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Hollywood’s New Feminists, Why the Old One Went Away and What’s Coming Next?

Women’s rights made a major impact on Hollywood in the 1970s. Feminism, now a dirty word, was such a force to be reckoned with that you didn’t dare depict a woman in a film who didn’t have, at the very least, her own identity. It was a hard fought war. But like most things go in Hollywood, economy drives the movement. Thus, once Julia Roberts became the $100 million dollar baby in the 1980s with Pretty Woman, the strong female characters began to slowly disappear. At the same time, the rise of the blockbuster drove the cost of movies higher. Roberts was one of the few women who could command the same salary as Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise. That’s what made her so powerful back then. But those high salaries demanded high box office returns and sadly, at least according to Hollywood, those would shrink because what sells at the box office are films starring men, made by men.

If you’d like to see how dramatically things shifted away from films featuring strong female characters, I already researched it once, trying to track Best Picture nominees and to see how many were in the top twenty at the box office that year.  But a curious detail emerged and that was after movies started making upwards of $100 million, strong female characters all but vanished in the highest grossing films of the year. That leads us to today, to ask why so few of the Best Picture contenders feature strong female leads.

To a degree, the box office since Jaws and Star Wars forever changed the landscape of American film, and big box office has always been driven by movies about men.

In the 1960s, the top earners that centered around a female character were: The Sound of Music (which was the highest grossing film of the decade), Dr. Zhivago, Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, Funny Girl, Cleopatra, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (debatable), Bonnie and Clyde (debatable), Let’s Make Love, West Side Story.

In the 1970s, the top box office earners that were female driven included The Exorcist, Love Story, Kramer vs. Kramer, Electric Horseman, Alien, A Star is Born, What’s Up Doc?, King Kong.  

The 1980s had a scant few films that were female-driven.  Notable exceptions were An Officer and a Gentleman (although, really, that’s about Gere’s character), On Golden Pond, Little Mermaid,  Fatal Attraction, Terms of Endearment, Driving Miss Daisy, 9 to 5, The Color Purple, When Harry Met Sally. It’s a fairly amazing decade of strong female films at the box office but during this decade something dramatically shifted.

Moving into the 1990s, you have Titanic, which arguably featured a strong female lead; Jim Cameron also gave us Aliens. Beauty and the Beast has a central female character and Julia Roberts made Pretty Woman a lot of money as its central character — although it’s really about the two of them. Roberts made Runaway Bride, which again, made Hollywood a lot of money, though arguably, it’s about both of them, ditto As Good as it Gets.

Moving into the 2000s, you have Twilight, The Blind Side, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

One of the reasons for the sharp decline is how much money movies are expected to make now. At the end of the 1990s, the highest grossing film of the decade was Titanic and the second highest was The Phantom Menace. It doesn’t really matter to Hollywood executives that Titanic made that kind of money with a female lead because, let’s face it, the Titanic itself was the real star.  But the second highest film made $473,307.  The previous decade, the 1980s, the highest grossing film was $434,975. And in the 1970s, Star Wars with $460.998.  But in the 1960s, our best decade for female-driven films, the highest grosser was Sound of Music with $158.671.  

So you can see how the blockbuster, namely Jaws and Star Wars really changed things in Hollywood, and really changed things for women.

 

But, cut to 2012 and a peculiar thing has happened.  So far, the box office is suddenly once again dominated by female-driven films. Sure, you still have the Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers as the top two, but The Hunger Games, led by Jennifer Lawrence (with no obligatory sex scenes or nudity) came in at number 3 so far and made $400 million.

Then you have Pixar’s first movie with a female heroine, Brave, which made a whopping $235 million. At number 11 you have Snow White and the Huntsman, which made $155 million.

The impact of these successes should not be overlooked nor diminished. This is huge. What it’s impact, ultimately, on the Oscar race is still yet untold.  But last year’s box office success of The Help pushed it into the Best Picture race.  Still to come this year, Zero Dark Thirty is a film with a strong female central character, and Les Mis is one, arguably, though I have to see it first.  Other than that, this year’s Oscar lineup looks to be, once again, male centric.

Let’s look at the cross data:

*denotes top box office of the decade
bold if it won Best Picture
#denotes top of the box office that year

1960s Best Picture contenders that were either centered on a strong female lead or else co-starred one
The Apartment

West Side Story*
Fanny
My Fair Lady*
Mary Poppins*
The Sound of Music*
Darling
Dr. Zhivago*
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Bonnie and Clyde*
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner*
Rachel Rachel
Funny Girl
The Lion in Winter
Romeo and Juliet
Anne of a Thousand Days
Hello Dolly*

1970s
Love Story*
Nicholas and Alexandra
The Last Picture Show (debatable)
Cabaret#
Cries and Whispers
The Exorcist*
A Touch of Class
Chinatown#
Nashville
Network#
Annie Hall#
The Goodbye Girl#
Julia
The Turning Point
Coming Home
An Ummarried Woman
Kramer vs. Kramer#
Norma Rae

