Are female-led blockbusters finally here to stay?

Feature Mark Harrison 9 Apr 2013 - 07:15

Does the success of The Hunger Games, and the recent arrival of The Host, hint at the rise of the female-led blockbuster, Mark wonders...

The Host arrived in cinemas recently, and joined a number of female-led movies of recent years. As ever, it owes some of its success to the Twilight films, as it's based on an earlier novel by author Stephenie Meyer, but the real legacy of those films has been to emphasise the influence of female audiences, and to popularise female leads in big movies.

If we go by the most popular example of her work, Meyer hasn't exactly created the strongest female characters in the past. But on the surface, The Host appears to centre around a girl called Melanie, whose will is strong enough to bust through the influence of alien body-snatchers, who have effectively taken over the world, as well as her body.

Granted, it's love, and specifically the love of a hot young man, that gives her the willpower to challenge the aliens, and this could turn out to be another of those female-led films in which the central character is defined by her relationship with a man. This was one of the lesser parts of Sam Raimi's otherwise enjoyable Oz: The Great And Powerful, in which a traditionally female-centred story is adapted into a film based around James Franco.

The bottom line is that the welcome rise in strong female protagonists in movies is a trend for which Twilight has been given far too much credit. While the series' fanbase is predominantly female, it's doubtful that many consider Bella Swan to be its main appeal, given how she's a blank reader surrogate in a tug-of-war between sensitively sexy supernatural paramours. 

The current boom could more easily be attributed to sleeper hits like The Help and Bridesmaids, but definitely has a lot to do with the blockbusting success of The Hunger Games this time last year. Katniss Everdeen is portrayed as a capable, brave young woman, and is definitely the centre of the film's appeal to both male and female audiences. That's what may have been missing up until recently- so-called “four quadrant” films, appealing to males and females of all ages, that have female protagonists.

Last summer, Pixar struck at the centre of this boom too. Although their films generally do a good job of appealing to everyone, and have previously featured great female supporting characters like Mrs Incredible and Jessie the cowgirl, Brave's Princess Merida was their first female protagonist - their first Disney princess, even.

It's a film about a relationship between mother and daughter, and you can probably count the number of mainstream Hollywood movies about that subject on one hand. Elsewhere, the film shows what is expected of Merida in 10th century Scotland, and how she subverts those expectations  in her bids to change her fate.

If you go back and watch the early Disney animated movies, the male love interest is usually completely ancillary, yet still present enough to completely flatten the female personalities. It was good to see a film that bucked those conventions.

Perhaps even more significantly, Dreamworks' The Croods has a female protagonist called Eep, who, in a marked contrast to most female characters in animation or in live-action, doesn't have a Barbie doll figure and is just as physically capable as the other caveman characters, sometimes more so. But the fact that we're even talking about this as a landmark seems faintly absurd, doesn't it?

When we interviewed director Mark Andrews and producer Katharine Sarafian about Brave last year, Andrews pointed out that strong female characters in movies, like Princess Leia and Lara Croft, were nothing new, and clarified: “Movies are becoming more supportive.”

Sarafian added: “You won't see a single piece of marketing that says 'Pixar's first female character!' We started the character so long ago, and it is interesting timing that she ends up coming into the market at the same time as Katniss and Snow White.” 

Likewise, in a typically witty address at the 2006 Equality Now conference, Joss Whedon punctured the air of mystique around his “strong female characters” by essaying the role of a reporter and interviewing himself with the same question over and over again: “Why do you write these strong female characters?” His final answer was the most thought-provoking: “Because you're still asking me that question.”

Going back to Andrews' point about Princess Leia and Lara Croft, he also hit upon the more pertinent change in the blockbuster landscape: that it's the executives who are realising that women can carry a blockbuster as well as men.

In fact, in many cases, it can be seen that women are doing a better job than men. A major benefit of the recent increase in female-led films is that there are far more charismatic female stars than male ones. The likeability and charisma of Jennifer Lawrence alone is worth ten Taylor Kitsches, 20 Robert Pattinsons, or 100 Shia LaBeoufs.

Look at Channing Tatum, the biggest young male star in Hollywood right now. He fronted a number of movies before his recent ascension to the A-list, but only started showing signs of life when Steven Soderbergh got hold of him.

There's still resistance from a vocal minority of film fans. Although the male-dominated comments sections of various movie websites may not be the most authoritative source, many will dismiss fare like The Host out of hand because of the audience for whom it is intended, in which romance almost seems to be the default genre.

