You’re Not a Sexist Moviegoer. Or… Are You?

We’re about halfway through 2014, and as I look at the Top 20 Box Office hits so far, something troubles me. Where are the substantial, meaningful leading roles for women?

I see four box office hits out of 20 — only four — that have a woman’s name on the top of the poster: Maleficent, Divergent, The Other Woman, and The Fault in Our Stars. 

I’m even more troubled if I look to these films in search of something resembling a real woman.

The Fault in Our Stars, starring Shailene Woodley, is the only one that qualifies. It’s an admirable exception. (Even more remarkable, it’s based on a highly praised novel!)

But the others? They give us a fairy tale wicked witch (Angelina Jolie); a Hunger Games-style action hero (Shailene Woodley again!); and, well, if the leading ladies in that fourth movie resemble the leading ladies in your life, God help you.

See if you can name the last five movies you saw in a theater. If you’re really good at this, name the last ten. How many of them featured a female as the central character? I can hear some of you shouting Frozen! The Hunger Games: Catching Fire! Okay, those are good. Frozen is a pleasant surprise because it focuses on the overlooked subject of sisterhood. The Hunger Games gives us an intelligent action hero who actually dislikes action.

But what else? Anything?

Are you as likely to see a movie that features a female character in the lead as you are to buy a ticket to see a movie starring a man?

Hey, I’m guilty too. I probably see two or three or ten Man-Focused Movies for every Woman-Focused Movie. Only three of my ten favorite films give actresses top-billing (and two of them feature the same actress): Three Colors: Blue, Code Unknown, and Babette’s Feast. How many of your favorites are led by actresses?

Still, I find that if I’m offered a film about a man and a film about a woman, I’m more likely to watch the latter. Why? Go ahead, make your jokes, but when it comes to the movies, female characters interest me more than male characters. Movies about men are likely to be about fighting or employing physical strength to achieve a goal… a subject so overdone that it usually bores me. It’s very rare to see a movie about a man who is as much Mind as he is Body. But when women are the focus of a movie, there is usually something interesting going on behind her eyes.

Why do you think actors are a bigger box office draw than actresses? Is it that we prefer action and violence, so we end up watching men? Or is it just that the industry thinks it’s what we want? What would have to change for things to take a turn toward equality?

I was delighted when, earlier today, my colleague Steven Greydanus pointed out an article at The Dissolve by Tasha Robinson that gets right to the heart of the problem. You’ve heard of the Bechdel Test, right? It’s the test that you give a movie to see if it treats women as human beings who exist to do more than obsess over men. Well, Robinson is thinking about something slightly different.

Ladies and gentlemen, please note the invention of a new and meaningful term: “The Trinity Syndrome.”

What is the Trinity Syndrome? It’s what you get when you introduce a Strong Female Character, like Trinity in The Matrix, who comes across as confident and mature and badass and independent, but once she plays her part representing liberated women, she really only ends up only supporting a story that ultimately exalts the male characters. She doesn’t even end up contributing much to the outcome of the story.

Consider Valka, the “important” new female character in How to Train Your Dragon 2. 

Robinson writes:

Valka is just the latest example of the Superfluous, Flimsy Character disguised as a Strong Female Character. And possibly she’s the most depressing, considering Dragon 2’s other fine qualities, and considering how impressive she is in the abstract. The film spends so much time on making her first awe-inducing, then sympathetic, and just a little heartbreakingly pathetic in her isolation and awkwardness at meeting another human being. But once the introductions are finally done, and the battle starts, she immediately becomes useless, both to the rest of the cast and to the rapidly moving narrative. She faces the villain (the villain she’s apparently been successfully resisting alone for years!) and she’s instantly, summarily defeated. [Stoick and Hiccup, the male heroes,] utterly overshadow her; they need to rescue her twice in maybe five minutes. Her biggest contribution to the narrative is in giving Hiccup a brief, rote ‘You are the Chosen One’ pep talk. Then she all but disappears from the film…

Robinson goes on to point out other examples. You may not agree with her on all of them. (There’s a good argument to be made that WyldStyle of The LEGO Movie doesn’t really fit the “Trinity Syndrome” profile.) But I still think it’s an important observation.

