To judge strictly from this week’s news, things are looking up for women in movies. This weekend’s action thriller Lucy, in which Scarlett Johansson obtains superhuman powers, is leading advance ticket sales on Fandango. Meanwhile, director Joss Whedon, interviewed at the Guardians of the Galaxy premiere, revealed that there would be four major female roles in Avengers 2: Age of Ultron.
If only these were signs of some kind of larger progress. For the most part, this summer’s major films have been dismally lacking in decent roles for women. Not that this is news. Every single summer brings more essays about that very subject. That’s why I want to stop talking, for the moment, about women getting decent roles, and start talking about women getting any roles. Even crappy ones.
Right now, box office revenues in North America are down 20 percent. Per The Hollywood Reporter, one of the reasons for that drop is that women aren’t showing up to the big movies. Even though more than half of current moviegoers are women (52 percent, as of last year), they made up only 36 percent of the debut audience for Transformers and 39 percent for Amazing Spider-Man 2. Big studio films are suffering, because a huge percentage of their audience isn’t showing up.
Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the minority of women in the audience reflects the minority of women onscreen. Using IMDB (an imperfect but good-enough resource), I added up the numbers of female and male characters in several of this summer’s highest-grossing films. Among the main characters in Godzilla (which I’m defining as anybody with an actual name) there are 19 men and 4 women. Transformers: Age of Extinction has 7 major male characters, 3 human female characters, and 8 male robots. X-Men: Days of Future Past has 26 men and 7 women. Maleficent is the exception to the trend, with 10 lead female roles (including the actresses who played characters at different ages) and 6 male roles. Guess which film performed best among women?
Vulture writer Kyle Buchanan recently brought up this issue with Matt Reeves, the director of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, my favorite summer blockbuster so far, in which only two women have names: a human doctor played by Keri Russell and an ape played by Judy Greer. In contrast, there are 19 named roles for male actors. Buchanan asked Apes director Matt Reeves about this discrepancy, and his answer — “It wasn’t a conscious decision. I don’t know.” — is very telling. For all the effort he poured into every detail of that movie, the thought of including more female characters never crossed his mind.
Movies, and genre movies in particular, have suffered this male-female imbalance for a long time. It’s what Katha Pollitt, in 1991, dubbed “The Smurfette Principle,” noting that many stories about men contain a single, often stereotypical female character, thus establishing a world that is defined by men, in which women are peripheral. At least these days, filmmakers are making some effort to elevate these precious few roles. Russell’s character in Apes and Elisabeth Olsen’s character in Godzilla are doctors. Zoe Saldana’s character in Guardians of the Galaxy is a bounty hunter. The summer’s best female character, played by Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow, is an army sergeant.
But having just one or two female characters in a movie, even in relatively empowered positions, means that women in the audience are always going to be underserved. As Shana Mlawski wrote in the widely-circulated “Why Strong Female Characters are Bad for Women,” the emphasis on female characters being “sexy yet strong” often means that they lack any other personality traits: They can’t be funny, or vulnerable, or any other quality that makes a character relatable. Tasha Robinson’s essay on The Dissolve, “We’re Losing All Our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome,” applauds a few recent movies (How to Train Your Dragon 2, Pacific Rim, The Lego Movie) for creating great female characters, but notes that all of these characters ultimately step aside so that the male hero can save the day.
Point being, these vastly outnumbered female characters are carrying far too much on their shoulders. They wouldn’t all have to juggle motherhood, romance, monster-fighting, and promising medical careers — then ditch it all when a damsel-in-distress is required — if there were more women to share these roles. That’s why we don’t just need more good roles for women; we need crappy roles, too. We need female characters who are bus drivers, students, villains, janitors, drug addicts, politicians, and superheroes. Hollywood is full of terrific, underemployed actresses of all types. There’s no reason that every miscellaneous role in a movie needs to default to “male.”
By “crappy parts,” I’m not talking about giving all the tiny parts to women, though that would be something. I’m talking about splitting things clean down the middle. Take Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, for example. As Buchanan pointed out, Gary Oldman’s character could have easily been played by a woman, and the main character’s teenage son could have been a daughter. Half the ape society could have been female. None of these are particularly amazing roles, and making them women wouldn’t have changed the story one bit — yet it would have been quietly revolutionary.
Or take Godzilla, which features some wonderful actors in thankless roles, and some wonderful actresses in even more thankless roles. It would have been very easy to switch any two male and female roles without otherwise altering the script. Juliette Binoche could have been the Godzilla-obsessed parent, rather than Bryan Cranston. Sally Hawkins could have been the main scientist, with Ken Watanabe playing Scientist Who Nods a Lot. And what if Elisabeth Olsen had been the bomb expert trying to save her city, and Aaron Taylor Johnson played the dad nervously waiting at home? That would have been something new.
Pandering to women doesn’t make for a surefire hit, but there’s enough evidence that women turn out for movies in which they’re represented. Two summer films that performed far better than expected, the big-budget Maleficent and the indie The Fault in Our Stars, contained many parts for women (and, not for nothing, were marketed to female audiences). The mega-successful Hunger Games movies boast an onscreen gender ratio that is nearly 50/50. The Avengers owed 40 percent of its record-breaking opening weekend to women; though inarguably a male-dominated movie, it has one female lead and two key supporting female characters, and women actually appear onscreen nearly as often as the men.
It’s not that female moviegoers are keeping a running tally of women and buying their tickets accordingly. It’s just that, when you’re consistently excluded, you start to notice. If women took up as much space onscreen as they do in movie audiences — 52 percent — films would look very different. Audiences would acclimate to the idea that female characters have their own stories. And perhaps those “strong female characters” would naturally emerge, instead of being shoehorned into the plot. When Matt Reeves says that excluding women from Apes wasn’t “a conscious decision,” I believe him. But that excuse is wearing thin. I want to see directors start making conscious decisions to include women — one crappy role at a time.
Photo credit: Fox/Warner Bros.