a vindicated victim.

True enough. There may be room to move within the boundaries of these broadly defined stereotypes, but the question arises why we - or at least, the movie industry - can't get away from these female stereotypes altogether. The interesting characters that live on in our minds in life, in books, and at the movies, are individuals that don't fit stereotypes. Such as Jack Nicholson in ``Chinatown,'' or James Woods in ``True Believer.''

None of this year's Best Actress nominees got to play that kind of truly interesting individual, except Sigourney Weaver. But, if you remember, her role as a naturalist showed her living outside human society. Gorillas were her best friends. So Weaver's role was no celebration of the woman as individual.

Streep and Foster played true-life characters, but not women who were interesting in themselves. They just happened to be involved in crimes, either as accused or as accuser, that might happen to Everywoman. Both played powerless women. As defendant or plaintiff, each was at the mercy of a courtroom to give - or deny - them justice.

The roles played by Close and Griffith were a little more complex. Close played a woman ahead of her time, keenly aware of the constraints her society placed on women. Her character, the Marquise, fights back as best she can, with the weapons available to her: her beauty and her ability to manipulate men.

Griffith, at first glance, is on the cutting edge as a New York working woman. But the ways she advances from the secretary pool to doing deals are dishearteningly conventional. Through her feminine wiles. Through charming a man with such lines as ``I've got a brain for business and a bod for sin.'' Through changing her hair style and her clothes.

So there you have it - variations on a few familiar themes. Let's look at the Best Actor roles, to avoid the appearance of jumping to conclusions. Dustin Hoffman plays an autistic; Gene Hackman a FBI agent embroiled in Southern racial tension; Max von Sydow a Swedish laborer looking for a better life; Tom Hanks a 13-year-old who wakes up to find himself grown-up; and Edward James Olmos, a math teacher in East Los Angeles.

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These male characters, particularly the Hackman and Olmos roles, are all individuals. They don't have to be men, but they are. The FBI agent and the math teacher are both trying to affect and change the society they live in. More important, they have the power and wherewithal to make things happen.

Actresses as good as Streep, Close, and Weaver deserve to play women that will stand out in our memory. Individuals with an agenda beyond mothering, loving men, playing tricks, and getting into trouble. If television programs like L.A. Law can give us convincing women that challenge stereotypes, then, surely, so can the Academy.

Yet, some of the blame for limited female roles lies with us, for as a society we too often perceive women as fitting into a few cookie-cutter categories. Unfortunately, the movies are just reinforcing that tendency, rather than forcing us to alter the way we view women. Whether movies create or reflect mass culture, it's no secret they shape the way we look at ourselves.

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