For a long time in movies, women had the close-up instead of the action sequence.
For a long time in movies, women had the close-up instead of the action sequence. The camera feasted on their beauty, idolised their form, valourised their suffering, but when things needed to be done – a battle fought, a villain stopped, a wrong righted – the job went to a man. Butt-kicking was willy-work, but that’s no longer true.
Women have been moving into action roles for at least 30 years – ever since Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and a cat named Jones took on ‘the perfect organism’ in Alien, in 1979. The alien was arguably female, since it laid eggs, which made that film a battle of biological imperatives, Ripley’s desire to survive versus its will to reproduce. That was even more explicit in Aliens (1986) in the famous fight in the loading bay, where Ripley defends Newt (Carrie Henn) with the immortal line: ‘Get away from her, you bitch’. This wasn’t just female action; it was female action driven by the nature of femaleness, or one version of it. Ripley was both a nurturer and a lioness. She and the alien had more in common than she would admit.
Since then we’ve had any number of kick-ass women and girls, some as young as ten, none as memorable as Ripley: Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, the various Lisbeth Salanders in Swedish and English, Uma Thurman slicing and dicing in Kill Bill, Kate Beckinsale in leather in the Underworld series, and the child assassins played by Saoirse Ronan (Hanna), Natalie Portman (The Professional) and Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass). There are science-fiction action women (Scarlett Johansson as Lucy), comedic action women (Charlie’s Angels) and lots of martial arts action women (Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi). From Mad Max: Fury Road, we have the tough-as-tungsten trucker with a mechanical arm, Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron, one of the more interesting action women since Ripley.
How did this happen and why? The simple answer, Ripley might say, is men. It was time. For almost all of its history, Hollywood has acted as if women were not 51 per cent of the movie-going audience. The studios targeted women with ‘women’s pictures’, mostly built around melodrama, from the 1930’s to the end of the ‘50’s, but then they dropped even those. The rise of blockbuster economics from Jaws onward made women redundant, at least in the eyes of studio executives blinded by dollar signs.
The number of hit films (as in top five of its year) in which the lead character was a woman actually went down through the 1970’s and 1980’s – unless they starred Barbra Streisand. Those other hits can be counted on the fingers from 1965 (The Sound Of Music) to 2010, when Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland with Mia Wasikowska came second behind Toy Story 3. Things had already started to change in 2008, when Mamma Mia made $US610 million. That kind of singing, the studios love.
The trend continued in franchises based on Young Adult fiction: the Twilight series, the Hunger Games series, the Divergent series. And of course, the fabulous fluke that was Frozen, the top film of 2013 – perhaps the first time that a cultural phenomenon was unleashed by girls so young they could barely talk.
Three years later, the numbers have progressed enough that we can now say there has never been a time when female-driven movies have been so strong in worldwide box-office. Hollywood has discovered its feminine side, even if it still thinks that directors should have a penis. Importantly, there have been plenty of successes that didn’t make the top tens. Melissa McCarthy featured in a lot of them, as does our own Rebel Wilson. Notice anything about those two gals?
They’re big, as in fat, and proud of it. Shape is one of the last frontiers, but these women are challenging it, at least in comedy. They aren’t the first, of course (Roseanne Barr, Rosie O’Donnell, Oprah Winfrey), but they’re crucial to the success of some of the recent female-driven hits. McCarthy stole the show in the ensemble comedy Bridesmaids in 2011, which earned $US288 million; she hit it big again two years later in The Heat, with Sandra Bullock (US$230 million) and Spy in 2015 ($US235 million). Rebel Wilson and Anna Kendrick teamed up with an ensemble female cast in 2012 to make Pitch Perfect a respectable hit (US$115 million). The sequel in 2015 took US$287 million, and it was far from alone. Ten of the top 40 films of 2015 were largely driven by strong female characters, even if we exclude Fifty Shades of Grey (one of the few directed by a woman). Mainstream action films like Mad Max: Fury Road and the new Star Wars had noticeably feminist undertones.
The trend continues this year with Jane Got a Gun (Natalie Portman in a western), Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (the Bennett girls with knives strapped to their ladylike thighs), the sequels to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Ghostbusters (four women) and the return of Bridget Jones, with baby. Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain combine with axe-throwing Chris Hemsworth in The Huntsman Winter’s War. In the trailer, Blunt says: ‘Men have forgotten what it means to be afraid… We will bring fear’. Yikes.
This must be great if you are Charlize or Emily, but the trend depends heavily on box office. Hollywood only approved these films after Bridesmaids proved that majority female casting could work. If most of them fail in 2016, the studios will revert, confident that they were right all along: the market wants movies by, for and about blokes.
It would be foolish to think that Mad Max did well because it had a strong female lead; the important thing is that it did well enough with a strong female lead to keep the door open. It didn’t stink, in Hollywood parlance. Actually the really interesting thing was that it was beaten, for the first week or two, by Pitch Perfect 2. That really showed the power of the female audience. After all, it wasn’t blokes who went to see that.
One question is whether femme comedy is stronger than femme action. Maleficent took $US758 million in 2014; Hunger Games: Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2 (released in 2014 and 2015) took a combined $US1375 million. Not many laughs in those. Inside Out, set inside the mind of a lonely 11-year-old girl, had both laughs and emotion and took $856 million. Most of the Melissa McCarthy/Rebel Wilson comedies are taking less than $300 million, which suggests that femme action has more legs (so to speak). That makes sense: more men will go to a femme action movie than to a femme comedy.
If the trend continues, it could have a profound effect. Things change in Hollywood all the time. Women are now running major studios. They’re probably no more likely than a male studio head to greenlight a picture because it’s made by or for women, except that these films are now making big money. Money has no gender, even less taste, but when Disney announces some day that Star Wars X or XI will be directed by Ms Y, rather than Mr Z, we will know that things really have changed.