Women and Cinema Part 2: Wins and losses in a galaxy far, far away

 

Star Wars’ history of casting women is checkered at best. Both original and classic trilogies essentially repeat the same mistakes. A New Hope introduced us to Leia, one of the de facto leaders of a galactic rebellion. She requires rescuing by the two male leads, but once sprung from her cell, quickly takes charge, handling blasters like a pro, and ordering around her less apt cohorts. After that she is then relegated to worrying over computer displays while the boys go off to battle. And then hands out the medals when she, having fought longer and harder for rebellion than Han and Luke, should probably be receiving a few herself.

Perhaps that’s a bit harsh. After all, one of the things that displeases me about women in action movies is that they are too often required to be stripped of feminine characteristics and don those of alpha males to perform leading roles. Leia doesn’t have to be a keen fighter to be an active participant in the conflict. I’m just as content with her taking an administrative role. My only real beef with Leia is that she doesn’t have a story of her own to be told. She is a love interest, an instigator, and key to the success of each of the larger missions in the trilogy, but she has little personal struggle to overcome. No internal conflict. Her planet gets blown up and she has to comfort a farm boy who lost his mentor of 2 days.

Padme Amidala of the prequel trilogy seemed to want to make good on where Leia fell short. The Phantom Menace introduces us to her as an elected Queen (just go with it) who through her own strength, wit and keen skill of diplomacy, saves her planet from ruin from an overwhelming force.
(Honestly, if you look at the story of the conflict of Naboo, there’s a good story in there. Its problems largely lie within the execution. And JarJar.)

So far, so good, but the strong, brilliant Padme we see in The Phantom Menace never has another equal moment to shine. Attack of the Clones features her holding her own in much of the action, but by Revenge of the Sith, the strength and will is largely gone from her. Not only does she have little to do throughout the story, but she becomes so weak and pitiless by the end that it is down right angering. What woman, after looking at the face of two beautiful healthy babies, would roll over and die because her husband turned to the dick side of the force? Those kids need her more than most and she abandoned them. That ranks very high in the list of worst things a woman could possibly do. It’s a sad end to the lead female in a franchise that was already rife with problems.

The last two star wars films starred women. Not supporting leads, not love interests. Actual, honest to goodness, face-on-the-center-of-the-poster stars of the film. That cannot be understated. These films are also the top grossing of the past two years. That statement alone should go a long way to proving that we don’t need a male to carry a blockbuster movie.

Apparently we just need them to act like males.

Rey and Jyn were solid characters, but their gender characteristics are largely androgynous. I enjoyed the performances by both actresses, but let’s ask ourselves this: If Rey and Jyn were played by males, what about the story would have to change to reflect that? I would argue little or nothing. Rey started her journey from a place of vulnerability, which was especially poignant given her sex. It was beautiful to see the lightsaber leap to her hand as she took on Kylo Ren at the end. Having said that, that vulnerability could have come from the fact that she is young and inexperienced, and could have been just as poignant if she was simply a younger male. Being weak is not an exclusively feminine trait, but it seems to be the closest thing we get in The Force Awakens.

Notwithstanding that qualm, Jyn and Rey are enjoyable to follow. And it is still great progress that they head the cast. But besides themselves, the cast is almost completely male. Rogue One is still a bechdel failure. The Force Awakens barely passes based on Rey’s brief interactions with Leia, but it’s far from a balanced cast.  What would be ideal? Do we need to strive the Ginsburg standard and demand all females? What about half and half?

Personally, I don’t necessarily need more women in my Star Wars films.There are plenty of other ways to achieve equal female representation. And I don’t want to deny that there are great films still being made about women. Blue Jasmine and Still Alice spring to the top of my mind. Strong independent women aren’t unheard of. The problem is that they generally only pop up in small productions. Equal representation to me means an equal number of films with at least an equal number of women that have something to do other than be sex objects.

There is one studio/brand serving this demo, but that is a topic for another blog.
And there’s one more sub genre that needs to be addressed before we get there.

