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From ‘The Hunger Games’ to ‘Kick-Ass’: How Hollywood is falling in love with female leads

Kieran Turner-Dave
hunger games 300x225 From The Hunger Games to Kick Ass: How Hollywood is falling in love with female leads

(AP)

In the 1985 comic strip The Rule, Alison Bechdel introduced a simple test that troublingly highlighted the gender bias present in mainstream movies. In order for a film to pass what is now known as “The Bechdel Test”, it must meet three criteria.

First, there must be a minimum of two (named) female characters in the movie; second, there must be a scene in which two of these characters have a conversation; and third, that conversation must concern something other than just discussing a man.

While this standard may seem fairly easy to meet, an alarming percentage of films fail the test. According to bechdeltest.com, a user-edited database that tracks how well new releases fare against the test, only 54 per cent of movies on average pass all three criteria. Despite the conceivable limitations of The Bechdel Test, it does serve as a simple formula that illustrates the strong dominance of male characters within male-orientated movies.

During the ‘Golden Era’ of Hollywood, a film like All About Eve could focus entirely on female characters discussing the pressures on women in a considerably more conservative society, and still manage to achieve a record-breaking 14 Oscar nominations. Similarly, the only actor to win four Academy Awards, Katherine Hepburn, could sell a movie on her name alone.

However, since the beginning of the blockbuster age, the overwhelming opinion in Hollywood seems to be that leading female characters uttering non-male-orientated dialogue are likely to alienate the male demographic, whereas films almost exclusively starring straight white men can apparently be enjoyed by everyone. This kind of thinking is undoubtedly the reason why studios have rarely attempted to sell big-budget blockbusters on the strength of female leads, leaving the most interesting feminine roles instead to cult films directed by the likes of Pedro Almodóvar, Quentin Tarantino and Ridley Scott.

Of course, it is not just the dearth of female leading roles that is frustrating but also the way in which supporting female characters are often portrayed. In my opinion the recent crime dramas Lawless and Killing Them Softly both seemed to unapologetically portray female characters either as quiet, bewildered victims or one-dimensional sex objects. The reluctance of young female actors to accept such roles, therefore, inevitably leads to pigeonholing.

When Michelle Rodriguez (Avatar, The Fast And The Furious) was asked how she felt about being typecast as “the tough chick”, she responded: “ I only wanna be someone I respect or someone that I consider interesting or fun. I’m here to entertain people and make a statement about female empowerment and … saying no to the girlfriend, saying no to the girl that gets captured, no to this, no to that, eventually I just got left with the strong chick that’s always being killed”.

However, despite the undeniable androcentrism of the modern movie industry, a quick look over the box office statistics from the last year seems to indicate that 2012 may mark the point at which the tide has finally begun to turn. After years of either being ignored or force-fed stories about pretty pink princesses coyly awaiting Prince Charming, it would appear that studios have finally realised that teenage girls not only exist – but also may actually appreciate a movie in which a heroine is allowed to step out of the shadow of a man and think, struggle and fight on her own terms. Perhaps influenced by the more progressive female roles present within young adult literature, teenage girls seem to be tiring of the traditional Disney princesses and damsels in distress and beginning to invest in more interesting, intelligent and strong-willed heroines more in the mould of Hermione Granger.

Of the year’s top 20 highest-grossing films, there seem to be four strong female leads that best represent the current rise of screen heroines. Snow White And The Huntsman saw the familiar sweet, singing princess hiding in fear, rebooted as a young Joan Of Arc figure leading an army of men into battle. Pixar’s Brave also chose to focus on a more contemporary Disney princess whose strong relationship with her mother forces her to put her intelligence and willpower to the test. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 transformed Bella Cullen from the protected and forlorn mortal of the previous films into a strong, fast, blood-hungry vampire desperate to keep her daughter safe. Jennifer Lawrence’s role as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games helped make it the third-highest grossing film of the year – and followed a young archer who must utilise her cunning, resourcefulness and skill in order to be recognised and survive the inhumane central spectacle of an oppressive dystopian regime.

Strong female characters also managed to emerge amongst the supporting cast of more traditionally male-orientated franchises. The Amazing Spider-Man featured Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacey, who wasn’t afraid of getting her hands dirty and ignoring Spider-man’s orders to stay out of trouble – a far cry from the constantly-in-peril Mary Jane of Sam Raimi’s franchise.

Avengers introduced audiences to the Black Widow, the expert gymnast, martial artist and superspy. The Dark Knight Rises portrayed Selina Kyle as an assertive, witty and motivated cat burglar, who is ultimately responsible for saving Batman and Gotham. Even the stereotypically sexist Bond franchise saw its latest installment, Skyfall, focus heavily on Judy Dench’s M and her courage in the face of adversity.

Approaching Oscar season, it seems that there will also be strong competition amongst female actors and filmmakers outside of blockbuster moviemaking. Beasts Of The Southern Wild, Silver Linings Playbook, and Rust And Bone all seemed to be strongly tipped for awards thanks in no small part to their strong female leads. Furthermore, Katheryn Bigelow will be eager to compete for her second Best Director Oscar with her war drama Zero Dark Thirty, starring Jessica Chastain.

