Monday, May 05, 2008

The Hollywood Summer Blockbuster: No Woman's Land?

This interesting article in the New York Times, "Is There A Real Woman In This Multiplex," bemoans the lack of women-oriented or woman-starring movie offerings this summer:

"Nobody likes to admit the worst, even when it’s right up there on the screen, particularly women in the industry who clutch at every pitiful short straw, insisting that there are, for instance, more female executives in Hollywood than ever before. As if it’s done the rest of us any good. All you have to do is look at the movies themselves — at the decorative blondes and brunettes smiling and simpering at the edge of the frame — to see just how irrelevant we have become."

This article brings up several questions for me:

1. Has Hollywood, like the comic book industry before it, decided that females are not a viable audience?

2. What movies DO women watch? In what format? Theater, DVD, what?

3. Does Hollywood assume that women either do not watch movies in theaters or will go to wherever their significant others will take them to see or that they are so busy mopping floors that they haven't even given the topic much thought?

4. Is a movie like "Indiana Jones," as mentioned in the article, not a movie of female interest because Indy and his sidekick themselves are not females? Or is this sort of reductionist?

5. According to the article, the amount of female movie directors is something like 6%. Is this the movie studios fault for not hiring these women? Are these women not applying for the director track? Are they not applying to the director track because they are not interested, or because they are discouraged from doing so in school?

As I've mentioned in a previous post, I had problems with the movie "Iron Man" only in as much as the only character I cared to identify with had a penis. Since this is all fantasy anyway, maybe there really isn't much of a problem really there. Maybe, even without a penis, I can achieve my dream of becoming a boozy egotistical millionaire born-again peacenik in a metal suit, if I tried really really hard.

Maybe the problem is just my lack of imagination.


  1. Naaah... Hollywood, as much as the Comic industry, has a problem with strong female characters.
    Why do you think the ONLY female superhero to see ANY real production time for the big screen in her OWN solo movie was (apart from the OBVIOUS "icon" factor) WONDER WOMAN?

    [Conspiracy theorist mode ON}

    And why do you think it never really SAW it through? We all know that if there is a guy who CAN give voice to a female superhero without falling to the same old "grrrrrl power" clichés, is Joss Whedon.
    I was really anxious to see his Diana, but the project got shot down... And I REALLY think that it was because the studio wanted a more "vulnerable" WW than the one he wanted to portray. Maybe he would even put some PANTS on her...

    [Conspiracy theorist mode OFF}

  2. At least the middle age female audience has Sex and the City.

  3. Regardless of other comments made in the other thread, such as whether we NEED female led movies to appeal to a female audience, which during summer blockbuster time is usually pretty thin ANY year, someone's not looking too hard...

    Some films either with female leads or pretty much geared to a female audience this summer:

    * Made of Honor
    * Savage Grace
    * The Fall
    * The Tracey Fragments
    * What Happens in Vegas
    * Sex and the City: The Movie (now there's a "Well duh!" moment)
    * Beg Borrow Steal
    * Brideshead Revisited
    * The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 (another "Well duh!")
    * The Accidental Husband

    and probably a few more I missed...

    Let's be honest, most guys wouldn't go near these films with a 10 foot pole unless they're on a date, and even then at least half would rather be watching something else like Iron Man, The Dark Knight, Indiana Jones, The Mummy, etc.

    As for "We all know that if there is a guy who CAN give voice to a female superhero without falling to the same old "grrrrrl power" clichés" I'd add J.J. Abrams to that list. His Sydney Anne Bristow kicked butt...

  4. Anonymous10:39 AM

    I think you might come close to something with #4. Speaking of my current relationship only, we'll watch hours and hours of Gilmore Girls and ANTM on DVD, but when it comes to movies she likes them big and explodey (and will see absolutely anything with robots in it), and seems perturbed by the dearth of good female roles only intellectually.

  5. Anonymous10:40 AM

    At least the middle age female audience has Sex and the City.

    Christ, I hope that was a joke.

  6. I've been thinking about this for a while, and there's also the point that a lot of women will go to see terrible movies as long as they admire the actor/actress that stars it. You don't need a strong female character to make a movie appealing for the female audience, and that shows in the blockbusters. Strangely enough, I've seen more and more strong female characters in TV series, so I guess TV executives are a bit more progressive than Movie execs.

