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Why Having Only Strong Girl Heroines is Not Enough

by Melissa Silverstein
December 11, 2012 2:00 PM
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Snow White and the huntsman

A.O. Scott in the lead story of the NY Times Magazine this past weekend wrote a very interesting piece on how Hollywood has finally embraced women, well not exactly women, heroines.  The piece "Hollywood's Year of Heroine Worship" delves into many very great points about the unique female characters seen onscreen this past year.  He focuses on the characters from Snow White and the Huntsman, Brave, The Hunger Games, Beasts of the Southern Wild and even adds in Twilight since Bella is much more heroic in the final film of the saga.

He also makes the point that the box office is still dominated by the male action flicks where women are sexy sidekicks (though strong like Anne Hathaway in Batman).  Looking at the numbers this is actually a good year for female roles at the box office.  According to box office mojo as of today, three films with a female protagonist are in the top ten grossing films of the year: The Hunger Games, Twlight Breaking Dawn Part 2 and Brave

This is all good news.

But digging a little bit deeper the one thing that I notice about all these movies and all these characters is that they are all GIRLS.  So my question is, where are the movies about strong WOMEN? 

Many sites have covered that douche publisher at the Niagra Falls Reporter who fired his film reviewer for covering films with a so-called feminist agenda.  Here's what he wrote in particular about Snow White and the Huntsman:

Snow White and the Huntsman is trash moral garbage. a lot of fuzzy feminist thinking and pandering to creepy hollywood mores produced by metrosexual imbeciles.

I don't want to publish reviews of films where women are alpha and men are beta. where women are heroes and villains and men are just lesser versions or shadows of females.

I believe in manliness.

Can you beieve that a person who says I believe in manliness is actually a publisher of a newspaper?  And while I believe that most newspaper publishers and editors don't feel this way, sometimes I think that Hollywood believes in manliness.  That men are alpha and  women are beta.  I find it hilarious that a film about a princess who escapes from captivity and is by the way a fairy tale character could be construed as having a feminist agenda.  And also, the crazy rabid feminist in this film is barely out of her teens.  But she's out to ruin the world so we need to put her back in her "girl box."

I want to make it clear that I am thrilled that we had such strong female roles this year in films.  The performances particularly of Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games and Quvenzhané Wallis in Beast of the Southern Wild blew my mind. 

But I want more.  I want strong ADULT women heroines and I want other women besides Angelina Jolie to play them.  They don't have to shoot arrows, they can shoot words, but they also belong onscreen.  Heroism does not end at 18 or 20 for guys so why should it end at the age for gals?  It's almost as if the culture is comfortable seeing strong female characters before they hit puberty but once they get too far towards womanhood we really don't want to see them potentially saving the world.   Girls are seen as less threatening because they don't really wield any power.  Girl heroines, OK.  Women heroines, not so much. 

And this is a trend that will continue.  There are a bunch of Young Adult novels in development and production that feature youthful females as the leads.  Films like Beautiful Creatures (which opens in early 2013), Angel Fall, Earthseed, and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.  They will be rolling out over the next couple of years.   The key to the continuing of the success of these films will be if the female audiences comes out in big numbers, and also if guys go to see the films too.

We see adult male superheroes like Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man and Liam Neeson lately in everything he does, yet there are so few women's roles like that. 

A.O. Scott might be right that 2012 might turn out to be a pretty good year for "female heroism."  He also is right that we shouldn't all think things will be different now that there have been a couple of successful films with female leads, which by the way were all directed by men.  Things will only be different when we see a diversity of films with female heroes of all ages, just like is available for the guys, because in my life I see great female heroes everywhere.

Behind the Cover Story: A. O. Scott on Women, “Girls” and the Standout Female Performances of the Year (NY Times)

Hollywood’s Year of Heroine Worship (NY Times)

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  • Doug | January 17, 2013 4:01 AMReply

    I wonder sometimes how "female" these roles actually are. Most of the time it seems like it would take only very minor changes for these roles to be male leads instead. Is that good? I'm not sure.

  • Nunya | January 5, 2013 5:41 PMReply

    The subtitle of this piece could read "I want to see more people exactly like me in the movies." If you're an adult woman, you probably think there are too few adult women in movies. But if you are anything but a white woman, you are very much correct in saying there are too few minority roles for actresses out there. On TV and in film, white girls dominated 2012...but minority women remain all but invisible except for roles in micro-indies only critics have heard of (Beasts of the Southern Wild) or virtually mute slaves with 5 lines of dialogue (Kerri Washington in Django Unchained).