And yet some of the disappointment based around last summer's Prometheus, following in the footsteps of Ripley in Alien, was to do with the fact that Noomi Rapace didn't play the character of Elizabeth Shaw like Sigourney Weaver played the original heroine. As has been discussed on this site before, the likeness to Alien's story structure may be the fault behind these expectations. Shaw doesn't really take up arms in the film, or tell any bitches to get away from any children, but she's an intelligent, interesting character, whose religious devotion provides drama throughout the film. 

Yes, there are far too many films out there that either objectify women in one of two ways: by either imbuing them with traits of masculine tough-guy characters to the point where they might as well be another male character, or by literally turning them into a plot device, to be rescued or won by the male lead.

But it's not that there haven't been films with strong female characters over the years. It does seem like young women are more frequently leading the way in four-quadrant films, at the same time as many of their young male counterparts have faltered. The success of these films, both critically and financially, is cultivating a strong base of popular actresses, which can only bode well for the future.

In the end though, won't we really only know that female-led blockbusters are here to stay once we finally stop noticing that they're different?

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Wow... Twilight, Hunger Games, Host, Prometheus... apart from Brave a lot of bad female role models you got there.
I Hope female lead will be somewhat better in future movies, since most of these are barely girls.


Are you saying the heroines are too masculine or that they are too young?

If it's the latter, what's wrong with 'girls' leading movies? I didn't see anyone in the misogynistic 80s protesting that Michael J Fox, McCaulay Caulkin, Ralph Macchio and Henry "ET" Thomas were barely boys.

If it's the former, I didn't see any of the heroines you reference as lacking in femininity. They're just strong willed and unafraid to get their hands dirty - that doesn't make them Mrs. Trunchbull or Vasquez!

"Finally" ?? Uh Alien anyone ?? Sarah Connor ?? Tomb Raider ? Resident Evil ? Underworld ?? How is that new ??

i think blockbusters is what they are getting at. while successful, the resident evil and underworld films have never been blockbusters.

Hmm, not really the best films/role models there.

I think Rosario Dawson in Trance is worth a mention.

Oh. I thought they were. Big budget, special effects.... Ok The Hunger Games is even bigger, but it's not like they were independent movies.

A number of the films mentioned in the article and the comments are only following the tried and test "last girl" formula. Alien, Prometheus, Hunger games, Terminator, Resident Evil (Haven't seen any Underworlds) The others (inc hunger games) Twilight and The Host are born from the success of books aimed towards female readers.

You guys forgot the Scream series. (Again another "Last Girl")

I think the battering The Host is getting from critics and audiences probably kills it as an example.

However, as others have pointed out, strong female protagonists are nothing new. Ripley, Sarah Connor and Lara Croft were the real traiblazers, not Katniss and Snow White.

Nope, neither. My meaning was that these are mostly really monodimensional characters in poorly written movies. Even the lead from Brave, the best of the lot, is not up to Pixar's usual standards.

I hope we'll get bettere and more rounded female lead in future movies. ;)


Gotcha. Not sure I agree though, Hunger Games and Prometheus were pretty multi-layered - no Taxi Driver, true, but better than many leading male roles you could name. I've been watching Brave a lot recently (thanks to my kids) and Merida is a great, rounded character scripted and acted with real emotion - compare with the cultural icons 'Woody & Buzz' and I think Merida has much more going on (not that I'm knocking Woody & Buzz, of course).

Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz is pretty strong. Calamity Jane, too?

Fair point. Although Dorothy is a bit damsel in distress-y.


>Although the male-dominated comments sections of various movie websites may not be the most authoritative source,

No. Hunger Games is a much bigger hit than Aliens or the Lara Croft pictures. And Linda Hamilton really didn't carry Terminator 2.

Some guy named, uh, it will come to me ...

The Host was a blockbuster?

Not sure Hunger Games will have the staying power of the Alien franchise though.

So is Ash in Evil Dead 1 - 'mans up' in the end though... as does Dorothy.

Staying power? The Alien franchise got two good movies, neither nearly as big as Hunger Games, which is a well-established literary franchise.

Well, I don't consider Woody and Buzz to be well rounded charracters really. ;)
I think The Hunger Games is really a so-so movie based on a terrible terrible novel (not so bad as the Twilight ones, but not so great either) and don't start me on Prometheus.. :D

But I understand it's a matter of preferences sometimes. ;)


I guess so. Although Dorothy never had a chainsaw for a hand.