  7. The publishing industry suffers from a similar problem. Women have a very hard time breaking into the thriller genre because women writers typically don't sell well. Are there not enough women trying to write thrillers because publishers aren't buying? And are publishers just unwilling to give women a chance because they're getting such a small pool of material by female writers?

    As for the earlier comment regarding the limited number of women directors, I think it's worth noting that one of my favorite action movies ever was 1997's "The Peacemaker" which was directed by a woman, Mimi Leder. The film starred George Clooney and Nicole Kidman, and I felt it avoided a lot of the action film cliches that annoy me. Even though the main characters clearly had chemistry, they didn't take time out in the middle of the crisis for the obligatory sex/makeout scene. A pity the film didn't do better at the box office, because it was a much more character-driven and intelligent film than we usually get for action films.

  8. I think it's getting better for female leads in that first they were allowed to kick ass like male action heroes, now they're allowed to kick ass and develop a third dimension.

    In conclusion: I love Veronica Mars. Thank you and goodnight.

  9. The two female leads (well, the actors were all supporting roles compared to the robots) of Transformers were not too bad. One was a smart computer hacker, and the love interest actually had an interesting character. (And the mother was HILARIOUS!)

    Has anyone mentioned the Supergirl/Electra/Catwoman angle, in that female action movies don't make money? (Yes, I know, they were horrible.) That's a poor excuse, given Charlie's Angels and Lara Croft Tomb Raider and Kill Bill.

    Let me ask the studio audience: which female comicbook characters would you like to see on TV and movies?

  10. I think part of the problem is very similar to the question about black characters. People like good stories, period. There were women (and a dad with his daughter) at Iron Man because it was a good story and a good script.

    All they need to do is make a Wonder Woman movie good and market it as a good movie, not try to make it supposedly "girly." They did that with Supergirl (which granted, was an awful movie, but you know what I mean) and Catwoman with the whole cosmetic thing. Why couldn't Catwoman beat up on some male baddie? I've always hated that as soon as you have a superheroine, the villain has to be a woman.

    I'm rambling, but my point is, write good stories that don't insult everyone's intelligence, and it won't matter who the lead character is. I personally would love to see an Avengers movie where the Wasp isn't a victim or a flighty socialite, but a leader in her own right. Or better yet, a Wonder Woman movie where she's the badass we all know her to powering down, but the goddess-level superheroine.

  11. Does Baby Mama not count as a movie featuring female leads?

    While on the action front things to seem a bit thin for female action stars right now, it wasn't that long ago that we were getting Resident Evils and Bloodraynes and Aeon Fluxs and that-recent-post-apocalytic-movie-I-can't-remember-the-name-of, not to mention your villainous female leads from Species and recent Terminators and the like.

    It also seems like the vast majority of horror movies recently have had female protagonists. But I suppose that might not be considered a good thing, since it usually means 85 minutes of them being victimized just before the last 5 minutes where they win....OR DID THEY???

  12. My only comment is to say that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, if that is the correct title, is the one movie my wife is looking forward to this summer.

  13. I think it's worth the investigating the notion that women, for whatever reason, may be far more likely to wait until something comes out on DVD to see it than guys are, for whatever reason. I know it's purely anecdotal, but my Mother only ever goes to see a movie on the rare occasion we all get together to do so. However, she is the dominant DVD purchaser in our household.

  14. Interestingly enough, DVD's have a big part in reducing the number of worthwhile female roles in big budget blockbuster type movies. DVD sales have become how most movies manage to make their money back. And which demographic buys most of the DVD's by a massive margin? Males 18-34.

    The problem comes with the Hollywood conventional wisdom about the Young Male demographic. i.e. they only want male leads and even supporting roles. So say you're a producer developing what you hope can be a blockbuster film. And you want to shoot it for 90 million. Chances are the studios would give you sixty five million, and tell you to make due. Because It's a lot safer for the studios to try and clear the sixty million (plus forty million in promotion), in the box office.

    But now with the cushion of DVD sales (plus foreign markets... which tend to favor traditional action formulas), that same producer could probably get themselves a budget of a hundred million, because now there's a safety net of DVD sales. But... that extra money comes at the cost of molding the film to the conventional wisdom of the DVD market. Which sadly means that womens roles are usually reduced to love interest or T&A display... or both... (and thus Jessica Alba has herself a career).

