Editorial: Where are the Women?

Taking a look at the glaring void of female characters at the box office and why Sex and the City is about as good as it gets for the female movie fan.

This summer promises to be one of the more testosterone-fuelled ones in recent memory. Of course, the summer is always testosterone-fuelled, but 2008 in particular has made me once again aware of a great disorder that has plagued the cinema for most of its life but that few people seem to even realize: there are no women writers and directors.

And because there are no women writers and directors, there are few movies with compelling female characters, let alone starring female characters. We€™ve just come off the trio of IRON MAN, SPEED RACER and INDIANA JONES IV, in a week or two we€™ll see THE INCREDIBLE HULK, and later on in the summer HANCOCK, GET SMART and THE DARK KNIGHT. As much as I enjoy these types of movies, it€™s tiring to see film after film being led by men and with women off to the side as supporting characters€”typically as €œthe love interest,€ or else some other kind of sex symbol (see: TRANSFORMERS, SPIDER MAN, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, etc; even in the Star Wars prequels Natalie Portman, independent as she was, still functioned primarily as Darth Vader€™s love interest).

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The only film really being led by women right now is SEX AND THE CITY, a film which does more harm to women€™s portrayal in the cinema and only makes men less receptive to the idea of women in the movies€”the dreaded €œchick flick.€ We€™ve already seen WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS and later this summer we€™ll see what no doubt will be equally stupid films in stuff such as COLLEGE. About the only half-impressive representative this year is Karen Allen in INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, the only time I can ever recall the female lead in an action film was a woman close to the age of 60 and not a blonde in her 20€™s€”but even she plays second-fiddle to Harrison Ford€™s main character, and she still is primarily a plot device as €œthe old love interest that returns.€ Women in big Hollywood pictures simply are non-entities; rarely are they the focus of the film except in idiotic romantic comedies, even rarer are they written with any sort of believable depth and even rarer still are they in roles where they aren€™t in some part functioning as eye-candy. But, we can€™t totally fault the filmmakers here€”after all, why should every movie have to equally balance male and female characters? Why can€™t a film have a man in the lead and the women supporting? Why can€™t they be free to use women as romantic interests or plot devices? Indeed, this is not the main problem. It doesn€™t help, of course, and it continues to encourage movies to repeat the same faults, but there€™s no reason why men can€™t make movie about men, told from a man€™s perspective. But that, in itself, is a key to understanding why there aren€™t other movies counter-balancing this: there are no women making them. Hollywood continues to view women as supporting characters and to tell stories from the male perspective because they are all made by men. Conceived, written, produced, greenlighted, and directed by men. While the best writers can make women into compelling characters and occasionally even set a film from the female perspective€”Paul Haggis€™ brilliant MILLION DOLLAR BABY immediately comes to mind€”writers of this caliber of craft are incredibly rare.

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Men write mostly about men because they are men, and thus see the world from a male perspective. If their idea is a story about an archeologist who hunts treasure, he will automatically set the character as a man; if the story is about a person trapped on a desert island, nine times out of ten he will automatically write €œthe person€ as a man. This is not because us guys are sexist pigs or are incapable of seeing a story from a female perspective, it€™s simply a natural instinct to relate to male characters and male stories rather than females. And there€™s nothing wrong with that. The reason why all the movies in theaters are about guys isn€™t because we€™re all chauvinistic, it€™s because there aren€™t women out there making films to counter-balance things. Name ten women directors, or ten women screenwriters. Okay, Sofia Coppola, Penny Marshal, Catherine Hardwicke, maybe Nancy Meyers if you want to get a little less prestigious€and then€uh, Sofia Coppola? Not only are there only a handful of them, many of their films aren€™t even widely seen. There are plenty of women in the film industry, from producers to editors to camera assistants€”as a person who works in the motion picture industry I€™ve found that most crews have a pretty equal split of men and women, even if some departments are more unequally balanced than others (there€™s only a couple female grips working in the union here in Toronto, for example, and not a huge amount of non-gay men in hair and makeup, but this seems pretty much expected). But it€™s an absolutely shocking statistic that in directing and screenwriting, where things ought to be balanced€”96% are men. It€™s not just a little out of whack€”it€™s a total male domination, and it goes a long way to explaining the corresponding 96 percent of the films at the box-office. But where are the women storytellers? Why are there no women writing and directing? The answer to this is not an easy one, and cannot be adequately explored here. It is definitely not that there is a lack of eager female storytellers€”far from it. But when the industry is controlled mainly by men, it€™s a hard nut to crack, no pun intended. Hollywood is one of the biggest €œold boys€ clubs in America these days, but no one seems to care, or worse, even notice. Its no wonder that most of the few films with compelling female protagonists€”JUNO, WHALE RIDER, BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM, for example€”are all written by women (in these cases, its no surprise that they are also independent films, with the odds stacked against them€”these are not Hollywood films, and its rather a miracle that these got made in the first place).

