I spend a lot of time thanking Sady Doyle for saying it, but I have to, because she’s so good. Thanks for this, Sady. Ann Hornaday’s editorial about “strong women” in movies, and particularly the inevitable box office failure of the Amelia Earhart biopic, felt like it was telling me to take my medicine. When it comes to “Amelia”, I’m not averse to seeing it because I don’t like female protagonists, or because I don’t like Amelia Earhart. It’s because I know how it ends, and I fear it’s going to be boring right up to the inevitable moment. Want to bet that they gloss over details that would make the more sexually conservative audience members squirm, such the fact that Earhart questioned getting married until the day she did it, and called marital fidelity a “medieval code”?
I feel at this point, there’s two camps on the question of female-centered, female-led, female-directed, etc. movies. One camp claims that women don’t make ticket-buying decisions, period, and the other camp points to the successes of movies like “Sex and the City” and “Mamma Mia” to disprove this. Hornaday admirably tries to take a third, more realistic stance, which is that women buy tickets, but they focus most of their money on silly stuff.
The only problem? No Manolo Blahniks! No Abba! No vampires!…..
In an era when women in movies fall along a spectrum defined by Hannah Montana and “Twilight” on one end and “Sex and the City” and “Mamma Mia!” on the other, where are the screen heroines of yesteryear, who could be strong, serious and sexy?…..
To understand the situation of women in Hollywood right now, one need look no further than Drew Barrymore, whose career over the past year perfectly crystallizes the good-news/bad-news dichotomy. The ensemble romantic comedy she produced and starred in, “He’s Just Not That Into You,” was a hit. “Whip It,” the girl-centric action comedy that marked her feature directorial debut, was not……
The conclusion is that women are buying tickets, but to the wrong movies, ones that are silly or sexist, and don’t have a feminist message. Unfortunately, putting it that way just makes it less likely that women will buy the “right” tickets, as Sady points out—it seems like we’re being asked to take our medicine by seeing “Whip It”, when the reason you should see “Whip It” is that it’s a lot of fun. Sady suggests that women are shaping the market by looking for escapist fare, and I think that’s right, but again, it’s not like escapist fare is at odds with girl power or feminism at all.
Personally, I think plain old sexism explains the situation quite neatly. Right now, the environment is such that women don’t have a lot of time in their schedules to see female-centric movies, because most people don’t go to the movies alone. That means either getting a partner, a friend, or a relative to go with you. The occasional movie focusing on female friends doing non-controversial things, in the tradition of “Steel Magnolias”, will get big box office because it gives women a reason to get together with female friends and go hang out. But you can’t do that too often, because organizing that sort of thing is like herding cats, particularly since women often have a lot more family obligations than men that make getting together with friends hard. “Whip It” followed the formula, except that it wasn’t non-controversial, since it was about violent sports and punk rock attitudes, so you’re automatically limiting your audience to younger women, instead of dipping into that cross-generational demographic that equals big bucks.
And that’s about it for getting women to see a movie about women being friends with each other, getting female friends to go see it. Sure, it’s true that in very small, enlightened circles, some men will consent to go seeing these movies with female partners, and it’s true that there are some women who partner with other women, but if you’re relying on those groups to really drive the box office, you’re probably not going to do well. It’s a numbers game, after all. If women are going to the movies with men, odds are the men get the final say in what movie will be seen. We don’t have to like this at all, but it’s kind of silly to pretend it’s not true. Men don’t have to use overt bullying to get the final word. The dynamic between men and women is still one where men get to unapologetically express preferences, and women accommodate and only feel right expressing preferences if they don’t step on anyone’s toes. Putting your foot down and saying, “You picked the last 10 movies we saw, and we’re going to go see this movie that centers around female friendship,” just won’t fly with most heterosexual couples. Some, sure—so please don’t protest in comments that I’m full of shit because you have the rare egalitarian relationship. And sadly, even a lot of women who decide to take this stance have to face the fact that any movie’s watchability can be denied with an eyeroll and the term “chick flick”. I’m sure this is what happened to “Whip It”. Romantic comedies have figured out how to get around this situation by casting actors that seem like manly men and injecting a lot of fart jokes to make sure that it doesn’t seem too prissy, and also by reinforcing retrograde gender roles. Flouting all that still means box office poison.
That’s why I got so annoyed at the idea that it’s women falling down on the job of going to see the right movies. Yeah, sure, but why is it all one gender’s fault? Why can’t we expect men not to be so close-minded about what movies they want to see? If men don’t go out and see female-centric movies that flout sexism—and from the audience I saw at “Whip It”, I can assure you they don’t—then this is going to keep happening.