1980s
Coal Miner’s Daughter#
Ordinary People#
Reds#
On Golden Pond*
Atlantic City
Missing
Terms of Endearment*
The Big Chill#
A Passage to India
Places in the Heart
—-NOTED – Barbra Streisand’s Yentl was one of the top grossers of the year, directing by and starring a woman. Not nominated for Best Picture.
Out of Africa#
The Color Purple*
Prizzi’s Honor
Children of a Lesser God
Hannah and Her Sisters#
A Room with a View
Broadcast News#
Fatal Attraction*
Moonstruck#
The Accidental Tourist
Dangerous Liaisons
Working Girl#
Driving Miss Daisy*

1990
Silence of the Lambs#
Beauty and the Beast*
The Prince of Tides #
Howards End
The Piano
The Remains of the Day
Sense and Sensibility
The English Patient#
Fargo
Jerry Maguire#
Secrets & Lies
Titanic*
As Good as it Gets#
Shakesepare in Love#
Elizabeth
American Beauty#

2000s
Chocolat
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon#
Erin Brockovich#
In the Bedroom
Gosford Park
Moulin Rouge!#
Chicago#
The Hours
Lost in Translation
Million Dollar Baby#
Little Miss Sunshine#
The Queen
Atonement
Juno#
The Reader
The Blind Side*
An Education
Precious#
Black Swan#
The Kids Are All Right
Winter’s Bone
True Grit
The Artist
The Descendants#
The Help*

What you can take away from this is the following:

1. Female driven films used to drive the box office, and those films, in turn, often showed up in the Best Picture race.

2. After the rise of the blockbuster, female-driven films that did well at the box office did not cross over into Oscar because the better, more respectable roles were in smaller, independent films. That means  movies like Bridesmaids or The First Wives Club or any of the films that draw a healthy box office tend to be too genre-y for the Academy, not Best Picture material.

3. As the number of nominations increased from 5 to 10, more films made by women, about women managed to get into the Best Picture race. Now that they’ve increased it to an unspecified number of films, the jury is out as to what that will ultimately do to films that aren’t big box office successes but are awards-worthy.

Jennifer Lawrence and Kristen Stewart’s brand of heroine alters what we’ve seen over the last few decades where women are concerned. Most of the time, female charaters need to be defined against a male figure, the person on whom the story turns. The Graduate is a good example of this. Benjamin is the lead but it still has two strong female characters. The English Patient is about Ralph Fiennes but it is also about Juliet Binoche and Kristen Scott-Thomas but they are still females framed around males, though their characters are essential and strong.  Binoche’s role is somewhat debatable. She is probably the lead and one could argue the plot turns on her. But what makes Stewart in Snow White and Lawrence in Hunger Games is that their character arcs do not depend on the male figure, even if there is a love interest. Conversely, Stewart’s work in Twilight is exactly the opposite; she is nothing without the man in her life.

To that end, neither The Hunger Games, nor Snow White, nor Twilight will get anywhere near the Oscar race. But this year has proved that women can dominate the box-office charts just as well as men and that might eventually result in real change. Moreover, these success help these actresses who then turn to smaller movies like Silver Linings Playbook for Jennifer Lawrence and On the Road for Kristen Stewart.

To my mind, both of these actresses deserve major props this year and perhaps an Oscar nomination is the way to honor them.

 

 

74 Comments on this Post

  1. Jennifer Lawrence will change that. She carried an action movie and grossed over $400 million domestically all on her own. I see a major movie star in the making… who can also act, which is a bonus. Would love to see her in a movie like Salt or Wanted.

  2. Not a Hunger Games fan but you have to give Jennifer Lawrence props for carrying a major blockbuster like that. Her performance wasn’t just astounding but also entertaining at the same time. I haven’t seen that in a long time including in male heroes of Hollywood. Someone give this chick an Oscar. She’s going to be HUGE in the upcoming years, mark my words.

  3. Snow White and the Huntsman had a $170 million budget and only ended up making $155 million. The box office was disappointing and didn’t even cover the budget, especially considering Alice in Wonderland made 4 times more than that.

  4. Are you forgetting Angelina Jolie? Hello Wanted? Salt? Lara Croft? Changeling? She was the first actress to define the meaning of female movie star. I think Jennifer Lawrence is another one who is becoming a huge box office draw. She’s a fantastic actress too. Reminds me a a lot of Jolie.

  5. “To my mind, both of these actresses deserve major props this year and perhaps an Oscar nomination is the way to honor them.”

    Oscar nominations are given to actresses who can ACT. I’m sorry but Kristen Stewart has to be the worst actress of her generation. I would also like to comment on how well Emma Stone has branched out as an actess as well as movie star on her own, bringing in profits for The Help, Easy A, etc. Jennifer Lawrence, as of now, is the best of her generation. THG would have drowned in horrible reviews if it weren’t for her stellar performance.

