A couple days ago NPR’s pop culture blog, Monkey See, published a sort of half-developed think piece/rant about the options available this weekend for someone who wants to see a movie prominently featuring female character(s). Spoiler alert! There aren’t many.
I get that the intent of the article was to point out the issue and raise a question that may not be answerable right now or possibly at all. But even so, it was dissatisfying for me. Mainly because I feel like Linda Holmes does have a valid concern. She’s on to something important, but by tossing it out there rather superficially, it provides an opportunity for dismissive types to jump in and slam the door shut on the conversation. As evidenced by some of the comments NPR readers left.
I think an easy criticism to which the piece leaves itself open is the lack of acknowledgement that it’s summer. The movie-going year is segmented into distinct seasons. Mid-June finds us solidly entrenched in the blockbuster season, and that’s when the boys come out to play. When it’s time to trot out the autumnal Oscar bait, I doubt the situation will be as grim as the one Holmes paints for this weekend. *
But really it isn’t just a summer-only problem. As the New York Times reported earlier this month:
A recently published study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism showed that the percentage of female characters with a speaking part in the nation’s top movies each year reached its lowest point in the past five years in 2012, at 28 percent.
There are probably a lot of different forces at play in creating this phenomenon, but that article and several others bemoaning the end of the “movie star” concept as we know it might hold the key for unlocking at least one facet of the explanation. In a world where (for various complicated market reasons) bankable stars no longer fill theaters by their names alone, studios rely more heavily on franchise concepts to sell tickets. As the Atlantic Wire article linked above notes:
Small movies soldier on and enormous ones flourish, but everything in the middle begins to evaporate.
And my theory is that the middle is where chick flicks have historically thrived.
However, it must be said, that the single most unavoidably ubiquitous ad campaign for any movie right now is for The Heat, a gal-pal cop comedy with Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. Somebody somewhere is obviously expecting to make scads of money on this movie with a pair of female leads. Which should fill me hope, right? Except The Heat looks painfully awful.
Which brings up another topic that requires discussing, even if it makes me feel dirty to bring it up. And that’s the matter of quality. Why are women’s movies getting stupider? Why are they getting progressively more unpleasant all the freaking time? In her article, Holmes trumpets the success of Bridesmaids. I haven’t seen it (and I actually do try really hard not to have opinions about movies I haven’t seen, but it’s difficult because my natural inclination is to have an opinion about everything). So let’s just charitably say that nothing I’ve seen or heard about it has given me any reason to think it would be up my alley at all. I passed on it mainly because the appeal of Kristen Wiig has always been largely lost on me, but should I feel guilty about that? If the movies Hollywood condescends to make about women fail, then when will they ever spend money to make the movies I want to see? Sigh. I’m still not plunking hard-earned dollars down for The Heat, but it’s food for thought.
There’s a lot going on when we discuss where all the ladies have gone. Market forces, cultural drivers, and so on. I guess I don’t want to slam the NPR blog, so much as I just want to take a time out to acknowledge the soupy complexity of the issue and get the ball rolling towards a more comprehensive discussion. So what do you all think?
* I admit this also leads to an equally easy counterargument. Why are the summer tent poles always male-centric? Beyond the occasional Angelina Jolie title, where are the female actioners? Personally I’m not exactly chomping at the bit to see a Wonder Woman movie (for whatever reason, I’ve never latched onto her as a character), but I find the length of time the project has languished in development hell equal parts fascinating and appalling.