So, what to do? Where can we go to find intelligent, interesting, three-dimensional female characters who have stories of their own and who do not exist merely to contribute to a male character’s story?

Good news. I’ve seen four movies about interesting, complicated, compelling female characters already this year. But they’ve been slipping under the radar — very few people are seeing them (Actually, I’ve seen five, if you count Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin, but she’s not really playing a woman in that film, is she?)

In the next four posts, I’m going to introduce my “Top Four Women of 2014 — So Far.”

And I’ll bet most of you haven’t seen any of them.

Are you interested? If so, you’re in for some unforgettable hours at the movies.

Not interested? Hmmm. Maybe you and your moviegoing dollars are part of the problem.

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  • Daniel

    Maybe the majority of films have male leads is because that is what the female audience wants? Females are 51% of the population. They could change Hollywood’s dynamic overnight if they vote with their dollars. The fact that they don’t means they don’t see a problem. So don’t emasculate yourself over patriarchal guilt.

    • jeffreyoverstreet

      Daniel: “The fact that they don’t means they don’t see a problem.”

      Wow, that’s a remarkable conclusion. Are you sure? That only takes into account those women that bought tickets. How might things change if there were more movies that took women seriously? Maybe more women would go to the movies. Maybe women who were conditioned to accept what they’ve been served would discover that there are better things possible.

      How exactly does my desire to see women represented more fully and thoughtfully equal “emasculating” myself? I think more highly of men who invest in caring about how women are portrayed. Men who react defensively at the mere suggestion that women might not be well-represented in pop culture make me think that they must feel threatened by something.

      By the way, I don’t tend to look to the majority for wisdom. The majority have unhealthy eating habits (in part because they’re used to it, and in part because it’s what they’re served). Does that mean it’s foolish to raise questions about what might inspire such unhealthy habits, or how we might strive for better nutrition?

  • alwr

    Haven’t seen a movie in a year and a half–in the theater or at home. Life has gone on. Try considering it optional entertainment (overpriced, no less) instead of obsessing about it all and you will feel much better.

    • jeffreyoverstreet

      I happen to value art as a powerful source of inspiration, challenge, and revelation. It consistently enriches my life. But that comes from seeking art, not merely entertainment.

      And since when does raising a question for discussion equal “obsessing”?

  • Wesley Brock

    Or maybe the movies with female billings are marketed towards females and aren’t interesting to me? Guess that makes me sexist because I don’t like the premise of the movie. Truth be told I don’t really watch movies enough especially in theaters for my dollars to be having a effect anyways.

  • http://cincinnatusploughsare.blogspot.com/ J.A.A. Purves

    “It’s embarrassing how few movies have women in the center. You know Hollywood pictures used to do it very well. Barbara Stanwyck and movies of the 1940s … starring Katherine Hepburn – female centric melodramas which oftentimes ended rather conveniently but oftentimes were excellent.”
    - James Gray

  • M Cannon

    I’m curious as to why you are so dismissive of Maleficent, just because it’s about a “fairy tale wicked witch”? While I have no love for Disney’s general portrayal of women, I was delighted by this story, giving depth and meaning to a previously one-dimensional character. This one-dimensionality I have seen assigned to so many women who did not act according to either expectation or convention. So I was truly impressed by the efforts of this film to state clearly that stories just aren’t that simple–even if it does this in the context of a fairy tale.

    • jeffreyoverstreet

      I don’t mean to dismiss Maleficent at all. I haven’t seen it. And I have a huge appreciation for fairy tales. I just think we need more than just fairy tales. I just think that moviegoers would benefit immeasurably from art and entertainment that introduces us to more complex, nuanced, three-dimensional female characters.

      • SirThinkALot

        The first half of Maleficent was brilliant. A great examination of the title character’s background and motivation, one that doesnt deny her villainous actions, but casts them in a new light that gives her some sympathy. Now unlike Wicked(which is actually what I expected from this film)

        But then suddenly, it devolves into cheesy role reversal(spoiler: Maleficent is actually the hero), and generic fantasy action. ugh just utterly terrible.

