Summer Blockbusters Need More Crappy Roles for Women
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.