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Does It Matter If Women Make Superhero Movies?

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire July 8, 2013 at 3:15PM

Would women making superhero movies change Hollywood? Or would it change them?
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Wonder Woman

In her book, Sister Outsider, the feminist activist and theorist Audre Lorde attacked the fallacy of trying to combat the oppression of women without taking account of the feminist movement domination by white, heterosexual, middle-class women. 

What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?... [T]he master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support.

That quote came to mind as I was reading two articles about the relationship between  women and Hollywood blockbusters, and whether the encroachment of female directors and stars into genres generally dominated by men represents progress or simple mimicry. 

In her column, "Girls on Film," Monika Bartyzel takes aim at Andrew O'Hehir's review of The Heat, in which he writes, "What is the point of making a movie that's just like the dopiest, broadest and most reductive grade of guy-oriented comedy, except with women?":

Bartyzel's answer:

O'Hehir's aggrieved response to The Heat is exactly the point of The Heat: Combating the idea that having a vagina requires an entirely distinct set of behaviors and expectations than having a penis....

For some, it's not enough for a film like The Heat to treat and display women equally; it must also infuse its story with added social responsibility -- even though many actresses struggle to find speaking roles, let alone good characters, in Hollywood. In one fell swoop, a movie like The Heat is expected to transcend its genre, be a feminist icon, right other imbalances, and fix any perceived thematic weaknesses of the past.

Meanwhile, at RogerEbert.com, Susan Wlozsczyna, in a piece called "Dear Hollywood: Hiring Women Directors Could Rescue the Superhero Movie. Love, Half the Human Race," makes a case for putting a woman behind the camera for what’s become the movie industry’s preferred moneymaking genre: the superhero blockbuster.

I, for one, would love to see what the likes of Sarah Polley, Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion, Kasi Lemmons, Lynne Ramsay, Kimberly Peirce, Courtney Hunt, Phyllida Lloyd, Lone Scherfig and Mary Harron would bring to the superhero table. I bet a few of them would like to get their creative hands on one, too.

Wlozczyna's "Dear Hollywood" is a rant, and at times, a fairly unconvincing one, especially when she uses the latter half of the piece to set up and knock down several straw men in quick succession. Even then, she doesn’t always offer a compelling rebuttal: Countering the argument that "Women don't go to these movies anyway," she cites the fact that 52 percent of the moviegoing audience is female, which is true but irrelevant to the "these movies" part of her question. (In its opening weekend, Man of Steel's audience was 56 percent male and 44 percent female, which was atypically close to an even split.) As for that bet: I'll take it, and I'll give points. Until they say otherwise, the notion that Polley, Coppola, Campion, or Ramsay have even the slightest interest in the caped-crusader genre seems a stretch, to put it mildly.

Here's where the argument gets tricky. Some of the women Wloszczyna cites have fascinating, individualistic careers behind and in front of them: I'd much rather see another Top of the Lake from Jane Campion than her take on Swamp Thing, and Lemmons' Black Nativity is one of the 2013 movies I'm most excited to see. But blockbusters are where the money is, and therefore the power. Zack Snyder can fall flat on his face with Sucker Punch and move right on to handling Superman, but it took Lemmons half a dozen years to go from the misfire of The Caveman's Valentine to Talk to Me, and another six to get to Black Nativity.

Wlozczyna rightly points to the first Twilight movie as an especially galling case. Catherine Hardwicke guided the first film to nearly $200 million in domestic box office, but for New Moon she was replaced by Chris Weitz, whose flatlining adaptation of The Golden Compass had sent the His Dark Materials  franchise to a premature death only the year before. But then she muddies the waters by bringing in Brenda Chapman, who was replaced as the director of Pixar's Brave in the middle of production. That Chapman was taken off a fable of female empowerment she based on her relationship with her own daughter is sad, but it's not the first time Pixar has made such a switch: Ask Ratatouille's original director, Jan Pinkava.

If any of the women Wlozczyna cites actually want to make a superhero movie, by all means, more power to them. But the idea that simply substituting a woman at the top of the pyramid will effect real change in the movie industry seems fundamentally flawed. By the time the tectonic forces at play in bringing a prize property like Superman to the screen are finished, there’s precious left of anyone involved: Man of Steel is a hit, but it's a hit that bears little resemblance to any movie Snyder has made before. As in any other area, the movie industry will only have achieved true parity when there are female hacks: Competent but flavorless directors who churn out product for a price. But the movies those women make won't change anything.

More important than allowing women to prove they can hack it with the boys is for the industry to recognize what women have already accomplished: to put as much effort into developing female audiences, for there are many, as into wooing geeks at Comic-Con, and to realize that The Heat's $40 million (and counting) box-office take is not a fluke but a window into a hunger that Hollywood is doing a lousy job of feeding.

One of the movie industry's most insidious aspects is the way successes and failures get parsed to reinforce what people already believe: The Lone Ranger is a dud because audiences don't like Westerns, not because it's an incoherent shambles. The Monday after The Heat opened, NPR blogger Linda Holmes pointed out a New York Times article on the weekend box-office that devoted most of its attention to the failure of White House Down and Monsters University's strong second-week returns, reducing The Heat's second-place finish to an afterthought. It's not that Hollywood doesn't know what works. It’s that they don't want to know.


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