So last year, I did a two part essay called “Death of the Female Movie Star? We’re Just Getting Started” that got a bit of attention (more than 2 people read it!) That essay has come back to me in relevance several times over the last year and a half, especially Part 2 about the 2012 current involvement of women in action films and leading films. And now that we’re firmly into the summer blockbuster season of 2013, I thought I’d take the temperature of what’s going on in Hollywood again.
Now that we’ve hit Memorial Day weekend in the States and are chugging into the blockbuster summer movie season at full steam, how are things going in the film and action film arena this year in regards to women?
Clearly this year we are having a bit of a testosterone festival, dominated by Marvel (who still needs to learn to make better use of their great female characters,) by aging male action stars often paired up with younger male would-be action star actors, returning male-dominated action franchises and big SF set pieces that unlike last year don’t seem inclined to have women in the leads.
So have we gone backwards, after the surge of feminine power in 2012? Not really, if you look closely and remember that the widening of female roles in film tends to be a sneaky cultural trickle rather than a canon boom. Like last year, women are solidly in major supporting roles in many of the big action flicks, and those supporting roles see them often playing action divas as important parts of the team, not just damsels in distress. In Iron Man 3, for instance, even smart but violence averse Pepper Potts got her fight on not once, but twice, while Robert Downey’s Tony Stark had panic attacks. Fast & Furious 6 may be as macho as they come with its two male leads, but Jordana Brewster, Michelle Rodriguez, Gal Gadot and Gina Carano helped power the movie as major and active players, and that happening was a deliberate choice by the franchise. The idea of having a woman soldier, thief, spy, scientist, superhero, etc. on an action team has become routine, which means it’s going to continue and in steady numbers. Even in the Expendables franchise, whose purpose is to feature male action legends, they had to have a feisty female activist (Gisele Itie) in the first one and a female combat specialist (Yu Nan) in the second.
But how is it stacking up in action films where women are more in the lead position? It’s a mix and often in movies that get less media attention, but it’s not a bad roster in a year of Marvel, Star Trek, Will Smith and Brad Pitt.
Horror films, mostly low budget, continue to do fairly well and be female friendly. (Well, female threatening too, but that’s a whole other subject.) Women have had the lead role or co-lead role in films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D, Mama, Dark Skies, The Last Exorcism Part II, The Lords of Salem, and Black Rock; and will continue to do so in the up-coming The Purge, The Conjuring, Random, Haunt, The Devil’s Rapture and Paranormal Activity 5.
The launch of Evil Dead in a new chapter for the beloved cult franchise starred Jane Levy and turned an extremely nice profit, ensuring more Dead movies that fans have long awaited. Another big reboot horror film is the up-coming Carrie remake, starring Chloe Grace Moretz in the title role and Julianne Moore (who wins the Gene Hackman award for being in tons of movies this year, including the lead in indie drama The English Teacher.)
On the somewhat cheesier side, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, powered by hot commodity Jeremy Renner and action heroine Gemma Arteton as titular brother and sister, did middling domestically but scored big globally. (The film got scolded for making females evil, ugly villains, which is in line with the two evil queens of the Snow White movies last year. That’s a valid point, but the other point is that all these movies are using female villains instead of the traditional male ones, where female villains were usually absent or only in supporting roles. Like women becoming established as part of action hero teams, so too are female villains getting more play. So again, attrition towards improvement rears its head in strange places.) Gemma Arteton is back later this year in Neil Jordan’s vampire movie Byzantium, with co-lead Saoirse Ronan, (who wins the young runner-up Gene Hackman award this year.)
The Host, from Stephanie Meyer’s SF novel (again starring Ronan,) and Beautiful Creatures from the YA series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, both came out early in the year and basically flopped. The books were bestsellers with passionate followings, but not all in those followings were happy with the adaptations and the movies were marketed to highlight their romance elements rather than their action ones. This was presumably on the erroneous belief that the audience for the Twilight movies had little interest in action, even though emphasizing its action scenes is what helped the Twilight franchise sell. Without enough global box office (though Beautiful Creatures got most of their money there,) the films didn’t go anywhere. (And again, female villains!)
But up next in this vein is The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, starring Lily Collins of successful Mirror, Mirror last year, from the bestselling YA series. Mortal Instruments has a very big fan base and it’s chockful of horror action which has been used in the marketing so far. So it will be interesting to see how it does. Even if it doesn’t do great, expect Hollywood to keep being interested in female led YA and YA fantasy adaptations, meaning the women get a chance alongside similar male led films like Percy Jackson.
In SF, Sandra Bullock’s delayed film Gravity about a female astronaut in trouble will be coming out with all the backing of George Clooney’s production machine behind it. And November brings us the next Hunger Games film, Catching Fire, the biggest female action lead of the year with Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence.
On the less speculative thriller front, low budget film The Call starring Hallie Berry also turned a tidy profit and the crime indie Spring Breakers did extremely well. (Yes, the women in that movie were in bikinis – cultural trickle, trickle.) Up later in the year are The East, starring Brit Marling who co-wrote the screenplay, following the craze for movies about undercover work in cults, Violet & Daisy about a pair of female assassins starring Ronan again and Alexis Bledel, and the second crime spree film The Bling Ring, about a mostly female gang of teenage thieves, from female director Sofia Coppola. The female gang of thieves movies are in fact becoming a staple over the last fifteen years or so, again establishing that you don’t necessarily need Clyde to do a movie about Bonnie and have it work.
In animation, the enormously successful The Croods made use of Nicholas Cage and cute animated animals, but the story was a father-daughter bonding coming of age film, rather than the more traditional father-son film. Next up is Epic, based on the William Joyce novel, The Leaf Men and The Brave Good Bugs, which actually has a female lead, though you wouldn’t know it from the commercials for it.
In the action comedy world, Identity Thief shifted from the usual male-male dark comedy buddy tale to the chemistry of Melissa McCarthy with Justin Bateman and made a killing. McCarthy plays comic buddy again this summer and this time it’s with Sandra Bullock as two cops paired up together in The Heat. If The Heat does well, expect Hollywood to try more female buddy action films. (And not even necessarily in bikinis.)
While it would be nice to have a better showing this year for the females as leads, (and to not have Captain Kirk sexually harass his gratuitously lingeried female scientist underling in Star Trek: Into Darkness or the producers of the film be obnoxious in their apologies about it,) there definitely doesn’t seem to be a backwards drift. Women still only make up about 11% of the movie leads while making up 52% of the North American viewing audience (and likely as much of the foreign audience one day soon.) But no matter how reluctantly for reasons we’ve discussed before, Hollywood will follow the scent of money and that means women are still getting more and more active seats at the table.