Earlier this week, Jason Bailey of Flavorwire published a piece documenting the drop in speaking roles for women in successful Hollywood movies. He makes an important point: despite the attention paid to movies like Bridesmaids and The Hunger Games, the percentage of female speaking roles in the top 100 grossing movies of 2012 is a pitiful 28.4%, down slightly from 32.8% three years ago. These numbers are particularly alarming in this era of feminist politics. While women were being relegated to the sidelines in film, 2012 was a banner year for women’s issues in politics. Women played a huge role in last year’s presidential campaign – Obama won with an historic gender gap – and the insensitive remarks about reproductive choice made by Republican candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock helped create a U.S. Senate with more female members than at any point in its history.
Bailey argues that Hollywood is falling behind public opinion and that this shift that has occurred in our politics is not reflected in the movies, but what his argument leaves out is that the role of women in Hollywood movies is increasing – if you look at the issue qualitatively. Would feminists rather see a movie that featured two female characters who exist only to support the male protagonist or one movie with a single, strong female protagonist? If they would prefer the latter, which they should, I’ve got good news: there are actually plenty of those to go around.
One of the unmistakable cinematic trends in 2012 was the prevalence of female characters in the type of action-oriented roles typically reserved for men. Bailey mentioned The Hunger Games as if it was an anomaly, but I would also point to Snow White and the Huntsman, Prometheus, and Brave as action-adventure films with strong female protagonists. Even the top two high grossers of the year – The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises – featured ass-kicking women – Black Widow and Selina Kyle – although neither was the lead character. The Hunger Games, it should be noted, was the third highest grossing movie of the year, and its comment on gender roles is indeed progressive.
In that film, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) occupies the role of protector of her people that is traditionally assigned to men, but she also wears the pants in her relationship with Peeta (Josh Hutchinson). His physical inferiority to her is assumed and even become the basis for a self-deprecating joke. As they split up to search for food, he jokingly suggests that he take her bow and go hunting, before grinning sheepishly and going off to gather fruit. But Peeta can’t even do that right – Katniss finds him about to eat poisonous berries and knocks them out of his hands, protecting the man who harbors a schoolboy crush on her.
The Dark Knight Rises tackled gender issues in modern ways, as well, bringing the only prominent female Batman villain back to the big screen. In 1992’s Batman Returns, Catwoman was a symbol of female empowerment; played by Michelle Pfeiffer with costuming that brought to mind the world’s most beautiful dominatrix, her Catwoman was a lonely secretary killed by her macho boss, only to be resurrected as the yin to Bruce Wayne’s tormented yang. In Dark Knight Rises, she is a cat burglar with moves, smart and strong enough to match up with Batman as a foe and later as a friend; this being 2012, the female lead in the film can’t just be the villain. Catwoman eventually suffers a crisis of conscience and the two work as equals to save the city.
And the list goes on. The fourth highest grossing movie of the year Skyfall, which created a larger role for M (Judi Dench), the franchise’s most prominent recurring female character. Strong female characters were also featured in films as diverse as Mirror Mirror, Damsels in Distress, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Looper, The Master, and Won’t Back Down.
But 2012 marked the year when women began to engage with the movies in a new, more political way. Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike did not prominently feature female characters, but women turned out in droves to watch Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey shake it onscreen. On its opening weekend, 73% of its audience was female, and the film ended up grossing $113 million domestically, making it the biggest sleeper of the year. Moreover, the film’s political power came in the way it was viewed. Women did not bring dates to it; they watched the movie with groups of other women. A poll by the movie site Fandango reported that 87% of people who bought tickets in advance for the film were planning to see it with a group of women; 81% were 25-49 years old; and 77% felt that female-skewing movies have been lacking in Hollywood, indicating an engagement with the movie on a socio-political level.
But regardless of what has happened in the past, Bailey rightly points out that Hollywood appears to have not yet learned the lessons of these successes. This year’s films are more testosterone-driven than ever; The Hunger Games: Catching Fire may very well end up the only top movie of the year to star a strong woman. So how do we explain this step backwards? It may indicate a natural correction to mainstream conservatism after the progressivism of the early Obama years. Or it could just be a case of Hollywood being Hollywood: mainstream movies are by their very nature conservative, as they seek to appeal to the widest possible audience, or lowest common denominator. Given how risk-averse the industry seems to be these days, it is no surprise that Hollywood won’t take a chance on a female-centric script unless it comes at a very low cost (Bridesmaids) or has a built-in audience (The Hunger Games). Although that still doesn’t explain why we don’t yet have a Wonder Woman movie.
One point in Bailey’s argument, however, that we can all agree upon is that the continuing dearth of women behind the camera is the root of the problem. Outside of Kathryn Bigelow, even the most informed cinephile would be hard pressed to name more than one or two mainstream female filmmakers. It should be noted that every single film cited above – The Hunger Games, Bridesmaids, and the others – were directed by men. There may be a correlative quantitative relationship between the lack of women behind the camera and women in front of it – and that is certainly worth examining – but it does us no good to ignore the gains that were made last year. Progress is slow, but we should recognize every step on the path to gender equality.
If you don’t, Katniss will come and kick your ass.