It’s a bit early to begin making lists of the year’s best. Regarding two major films yet to be seen — American Hustle and Wolf of Wall Street — I’m going to bet that the most interesting characters in those films are the male characters. I could be wrong. Jennifer Lawrence appears to be the best reason to see American Hustle based on the released clips. But it’s too soon to know. Still, the year has offered up some wonderful characters that I’ve seen. In all likelihood, there are films with great female characters I haven’t yet seen. This is by no means a definitive list, just a compilation of the characters I believe worthy of attention for reasons other than their sexuality — something we already know women offer the world in abundance. If there is one thing I wish mainstream Hollywood could abide, it’s the notion that women are people too.
It’s treacherous waters out there for actresses. Every time you turn around there is another young pretty woman joining the ranks, displacing the ones who came before. They seem so disposable. Out with the old, in with the new. Every year this repeats. It was not always so. Women used to control the box office because they were icons who’d spent many hard years honing their craft. In the days of Jane Fonda and Sally Field and Faye Dunaway, films were built around them. Things started to shift when Julia Roberts dominated the box office, and became one of the only females in recent years to do so. What Roberts had was fuckability, likability and talent all rolled into one. Finding the next Julia Roberts was difficult. There was Sandra Bullock, who followed quickly in her footsteps and is still making loads of money. But for the most part, it seemed to ignite the trend of trying to find and package the new burst of light. Hollywood has found that girl once again in Jennifer Lawrence, who remains one of the few females in Hollywood for whom whole films will be built around. Here’s to hoping she lasts many years to come. But for every Jennifer Lawrence there are dozens of those promising young actresses who must dwell in the wasteland of the romantic comedy. There is no point in naming them because there is always the chance they can come back from that. This is where young actresses gain box office clout because this is the only genre right now that is guaranteed to make bank among the predominantly female ticket-buyers.
The romantic comedy — the grown-up version of the Disney fairy tale where women find men who love them as much as they need to be loved. What else do women have to cling to as they come of age, when they’ve been brought up to believe that life is about finding “the one and only”? Mainstream entertainment doesn’t offer them many alternatives. We obsess on Kim Kardashian who is a cypher – a whirlwind of boobs, high heels, ass and lips. We have The Bachelorette (don’t get me started). We have youth being valued over everything else as we watch our beloved aging stars self-consciously stitching and botoxing themselves into faux-youthful oblivion. Weight, diet, aging, who wore it best, who is now pregnant, who is being cheated on, who gained and lost 50 pounds during pregnancy — WHO GIVES FUCK? Women.
Adults have mostly retired to their living rooms to watch Netflix, HBO or network television. There is no shortage of great female characters out there. Sure, the reality shows are nonsense — ruining all that is holy. But there is Game of Thrones! Thank the lord for Game of Thrones and George RR Martin. But Masters of Sex, Scandal, Homeland — all feature extraordinary female leads. If only the young girls coming up in the world had an interest. They don’t. They are buying tickets to movies (yay Hunger Games and Catching Fire) which are mostly aimed at the target demographic, boys. When Hollywood aims a film at boys what they mean is — put a guy in the lead. This is why Gravity was exceptional. By all rights the Sandra Bullock character should have been cast with a man. It wasn’t. It’s on its way to making $300.
And into this atmosphere comes 50 Shades of Grey, fan fiction based on Twilight characters that intro’d the female demographic to BDSM in the mainstream. There is Blue is the Warmest Color, one of the most lovely and sumptuous films about sexuality to come along in a while but the main character, Adele, is simply a teenager who is figuring out what she wants sexually. Okay, fine, but really? How is that fascinating in any way other than to men who are likewise obsessed and perplexed by what they hope is the inner volcano of the average beautiful young woman? In real life, most girls — especially American girls — are worrying about who they want to be, what they want to accomplish in the world to have their whole identity consumed by what kind of lover they wish to have. More fascinating than her sexuality is Adele’s desire to teach, which is not explored nearly as much as her desire to eat and have sex. Okay, fine, I’m not criticizing the film — I love the movie. I’m just pointing out that, to me, that’s not that interesting for a female character. Feel free to disagree.
