Joel Shepherd is a young, smart, male SF writer from Australia. His Cassandra Kresnov series features a female soldier android in a planetary future society and is worth checking out. Back in the summer, Shepherd did a guest post essay for SF Signal about how the over-sexualizing of actresses in badly wrought action pics he felt had created the myth that a female lead action film couldn’t sell. I’ll be honest, that essay made me chuckle. A producer optioned Shepherd’s series and has been trying to get a deal in Hollywood for a film adaptation. Shepherd recently announced that the producer had given up for now because studios and other producers weren’t interested in a female action lead unless there was an A-list actress attached and not only is it hard to get access to them, but A-list actresses hardly ever get to do action pictures themselves, which keeps them from climbing up the A-list further. He announced his film news in a blog essay: “Death of the Female Movie Star?,” wondering if the self-defeating ways of Hollywood refusing to make big budget action female star pictures meant less and less women featured and a cycling disaster for female movie stars.
While I’m sorry for Shepherd that he didn’t get a movie or t.v. deal and hope that a new one works out for him later on, I have to say that the answer to his question: Death of the Female Movie Star? is at this point: No, they’re just getting started. In fact, 2012 is shaping up to be the year of the female action star at this point. Certainly in the last two years, we’ve had a significant increase in females taking center stage in action films. So lets take a look at this in two parts:
Why did I find amusing parts of Shepherd’s first essay for SF Signal:
Well, while I didn’t entirely disagree with his reasoning, I laughed because of passages like these:
“But if Hollywood makes a movie about a ‘female hero’, they’ll focus upon the word ‘female’. They’ll lose emphasis upon the hero story, and focus on sex and gender instead. Our female hero will be dressed in ridiculous outfits, and will have action scenes dedicated less to showing how kick-ass she is, than to how many teenage boys she can give erections while kicking ass.”
This first paragraph made me chuckle first off because it shows how normal it is now for people like Shepherd to view women characters in action films kicking ass. So normal that he’s focused on the sometimes ridiculous outfits. Only twenty years ago, though, women characters kicking ass in action movies was a rarity. You could count the examples on two hands, and most of them were horror films. When Sharon Stone kicked Arnold Schwartzenegger’s ass in Total Recall, the visual so shocked audiences as novel that it kicked Stone up the casting list into stardom and then to the film Basic Instinct where Michael Douglas looked positively scared of her and her ice pick. Mostly in action pictures women were expected to be “the girl” – to wear skimpy clothes and get dragged to safety by the manly hero, screaming or gasping all the way. One of the advantages of SF films was that you could say that in the future, women kick butt, and have that in the picture, but it took a long while for there to be as many opportunities for actresses to shoot guns and jump kick, whether they were the lead or not, as we have today. Now, when a female character in an action film doesn’t kick ass, we find it kind of strange.
And then there was this one in the essay:
“Action heroes don’t wear suspenders and high heels, male or female. Period. Remember Ripley in the first two Alien movies? (the only ones that count) Absolutely no overt focus on sex appeal. Ditto Sarah Connor (and ditto about only the first two counting). Those were heroes, who just happened to be female.”
The fact that Shepherd fondly remembers Alien and the Terminator movies as having no overt focus on their main females’ sexuality, (Hamilton was not actually the star in the Terminator movies, Schwarzenegger was,) is, well, kind of endearing. Sure, Sigourney Weaver wore non-clingy jumpsuits in Alien – and then climbed out of them in her underwear. The entire last scene of Alien has her doing a striptease:
And yes, Hamilton didn’t have high heels on her combat boots in Terminator 2. She just wore tank tops with no bra and pj’s that revealed her navel while she did chin-ups:
And in the Lara Croft movies, the gold ring so far for female-helmed action pictures, they lovingly try to get Angelina Jolie as near to naked as they can for most of the time while she portrays a videogame character whose chief attribute is that she looks like Adventure Barbie:
It’s progress that guys like Shepherd can be so enamored of a movie and its female character that they may not consciously notice the over-sexualization and fetishing of the actresses if there isn’t an elaborate costume and if the movie’s a hit. Women, however, do notice, but we tend to look at it as still the cost of having the women in the picture. When Paula Patton strips out of her sexy evening gown to reveal sexy underwear so she can change into a sexy leather mission outfit in a moving sports convertible in the recent Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, with Tom Cruise grinning beside her, it just elicits a guffaw. The big change is that now her character Jane Carter is the second most valuable member of Ethan Hunt’s team, has her own major emotional story arc, and is played by a black actress. Only a short time ago, any of those things would have been remarkable.
So it isn’t, as Shepherd first hypothesized, the female focus that’s a big issue as there is never a time when that femaleness is not emphasized in action pictures – certainly not in the age of the Internet and its obsession with the female body. And it’s not a dislike of women kicking ass, which is now the standard. So why are Hollywood executives so convinced that audiences don’t want action pictures with female leads? The answer is, it has nothing to do with the audiences at all.
Here’s what happens: Hollywood occasionally, at the pushing of producers, directors and heavy hitting actors, makes a film with a female lead and also sometimes with what they term female subject matter. And they always express astonishment when these movies make them money. They’re astonished by Erin Brokovitch being a hit. La Femme Nikita, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Help. At a certain point from all this, as Entertainment Weekly columnist Mark Harris often points out, you have to accept that either the people who run Hollywood are suffering from short term memory brain damage and are the most incompetent folk ever or that there’s something else going on.
What that is, is an institutionalized, deeply suspicious, counter-factual prejudice from the people who control the purse strings. Hollywood executives don’t want to give women in the industry any more power than they have to. They don’t want to have to pay female movie stars as much as male ones and deal with their pet projects and demands for higher budgets. They don’t want to have to pay female screenwriters as much or give female directors the most lucrative or prestigious gigs or acknowledge them as such. (Witness Kathryn Bigelow being the first woman to win an Oscar for best director all the way in 2010.) They don’t want to have to broker with female producers or have female studio executives giving the green light. (And the same goes for non-whites.) This prejudice is not always personal. Including women (and non-whites) more fully means more competition and less resources and control for the already favored. It’s felt as an encroachment and it’s resisted, with the highly lame excuse that really, they aren’t bigoted; it’s the public’s fault.
Yet, there is money to be made off of women, their judgment and their talent, and the industry knows this. Audiences, despite the claims, are incredibly quick to adjust to females in major roles, and studios can no longer bank on the teenage boys and young men who’ve partially deserted them for videogames and the Internet (and who are perfectly comfortable with kick ass women warriors anyway.) So it’s been a war of slow attrition, waged over decades, with women and their male allies seizing what opportunities they can get, accepting limitations to get in the door and then trying to inch the goal posts forward to both success and failure. Shepherd is right that the big budget, big money making films are the most heavily guarded, but the reality is that female movie stars’ movies earn better in aggregate and more reliably than male ones, (for one thing, the women are cheaper, improving potential profit margins.) The war of attrition for action has been well under way and there are numerous signs that women may have already passed a tipping point.