"Actresses in most mainstream pictures are merely placeholders, basically playing one variation or another of 'the girl'. Her name is irrelevant and her character usually is too. She is eye candy for the boys, and for the girls often merely a cynical attempt to pull in females by promising romance and/or a moment or two of alleged 'female empowerment'. In all but the most overtly female-driven pictures (Sex and the City, Mama Mia!, Whip It), the actress is cast only in regards to how well she compliments the hero. She may be twenty years younger than him, but rarely older than him. She is often 'hotter' than him, but rarely taller than him. She is occasionally beside him, but never in front of him. "
What's particularly frustrating about this to me is not only how ubiquitous this "token" role is, but also how surprised everyone is when a movie breaks the mold and gives the female a fleshed out character. Think of Salt, the Jolie action movie, and how much talk it caused about how enlightened the directors were for making the lead a woman. Or Avatar, and how much attention critics gave to the fact that the female lead had just the bare minimum of her own fleshed out personality.
"Great" literature is often guilty of the same kind of tokenism, isn't it? Think Catherine in A Farewell to Arms, or Lenina in Brave New World. Sure, they're slightly more rounded characters than your typical movie romantic leads, but they still basically there to complement the male hero on his journey to understanding himself or his place in society or whatever. A couple of notable exceptions that I'm currently teaching: The Crucible, where Abigail is an incredibly believable and well rounded villain, and Things Fall Apart, where Ezinma shines through the bonds her society puts on her. Both of these are texts written by a man with a lead character who is a man, but they still manage to give other roles to the women than simply being rescued or kissing the hero at the end.