While many of the best performances are characters who are singularly defined by their need for and their relationship to a stronger male character, I feel grateful when there is any complexity at all. Great female characters this year? Greta Gerwig as Frances Ha, Sarah Polley as herself in Stories We Tell, Julia Louie Dreyfuss in Enough Said, Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks, Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, Brie Larson in Short Term 12, Sandra Bullock in Gravity, Meryl Streep and almost the whole cast of August: Osage County, Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave, June Squibb in Nebraska, Kate Winslet in Labor Day, Cameron Diaz [the best thing] in The Counselor, Jennifer Lawrence in Catching Fire, to name a few.
There is a dangerous storm brewing in Hollywood. Since the majority of ticket-buyers are young (straight) males, the focus of most family entertainment is on the one little man who saves the day. While he’ll often have a tough and smart female enter the scene, he is the one doing the saving. Animated films tend to feature mostly white, mostly male characters in heroic positions. Animated films make Hollywood shitpiles of cash every year. Children are growing up learning what and who they are supposed to be. You do the math.
Fans of Pixar were ready to storm the gates with pitchforks when they released Brave last year. That the film was a story about, gasp, the insignificant female characters nearly shattered the Pixar legacy. It wasn’t up to Pixar’s standard of greatness, the fans bellowed. The movie made a couple hundred million and won the Animated Feature Oscar. Brave wasn’t all that interesting ultimately because none of the characters really got to do much. We were all hoping that the curly redhead would go on a real adventure, put her archery to good use. But she never did.
Such is not the case with Frozen. Frozen is about two sisters — their relationship, their roles in the kingdom. They aren’t rescued. They aren’t supporting characters of the more important male figures. Elsa doesn’t even have a love interest. What does she have? Power. Enormous untapped uncontrollable power. Because she can’t control that power, she fears she might do harm so she escapes her kingdom (queendom) and heads to the mountaintops where, in the privacy of her own ice castle that she built, she lets it all go. The song “Let it Go” is such an anomaly in the world of animation where usually women sing songs about love or the men they can’t have. But here, she’s singing about unleashing her own magical power of freezing things.
The film never feels pressured to make Elsa appealing to a more powerful male character to validate her. Just think about that simple shift in storytelling. Moreover, her sister Anna is usually the one who gets herself out of scrapes, often rescuing the man she’s attached to rather than the reverse. This film makes a deliberate and conscious effort to show women as being just as capable, if not more so, than men. It was enough to bring tears to my eyes, especially sitting next to my 15 year-old daughter who loves the movie. And for all of the young girls sitting in the theater to now see a clean slate, a non-conditioning movie that gives women the chance to be the heroes.
Wow. Wow. Wow.
I worry about the future. But at the Frozen premiere I saw EW editor and journalist Anthony Breznican with his very young daughter wearing her princess dress sitting a few rows in front of my daughter and me. She was engaged in the film throughout — sometimes burying her head in her daddy’s arms when she was scared. To her, she will never grow up thinking women don’t matter. It isn’t just to do with the characters depicted in Frozen. It helps to have a great mom and dad to help her realize that she is more worthwhile to the world as a human being. She’ll grow up remembering she saw an animated film that was about a woman learning to harness her power, not waiting for her prince to come. I don’t know what that will mean ultimately — and I don’t know how you solve the problem of Pixar and Disney being focused almost entirely on white characters. But I do know that there is another kind of storm brewing in our culture, one that joins voices from all over the world and unites them on various social media platforms like Tumblr.
Of course, the film isn’t going to be what it is without its detractors. Those social justice feminist bloggers have complained that the characters are one kind of pretty and that it’s a standard we can all do without. But. Bill Desowitz wrote a wonderful response to this:
However, now we can focus on what really matters: “Frozen” offers Disney’s most progressive feminist approach to the princess fairy tale to date. How else would you characterize the post-modern refashioning of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” as a conflict between two sisters based on love vs. fear? The result is a lot bolder than perpetuating traditional romantic love, bolstered by the presence of Disney Animation’s first female director — Jennifer Lee (the co-screenwriter of “Wreck-It Ralph”) — who helmed with animation vet Chris Buck (“Surf’s Up,” “Tarzan”). But then it was Buck’s idea to end with a radical departure that they worked very hard to earn.
My daughter is swept up in that storm where social justice is a big concern. Those voices are also going to change the future for women. It will then be Hollywood’s job to pay attention. And catch up. But it’s important to note when there is a major shift. Brave hinted at it. Frozen has realized it.