We’re gonna need a bigger blog: why blockbusters owe us more female leads

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The summer blockbuster season is nearly over and once again, something is few and far between. Where are our female leads?

This is an absurdly fair question. Blockbusters make supreme dents on our pop-cultural consciousness, and our pop culture is a reflection of the society and cultures we exist in. Women are half the world’s population, so it stands to reason that approximately half the big movies should be equipped with female leads. But they’re not.

Why?

There are numerous factors but if I were to point to a single, main reason, it’s that big movies are a business; these businesses are run by huge corporations; huge corporations are typically run by men. This is obviously due to an entrenched and unfair system. There are few women running major studios and it’s because a top-down paradigm has been in place since the inception of films as commerce itself; the image of the rotund, cigar-chewing, cocaine-addled film producer hasn’t transformed too much. The only difference is that in the modern era there’s a tableau of even more powerful men, with finer and more plentiful cocaine, who run the now frighteningly large corporations behind the studios.

There are exceptions, of course. Kathleen Kennedy produced the Jurassic Park films, and is running Lucasfilm, now that George Lucas is chilling on a beach with Howard the Duck and Jar Jar. Women like Kennedy are comparatively few and far between however, which results in fewer female voices behind the scenes, fewer female directors given opportunities in the blockbuster landscape, and fewer films made from female perspectives. We all suffer as a result. We should always be striving for more range and more honesty in the media we consume, and the fact that these are mainstream entertainments is no excuse; the responsibility is far greater when you’re reaching such a wide audience.

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Note to film producers: women make up these wide audiences, too. Gasp!

A person who is wrong will tell you that films with female leads just aren’t marketable, but this assumes that women don’t buy shit, which they do, and also that men won’t buy shit with women in it, which they will. In 1997, the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a huge hit; it lasted seven seasons and weaved feminist themes, subversion of horror tropes, martial arts action and comedy into a rich tapestry, becoming massively popular with all genders. Recently, the Hunger Games series of films have become a massive success; as blockbuster action pictures with a female lead (a properly textured and motivated one at that), they made masses of money, so there’s simply no excuse.

Yes, lots of blockbusters with female leads have failed at the box office, but this is due more to the fact that a lot of them are shit, than anything else. The reason a lot of them are shit is because they are mounted by producers and filmmakers who have little to no idea what makes a good, resonant film. Take Catwoman (2004), for example. A Catwoman film is a good idea – Catwoman is a cool character – but the film itself came from the incredibly sexist perspective that women wouldn’t watch an action film unless it was about make-up. Therefore, make-up plays a large role in the film’s plot (the villain becomes indestructible via judicious application of super-moisturiser). The whole thing has such a patronising tone towards femininity, that it’s almost as if Director Pitof (yes, the director’s name is Pitof, just Pitof) felt that the best way to appeal to women is to produce the most vacuous and preposterous bit of filmmaking that he could. He was very wrong and most consider Catwoman not just among the worst films, but among the worst things that humanity has ever produced.

catwomanIn retrospect, the mask alone should’ve been a heads up.

The same goes for Supergirl, and Elektra; these films weren’t failures because they had women as the leads, they were failures because they were terrible, terrible movies. Terrible enough for one to consider shoving wasps up their own nose in order to assuage the horror roller-coaster of actually watching them. There are plenty of awful films with male leads as well, of course, but because there’s so many more of them people don’t irrationally blame the fact that they have men in them as the reason they failed – because it’s not unusual. Unfortunately, female leads are very unusual. And when criticising a film, most people look to the most identifiable surface-level thing because they are unwilling to engage the film thoughtfully, so the narrative becomes “Women don’t make good leads.” Obviously, it’s an inaccurate bullshit narrative.

In short; something is rotten in state of big budget film-making. Female leads are often pigeon-holed in the genre of the romantic comedy and are rarely allowed to play in the other genres (aside from the horror genre, which features a pretty equal proportion of female leads to male ones but suffers the increased likelihood that featured female characters will be abused or victimised – but that’s it’s own big, long, awesome discussion, so perhaps another day). This is a system that has survived for decades, but thanks to films like The Hunger Games, it may be approaching its sticky Bond-villain-caught-in-a-turbine demise. I don’t just want female led romances, I want cop movies, crime movies, disaster movies, historical epics and the rest to frequently feature women in the lead because that reflects the world we’re in, and that’s what popular art is, a reflection, so it’s time for big films to start being reflective.

So let’s look at 2014. Summer is over. Don’t cry. It can’t be helped. And with the end of summer comes the end of the summer silly season in blockbuster films. Ever since JAWS, the big studios have been shoving their massively expensive, monolithic slabs of entertainment for public consumption into the summer months. This year has been a great one for blockbuster movies, the films have been of a very high quality (with a couple of notable exceptions by my count) but still, when it comes to female characters taking up the lead, there still seems to be a cavernous gulf of lack of representation. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Godzilla, Transformers 4: Age of Extinction, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Dawn of The Planet of the Apes, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Edge of Tomorrow, Noah, Need For Speed and Transcendance – all have male protagonists. That’s fine and dandy for them but as for big films with female protagonists, well, we have: Maleficent, Divergent and maybe Lucy (which might not qualify because it has a smaller budget, though has been released in the summer). So that’s eleven against two. Three, if we’re feeling generous.

This is, of course, not saying that the above films with male protagonists are misogynistic works (well, Transformers 4 is; worth watching if you like your robot movies to have jokes about statutory rape in them). And some of those films do indeed feature great female characters in supporting roles, like Edge of Tomorrow’s awesome Rita, a war-weary, take-no-shit veteran played with steely eyed charisma by Emily Blunt.

However, on the whole, the pattern is as it has always been, mostly male dominated, with a couple of female driven films thrown in there. Even though there is change on the horizon, we still have a long way to go.

Callum Birrell