  6. Profile photo of Sasha Stone

    I am not forgetting Angelina Jolie. But she was a male fantasy in those roles, not designed for women but for men. I think that makes a difference. The Lara Croft was just hottie action on a stick, nothing new there, plenty of those to go around. This is something different. They don’t exist just to give men boners.

  7. Profile photo of Sasha Stone

    There are plenty of opportunities for actresses just like Emma Stone. She is not breaking any new ground. There is one of her every year.

  8. Forgot to bold silence of the lambs

  9. Hollywood’s new feminists? I’m not sure that the article quite explains how or why…although I’d say there’s a decent argument there. What Jennifer Lawrence says in the press is consistently refreshing considering the usual obsequious shite most actors spout in public:

    http://popwatch.ew.com/2012/11/09/jennifer-lawrence-weight/

    As for Kristen Stewart, Liberty Ross might have something to say about labelling her a feminist. I say go ahead Kristen. Fuck anyone you want! Burn your bras!

  10. Charlotte

    Great post, Sasha…I couldn’t agree more. Jennifer Lawrence is indeed an amazing actress, the best of her generation (as many of the reviews for the films Lawrence has starred/appeared in mention). I would have loved for Lawrence to have been nominated for The Hunger Games (a brilliant performance) but getting a nomination for Silver Linings Playbook which, appears inevitable (YAY!) will be fine by me because Jennifer Lawrence is phenominal as Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook. It’s an intense, heartbreaking performance and holy shit, this young woman is only 22…amazing.

  11. I want someone like Abbie Cornish to get some decent lead roles. She almost looks disinterested when playing the supporting female character.

    I think there have always been lots of great films about women. You just have to look for them. Here, we are just talking about box office juggernauts and the oscars. Sure, the crowd that flock to the summer flicks are probably looking for wisecracking male superheroes, etc, including lots of women who dont understand feminism.

    But there are always great films out there with excellent female characters.

  12. Christopher Lewis

    Sasha, I’m wondering how you’d feel about my thoughts on Jennifer Lawerence for SLP–a part of me doesn’t want her to win, not only b/c I think there have been more astounding performances, but also I think it’s better to not win early, to have that “worst tasting carrot” to drive you. I can’t imagine the immediate need to give her an Oscar for a performance that while good isn’t even her best.

  13. Kristen Stewart has done nothing that is even close to an Oscar worthy performance. The only awards she is continuously nominated for are razzies and MTV awards. You don’t get awards just because you get naked and have a scene jerking off two guys in the car for On The Road. It’s an insult to Jennifer Lawrence (an Oscar nominated actress) to pretend they are on equal footing. I know you like to put Jennifer Lawrence down Sasha and show blind admiration for the no talent Kristen Stewart but this is ridiculous. Did you see Snow White and the Huntsman? Snow White had to be continously save by either the Huntsman, Prince William or the male dwarves. She had no fighting skills during the fight scenes and was only cannon fodder.

    Also why don’t you point out that Prometheus with a budget of $130 and world wide gross of $400 was headed by a female Noomi Rapace. She was no Ripley but Dr.Shaw was brave, smart, and saved herself continously. I would include Angelina Jolie’s Salt also. She wasn’t running around in “male wish fulfillment clothes”. She was in regular clothes that females all over the world wear daily. It’s very narrow-minded to leave out the highest grossing female action star in the world just because she doesn’t fit YOUR definition of a feminist.

  14. Jennifer Lawrence will be around a very very long time. I wasn’t keen on her at first when I saw her but she’s been able to change my mind. As long as she doesn’t fall into the blond rom-com trap she has my vote as the best of her generation.

    The studio system still has a lot to learn about how to handle women and our stories.

  15. Nice piece, Sasha. I would give some props to Streep … her success has shown that audiences around the world will support an actress at 30 / 40 / 50 / 60. And Streep has done better at the box office since 2005 than Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts, which I don’t think anyone would have foreseen. My issue with Julia Roberts is that while she elevated paychecks for women, she made several horrible movies and created a template that was used by Reese Witherspoon, Kate Hudson, and Jennifer Anniston to also pick up big checks and make several horrible movies. Not sure yet if Kristen Stewart or Jennifer Lawrence are feminist heroes … they were in successful franchise films and that does not necessarily translate to longevity outside the franchise.

  16. Profile photo of Sasha Stone

    Definitely give props to Streep. I want to write something else up about the enduring actresses who have really pushed through the age barriers – especially this year.

  17. Profile photo of Sasha Stone

    Christopher, my own personal take on Jennifer Lawrence is that she is like Kate Hudson who was the favorite to win for Almost Famous. But she was too young and there was something key missing in her performance for a win. But I just don’t know who else would win. For now she’s the frontrunner but I don’t feel as convinced about it.

  18. Profile photo of Sasha Stone

    Paddy, what I’m thinking is this: these actresses in these films and the filmmakers who made them just aren’t following the rules laid out by the 70s and 80s as to what a blockbuster is all about. I mean really think about $400 million dollars for Hunger Games. That is astonishing for a female-driven film to have made that, without it being a love story, a la Titanic.