    Now, sure, the producer could point out all the examples of strong female roles doing well in large budgets movies. They could also point out that the oft cited failures of Catwoman and Elektra have more to do with the poor quality of the movies and a misunderstanding of the emerging "fanboy" demographic. Or they could shut up, take the higher budget and hope the movie does well and snags them a promotion.

    And there we have ourselves the birth of a vicious little cycle.

  15. Underworld 1 and 2, also, Mike. And Kill Bill. The female lead in Hellsing was a really strong role too. (or maybe not; maybe it's my evil penis obscuring the truth).

    I'm not even sure how anyone could ask #1 with a straight face. #4 seems rhetorical, given the conclusion of the blog entry.

  16. "4. Is a movie like "Indiana Jones," as mentioned in the article, not a movie of female interest because Indy and his sidekick themselves are not females? Or is this sort of reductionist?"


  17. I guess everything on my must-see list qualifies as a guy action movie. Still have Size D boobies and no penis and no interest on seeing anything listed as a chick flick.

    Still "Prince Caspian" and "Hellboy II" got left out of the discussion. Liz kicked ass in the first "Hellboy" and Susan and Lucy have important parts to play, even if they don't get into the main battle.

  18. Can we take into considerations foreign movies?
    I am not going to see Speed Racer (although I REALLY want to) because my budget is a bit tight and I'm going to spend the money going to our "artsy" theater here because they'll be playing Caramel (it's way late but something we're used to here in Puerto Rico). It has an all female cast.
    I loved Iron Man and Baby Mama left me a bit cold despite loving the leads. I am not going to see any of the rom coms or chick flicks because summer is all about the comic movies! Except Hulk.

  19. Film student, here. There are tons of women itching to become directors and screenwriters, and who are definitely encouraged in school. It's the industry that's not hiring them. Every writing class I've ever had is completely gender-balanced, but most TV shows have only two women on staff, if that (save for an anomaly like The L Word). Plain ol' misogyny at work here, most of it probably unconscious, some of it unfortunately conscious. Probably a lot of misguided fear, too, by the money people -- people want to do things the way it's always been done, because taking risks might mean losing money, and in Lala Land, lots of money is at stake. That's my neophyte take on it, anyway.

  20. Michael said...
    I think it's worth the investigating the notion that women, for whatever reason, may be far more likely to wait until something comes out on DVD to see it than guys are, for whatever reason.

    And in a film industry landscape where opening weekend is valued uber alles...where women are concerned, Chico Marx might have put it best: "Atsa no good."

  21. Ok, so, I just finished watching Iron Man earlier today and loved it. I loved it, and yet, I couldn't really put my finger on why it was that I liked it so much. I started thinking back to other recent action movies I've seen like Transformers.
    Were the effects better in Iron Man? No. Was the story better? No. Was the directing better? No. Nothing was really better, yet I liked it more. Why?
    Then it hit me. Not once during the whole movie was I taken out of my engagement with the storyline by the lead character being emasculated by the "strong female character role model" while she did something fantastical while the heroine is left cowering somewhere in awe of her massive stones.
    I was never left shaking my head at nauseating cheeseball stunts to pull the males role down just to boost the women's role up in an attempt to gain a few extra bucks.
    Hollywood uses this tactic ad-nauseum to attract female movie goers and I find it to be insulting that such a cheap trick is so often employed. Women are strong and confident enough that they don't need stunts like this. A strong female role is more effective by having a strong role and character rather than a lame tactic like this.
    That is what made Iron Man for me. It's in no way degrading women, which I would not stand for, but it is completely sans cheesy all too common Hollywood gender role reversals.
    All I can say is that I'm glad that Iron man was allowed to keep his masculinity throughout. Never once was he made to watch an androgynous romantic interest drive an 18 wheeler 60 mph in reverse while blasting aliens out of the sky with an m16/grenade launcher while he cried in the corner.
    Were there strong female roles? Not exceptionally strong, no. But Pepper had more courage all throughout the film than I could ever muster. The movie revolves around Iron man, because that's what the movie is about; Iron man. Forcing anything else would be nothing more than a cheap stunt.