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It€™s also difficult for women to get gigs because the people at studios greenlighting films and hiring directors often gravitate towards male-oriented films, with male writers and directors. Sure, there are exceptions€”Mimi Leder, who directed DEEP IMPACT and THE PEACEMAKER, or writer-director Nora Ephron, responsible for SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, WHEN HARRY MET SALLY and BEWITCHED. But these are very rare exceptions. Even worse, there are many female executives at studios but because it is thought that female-oriented films do poorly at the box-office, it€™s all superheros and James Bonds. It€™s a sort of self-perpetuating cycle: there aren€™t many female-oriented films because it€™s feared they will be unsuccessful, and when they release IRON MAN and it€™s a success, it proves that female-oriented films must not be wanted, no doubt encouraged by the poor performance of films like Jodie Foster€™s THE BRAVE ONE (a release botched by marketing more than anything). This might bring me to a closing point here. Some may argue that women don€™t like movies as much as men, or don€™t like the actiony summer flicks€”but few ever wonder why this is. It€™s almost certainly true that more film enthusiasts are men (on this site, for example, there is one woman on a roster of roughly a dozen writers). Off-hand, I would say a big part of it has to do with the stunning lack of compelling or leading female characters on the screen. €œWomen€ films are considered €œchick flicks€ like MY BEST FRIENDS WEDDING or SEX AND THE CITY €”no wonder women are less enthused than guys, I€™d certainly be. It€™s easy to automatically roll your eyes and say €œwhat, you can only watch a film if it€™s about women?€ But for the guys reading this, and probably most of you are, think about that for a minute€”what if SPEED RACER was about a woman and her sister, or if INDIANA JONES IV was about a woman archeologist re-connecting with her daughter and her ex-boyfriend, or if THE INCREDIBLE HULK was about a woman monster on the run from the law, or if BATMAN BEGINS was about a woman finding her calling and avenging the injustice she saw in the world, or if GET SMART was about a bumbling female secret agent€”and what if almost every single movie was like that. Not that it would stop you from seeing or enjoying any of those, but the point I am trying to highlight here is how ignored the €œ51 percent minority€ actually is in popular cinema. Think of your ten favorite films and no doubt the vast majority are about men, with women in supporting roles, probably often as love interests or girlfriends or wives of the male protagonists.

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It€™s strange that the summer€”the most lucrative time in theatrical exhibition€”is entirely pre-occupied with €œguy€ films. Can you imagine if €œthe summer blockbuster€ season saw two dozen SEX AND THE CITY clones debuting week after week to the tune of $100 million a weekend? But somehow the pendulum swung the other way, and not just because €œchick flicks€ suck€”most guy films suck too. Movies like STEALTH and RAMBO are no less unintelligent than SEX AND THE CITY, even if I enjoy them on some sort of guilty pleasure level. And its not that its just guys going to these films€”even though its probably more guys than gals, women still make up a pretty sizeable number at the box office, so its not that they are necessarily turned off. But what it basically boils down to is women can only watch what they have; they€™ll go see IRON MAN because, firstly, it is a pretty good movie, but more importantly there€™s nothing else in the theater more appealing, unless you have a brain the size of a cue ball and you enjoy watching tripe like SEX AND THE CITY. That SEX AND THE CITY is so popular with women illustrates this precise point: very, very sadly, this is as good as it gets. But, I probably should stop framing this in terms of €œwhat women want€ or €œwhat guys want,€ because that€™s not what it€™s about, good movies are good movies, and in the end they are irrespective of gender, both in terms of characters and audience; you don€™t have to be a woman to enjoy JUNO or a man to enjoy IRON MAN. I€™m just frankly tired of seeing films all about guys and having every female character be some supporting player or else poorly portrayed; we need more MILLION DOLLAR BABY€™s and JUNO€™s at the cinema. And we need more women writers and directors making them.

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