  19. Mohammed

    Perhaps it’s the cynic in me speaking, but I’ve yet to be impressed by neither Lawrence nor Stewart for acting ability versus other young female actresses who’ve come and gone over the years or their box office prowess. Can one honestly argue that she was the draw for The Hunger Games ? Can Stewart be credited as the main source of the success for Twilight ?

    Look at the other films of Stewart and Lawrence and their box office returns. They are different kinds of films (not action), but despite their success and name-recognition it hasn’t helped those films, as evident by The House Around The Corner.

    In the last decade there hasn’t been a female actress in the league of Angelina Jolie, no matter if one labels her roles as eye-candy for men or as strong female characters as I believe them to be . Despite The Tourist tanking in the US it made close 300 million. Salt made over 300. That’s numbers most male actors can dream of.

    When it comes to acting talent there is Saoirse Ronan and then there is the rest. Most of the time american actresses can’t act compared to those from the british isles.

  20. Jennifer Lawrence: Consistently great reviews for every performance, big blockbusters and small indies alike, carried $400 million franchise playing strong female lead.

    Kristen Stewart: Awful reviews for performances in blockbusters, mixed-to-good for indies, played empty object to be gazed upon by men in SWATH, film made less than its production budget.

    I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!

    Meanwhile, Emma Watson gave a terrific performance in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and certainly deserves more Oscar talk than Stewart.

  21. Sorry, Sasha, I have to respectfully disagree about your feelings on Angelina Jolie. Salt was written for a man and was not “wish fulfillment”. I also have to disagree on your comparison of Jennifer Lawrence to Kate Hudson.

    Kate Hudson came from a famous Hollywood family and automatically went to the top for Almost Famous. Jennifer Lawrence is from Kentucky, and Silver Linings would mark her 2nd Academy Award nomination before 25. Kristen Stewart is a better comparison to Kate Hudson.

    I enjoy some of your pieces but your obvious bias is belittling the point. I don’t see what box office has to do with feminism in the least.

  22. Marchand

    I agree 100% with this article. Kristen Stewart is ground breaking this year with 2 major leads in SWATH and Twilight. Her performance in OTR is definitely Oscar worthy. 155 million US box office and 400 million internationally is extraordinary no matter what the budget is. And if you follow social media the buzz for SWATH was maintained by Kristen Stewart fanbase. Kristen was nominated for 4 Young Artist Awards before the age of 17 and before Twilight, won that award for her performance in ‘Into the Wild’. She was highly recommended by big names in the business such as David Fincher, Sean Penn and Jodie Foster. So the tag ‘can’t act’ started by detractors of the Twilight series in 2009 just don’t hold water when it comes to her. I think a nomination for her this year for OTR would be a win not only for her, but for strong female lead genre. Her strong fanbase interest to anything she does has help increase interest to movies with female lead and this can only be a win for all actresses in Hollywood.

  23. Sasha, please don’t give any props to Kristen Stewart. She is one of the all-time wooden actresses. Not only is her acting bad and distracting, but, also, her line delivery is atrocious.

  24. I mean really think about $400 million dollars for Hunger Games. That is astonishing for a female-driven film to have made that, without it being a love story, a la Titanic.

    No doubt, the female teen demographic drove the box office for The Hunger Games. But they wouldn’t have made even $300 million had it not been for the action aspect, targeted at male teens, and the love story element from the novels is a key reason for drawing in so many girls. Without that, the films wouldn’t even have been made. And am I right in thinking that’s the direction Catching Fire will take?

    In direct relation to Jennifer and Kristen, I consider Snow White and the Huntsman to be the bigger success, as it was Kristen’s presence that drove the box office for that film. Jennifer Lawrence’s true power as a box office draw will only be tested when she leads a high profile project outside of The Hunger Games franchise.

    But, indeed, The Hunger Games’ success does represent a significant success.

  25. Jack Traven II

    I think nowadays it’s not just difficult for actresses to draw the audience’s attention with their films, even actors have a hard time selling their films. I may be wrong but I have the feeling that there are less and less different box office draws, no matter what gender. The times of Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks and Will Smith, when they had lots of blockbusters in a row, seem to be over. One or two, maybe three successful films for an actor or an actress and then that’s it, back into the 2nd line. But all that, of course, doesn’t hide the fact that the overall leaders of the box office are (unfortunately) sill men.

  26. @JackTravenII

    Well said, and many of those guys are living on their old hits. Tom Hanks being in Cloud Atlas didn’t do anything for the box office. Tom Cruise has had flops this year and so has Johnny Depp. There is not magic formula anymore.

  27. P.S.

    Chloe Moretz said it was seeing Angelina Jolie in her action films that motivated her to purse acting and audition for Kick-Ass. She said seeing Angelina made her believe that girls can be strong and fight. Many women go to see Angelina Jolie films as many women also go see James Bond films. Good action films tend to be 4-quadrant entertainment attracting both genders.

