So 2017 was a year, wasn’t it?
Six years ago, I started looking at how actresses were advancing and not advancing in movies in terms of the big star parts in big budget and high status films, mainly action, suspense, SFFH and action comedy. Women have been frequently blocked from major roles in those films, especially having fewer opportunities to be the lead role, as well as kept as much as possible from working behind the camera. (Women make up only about 12% of the directors for film in the main English language market.) They’re paid considerably less than their male counterparts, as people have been made aware, even though on average they have a more reliable track record for bringing in profitable box office. They are given fewer lines of dialogue than male actors, even when they’re in the lead role, and often fewer action things to do, even though women performing action and fight work has increased overall.
When I began doing this, in 2012, that was something of a turning point year for women movie stars in high profile action, so much so that the media actually noticed and called it rather optimistically the “Year of the Women.” The question was then, would that momentum build or sputter out. The answer seems to be that over the recent years the momentum did build, leading to gains for women actors. But an acceleration of women’s roles doesn’t mean that the increase is going particularly fast, given from where it started. For women, it has been a continual slow process of trickle, trickle erosion in what they are allowed to do, and most importantly, how often they’re allowed to do it, and how their participation is viewed in the industry.
In Hollywood, the (mostly white) men who still run most of the film dream factory are heavily focused on their status, on how other men see them, to bolster their position in their jobs. They are thus deeply invested in the idea that (mostly white) male actors are better for big action films, more competent and more popular, leading to a system that also sees men as better at doing the production and financing of movies (and thus reducing the competition in their field.) For Hollywood executives, even the women ones, an action movie with a female lead that does well has less status than working and hanging with a male movie star. The status of male movie stars is also carefully propped up with higher pay, and bigger budgets and wider promotion for their films, even though costly flops are not uncommon. To keep that system of male bonus points and high status going, Hollywood still tries as much as possible to treat women either as exploitable gophers (on the production side,) or replaceable eye candy (as actresses.) Hollywood brands action movies that don’t do as well with women leads as evidence that all actresses can’t carry franchises reliably, while successes of women-led movies are often dismissed as having only niche appeal and/or being flukes.
But there is eventually a limit to how much your status bonus points can get you versus actually producing real money in Hollywood. If one studio makes a woman-led action picture that does well, there is pressure on other studios to try to do woman-led films like the hit one. While global audiences have become essential for big movies, it’s often very unreliable (and not really hostile to women either,) and so domestic U.S. box office is still a concern — and the biggest group going to movies in the theaters in the U.S. are the women. The more women-led action films there are that do well, the less convincing the business arguments that women can’t bring in reliable box office and handle franchises, that they’re niche and narrow in appeal, sounds to people. Actresses continue also to leverage the star power they do have to form their own production companies and launch projects featuring themselves and other women off the ground, a number of them doing very well. So while things are still slow and Hollywood tries to block women – and itself – with as much foot-dragging as possible, at this point the industry would be hard-pressed to try to turn back time and keep women from the big roles and action pictures, even if it wanted to do so.
But star power and the lure of money weren’t the only things that had an impact on the industry with regards to women this last year. For a very long time, women and others have been trying to improve the workplace conditions in the industry, specifically with regards to sexual abuse and harassment of workers, which are endemic to it, particularly in targeting and controlling women. Such abuse is not only traumatic and often criminal, it discriminates against women, helps depress their salaries, and drives many of them out of the business altogether. The horrible case of Bill Cosby, everybody’s dad whose history of serial rapes got amplified media attention and legal prosecution in recent years, not only drew focus to sexual abuse in the industry but showed that media, the courts and the public might now sometimes start to listen if victims banded very publicly together. This came to a boil in the subsequent case of influential producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017, who really should be in jail along with half the people who worked for him. The fact that Weinstein’s victims were also so numerous and that many of them were high profile actresses whose careers he tried to ruin caused the media endless fascination, and from there the boulder rolled – directors, screenwriters, actors, and further ripples in every industry from tech to the government.
The reverberations are still going on, including a few court cases and a smattering of firings. In Hollywood’s case, it ripped the lid off of just how bad the industry remained. And this has caused some surface changes in the business that may run deeper, given that an entire woman’s movement is blazing through the industry like a tornado. Hollywood is promoting its women-led movies a lot harder, it’s facing an army of actresses on pay inequality and professional treatment, and it’s finding its facile excuses for its discriminatory system and for only slowly changing that system to be constantly challenged. It’s too early to know if large changes are really going to happen from all this, especially given the current government in the U.S. But it has given a special significance to the women-led movies that came out in 2017 and a white hot spotlight on women actors and women-led big movies for 2018.
So let’s take a look at the tumultuous year of 2017 for women in the movies and where things are going in 2018.