Are people going to be talking about Hunger Games as a classic of its genre in 30-40 years though? It was good, but it wasn't Alien.

I will pop in the Enterprise for a trip around the sun, slingshot to the future, and leave you a message in a cave beneath San Francisco.

Well that's no help! I need dates, times and co-ordinates!

Well then, certainly that fetching Clara who runs about the universe with that purple-coated fellow can help ... :)

...Actually they are far away from being blockbusters...the highest grossing Underworld film made $160 million and the highest grossing Resident Evil made $290 Million (The rest tend to make well under 200 Million.) They are considered successful at the box office because they are made for under $100 million and make a profit, but just because a film makes a profit of its budget doesn't make it a blockbuster.
Hunger Games on the other hand made nearly $700 Million (400 Million in the US alone) and Brave made well over 500 Million, much closer to the type of money they want from a Blockbuster.

If she can stay alive long enough.

She's like a jack-in-the-box, keeps on popping up!

Ok ! I must have a different conception of cinema, cause I'm French ! Here, Resident Evil would be considered a blockbuster, as our most expensive movie Astérix 3 was around 80 million euros. Not the same standards ! XD But I see your point ! ;)

I hope so Hollywood has been behind other media like books and comics, etc etc. its like in Hollywood we get a decent female lead once in a blue moon

uhh YES they have. and why did you ignore Alien, Terminator, Tomb Raider, etc
this is old news!!!

It IS a highly successful blockbuster.
That person doesn't know what they're talking about.

Well your wrong. All of them were pretty well written. Especially Prometheus. Brave was pretty good, but a little cliche

Prometheus was a great film. ;)

Not really ignored I didn't have the time to fully answer; however the title of the article is 'Are female-led blockbusters finally here to stay', the Alien and Terminator films haven't had female leads since the 90's and Tomb Raider was ten years ago.

Prometheus was especially badly written Bram. Characters do stupid things for no reason, character arcs were pretty bad, and there were just too many people introduced, only to be killed off before you get to known them properly (though we can all agree that David is a highlight, even if his motives are highly dubious). It looked pretty and while it was miles better than AVP, it was no where near as good as Alien or Aliens.

Yep, Prometheus is great ! :)
And I love Merida ! You're a good man ! :D

She should have. Water? What is this, Signs? But for witches?

I think the term blockbuster can be confusing. We're talking here about films that had massive, audience-wide appeal (The Hunger Games). The likes of Underworld and Resident are very successful but only with a niche audience, i would think.

Sorry, can't let this stand. Katniss is an awesome role model.

John Carter made 284 Million last year (slightly less than the highest grossing Resident Evil film) so by your logic John Carter (one of last years biggest flops according to some sources) was a Blockbuster?
There is a difference between a film that does very well at the box office and one that is a Blockbuster...any film can be considered successful at the box office as long as it makes a profit, those that do well are the ones that make more than 100 million, but a Blockbuster is the type of film that has huge worldwide appeal the type of films that make up the top 10 highest grossing films list at the end of the year...any film that makes less than 300 million certainly cannot be called a blockbuster....Could you really compare the Box Office of any Resident Evil film to that of The Anvengers, Skyfall, LOTR, Inception or The Hunger Games?
(Generally speaking films that make 500 million or more tend to be thought of as blockbusters but these days with more and more Billion dollar films coming out that number is starting to look on the small side)

Bridesmaids was not a sleeper hit but The Help was. Besides that does this trend or upswing depend solely on Hunger Games and Jennifer Lawrence?

Zoe Saldana.

when did the female led blockbuster start with the hunger games!?!

maybe it's just that i'm a new age kind of guy but i feel there's been
female led blockbusters my whole life, the Alien franchise, terminator
and least we forget china o'brian.

i feel this is a slap in the face of film lovers everywhere to discount every female lead until now.

plus (although i am a man) i REALLY don't see how any of these new
female led films can be held as being good role models for woman
.......... the hunger games seemed to revolve around the basis of
'conform into what we think you should be and you'll be a winner', was
it just me or was the only reason she won because she faked a romance
with some guy and twilight seems to be about not being able to survive
without a man to look after you (i'm not sure on that, only from what
i'm told)

How about any Angelina Jolie action movie. Tomb Raider, Mr-Mrs Smith, Wanted, Salt - these were all major blockbusters. All carried by a female lead.

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