  • Tameka | December 27, 2012 9:49 PMReply

    I think this piece is on point. Women are varied and should be portrayed on film as such. I don't think that male roles need to be submissive though. There should be room for strong characters of both sexes.

  • Holly | December 27, 2012 2:06 PMReply

  • Daily disco | December 27, 2012 1:39 PMReply

    I think in some of the Rom Coms like Bridesmaids, we can see fully adult women who are not perfect.

  • M.C. | December 13, 2012 8:11 AMReply

    Here's hoping that Amy Adams' Lois Lane in "Man of Steel" will be a great woman heroine. She may not be the hero, but Lois Lane has always been the (supporting) protagonist of any good Superman story, because she's the character that the audience is supposed to identify with.

  • Sky | December 19, 2012 2:15 PM

    And yet Lois is typically portrayed as irresponsible and reckless, in various media, because Superman will always save her. When you have a demigod falling over himself to get you to like him, you take stupid risks that nobody else would. The last Superman movie, while not really being something I enjoyed, at least made her back up a bit (I thought the whole "You abandoned your child" thing was a bit labored... why couldn't she slow down and focus on journalistic ethics simply because she had the good sense to do a proper risk assessment and realize that 1) she had a perfectly good job and credentials before Superman and 2) didn't need to be throwing herself headlong into danger to get a story when other journalists can manage the same thing without it?)

    I'd be happy for a Lois Lane who doesn't need or want Superman. If feelings for a woman are the only thing that humanize Superman and make him identifiable, then it's a poor character to make a movie about.

  • Brent | December 12, 2012 4:53 PMReply

    "Can you beieve that a person who says I believe in manliness is actually a publisher of a newspaper? "
    It's about as hard to "beieve" as someone like like Helen Gurley Brown (Cosmo Magazine) or Gloria Steinem (Ms Magazine) both calling themselves "feminists." Funny how you have no problem with that. You know your male hatred has gotten so bad it's only a matter of time before you wind up doing something nutty. Get help now.

  • Margaret | December 18, 2012 9:18 PM

    BTW: I love your blog, keep it up!!! (That was meant for Melissa.)

  • Margaret | December 18, 2012 9:16 PM

    Brent, have you looked at the state of journalism today. It's a shell of its former self and full of corporate sell-outs. Amongst the many annoying things that patriarchal males do one of them is bragging on and on about male accomplishment but never acknowledging the shit you fuck up. Yeah there is Edward R Murrow but there is also Roger Ailes of Fox fame.

    On the topic of feminism: a woman who disagrees with you does not a man-hater make. Please point out to me at anytime in any of her writings has Gloria Steinem advocated hate or discrimination of men. Answer: Never. I am pretty sure neither has Helen Gurley Brown. The Niagra Falls Reporter literally defines discrimination when he advocates removing any reviews of alpha females in movies, literally. Also you might want to pull your head out of your ass because the patriarchal stronghold is losing its grip.

    BTW: I love your blog, keep it up!!!

  • Brent | December 12, 2012 5:05 PM

    BTW Melissa, for your information, since nearly all publications on the planet were started by, perpetuated by, and are still today dominated by men why is "manliness" so hard for you to understand as synonymous with newspapers? Manliness is the basis of journalism. Asking hard questions, dealing in facts, not emotions, and sticking to a hard deadline. What's alien and bizarre is someone calling themselves a "feminist" in 2012.

  • Catherine J | December 12, 2012 5:40 AMReply

    Whilst one swallow does not a summer make, I'd like just to point out Helen Mirren's pulling power in this district. Aside from her tremendous body of work as a classical actress, she's shown her capability to punch weight equally with the boys. 'RED' and (in a more dramatic vein) 'The Debt' as well as her turn as Prospera in Julie Taymor's 'The Tempest'. Great female heroines - if anybody would care to notice. RED made around $199 million globally on a (est) $58 million budget and RED2 is in production. Contributing, then, to box office pulling power as well - and I'm sure Mirren would agree she doesn't need to be the only one out there. Sigourney was the benchmark (Irene - below - is totally right) - we all know we just haven't gone in the direction of producing more of those kinds of characters. It IS up to women audiences at the end of the day.