        Also, I may be over-thinking this, but I have to wonder, would Disney have done the same if, instead of Maleficent, they had made Jaffar? Would they have suddenly try to re-cast a male villain as the hero? I honestly cant say, but its something to think about.

        • Tyrone Barnes

          “Maleficent” was easily the most disappointing movie I’ve seen so far this year.

  • Fordyce

    The last few strong female leads I’ve seen are a mixed bag: one is a vampire (Only Lovers Left Alive), two are aliens (Under the Skin, The Immigrant), and one is an animated plastic toy (The Lego Movie). Only one of them can be considered a “real woman” (Cotillard in The Immigrant), and even she is thinly conceived… by two male screenwriters.

  • Mark Moring

    Films I’ve seen this year with strong female characters (in ascending order of strength):

    How to Train Your Dragon 2 — for reasons noted above, Valka’s at the bottom of this particular list. I remember the critical moment in the climactic battle when I thought she was going to show some real power. Alas, nada. Too bad, too, because she started out as a relatively strong character. (But I will say this: I could listen to Cate Blanchett read the phone book, and I’d be happy.)

    Monuments Men — once again, Cate Blanchett. She plays a curator in Paris who bravely attempts to defend great art from falling into the hands of Nazis. Alas, Nazis won that battle, but not for her lack of trying or passion.

    Million Dollar Arm — Lake Bell plays Brenda, a confident, whip-smart pre-med student who is also a tenant to Jon Hamm’s character, a cocky, womanizing sports agent who needs a bit of humbling. Various things happen in that humbling process, and Brenda is perhaps the main ingredient. She’s kind but firm, unafraid to confront Hamm’s character about his selfishness, but also vulnerable enough to show him what it means to pursue meaningful relationships — rather than relationships that are so self-centered. (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/may-web-only/million-dollar-arm.html

    Particle Fever — Female scientists play a huge role in this fascinating documentary about discovering the Higgs-Boson — aka “the God Particle.” Can’t get much stronger than female scientists! (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/march-web-only/particle-fever.html)

    Bears — Yes, bears. The latest in a series of mostly excellent DisneyNature films features a female Alaskan Brown Bear and her two cubs as the main characters. You wanna talk about Mama Bear love? On full display here. Gorgeous film, terrific narrative about a mother’s sacrificial love and strength. We all could learn something from her. (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/april-web-only/bears.html)

    Like you, I bet most of the films on my list haven’t been seen by many, other than Dragon 2, of course. (Speaking of Dragons, there was a pretty strong female character in Godzilla — and unfortunately, it wasn’t Juliet Binoche’s character. It was The Monster that Ate Vegas. Alas.)

  • Doug Kimball

    How about Obvious Child with Jenny Slate in the lead? Not a blockbuster, but….

  • DHMCarver

    I do not think that it is coincidental that the three movies that are women-centred in your top ten — Three Colors: Blue; Code Unknown; and Babette’s Feast — are also films made outside of the U.S. The problem with women in film is particularly acute in US films — and not only women acting in films, but women writers, directors, etc. I watch a great number of French films, films from the 1930s through the present. I am regularly struck by 1) how long women have had interesting, complicated characters in French films; 2) how long French actresses have received top billing in French films (a rarity even today in the US); and 3) the professional longevity of French actresses — interesting, complicated roles have long been and are still being written for women of all ages in French films. And while there is a gender imbalance behind the camera, women directors have had a far more significant role in French cinema than in the US. The problem of women in film is universal, in many ways, but it is particularly acute in this country.

  • Evan

    Please tell me Tilda Swinton and Marion Cotillard are included in those strong female characters, unless Swinton doesn’t count, because she’s a vampire.

    Anyways, the last ten films I saw in theaters (in reverse order) are:

    The Fault in Our Stars
    Saturday Night Fever (my cinema does a 2 day re-release of classic films each week, and I had never seen it)
    Maleficent
    Edge of Tomorrow
    Raiders of the Lost Ark (yes, seeing that on the big screen was awesome)
    Chef
    Back to the Future
    The Immigrant
    X-Men: Days of Future Past
    Belle

    Of those, I count four with strong female characters. It’s possible to stretch and add Edge of Tomorrow, and if one liked Maleficent (I did not) I expect you’d call Jolie a strong female character in that.


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