Hello there Screened Pups and welcome to another edition of It Can Be Done! A continuous feature here on the site where we tackle the issues in film and television that executives and producers love to tell us can't be done, and then prove them wrong, because movies are the things that dreams are made of, so why should there be restrictions placed on dreams? Last time we took on a more light hearted subject, talking about how it is possible to make a good Video Game movie. But this time we're getting more serious (well as serious as I can be) and talking about a discrimination that has gone on too long. It still shocks me that to this day there are many in the entertainment industry that say that people don't want to see a movie with a strong female protagonist. Oh sure, they have no problem putting a female lead in a romantic comedy, or in a low budget drama, hell even in a medium budget drama, and who can forget all the fine rolls women snag up running from serial killers in horror movies. But when it comes to big summer blockbusters or Oscar winning films, most of those movies are still dominated by male leads. Heck I can attest to that from experience, for the past two years I've been doing my own little award show type things called "The Snubbies" where I have my own categories and awards based on the films I was able to see that year, and I divide the performances into Lead Male and Lead Female as well as Supporting Male and Supporting Female in both Dramas and Comedies, and the Male rolls I always have no problem filling out, but I have to search high and low to find enough women to fill out all four of those categories, and in the end I always have to make some exceptions and choose some performances I know aren't that great, but there just aren't that many out there.
And why is this? Why are women not given more rolls in bigger films? Is it because executives think that women don't come out to the theater as much as men? No, that can't be it, ladies love going to the movies as much as guys. Could it be that they don't think women are as talented as men? I hope not, if that's the case then I may have to throw a garbage can through a Blockbuster in protest (note - DO NOT throw a garbage can through a Blockbuster, even if you can somehow manage to find one). Or could it be that maybe, just maybe, there's still some prejudice going around Hollywood after all these years, that studio heads still just don't believe in the power and potential of female characters and actresses? And I know that normally whenever this is argued, someone always shouts out "Why are you guys picking on the studios, nobody wants to hear about that!" Well you should Mr. Shout Face, and I'll tell you why. Yes, it's obvious why studio executives being prejudiced against an entire gender is wrong, but in case you don't care and don't see how this applies to you (shame on you by the way) then allow me to bring this home for you. When a producer doesn't want to make a film staring a female character because they think "Oh nobody wants to see that, it won't make as much money," that's not just them being prejudiced, that's them saying that you're prejudiced as well. When a studio executive believes that you won't pay money to see a movie just because a woman is in the lead, they're basically saying "Hey listen, I know you man. And I know that you don't want to watch a movie with a woman in the lead. I know that you don't like too many actresses in your movies. I get you man, I understand you." Well allow me to be the first to say, "No, no you do not know me, and stop presuming that you do, you're not doing me any favors."
I'm tired of people who don't understand the general public telling them what they want. We are ready for more diverse heroes, we're ready for ladies to have equal rolls, and to all the people out there who say "Well can you prove that?" allow me to say, yes I can. Because when it comes to strong female protagonist, not only can it be done, it already has been.
If it's Good, Then They Will Come
There is a long history of strong female protagonist being in films that many of us either haven't thought about or might have just forgotten. This weekend Prometheus comes out in theaters, which is the prequel to one of my all time favorite horror films, Alien. And while in that film the monster is the breakout star and what so many of us walk away remembering, it also introduced us to a great example of a strong woman in a leading roll, Ripley. Ellen Ripley isn't refined or dainty, she's a miner, a blue collared worker out there in space doing heavy lifting alongside a bunch of guys, and at no point do any of the men on this ship treat her differently because of her gender. This is a perfect example of how to write a strong female character, by building the character up first without making their gender their identity. Now this is not to say that you can't play up some aspects of their personality that are more commonly associated with their gender, for example Ripley is very much a motherly figure as well as a total bad ass. Just look at how she works so hard to save Newt in the sequel, or how in the original she goes back for the cat. This shows that it is possible to create a character that mixes both the classic movie tough guy mind with a nurturing persona that is most commonly associated with women.
But I'm not just bringing up Ripley in order to celebrate the greatness that is Alien. No I'm doing it to bring up a point, and that is that a movie with a strong female lead can make money... crazy amounts of money. Alien cost eleven million dollars to make and grossed over one hundred million dollars. And that was in 1979, in today's dollars that would be... well a lot, I don't know how much because the little calculator feature on Screened is currently broken (could someone get on that... when you get a chance... that would be great), but I know its a lot. And this isn't the only example of films with strong female leads raking in cash. If you're looking for action films well Kill Bill made over one hundred and fifty million dollars past its budget, if you're looking for Oscar worthy movies then look no further than Million Dollar Baby which made back seven times its budget, and if you want something for kids and families to enjoy then just take a look at Coraline which grossed twice its budget.
The myth that a film with a woman in the lead won't make as much money as a film with a male protagonist has been disproven time and time again, so many times that it shocks me that anyone would still believe it. But I know what you're saying, "Sure, but those were all good movies. You can't really say that female characters can bring in as large of an audience as male characters until the crappy female movies can match the crappy male movies." Good point, and to you I'd like to say that the last Resident Evil movie brought in 296 million dollars. I'm just going to sit that stat down on the table and slowly walk away, and let you make up your mind on what it all means.
Treat Your Protagonist With Dignity and it Pays
I know this is a weird point to make after bringing up how much money the Resident Evil movies make, but it needs to be addressed. Part of the big discrimination against women in Hollywood isn't even that so many executives think that people won't pay to see a woman in a leading roll, its that they think that they'll only pay to see a woman if she gets undressed or acts slutty. You don't have to search hard to find horror stories from actresses about having to take rolls when they were younger where they had to debase themselves just to get a part because that was the only way someone would give them a shot. Heck, even in the example I gave of Ripley earlier, while I mentioned that she is such a tomboy and just one of the guys, they still make sure to fit in a shot of her in her underwear at a point in the film. And hey, I understand why the executives think this, you don't have to watch TV for more than one commercial break to see that sex sells... Or does it!? (Bum Bum Buuuuuum)
Let's take a look at a few more statistics shall we? Yes, Resident Evil: Afterlife and all the other Resident Evil films make about a hundred times more money than they should, and I won't lie, I'm sure that part of that is thanks to the fact that Milla Jovovich runs up the sides of buildings in nothing but a towel (I can't remember if that actually happened in one of them, but would you honestly be surprised if it did?). However it is also a big budget zombie movie based on a very popular video game franchise, this movie has a lot going for it other than just skintight clothes on a woman who for some reason constantly seems to be wet. Let's take a look though at two films that aren't based on pre-existing franchises for a more accurate representation of how dignified women in films stack up against stripped down ladies. Last year Hanna came out in theaters, a movie about a young girl who was trained to be a deadly weapon and returns to civilization after being in hiding and slowly learns about the rest of the world and the dangers after her. Sucker Punch was also released last year and it was a movie about a group of girls dressed up like fourteen year old anime characters who had daydreams whenever they were raped... which was often. Now Sucker Punch did end up making more money than Hanna, this is true. However it made more simply because of the foreign box office, and as we have seen with recent less than stellar big budget science fiction films, the foreign box office loves less than stellar big budget science fiction films. Domestically on the other hand, not only did Hanna make more money than Sucker Punch, it even opened on five hundred fewer screens than Sucker Punch, and it opened up against two other big nationwide releases with adult audiences, whereas Sucker Punch only opened against Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which had a totally different target audience than itself (I used to track this stuff for a living, I'm like the Rain Man of box office stats). Even under these circumstances, domestically Hanna made back its entire budget, whereas Sucker Punch became one of the biggest flops at the box office that year. What's the lesson here? Maybe, just maybe, the collective audience is wising up to some of Hollywood's oldest tricks and beginning to mature. Maybe we now want stories and characters more than just a bunch of ass hugger pants in 3D.
2012 - The Year it Finally Starts to Change
I was planning on ending this segment with my thoughts on whether or not Hollywood would ever start putting more strong female characters in their movies, on whether or not executives would finally start giving women an equal representation on the big screen. But then I looked at the movies that are coming out this year and I realized something... they already are. Starting with Haywire in January, this year is going to go on to give us Brave, a new animated feature for the whole family featuring a young girl who shows everyone she is worthy of being a warrior, Snow White and the Huntsman which retells the story of a character who had always been seen as a victim and reimagins her as a warrior (and for added bonus they chose the actress who has played a character known for being the worst female roll model in film history), and television has given us The Legend of Korra, a show that features one of the best female protagonist I've seen in years (heck you know what, scratch that female part, Korra is just a flat out great protagonist and gender doesn't matter).
But most remarkably, 2012 has given us The Hunger Games. And I know that a lot of audiences have been split on this movie, but for the most part it got good reviews. But the reviews aren't what's important about the Hunger Games, what's important is that it had the third highest opening weekend of all time, and one of the longest streaks at the number one spot in history. Just think about that for a second, a film with a female protagonist who fights for others, stands up against oppression, isn't sexualized, isn't a victim (no more so than everyone else in her society), and isn't head over hills in love with a guy and doing everything just for him. That's the character you have in Hunger Games, and that movie had the third highest opening weekend of all time. Hollywood could learn a thing or two from that. So this year when I fill out my list of nominees for The Snubbies, I don't want to have to search high and low for actresses to fill out all of my categories. Before the next Avengers Movie comes out I want to see Disney put out a Ms. Marvel film. And I want all future Resident Evil movies to tank until Paul WS Anderson agrees to make Alice a real character... okay that last one might be asking for the impossible.