As for the next year, 2013 looks as though it will be a bright one for movie heroines. Hunger Games 2: Catching Fire will see Katniss Everdeen re-entering the Hunger Games and inspiring a rebellion against the totalitarian Capitol. Blue Sky Studio’s 3D animation Epic features an all-star voice cast led by Amanda Seyfried, and will tell the story of a teenage girl who must save both a fantasy world and her own. Michelle Rodriguez will be reprising her role as the guerrilla leader Shé, alongside Lady Gaga, in grindhouse homage Machete Kills. Whilst Chloë Grace Moretz will be appearing in the remake of revenge horror Carrie as the eponymous destructive telekinetic force, and also returning as the foul-mouthed blood-spilling superhero Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass 2: Balls To The Wall.

Even though the proportion of movies passing The Bechdel Test has risen by a minute two per cent in the last year, it seems that the increasing demand amongst young women for more interesting and involving female characters is beginning to shake Hollywood’s preconceptions about selling a blockbuster on the strength of a leading lady. Even though gender equality at the multiplex may seem a long way off, it’s impossible to ignore the potential profit available for any studio that is willing to break the mould and allow a strong young women the chance to compete at the box office.

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  • uanime5

    Fun fact in the original Bechdel test they said the movie Alien passed, even though the only scene to pass this test involved two women talking about the alien with a group of men.

    What feminists also don’t tell you is that very few movies pass the reverse Bechdel test; which is as follows. First, there must be a minimum of two (named) male characters in the movie; second, there must be a scene in which two of these characters have a conversation; and third, that conversation must concern something other than just discussing a woman. Very few movies aimed at women meet this test.

    Given how popular Twilight was with girls, whereas action films with female characters are generally more popular with boys (especially if the females have big breasts, wear very little, or jump around a lot), don’t expect girls to favour female action heroines any time soon. Female action heroes may be popular with men but women don’t consider very different from male action heroes.

  • PB

    Kick-Ass had a female lead? I must have been watching a different film.

    Fair to say that Joss Whedon has been a key figure in promoting female action leads, and long may it continue.

  • http://twitter.com/ktd_91 Kieran Turner-Dave

    Whilst I do not believe the Bechdel Test is a perfect measure of feminism in film, it does outline the strong gender bias in cinema. You say that “What feminists also don’t tell you is that very few movies pass the reverse Bechdel test”. Now I watch a lot of movies and struggle to think of many blockbusters that fail the reverse Bechdel Test. Here’s ten of the all time highest-grossing movies that fail the original Bechdel Test (without repeating films within a franchise):

    Avatar
    Avengers
    Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2
    The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
    Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
    Spider-man
    Inception
    Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
    2012
    Up

    Can you please name ten blockbusters that fail in reverse? Even if you define those failing The Reverse Bechdel as “aimed at women”, then does that mean films like ‘The Godfather’, ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ and ‘Citizen Kane’ are aimed at men?

    Also, how did you come by the opinion that “action films with female characters are generally more popular with boys”? The IMDB user rating statistics for ‘The Hunger Games’ show that whilst males gave it an average rating of 7.0, females gave it an average of 7.9. Similarly, females gave ‘Brave’ and ‘Snow White and the Huntsman” a 0.5 higher score on average, compared to their male counterparts.

  • andagain

    Although she did kill more bad guys than everyone else put together.

  • drg40

    Name three living American actresses. Sounds like a Trivial Pursuits question! NB erotic groans do not count as acting.

  • Andnotagain

    Kick Ass doesn’t have a female lead. It has two male leads and a supporting cast.

  • Kenneth Elliott

    @uanime5

    So what is your point? Feminists are wrong and/or warped in their viewpoints that there is inequality in society? Your comment implies that the situation in the entertainment world is “OK,” and that feminists overexaggerate their claims. You ignore the improvements made in 2012 concerning female leads, but point out anything and everything that contradicts Bechdel.

    Finally, the remark about “female characters… more popular with boys” is a bit nonsenscial; apart from scantily-clad sex symbols who use swords, there have not been any true female action heros whose characters are built on skill, not bodies. Katniss Everdeen from Hunger Games is one good example, (because she is somewhat independent and she actually wears clothes,) but sadly, there are hardly any other examples like this. Do you really think teenage girls and women will not appreciate seeing someone of their own sex being in strong roles? Are you really that dense to think that most women fawn and drool over tough men and will exclude their own sex because of this? It worked with Hunger Games. The problem is that Hollywood is not letting girls have their voice. Girls are PEOPLE, just like boys, and you seem to be forgetting this. There is nothing biologically inherant about girls craving romance films; romance is the only genre in which women are allowed to succeed in.

    You say nothing about the overabundance of weak-willed, dazed and confused, “I-am-nothing-without-a-man!” characters abundant in Hollywood. You seem happy with the status quo, and this is disturbing.


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