• Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert had great onscreen chemistry in the Oscar-winning film 'It Happened One Night' (1934) (SBS Movies)Source: SBS Movies
Since the inception of the cinema, women have drawn in audiences. But today’s heroine is far from the sassy, vulnerable and well-rounded characters of decades past, writes Amal Awad.
Amal Awad

6 May 2016 - 5:41 PM  UPDATED 6 May 2016 - 5:41 PM

When The Hunger Games series hit the silver screen, the phenomenally profitable franchise was held up as proof that women can carry a film, at a time when their box office power was in question.

More specifically, strong, kick-arse heroines could successfully open a film, and in the last few years there has been a bunch of them. The Hunger Games; the slightly less successful Divergent series; and of course, two Star Wars films led by females: pilot Rey (Daisy Ridley) in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and rebel soldier Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) in the upcoming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

George Miller’s widely acclaimed feminist and environmental opus Mad Max: Fury Road featured a one-armed heroine, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who fights better than the men – once again, in a dystopian setting.

These heroines exist in a reality far from the real world. While there’s nothing wrong with exploring real-world issues in a fantasy setting, these roles aren’t balanced out with everyday heroines, the kinds who have problems with which we can identify, not the obligation to fight people to the death.

In an era of Bechdel Tests and much other empirical research on the representation of women in Hollywood, it’s understandable that many consider the uptick in women-led franchises as a sign of progress. Beyond dystopian franchises, comedians like Tina Fey, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and more recently, Amy Schumer, prove that women are capable of blockbuster success at the cinema. 

In fact, box office hits featuring women in the lead abound – and they make money. A study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film reported that of the top 100 highest-grossing US films released last year, 22 per cent of them had a female protagonist, meaning she propelled the action in the story, rather than sat on the sidelines. However, this survey also revealed that females occupied less than a fifth of “outright lead” roles in the top 250 films of 2015, and that women of colour are woefully under-represented.

Still, it’s the blockbuster that gets the most attention, despite a handful of ‘smaller’ films making money (e.g. Blue Jasmine starring Cate Blanchett and pretty much any movie featuring Kate Winslet).

Nowadays, multi-dimensional female characters are increasingly difficult to find. Television gives us a cornucopia of female characters, but led by sexually-violent shows like Game of Thrones and Outlander, the women are consigned to masculine roles where they are violent or have experienced harm, with rape an overwhelmingly popular plot device.

So if you’re looking for a protagonist who exists in a similar reality to yours, doesn’t wield a weapon, or whose problems aren’t limited to being an adorkable klutz wth OCD issues, then you’re fresh out of luck. It’s a rise in masculine women that we’re seeing, not complex, fleshed out characters who can be feminine without it being a cinema sin. Maybe they can give as good as they get, but unless the aim is for the women to be men, we seem to have gone backwards.

"... if you’re looking for a protagonist who exists in a similar reality to yours, doesn’t wield a weapon, or whose problems aren’t limited to being an adorkable klutz wth OCD issues, then you’re fresh out of luck."

Consider the trajectory of the Hollywood heroine: decades ago, female stars were well-paid starlets who, though subject to tyrannical studio systems like all actors of the time, were celebrated for their talents. Moreover, these women had some outstanding directors behind them: Billy Wilder, George Cukor and Alfred Hitchcock to name just three.

From Greta Garbo and Katherine Hepburn, to Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe, these high-wattage superstars were revered and allowed to demonstrate variety. Take Claudette Colbert, who portrayed rich girl Ellie Andrews in the Clark Gable hit It Happened One Night. Gable may have been the matinee star, but both he and Colbert won Oscars for their performances. It’s a romantic comedy, but it’s clever and sharp, and so well-made that the Frank Capra hit also took out Best Picture in 1935. In the film, both the leading man and woman have a lot to learn, and their flaws are supported by a solid backstory rather than relying on quirks. Can you imagine a romantic comedy with that sort of depth today?

Indeed, it seems we’re stuck in a vortex of equality-minded films, with paint-by-number kick-ass heroines who can fight like boys (even if the boys don’t like it). The rom com seems also to have become a Judd Apatow-influenced generation of films about uptight women who help men grow up.

Meanwhile, Hollywood tries to respond to heightened awareness in audiences. When the Ghostbusters reboot exchanged the four-man team to a four-women one, the howls stretched across the interwebs. Why take a perfectly good film about guys and ruin it to appease feminists?

I’m not on board with the howling, but their anger points to a deeper problem: women’s roles seem to be reactive rather than original these days. Research shows women are under-represented, so we write them in. But we don’t write meaty roles for women: we make them like men, or give them the leftovers, rewriting men’s roles for a “modern audience”.

The point isn’t solely to raise the quota of women in Hollywood, though numbers in front and behind the camera are an issue; it’s to enhance the quality of roles available to women. Between fighting for equal pay, women in Hollywood are raising legitimate concerns about the kinds of roles available to them, and actresses of colour are fishing for opportunities in an even more limited pool. As Viola Davis now famously noted when she accepted an Emmy award last year, “The only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity”.

We don’t need more surveys to quantify how women fare in Hollywood. We need more female writers creating stories that feature interesting, fully-fleshed, multi-dimensional female characters. Otherwise, all we’ll continue to see are women playing men, battling fully-fleshed monsters from another dimension.


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