Women are just another Hollywood trend

<i>Bridesmaids</i> signalled a small surge in female-lead movies.

Bridesmaids signalled a small surge in female-lead movies.

If you're anything like me, then you probably like reading depressing statistics about the state of "women in film" and then whipping yourself into apoplexies of rage about it all. Fortunately it's been a banner year for discussions on that front, since the 2013 cinema landscape is one so heavily populated by men that in a Freudian typo I just wrote "ladscape".

You probably read Linda Holmes terrific - if grim - piece for NPR, At The Movies, The Women Are Gone back in June. (I have, many times, shaking my head slowly each time.) Holmes said, of the early summer releases of the year (pre female-led The Heat): “In many, many parts of the country right now, if you want to go to see a movie in the theater and see a current movie about a woman — any story about any woman that isn't a documentary or a cartoon — you can't. You cannot. There are not any. You cannot take yourself to one, take your friend to one, take your daughter to one. There are not any.”

(Indeed, sometimes it feels as though the only place I can see films of this ilk - i.e. ones that feature women as protagonists - is on my laptop whenever Netflix comes up with hyper-specific custom genres like “Emotional Period Pieces Featuring a Strong Female Lead”.)

Stinker ... Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds in <i>R.I.P.D</i>

Stinker ... Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds in R.I.P.D Photo: Scott Garfield

Spurred on by Holmes’ piece, Vulture’s Amanda Dobbins did some research: was 2013 significantly worse for women on screen than previous years? Her findings, which manage somehow to be simultaneously surprising and deadeningly predictable, are: no, it’s been like this for about a quarter of a century.


Focusing strictly on wide-release films (ones that were shown on a minimum of 1000 screens across the USA in the more recent era, and on 500 or more from 1993 back through 1989), Dobbins assessed the percentage of films released that featured one woman in a co-starring role, more than one woman in a co-starring role, and women in starring roles.

You may be heartened to know that much like end of the world scenarios, alien invasions, animations about insects, and found footage horror movies, “women”, it turns out, are just another Hollywood trend.

Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in <i>Thelma and Louise</i>.

Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise.

Dobbins says of her findings: “What’s interesting to note here is that movies about women are essentially a trend, like movies about archery or the apocalypse. The 2011 peak was the year of both Bridesmaids and The Help (Bad Teacher was also in there, riding on Bridesmaids' girls-get-raunchy coattails); the 1992 peak was a year after the release of Thelma and Louise, as if studios suddenly realized that women could star in successful movies, too. And then the studios got excited about some other trend, and the starring roles for women disappeared again.”

So far in 2013, just 32% of wide-release movies has a female starring role (in stark contrast to 1992’s 53%, thanks to the aforementioned Thelma and Louise effect). Commenters and armchair commentators have already bleated that “you” should be happy with that percentage, which reminds me of those stats about perception of groups of women that the Geena Davis Institute on Gender In Media has often mentioned, as Davis herself did on NPR: “We just heard a fascinating and disturbing study, where they looked at the ratio of men and women in groups. And they found that if there's 17 percent women, the men in the group think it's 50-50. And if there's 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men.”

In other words, there are probably some men checking out both the lineup at the local megaplex and Dobbins’ graphs, and thinking that the 2013 cinematic “ladscape” is, in fact, being overrun by women in starring roles.

I’ve taken some comfort in knowing that James Wan’s The Conjuring - which features terrific lead performances from Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor (not to mention the five young actresses who play Taylor’s onscreen daughters) - has been destroying the competition at the US box office this past week.

The period frightfest, which had a budget of $20 million, has already raked in over $41.5m in its first week of release. What of its mostly-male competition? As Brookes Barnes notes in a roundup of this summer’s mega-budget bombs, “Universal’s R.I.P.D., which starred Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds as ghost cops, took in a disastrous $12.8 million, for seventh place. Universal said the movie cost $130 million (not including marketing), but the Hollywood trade news site Deadline.com said the actual price was $154 million.”

Already this year Steven Spielberg has discussed (in a talk given at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts) the fact that repeated big-budget flops will soon “change the paradigm” when it comes to how the studios approach picking projects: “There's eventually going to be an implosion — or a big meltdown. There's going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground.”

This could mean a lot of different outcomes - Spielberg reckons that cable television is the new frontier for imaginative “filmmaking” but I can’t help thinking about that line in Holmes’ essay: “You can apparently make an endless collection of high-priced action flops and everybody says ‘win some, lose some’ and nobody decides that They Are Poison, but it feels like every ‘surprise success’ about women is an anomaly and every failure is an abject lesson about how we really ought to just leave it all to The Rock.”

Could this be, then, the year that - if we put the low percentage of films featuring women aside for a moment - Hollywood actually does decide that high-priced action flops are poison?

It’s looking increasingly likely - and if films like The Conjuring and upcoming indies like Aubrey Plaza’s teen sex comedy The To-Do List and Kristen Wiig’s new low-key dramedy Girl Most Likely continue to do well, it might just become that little bit less impossible to get a studio, producer or distributor to sit up and listen to pitches about films featuring women.