  28. ‘There are plenty of opportunities for actresses just like Emma Stone. She is not breaking any new ground. There is one of her every year.’

    BRAVO! People make such a fuss of her but she is so vanilla. I don’t think Jennifer is all that either but she has more than Stone. Maybe it’s because i didn’t read the book, but i found her boring in Hunger Games. Stewart isn’t given the credit she deserves, i saw her in On The Road and the girl transfixes you. She didn’t have a big part but when she is in a scene i was looking at HER, and not just because she is a pretty girl and was showing a lot of skin. Barbara Stanwyck had a wonderful quote

    “Eyes are the greatest tool in film. Mr. Frank Capra taught me that. Sure, it’s nice to say very good dialogue, if you can get it. But great movie acting – watch the eyes!”

  29. I agree with Mohammed about Ronan being the shit*, but she’s also had some incredible roles and Joe Wright brings out the best in his actresses. Lawrence and Stewart’s ability to give passionate and touching performances in CGI actioners earlier this year says a lot about their magnetism.

    *It was cool seeing her and Cate Blanchett together in Hanna because it felt like a baton pass.

  30. What about Devil Wears Prada or the Help? Quite box office hits with strong female characters.
    Also both Twilight and Hunger Games had huge built in audiences because of the books. They didn’t make all that money just because of their lead actresses. It is like saying Harry Potter movies made all that money because of the lead actor! Or Bond movies make all that money because of Daniel Craig. They are part of the equation but not the only factor. The same thing is true for the two movies I mentioned above. They already had built n audiences. Of course performances helped!

  31. I agree with Aragorn.

  32. Aragorm I Agree, too.
    Those film had a great success thanks to the books and the enormous publicity. Not for its leads protagonists. Otherwise, we are bound to say that “the franchise Transformers” had a huge box office (over 1 billion) thanks to Shia Labeouf.

  33. Aragorn’s comments are appropriate for The Hunger Games, however as a Twilight fan i can assure you that the main reason the films continue to do so well is the perfect casting of Rob and Kristen. I’m not sure how well this is portrayed to those outside the fandom but it’s true. I think the films are fine for what they are, but when it hit big it lost the charm that Catherine Harwicke captured in the first film. It’s the 2 main leads that are the main draw for this franchise, or maybe it is a mix of the perfect casting with the right material. It’s no coincidence that the Edward and Bella storyline is what fans look forward to, not the wolf scenes. There is usually a collective groan when they come on lol!

  34. I agree with Aragorn on both counts, but The Hunger Games had repeat success because the buzz on Jennifer Lawrence’s lead performance. She didn’t play a lovesick girl or even one that is very likable, so her task was much harder. No other female led movie has done $400 million in the domestic market alone. The Hunger Games is not sold on the same “team” aspect that made the Twilight movies a success. The success of Snow White and the Huntsman can also be attributed from a showy lead in Charlize Theron and the “It” guy of the moment Chris Hemsworth.

  35. moviewatcher

    Just wanted to say that I think this is a very interesting study.

    However, Kramer vs Kramer, though having a very strong female character, has a main character in Dustin Hoffman. Meryl Streeps appears at the beginning and then reappears at the end. She is supporting.

  36. What happened to the KILL BILLs? They were successful and in the race.

  37. Anon: I know there’s a lot of hype about Jennifer Lawrence, but before she got the part, there was a lot of buzz around the film.

  38. Jennifer Lawrence auditioned for the role of Bella in Twilight and did not get the role? Well, it seems she was desperate to be famous at any cost. Congratulations! Finally she got it.

  39. Hi Sasha, I like the idea of nominating both actresses this year to commemorate this new generation of actresses, but out of what I took away from On The Road, it wasn’t much of an impression made by Stewart. Maybe I expected too much. Lawrence, however, kicks ass, both critically and commercially.

  40. unlikely hood

    Whatta buncha J-Law and K-Stew haters. Geeeeeeeez, get over yourselves.

    Sasha I consider myself as much of a feminist as you (I’ve been here for the duration of the site, as you know). I don’t believe this data proves what you say it proves. There’s no big drop-off of women-centered films at Oscar – it holds pretty steady.