 

 

 

 

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Women and Cinema- Part 1: The Dearth

Most of us have some level of awareness of the dearth of female roles in American blockbusters. In fact, only about half of American studio films pass the Bechdel Test*.  This isn’t news. I’m not breaking new ground by spouting facts culled from Wikipedia. I could cry foul till I’m blue in the face, and it won’t make a bit of difference to executives that still, in the post-hunger-games era continue to under-serve half of America.**

But why is this happening? Is it because the average modern moviegoer wants spectacle, which translates as more explosions, which typically translates into more masculine appeal? That’s possible, but it doesn’t complete the picture. After all, The Sound of Music and Gone with the Wind are still two of the highest grossing movies of all time. They have compelling female leads, and the spectacle comes from location, setting and costumes; not from action sequences.

I don’t buy it. Twilight made billions, and it wasn’t for the cheesy action scenes. It was for the cheesy romance. Divergent didn’t do too shabby either. Both these series of films did have sci-fi or fantasy elements, and there was fighting, but I that’s not what made those franchises successful. With Tris Pryor, women saw an ideal image. With Bella Swan women saw themselves with an ideal mate. (ugh)

And then there’s The Hunger Games: the reigning champion of not only  YA  adaptations, but all sci-fi book adaptations and all post apocalyptic films as well. And that’s to say nothing of female-led films.

Movie executives are dumb. Ok fine: lemme rephrase: they’re products of their industry. They make decisions on which films to green light largely out of fear, because most of them are one box office bomb away from losing their job. Thanks to this, they’re typically not out there to fund critical darlings (unless it’s oscar season). They’re trying to hit quarterly revenue goals set by executive boards to appease stockholders. It’s very cold and calculated. But the problem is they learn the wrong lessons when a movie hits or misses. When The Avengers was a massive hit, the lesson should have been “when we put passionate, dedicated, talented filmmakers at the helm of our IPOs then good things will happen”. What studio execs instead heard was “we need more crossovers. Let’s make a shared universe of Hasbro toys. Let’s make a shared universe of classic monsters.”

Likewise, when The Hunger Games was a hit, the lesson should have been “If you build a world where a female protagonist overcomes a mountain of obstacles through feminine characteristics such as compassion and nurturance  with an appropriate mix of masculine traits such as aggression and assertiveness, then the fans will come.”

Instead, the studios decided we needed more YA adaptations. But by and large these projects didn’t even start with top talent and passion, and as a result, most flopped.

It’s been a couple years since the YA craze hit its peak. The tide of films with young female protagonists has ebbed. The studios have by and large decided that the trend is exhausted, and have moved on. In other words, “We don’t care how compelling you found Katniss. You didn’t show up to Vampire Academy so you’re SOL for characters you can relate to or idealize until we accidentally make a lot of money on something and chase that trend until it peters out, ad nauseum.

Next up: The world’s most profitable franchise is now dominated by women… sort of.

*The Bechdel test, which requires a film to have two women talking about something other than a man is a decent, if imperfect standard by which to measure gender equality. The problem that arises by adhering strictly to the rules is the overall spirit of the film can be lost by strict adherence thereto. For example, Fantastic Beasts is overwhelmingly gender equal in my book, but according to bechdeltest.com, it fails, presumably because every conversation between Tina and Queenie Goldstein involves a man. On the other hand, Avengers: Age Of Ultron passes, when in reality there’s only one female in a large principal cast. Therefore more scrutiny is needed to properly gauge a film’s female representation.

**I also blame men and boys, who are apparently less likely to see a female-centric film than women are to male dominated ones. After the middling performance of The Princess and the Frog in 2009, Disney has changed the titles of Rapunzel and The Snow Queen to Tangled and Frozen to create gender ambiguity, a ruse that arguably worked as the latter two made multiple times more money than ‘Frog’, which was arguably every bit as good a film. But to be fair, movies that target younger boys such as Titan A.E and Sinbad did so poorly at the box office as to cause the animation studios of each respective film to shut down indefinitely. Yet if the same sort of material is given the live action treatment, they tend to fare much better. So yeah, it goes both ways!