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!