    As for the box office, you’re a decade too late. This point is made by Peter Kramer somewhat exhaustively in his book “The New Hollywood: From Bonnie and Clyde to Star Wars.” He details the Top 14 – don’t ask me why 14 and not 10 or 15 or 20 – from 1949-1966 and compares it to 1967-76. Of course the previous era features films like (as you said) West Side Story, Cleopatra, Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, Doctor Zhivago, and The Sound of Music. The New Hollywood Top 14 box office (chronologically) is:

    The Graduate
    Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
    Love Story
    Airport
    The Godfather
    The Poseidon Adventure
    The Exorcist
    The Sting
    American Graffiti
    The Towering Inferno
    Blazing Saddles
    Jaws
    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
    Rocky

    Kramer cites polls that women had loved many of the early-1960s musicals and such; he then says that the top post-1966 films were far more likely to appeal to men than women. This was partly because of violence, licentiousness, nudity, coarseness…but also “The stories of all Top 14 films revolve around the experiences, desires, and actions of men…In many cases, women are marginalized to the point where they disappear altogether…In The Exorcist the focus shifts dramatically from a mother and her daughter to a battle between a male-identified demon and two priests…In only three of the films does a woman receive top billing (Anne Bancroft, Ali McGraw, Ellen Burstyn)…Where male/female relationships are foregrounded, they are characterized by seemingly unresolvable problems…On all levels, then, women are sidelined (or vilified) on screen and also therefore, one may assume, in the audience.”

    Blame Jaws and Star Wars for blockbusterism, for plots than can be summarized in 25 words or less, for happy ending-itis, for spectacle over substance…all the usual suspects. But you can’t blame them and their successors for shoving women to the sidelines. The “auteur” generation that came in after Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate had already done that.

  41. charlotte

    @Vince Smetana: My thoughts exactly.

  42. I have to agree with Unlikely Hood. When I think of 1970s, I do not generally think of strong women, huge female movie stars (outside of Jane Fonda), or female characters driving stories. All that comes to mind when it comes to 1970s and women, commercially and critically, as well as from a plot-driving perspective, is Fonda and Annie Hall and maybe the fact that Glenda Jackson won two Oscars and then retired. Maybe Jill Clayburgh and Ellen Burnstyn getting nominated a bunch of times. (Does Carrie factor in here?)

    When I think of the male side of the coin, I think of The Godfather saga, Chinatown, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford & Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Star Wars, Jaws, Brian DePalma, Martin Scorcese, Steven Spielberg, Francis Coppola, Stanley Kubrick (all male directors who specialized in male-driven stories), Robert Altman ensembles.

    That’s all from the top of my head.

    But, that’s how my mind works. Others will be different.

  43. On one hand, Twilight and The Hunger Games are based on a bestselling series of books. However, the blockbusters starring actors are also based off of bestselling series (graphic novels). A good test may be to see if an actress can sell a few original roles, originally written for the screen.

    It’s too bad some of the blockbuster movie directors such as Speilberg or Nolan do not make movies centered on female characters. At most, they are supporting roles. The one time Spielberg made a movie about women, The Color Purple turned out wonderfully and is a classic (it really is for a HUGE demographic). Women just don’t capture these guys’ imagination.

    Also, directors are getting more adept at incorporating special effects into films starring women, which helps to attract guys. I know I went to Snow White because the visuals appeared spectacular (the movie stunk).

  44. Its a great issue, but… despite its title, Kramer vs Kramer doesnt have a female lead or co-lead. Streep has a brilliant dramatic art but not half the screen time as Hoffman. Maybe she equals the boy. And no, Titanic didnt get its billion beacause of the ship. The Rose character was a great archetypical one and the main character of the film. Jack was good, but in the end he was just a catalyst for Roses arc. Also, I dont buy the blockbuster thing. Sure they were born sexist, but not differently from other movies. At least the article shows no consistent evidence.

  45. Thanks for this article. Now that I think about it, there has been a sharp decline in QUALITY of female driven films, regardless of their quantity, identity or philosophy. I mean, Twilight and Blind Side maybe be best selling AND female driven but they are bad movies. Haven’t seen Hunger Games but at least its reviews are decent.

    Same can’t be said about Snow White and the Huntsman though. It sold a lot of tickets but so what? Snow White, Twilight and Blind Site are just like Aeon Flux, Underworld, Ultraviolet and such. Sure, the last 3 are more male power fantasy than anything else but that should not factor here. If it’s a bad movie, it won’t matter how feminist the characters look. Bad films help NO cause (good or bad). Also, Atlas Shrugged part 1 and 2!!!


    A note about Avatar. I’m not a fan of modern Cameron films but the female lead in Avatar was the true star of the whole thing. Seriously, Zoe Saldana’s character made the that mess almost watchable. Sadly she had a predictable and male related arc… Though even with that in mind, I believe decent female character, even in films like Avatar deserves more recognition in a discussion like this than badly drawn and acted ones like Twilight or Blind Side leads and their respectful films.

    Heck, even John Carter was saved by the female character (though a some her scenes kinda ruin the powerful princess / heroine image). In short, a best selling female driven should NOT matter if it’s a bad one.

  46. Flicking through Box Office Mojo’s Top 100 (world wide)

    12 – Alice in Wonderland (2010) – $1,024.3m
    70 – Mamma Mia (2008) – $609.8m
    74 – Tangled (2010) – $590.7m

  47. In a few years Meryl Streep will win her 4th Oscar in a box office hit in which she portrays Barack Obama.

  48. ChrisFlick

    Did I miss any mention of last year’s It Girl, Rooney Mara? Saw a trailer yesterday and was vaguely interested by it because I was trying to place the female lead and couldn’t. Turned out to be Side Effects, her next movie.

