From ‘The Hunger Games’ to ‘Kick-Ass’: How Hollywood is falling in love with female leads
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.Tagged in: Alison Bechdel, avatar, Avengers, Bella Cullen, Brave, Emma Stone, Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, Katniss Everdeen, Killing Them Softly, kristen stewart, Lady Gaga, Lawless, Machete Kills, Michelle Rodriguez, Pedro Almodóvar, Quentin Tarantino, ridley scott, Snow White and the Huntsman, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight Rises, The Fast And The Furious, The Hunger Games, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, twilight, Zero Dark Thirty
Recent Posts on Arts
- ArcTanGent Interview: ‘It’s like being part of a secret club’
- Indian rickshaw fetches £100,000 for wild elephants at Prince Charles hosted auction
- Vennart Interview and album stream: ‘This album is more focused on vocals and guitar rather than pounding your head and complex riffs’
- India’s old moderns keep the art auctions buoyant
- Scottish Book Trust: Ask the Illustrator with Debi Gliori
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter