An Open Response

The following is a response to a friend of mine who, after reading my previous post “It Might Have Been,” noted that he didn’t see the imbalance between male-centered and female-centered movies I’d written about. There are so many movies about girls and women now, he said, and to support his contention he cited Twilight, Divergent, and The Hunger Games as popular movie series that center on strong heroines.

As my friend, he deserves the best response I can give him, but I can’t help thinking he’s not the only one who may not notice the imbalance, particularly in this year of Wonder Woman. So herewith I present my answer.

Dear (Name Withheld),

I would certainly agree that representation of female characters in Hollywood movies has improved vastly since the 1980s, when a kick-butt SFF heroine like Ellen Ripley was pretty much out there on her own. But we still haven’t arrived at the balance I so long to see.

First, you cite Divergent, Twilight, and The Hunger Games as movie series with strong central female characters. With The Hunger Games, point taken. The first two films were critical and commercial successes, and while critics were more lukewarm on the last two, audiences still flocked to them. I loved the first two and even enjoyed the last two, and actually found the Katniss Everdeen played by Jennifer Lawrence a stronger and more proactive character than the Katniss of the books (something I would normally never say).

Yet I have to dispute the other two examples. The Divergent series failed miserably with critics, and bad movies, unless they perform spectacularly at the box office, tend to lead to fewer movies with female leads, not more. (Catwoman, anyone?) In fact, the underwhelming response to Divergent and others of its kind has led me to suspect that adaptations of popular female-protagonist YA SFF book series may be on the way out.

Twilight is its own animal. The book series’ fanbase would storm the theaters to see these films no matter what critics might say. Yet I have to respectfully agree to disagree with those who see the vacant, passive Bella Swan as a strong character. One of my biggest regrets about the current state of YA fantasy fiction is that Twilight and its legion of imitations have made more scarce the sort of adventure-driven female-led stories that Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley are known for writing. I know I want to read about and see young heroines saving their worlds, not obsessing over their hot supernatural boyfriends. (Buffy the Vampire Slayer at least got to do both.)

Also, that these movie series exist doesn’t prove that male-driven movies no longer dominate the screens. This summer we got two good mainstream movies with powerful female leads, the energetic and hopeful Wonder Woman and the darker Atomic Blonde. But since the summer, what have we seen? True, “Oscar bait” limited releases like Battle of the Sexes, Lady Bird, and Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri have popped up (all of which I want to see), but of major mainstream releases, how many have boasted female characters who are not love interests, sidekicks, or villains? Among family films and animated films, the lack speaks loudest, at least to me. Where is this year’s Hunger Games? Last year Disney released a strong pair of heroine-driven cartoon features, Moana and the Oscar-winning Zootopia. This year, however, every single major American animated release has had a male protagonist, except Leap (which failed) and The My Little Pony Movie.

Of course Wonder Woman was great — I saw it twice in the theater, and regret not having gone back for a third time — but compare the number of Wonder Woman films we’ve seen to the number of Batmans and Spider-Mans. Good movies with female leads are out there, but for every one of them, we see ten or more movies with male leads. I’d like to see things even out just a little more.

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