  49. As Unlikely Hood points out the New Hollywood generation that came into being in the late 60s and 70s had radically altered the landscape, in terms of dominance for male protagonists onscreen, well before the aformentioned templates for the modern blockbuster showed up.

    If anything THE GODFATHER briefly becoming the all time top grossing film helped do permanent harm as every prior movie that held that particular accolade (GONE WITH THE WIND, THE SOUND OF MUSIC) had been female driven and here along comes a picture(however great) from what was, and still is, the most male occupied genre that on some superficial level had no conventional widespread appeal to women. And by the time JAWS took the title and then STAR WARS did it’s unfortunately understanderble that studio execs, whose main function is business, from that point on realised or thought that a balance of equal movies starring women wasn’t the key anymore to driving the profits.

  50. Its good to have different actresses like Stewart and Lawrence making waves in the box office. Diversity is always a pluss.

    But you cannot forget:

    Rooney Mara who carried a critic loved and R rated The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. How many actresses has been the lead in a R rated movie with 100$ mill dollars at the box office?

    Nathalie Portman won the Oscar as the ballerina in Black Swan. That little dark movie did incredible good at the box office

    Angelina Jolie, the moviestar has the following movies over 100$ million dollars ( adjusted for ticket price inflation)
    1 Mr. & Mrs. Smith Fox $230,812,800
    2 Shark Tale DW $205,657,700
    3 Lara Croft: Tomb Raider Par. $184,006,100
    4 Kung Fu Panda 2 P/DW $162,938,500
    5 Gone in 60 Seconds BV $149,738,300
    6 Wanted Uni. $148,746,200
    7 Salt Sony $118,162,500
    8 The Bone Collector Uni. $103,686,400

    She is co-lead in Mrs and Mrs Smith, Wanted, lead in Salt and The Bone Collector.
    So when it comes to Jolie, Sasha you are narrov minded and judgemental. A strong female character can also be sexy and a mans fantasy. Just like the male driven ones. Very few Oscar noms and in gerenal critical praises for box office champions

  51. Can anyone explain to me the mystery of KStew being singled out as the face of feminism? Based on what exactly? Looking like a dear caught in headlights every time she makes a public appearance? PR-created showmance with a co-star for the sole purpose of keeping the movie series anticipation hot? Affair with a married director with kids? Playing the character that feminists absolutely hate? Snow White ehich didn`t make any impresson nor it garnered her good reviews?

    I like KStew and think she`s a good actress (includes terrible Twilight where she captures that annoying character from the book perfectly) but she is galaxy far far away from feminism on and off the screen. It`s just Sasha`s unnatural hate for Lawrence that made her put KsTew on the same level of feminist icondom although they definitely aren`t.

  52. Is it just me or should Thelma and Louise be on that list. If i remember correctly it was a huge hit commercially.

  53. your comparison of kate hudson and jennifer lawrence is ridiculous and pointless. seriously, you dislike jennifer lawrence this much that this is what you come up with. if anything it is the talentless stewart that fits the comparison. jennifer lawrence has lined up films like ends of the earth, sissy spacek’s directorial debut and even the glass castle which is one of the most interesting books i’ve ever read. kate hudson and kristen stewart can only wish to have her career.

  54. What is with the insistence of Kristen Stewart as a feminist? She was a male fantasy in ‘Snow’ and everything you rail against in ‘Twilight’. Lawrence is a perfect specimen of your point, but not Stewart.

  55. I’m just curious Sasha Stone did you feel this way about Jennifer Lawrence when she was nominated for Winter’s Bone? If you believe her perfomance in Silver linings Playbook is “missing something” why put her at the top in your predictions? Why not take a chance with another actress like Riva or Watts or Cotillard even Jessica Chastain? At this point you should campaign for Stewart’s low energy perfomance in On The Road to nowhere. Don’t forget Twilight is coming out this week!

  56. An interesting common point in Lawrence’s and Stewart’s career: Jodie Foster. Stewart is til this day mentored by her, and Lawrence was picked by her for the Beaver. I bet both girls were influenced by Jodie, who is a real living (positive) role model for feminists.

    Also she played a lot of very strong female characters in her career – for Clairce Starling to Ellie Arroway(Contact). From Inside Man from The Brave One. Looks like Elysium will be another strong female part too.

