In the Movies, Nice Girls Finish Last

I just watched Ready Player One for the first time. Here’s a (very) loose synopsis of the plot. A young male player named Parzival competes in games for a fantastic prize. He meets Art3mis, a young female player known for being one of the best in the game, who plays for a more noble cause than Parzival. Art3mis teaches Parzival to play for a higher purpose and helps him succeed. In the end, Parzival is declared the winner and he chooses Art3mis to stand by his side.

This is an odd comparison, but the story reminded me of Harry Potter. Harry knows nothing of the wizarding world when he goes off to Hogwarts, and he meets Hermione, who is probably the smartest girl in school and is pretty much better than Harry at everything. She educates him about magic and the wizarding world and even sets him straight a few times when he begins to stray morally. In the end, Harry wins the battle against the villain Voldemort with Hermione and his friend Ron at his side.

That also reminded me of The Lego Movie. In that, Emmet, a young man who’s pretty incompetent at everything, unwittingly finds an artifact of great power. He meets Wyldstyle, a badass young woman who has been searching for the artifact for some time and is incredibly competent at just about everything she does. Wyldstyle guides Emmet along his journey. You can guess where this is going. Emmet is the hero and Wyldstyle is the sidekick.

In Western media—movies, books, television, and even video games—it’s not uncommon to have a strong female character. Thankfully, we’re way past the need of every story to have a damsel in distress, but now we’re on to the next problem. These strong female characters are often among the smartest, bravest, and most capable of all their comrades. But even when there’s a strong female character, even if that female character is significantly more talented than the male lead, she doesn’t get to be the hero. In fact, she’s usually the one who has to coach the incompetent male lead to greatness so he can win the prize. In the movies, and in most Western media, if you’re a girl, it’s alright to be the best, but it’s not alright to win.

This isn’t always true, of course. There are stories where women get to be the hero, such as the recent Rogue One and Zootopia, and even 1951’s The African Queen. The idea of a female hero is not unheard of, nor is it a recent invention, although it’s certainly not a popular notion even today. But even films that feature a female hero can fall prey to other problems.

There was a study of dialogue in 2,000 screenplays published in April, 2016 that was pretty eye-opening when I found it. It actually calculates, for each script in the study, what percentage of the dialogue comes from males and what percentage comes from females. Male dialog dominated the list. 58 movies on the list were made up of 100% male dialog. By comparison, there were 58 movies made up of 74% or more female dialog. Even movies primarily about women, like Disney princess movies, were usually predominantly male dialog—Frozen, a movie about two sisters, was 57% male. According to another article with similar data, Rogue One, with the very heroic Jyn Erso in the lead, contained only 9% female dialogue.

So why is this? Why would women be given such little importance in the films we watch? There are a few reasons.

Behind the scenes

On this website that reviews classic, essential, or just plain good movies from all eras, there are 185 movies on my list of great movies. Want to guess how many of those were directed by women? I’m somewhat ashamed to admit this. Here’s a list:

  1. City of God (2002)
  2. Lady Bird (2017)
  3. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
  4. Lost in Translation (2003)

That’s right, 4 out of 185—just over 2%. And two of these films had a co-director who was male. Even films that are deeply feminist, such as Colossal, were given to males to direct. Now, the directors aren’t making most of the decisions about which roles to give to women and which to give to men—that power is in the hands of the writers. I unfortunately am not tracking the writers of the films with my list, so I don’t have complete data on this, but I did spot-check a few titles and I saw a similar problem with the writers: they’re predominantly male.

If most of the writers and directors of big-budget films are males, of course there’s going to be a skew in female representation. Most writers of any medium write heavily out of their own experiences. And, yes, there are some men that are writing and directing films that are empowering for women, such as Nacho Vigalondo who wrote and directed the recent Colossal, which had a great message for women suffering from abuse. But as long as we have this skew in writers and directors, we’ll have this skew in film.

