It’s no secret that women are quite often poorly represented in cinema, especially big budgeted summer blockbusters. If you look at the last five summers, most years feature an embarrassing 1 to 2 major movies in which women have prominent roles. Even when a woman is featured, she is often sexualized, one-dimensional, or in a supporting role (mother, daughter, girlfriend) to the main male protagonist.
Fortunately, the tides are starting to slowly shift, as Hollywood realizes that literally half of their potential audience are, in fact, women. Overall, the summer of 2015 has been an improvement, with several movies featuring very well-written female characters. Here’s a look back at some of the films of the summer, both the good and the bad.
Mad Max: Fury Road
What is there to say about this movie that hasn’t already been said? Mad Max: Fury Road does so many things right, beginning with the true star of the movie, Furiosa. She is extremely capable on her own, a natural leader, yet recognizes that she can’t do it all alone. Backing her are Immortan Joe’s wives, far from helpless in breaking free of their oppression. Each is inexperienced in fighting, yet aid the fight in any way they can and are never “damsels in distress.” The titular Mad Max takes a backseat to Furiosa and the wives, helping when necessary but never actually taking the lead. Others have written about the ending and what it might mean about masculinity and femininity, but even at face value, this film has plenty to offer in terms of strong depiction of women in action.
Shockingly, this is only the second Pixar film featuring a girl as a lead character; that being said, this one really nails it. What impresses me most about the way young Riley is portrayed in Inside Out is how she is shown to be a fully-developed person with her unique personality traits, not just a “generic movie girl.” For instance, being from Minnesota, Riley casually loves hockey, a sport that Hollywood tends to not associate with women. The other two main characters, Joy and Sadness, are also multi-dimensional, despite literally being personifications of singular emotions. It’s a bit sad that “women are treated as nuanced people” qualifies as praise-worthy, but most films don’t bother. Inside Out handles gender equality in a very subtle way that doesn’t draw attention to itself, and I hope we continue to see movies like this one.
This movie was a huge surprise to me, not only in its quality, but in its attitude towards women. Melissa Mccarthy plays a CIA analyst who is “so forgettable” that only she can go undercover undetected. It’s a fish-out-of-water story, to be sure, and many of the jokes come at Mccarthy’s expense as she tries to find her footing.
What stands out to me about this film is that Mccarthy is consistently the most competent person in the room. Her male supporting staff, including Jude Law’s James Bond stand-in and Jason Statham’s one-man wrecking crew, are constantly sabotaging the mission, leaving Mccarthy to pick up the pieces. Meanwhile the women are given the majority of the characterization, with multiple facets to their personalities and nuanced goals. This movie was mostly forgotten in the later summer months, but it is the best spy movie in a year full of them.
The Bechdel Test, which checks to see whether a film features two women who talk to each other about something other than a man, was originally conceived as a joke. It’s meant to set an extremely low bar, yet most films still don’t pass the test. This year is no exception. The more notable examples:
The Marvel Movies
Marvel now has a 12 film history of male-dominated films. Personally I think the flak Whedon has gotten over the Avengers films has been undeserved; few have been actively fighting sexism in media like Whedon has. However, while Age of Ultron adds a second female role to the Avengers roster, a ratio of 2 out of 9 hardly seems praise-worthy. Meanwhile, Ant-Man‘s Evangeline Lilly is sidelined for almost the entirety of the film’s climax. While she is competent, she isn’t given much to do. With Marvel’s Phase 3 approaching, hopefully the gender imbalance of the MCU can be rectified a bit.
This movie has one speaking woman in it. She is the least “Sarah Connor”-like Sarah Connor ever written. How you take one of the stronger female action characters and make her completely bland is beyond me. One of the many problems I had with this film.
Close but no cigar: Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
It pains me to put this one in the “bad” category, as it does contain one extremely strong female character. Rebecca Ferguson’s character, Ilsa, is everything you want in a heroine: smart, strong, and every bit an equal to Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. At least twice, when all is lost, she ends up saving Ethan rather than the other way around. She is admittedly sexualized at times (most notably in the film’s memorable opera house scene), but considering an earlier sequence mostly designed to showcase Cruise’s abs and pecks, I’m willing to give it a pass.
So why is it on the negative side of this list? Sadly, Rogue Nation doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test (and if it does, it’s only on a technicality). I cannot name another woman in the movie. It’s a shame that of the returning characters from 2011’s Ghost Protocol, Paula Patton’s character didn’t make the cut. She was another well-written woman who brought her own particular skills to the table, and it would have been nice to see her interact with Ferguson. A wasted opportunity.
Underrepresentation is a problem, but personally I find it far more offensive when a script is actively sexist in its characterization of women. Some of the more egregious examples of the summer:
To its credit, the most profitable summer blockbuster of all time does feature a woman in one of the two (mostly) unromantic leads. Unfortunately, she’s also portrayed as the stereotypical “cold-hearted businesswoman who just needs to settle down with a man and make a family.” She knows very little about dinosaurs and seems to have no idea what is happening in her own park. Running from a T-Rex in heels has become its own meme, and rightly so. Perhaps an underrated moment of sexism comes at the expense of Claire’s assistant, Vivian, the film’s other notable woman. Vivian suffers perhaps the worst fate of any character in the Jurassic Park franchise, mostly for the sin of being a hired stick-in-the-mud who fails at watching over children.
Disclaimer: I have not seen this film. That being said, receiving a woman as a literal trophy is about as bad as it gets.
Close but no cigar: San Andreas
San Andreas tries to paint women in a strong, positive light. It really does. Both the mother and daughter characters are intelligent and rarely panic, even in the face of horrible disasters. So why is it on this list? Well, at the end of the day, this is still a “daddy has to come save his little girl” movie. The daughter, Blake, spends most of the movie as a damsel in distress, frequently relying on protection from the two brothers that she’s running with. Maybe I’m being a little harsh on this one; if my dad were The Rock, I’d probably sit back and wait for him to save me too.
There are a few films that I missed this summer that also feature lead women in lead rolls. Pitch Perfect 2, Trainwreck, and Tomorrowland all fall in this category. That brings the total to six out of the top 15 highest-grossing films of the summer that qualify as good representation of women in film. While that may not seem too impressive, it is a significant improvement over previous years.
There’s still a long way to go, but overall I would say that the film industry is improving. As audiences vote with their dollars, the gender disparity in popular films is slowly decreasing. Franchises such as The Hunger Games show what most people already knew: female-led films with a large budget can make a huge amount of money if given the opportunity. Hopefully we see the trend continue in the coming years.