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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