So, the bigger question: why aren’t we seeing more women write and direct movies? Moviemaking is much like any other job in that the producers look at past work and experience before hiring someone. Males have dominated the industry pretty much since its inception, so of course they have more experience, which means they keep getting hired for bigger and bigger films. It seems like a cop-out to say, “That’s just the way things have always been,” but that’s really a contributing factor here. Hiring a less-experienced woman is more of a professional risk for moviemakers, and when you’re dealing with budgets in the millions of dollars (often more), it’s a risk many are not willing to take. Change is needed, but it won’t be easy.

But there are some other reasons that are less practical. Male directors make a lot of lousy movies, but we never hear Hollywood say, “Well, that’s the last time we’re hiring a man for that!” It’s not that men make better movies than women—behind the camera, men just get more chances than women do. Because men are the default option, they’re not blamed for mediocrity, but women are—women directors are seen as risks, so they’re expected to achieve excellence or take the blame for the failure.

My favorite film, Lost in Translation, was written and directed by a woman. It’s very different than mainstream films, and it’s a reminder that we’ll get some amazing new perspectives as we start giving women more power and more of a voice to tell their stories. But, whether it’s true or not, there are some perceived risks involved in solving this problem. Moviegoers need to reward these risks for moviemakers to keep taking them—and that right there is the other half of this problem.

Causing a ruckus

Remember when they announced an all-female Ghostbusters and the internet shit its pants? Yes, I know, it wasn’t the best remake, but the backlash started well before the film was released, with a ridiculous amount of downvotes on the official YouTube trailer and a deluge of premature one-star reviews on IMDB. Some IMDB demographics on raters reveal that, even after the film’s release, men rated it significantly lower than women. What’s with the hate?

The idea of empowering women is actually a popular one nowadays, but the practice of doing so is less developed. Moviemaking is a business like any other, and rarely do studios afford filmmakers the purity of making films solely to put a good message out there. Studios make movies to make money, and that means focusing on popular ideas. Empowering women is, thankfully, a popular idea today. Hurray! Unfortunately, largely due to the gender imbalance in the industry, big film studios are woefully unaware of what it actually means to make a film that empowers women.

Going back to Ghostbusters, based on the post-release reviews (I actually missed this one), it was pretty clear that the focus wasn’t on telling an amazing story or offering something significantly different and improved over the original. There were some clever jokes in there achieved by switching the genders (most notably, Chris Hemsworth’s character Kevin, who is given the same shallow eye-candy role as the female receptionist in the original, playing the double standard for laughs), but most people agreed that the film paled in comparison to its source material. Regardless of the intent, this attempt at female empowerment comes off as a gimmick employed to cash in on society’s desire to empower women rather than a serious effort to actually do so.

And, sadly, that’s not the only example. The recent gender-swapped Overboard only got a 25% on Rotten Tomatoes. Ocean’s 8 was a valiant effort but came in with a 68%. Going back further, a gender-swapped reboot of The Karate Kid in 1994, starring Hilary Swank, got a measly 7%. (If you’re wondering, these were all directed by men.) What’s going on?

There’s a concept called the pink tax that describes an unfortunate reality for women. Razors, clothing, personal care products, and many other things are marketed separately to each gender, and the feminine versions are almost inevitably either higher in price or lower in quality—or both. Women pay a premium for products made for them.

The wave of lousy gender-swapped reboots and poorly-scripted female empowerment films is Hollywood’s version of the pink tax—the premium women pay to see movies about them is usually lower quality and a lower budget. In most cases, filmmakers don’t care about empowering women—they care about making money, and they see female empowerment as a marketing tactic that will sell more tickets. And this is, unfortunately, hurting the viewing public’s image of female empowerment movies.

But the problem is bigger than that. Yes, there are some viewers who have caught on to the trend of false female empowerment and roll their eyes when a female-led film is announced; but there are just as many men who truly believe women don’t deserve a chance in the spotlight. The excellent Mad Max: Fury Road had an amazingly competent female lead in Imperator Furiosa and men attacked her specifically, saying that women had no place in an action movie. When the BBC cast the very capable Jodie Whittaker as the next Doctor Who, men threatened a boycott. And, I hate to keep harping on this, but remember that the brutal backlash against the new Ghostbusters began well before anyone knew how good it would be. For these angry critics, all those ill-conceived grabs at the female moviewatcher market we mentioned above seem to confirm their deeply ingrained beliefs that male characters are better.