  • Jan Lisa Huttner | December 14, 2012 11:53 AM

    Hi, Catherine. Me, I love Helen Mirren, & as I film critic, I fought very hard for both THE DEBT (woman screenwriter) & THE TEMPEST (woman director), but they were both box office flops. And Ebert, who comes off heroically in Tony Scott's NYT article (outing the offensive publisher) actually had this to say about HITCHCOCK: "HITCHCOCK tells the story not so much as the making of the film, but as the behind-the-scenes relationship of Alma and Hitch. This is a disappointment, since I imagine most movie fans will expect more info about the film's production history." But the film itself shows that Alma's critical role in what we all now consider "Alfred Hitchcock's Canon" is one of the most important, overlooked facts in the PSYCHO's production history. Yes, Mirren (& Mary Louise Parker) added grace notes to RED, but let's be real. It was marketed as a Bruce Willis "macho treat," & Sigourney Weaver's last turn as Ellen Ripely was 20 years back! As usual, I completely agree with Melissa: Women must support women filmmakers (in front of the camera as well as behind it), otherwise nothing changes!

  • Dylan Chumleigh | December 12, 2012 4:02 AMReply

    Hey!! This movie was good "Kristen Stewart", "Charlize Theron" were too good in it, love their acting!!!

  • Kathy | December 11, 2012 11:11 PMReply

    "The key to the continuing of the success of these films will be if the female audiences comes out in big numbers, and also if guys go to see the films too." The key to continuing success will also be a strong feminist movement that dares to call itself feminist. I don't want to just see strong women leads in the movies. I want to see strong women leads who call themselves feminists and do women's rights activism.

  • EstherK | December 11, 2012 7:51 PMReply

    This comment doesn't present the most well-thought-out thesis, but reading this article reminded me that most of our female superhero models are with a "girl" suffix - Batgirl, Supergirl - but at least one female villain was permitted to be Catwoman. Of course, there's Wonder Woman, but her male champions haven't yet succeeded in convincing Hollywood of her worth.

    Sociologically, it may be more important for teenage girls (and boys) to know that they can be - and imagine themselves as - heroes than it is for we old and jaded ladies of the world who know that achieving hero status is actually really difficult in this world of gender imbalance. Again, half-baked thoughts that I hope to revisit somewhere.

  • Irene | December 11, 2012 6:56 PMReply

    I have only one word to add 'Ripley'

  • serpico | December 11, 2012 3:50 PMReply

    What the hell? How could you fail to discuss Jessica Chastain's character (over 30) and her relentless pursuit to find Osama Bin Laden? Might be one of the important movies of the year and it's not mentioned by the author.

  • Melissa Silverstein | December 11, 2012 4:58 PM

    I had a section in about Jessica Chastain but it didn't work with the rest of the piece so I cut it. I will be discussing this in the future.

  • Tim | December 11, 2012 3:12 PMReply

    "Girls are seen as less threatening because they don't really wield any power."

    I wonder whether this is actually the reason behind so many of these characters being young. It may be a part of it, but I suspect other factors are at play too. For one, I think the uptick we're seeing now is part of a trend that in large part came out of young adult literature, and many of the films Scott mentions are directed at a young adult audience. It also may be that with a young hero[ine], the film is typically about their *becoming* heroic - it may be easier for screenwriters and producers to imagine a female who starts out unheroic but becomes so, than to imagine a woman who is *already* a hero.

  • Brent | December 12, 2012 4:57 PM

    " Baby Boomers are aging gracefully and the box office will soon (if not already) belong to them"
    Miles. You are kidding, right?

  • No | December 11, 2012 3:32 PM

    If what you say is true or accurate -- "may be easier for screenwriters and producers to imagine a female who starts out unheroic but becomes so, than to imagine a woman who is *already* a hero" -- then that's an even greater indictment. These people have no imagination. It's the laziest form of writing that they can't imagine a female from 20 to 50 being heroic.

  • Miles Maker | December 11, 2012 3:30 PM

    Good points Tim--but you lost me with, "it may be easier for screenwriters and producers to imagine a female who starts out unheroic but becomes so, than to imagine a woman who is *already* a hero." Target market is most definitely an issue as studios are aiming for the younger demographic--however MARIGOLD HOTEL performed unsurprisingly well (to me). Baby Boomers are aging gracefully and the box office will soon (if not already) belong to them--hastening the need for screenwriters to envision mature female heroines. Having said that, my sci-fi in development '1 last Human' will star a female of color who is at least 25 and likely closer to 35 considering the Black female pool of 'bankable' stars. When considering who I'm very conscious of the need for an attractive physically-fit Actress to compliment the story AND compel a mature male audience to give it a shot. Maybe that's what the reel issue is here: Hollywood's perception of females over 30 is quite narrow sans Jolie and a meager handful of others.

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