  57. Didn’t STAR WARS have a strong female co-lead? I seem to recall one…

  58. I must say that I agree with everyone who has acknowledged Angelina Jolie as a strong female presence. I think that over the course of her career, she’s been fearless, brave, vulnerable and imposing at the same time. From Gia to Girl Interrupted, Changeling to Salt, in my opinion she has drawn the complexities of female empowerment, frustration and identity with a fine toothed comb. She is also a female actress who writes and directs now. I think Stewart and Lawrence would be blessed to follow in her footsteps and no I don’t think they are there yet.
    I’ve only seen Jennifer Lawrence in three films thus far: Winter’s Bone, X-Men First Class, and of course The Hunger Games. I am continually impressed by her and do think that she has the potential to be a very strong female presence in Hollywood but I want to see more of her before I make that call.
    Kristen Stewart is a different story for me. I’ve seen many of her films and do think that she possesses a certain quality that makes her interesting to watch but most of her characters are the same and for me most of them are not empowering. From Into the Wild to Welcome to the Rileys, a lot of her characters are lost girls in search of themselves. While I think that this can represent a true phase in young womanhood, it doesn’t really resonate as feminism with me. It is also interesting to note that some feminists took issue with On the Road when it was published for marginalizing female characters and Marylou could likewise be seen as fodder for the male fantasy, even if she is not. I’ve read On the Road and her character is repeatedly referred to as a “whore” in the text. For me, Snow White was more of an empty vessel with men around her consistently telling her that she’s great without really ever proving it…and Bella certainly has many detractors though I would argue that the character fully realized as a mother and the matriarch who protects her family is a much stronger version of the characters Stewart usually plays.
    I have to say that I think it is great that female centric stories are doing well as blockbusters in the market right now. But I would have to agree that you don’t need The Hunger Games to make 400 million dollars to say that you’ve found a strong female character. My favorite two characters in film have been Trinity from The Matrix (portrayed by Carrie Ann Moss) and Neytiri from Avatar (played by Zoe Saldana). To me, they were strong not simply because they didn’t need a man but more for the fact that they knew who they were and lived according to their convictions, loved with all of their hearts and fought for what they believed in.

  59. Hey, didn’t a pretty kick-ass female co-lead show up in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and THE AVENGERS, also?

  60. Pierre de Plume

    That’s a good one, Tony — Streep as Obama!

  61. The girl with the dragon tattoo os missing here.

  62. Feminist/feminism is waaay different from female-driven. Nor do i think that the actresses in the films that are “female-driven” considered themselves as carrying the flag for the feminism movement, especially those in the 1960s.

  63. Those that think Sasha hates Jennifer, I have to disagree. She just does not think Jennifer shits rainbows or is the second coming of Jesus. You gotta admit that after THG there was a lot of ass kissing and Sasha just does not do that.

  64. People talk about Angelina Jolie, but I think major props should be given to Jodie Foster for carrying a blockbuster where she was a strong female lead without being a love interest and achieving both critical acclaim and commercial success with the Silence of the Lambs. A genre film at that. She paved the way. She’s also carried film completely on her own to success and they weren’t romantic comedies or male fantasy parts either.

  65. I agree with Ann-. Plus after Silence she had a lot of good feminist leading roles- Contact, Panic Room, Brave One just to name a few.

  66. @Iktriad Exactly. People just bring up Angelina Jolie and like to think she is such a pioneer because she’s the one thrown in our faces all the time, but she hasn’t really carried that many films all on her own to hits. None of her films have lasting power either. Her career was boosted by public interest in her private life.

    I think Jodie Foster as a female figure in cinema is underrated. Her success at playing the type of role she played in the Silence of the Lambs was groundbreaking at the time. She’s had success playing other strong female roles in genre films and she didn’t have to promote her personal life, sex herself up or be a romantic leading lady to achieve that.

  67. I sincerely hope that we’ll see more women in power positions in hollywood in the future …

  68. Ann: I totally agree with you that Jodie Foster always sell tickets. Her name alone brought Panic Room, The Brave One and Contact to box office success. She was originally attached to the lead role in The Game directed by David Fincher. The characters she plays is not desperately in need of a husband/man/lover

    Jolie is different. She has become the action female star and everyone knows her name, face and about her private life. Jolie is bigger than Julia Robert has ever been. Jolie has also won the Academy awards, she can act and play various of female characters. And she developing as an actress and human being.

    But Jolie, she sells tickets for sure. Not many actresses can create so much buzz about upandcoming movies like her. There have been lots of paparazzies in England during the production of Maleficent because of Jolie. She is the total package, no matter what you think of her.

    There are room for many different actresses who can lead the way and be box office champions. We cannot have just one type. We need diversity like Cruise, Smith, Hanks, Washington, Downey Jr, Jackman, Ford,

    And we need female directors that will be allowed to direct huge studio productions as well as small critical darlings.

  69. Daisy Kenyon

    Keira Knightly needs some props too. She seems overdue for an award. Amy Adams, another actress who is versatile and put out some great work in the last few years, love to see her nominated this year.

  70. Keira Knightley absolutely doesn`t deserve any props. She can`t open a movie on her name alone, she is ridiculous and ridiculed as an attempted action star (bombs Domino and King Arthur, her retarded Mary Sue trun in POTC where she gave the worst and most embarrassing battle speech in history of battle speeches,that was featuring lots of pouting, and her latest role is the weakest woman in literature ever. It doesn`t help that she always looks petulant with her stupid pout, half opened lips and sticked out jaw.

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