Regardless of why it’s happening, it’s clear that many viewers simply don’t want strong female leads. Of course, there are many who do, but studios who make a decision to earnestly empower women in their movies run the risk of alienating angry fanboy audiences. For some studios, this is too much of a liability to worry about.

The impact

As I mentioned above, this has had an impact on female characters not getting the same opportunities as male characters. This, of course, impacts actresses with both their job prospects and paychecks. But it also impacts what movies and media are being made, and that difference can be huge.

Wonder Woman was a huge hit and the studio got behind it in a real way, giving it a budget of around $149 million and letting a great female director take the helm. This was a huge success and the resulting movie ended up being the third highest grossing in the studio’s history. But the studio wasn’t quite as sure about this film as some of its other efforts. The godawful Batman v Superman was given a budget $100 million higher than Wonder Woman, and the director’s salary was quite a bit higher as well.

Oh, but that was Zack Snyder’s second film with the studio. For a fair comparison, let’s look at his first: Man of Steel. Well, that one also had a budget quite a bit higher than Wonder Woman—$75 million higher.

Did those extra dollars pay off? According to Rotten Tomatoes, Man of Steel has a score of 55%; Batman v Superman has 27%. Wonder Woman has a 93%. And director Patty Jenkins still had to fight to get the salary she wanted for the sequel—an amount equal to what Zack Snyder was paid for Batman v Superman.

Now, I’m not bashing Warner Brothers here. They made sure Wonder Woman had the resources it needed, and they had the guts to really make this a female-led film rather than just another superhero film that featured females—something Marvel hasn’t done yet (but hopefully will with Captain Marvel). And it was no doubt because of Wonder Woman’s success that Marvel went back on their original statement that Black Widow would not have her own solo film—there’s now been one announced, and they’ve decided on a female director. But female-led films are still viewed as risky by most major studios, and that’s undoubtedly holding other stories back.

Television has similar problems. The Legend of Korra, an amazing follow-up series to Nickelodeon’s Avatar: the Last Airbender, features a female protagonist, but it almost didn’t—the studio tried to get the show makers to switch Korra’s gender, and production was delayed as the writers refused to back down. The writers fought for and won their case, and it paid off, but the fact that they had to fight for what was their best writing is a symptom of this problem.

Video games suffer as well. Life is Strange, featuring some of the best writing I’ve seen in any game, has a female protagonist and a female sidekick. When small game developer Don’t Nod started shopping around for a larger studio to finance the game’s development, they were met with closed door after closed door. They finally found one major studio, Square Enix, that was willing to finance the game (and it was a game way outside of their wheelhouse). Having played Life is Strange and its prequel multiple times, there’s no way that story could have been told with a male protagonist. This is a story we wouldn’t have gotten had the studios had their way, and it’s, in my opinion, one of the best stories in gaming history.

Not every story needs a female protagonist; but there are many stories that are made stronger by a female protagonist, and some that can only be told with a female protagonist. As long as we have a gender imbalance in film and the film industry, many of those stories will be crippled or held back altogether.

What can we do?

Well, the obvious answer is to support movies that truly empower women, whether that’s strong female characters or talented female directors. Overcoming this bias is going to mean making female-led films less risky for studios, and the only metric that really matters is sales. There are other things you can do to increase sales, like leave thoughtful reviews online and invite friends to see the movie with you, but the biggest thing we can do to combat this bias is to simply go to the movies. As a movie-lover myself, that’s a solution I can get behind.

The other part of the solution is to call out bullshit sexism when you see it. If someone’s causing a ruckus because they think female characters just don’t belong in the spotlight, call them out. If a studio is using female empowerment as a gimmick to sell movie tickets but completely failing to actually empower women or make a good movie, call them out on social media or in an article. We should be making women’s empowerment less risky for filmmakers, but we should also be making blatant sexism more risky. That’s also a solution I can get behind, and I hope you all will too.

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