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« It's Happening Again... Dates For The Next Awards Season | Main | Curio: Matryoshka Movie Night »
Tuesday
Mar112014

'The World is Round, People!' But Can It Spin a Little Differently?

Blue Jasmine was one of Woody Allen's biggest hits, earning $94 million globallyGeena Davis and I have been harping on gender disparity in film for ever and I've also spent a lot of time on its sister problem: ageism focused on women. But in the past couple of years it feels like the conversation has finally reached the mainstream. 

Every website, even the most misogynist-friendly, now knows what the Bechdel Test is and that the majority of movies still fail it even though it's super easy to pass. Cate Blanchett's Oscar speech got a lot of attention and Kevin B Lee recently had a major cinemetrics piece in the New York Times about women's limited screen time and now, as The Wrap reports, a new study out of San Diego State's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film shows how bad the problem is not just in lead roles (only 13% of the films in the top 100 of last year) but in ageist double standards (women over 40 account for only 30% of female roles while 55% of male roles are for the over 40 set) and in racial representation (73% of all female roles are for caucasian women).

All of this despite the fact that Cate's Oscar speech was total righteous truth-telling. [More...]

the ten biggest global hits led by women this past year (figures in millions). I thought The Call would be on this list but it was only a big hit in America.

...and perhaps those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. 

 

But can Hollywood course correct?

I think the problem is so ingrained that even people who don't notice they're doing it preference male-centric narratives above female ones. This tweet from Michael Cusumano reminded me of how unconcious it is for everyone. Including even me (gulp).

 

 

Jane Campion's Top of the Lake, a bracing feminist work shares several themes and concerns and elements with True Detective: child abuse, missing children, pedophilia, evil secretive patriarchal societies, detectives with relationship issues, locale as character, fervent religiosity, and award-worthy acting among them. But Top of the Lake is an even stronger work with a less plotholey mystery, just as much eery resonance, an even more distinct auteurial voice, and a more satisfying but still shocking closer. But did it excite the internet in the same way? No way. I didn't even really write about it here and yet I found the time to say words about True Detective.

Despite the once frequent complaints that Oscars don't accurately represent current cinema well (an argument which reached its apex during the Aughts), I've always thought they do in several ways. But in one way they don't. THANK GOD. See, in some ways the very structure of the Oscars with their four gender balanced acting categories forces the industry to be less sexist than they would be otherwise; if they ever dropped gender as a qualifications for acting categories, I'd bet the farm that more men would be nominated every year than women due to systematic and deeply ingrained sexism.

It's a bit of a tangent, though not entirely since ageism and sexism are often fused, but here's an old graph I did in 2010 illustrating Oscar's age problem across its then 82 year history...

(It's entirely speculative but I'd bet that a 'by gender' graph if you didn't have divided categories would most closely resemble the far right graph with women only getting a sliver of the honors.)

The past four sets of winners since I made that chart haven't really moved the needle. Men are still most likely to win, in either category, during their 40s as McConaughey and Leto both did this year while women's peak Oscar years are still the 20s through early 30s as recent wins by Lawrence, Nyong'o, Hathaway, and Portman remind us... though thankfully supporting actress gives women in their 40s a fairly fair shake). More on this topic surely next Oscar season as it nearly always applies. 

But surely there are reasons enough to hope. Do you think things are changing? This past year famous gave us the oldest ever Best Actress shortlist and the number of bankable women over 60 is currently surprisingly large. The way I see it we have 3 currently: Mirren, Streep, Dench... which is quite a lot more than we used to have if you think about it. Sandra Bullock, about to hit 50, is miraculously even more bankable than she was in her 30s... and she was pretty bankable back then. 

And even if change will take a long while perhaps the currently hot YA craze, which often focuses on young women, will eventually lead to more gender balance in the movies since money talks. Or are they part of the problem... given their intense focus on youth?

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Reader Comments (24)

One could argue that the reason True Detective captured the zeitgeist in a way that Top of the Lake didn't was because it was on HBO as opposed to Sundance. Although, you could always counter argue by saying they wound up on their respective channels BECAUSE of the genders of their leads. Who knows.

March 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

Sorry, I want to comment on the article, and I will, but since yesterday your images are not loading at all in any of y browsers. Is it just me?

March 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJones

I hope it is changing. But we need more super mainstream movies like Hunger Games for it to change. A Black Widow movie seems the next logical step. But they need to make it good, not Catwoman or Elektra quality crap.

March 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSad man

jones - weird. anyone else? things are working fine for me on multiple browsers.

March 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Sad man: (sigh) Yeah, unfortunately I can't see this Batman v. Superman movie succeeding enough to justify continuation of that Wonder Woman. Because we've seen, again and again, how mind-numbingly incompetent Warner Bros is when it comes to hiring appropriate writing and directorial talent outside of Batman. I mean: They hired Zack Snyder to do Superman. They hired the guy who became big on the back of a reverently adapted film of Frank Miller's comic book 300 to adapt a hero that Frank Miller HAS NEVER RESPECTED. Are there even WORDS for that level of poor planning?

March 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I really am getting tired of Top of the Lake being considered a feminist miniseries and better alternative to True Detective (which isn't perfect , in my opinion) or anything else for that matter. I thought it was cliched, sexist, and empty. It felt like the parody of what we expect from prestige television and "strong female characters".

March 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAngelica Jade

I've argued for years that the most popular movies of all time are essentially chick flicks.

How do you make a hugely popular movie? This is the best formula I know:

1. A girl
2. Has to choose between two boys
3. Against a backdrop of tragedy

That's Gone with the Wind, Sound of Music, Titanic, the Twilight series and The Hunger Games series. Also Frozen. Not to mention Pearl Harbor. That movie sucked and it still made nearly a half a billion worldwide.

March 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterErik

Better alternative to True Detective is a matter of opinion, but Top of the Lake is most certainly feminist. If it was in any way sexist, the sexism was presented in such a way as to illuminate how sexist the world actually is, thereby making it feminist! How can a miniseries featuring a female lead, as a woman who not only challenges the male dominated world around her, but becomes the central/her own hero, while investigating and uncovering crimes against young women, featuring a bizarro female "compound" headed by a female guru, written and directed by arguably the world's most successful avowed feminist filmmaker NOT be at least somewhat feminist? Thinking it cliched and empty is opinion. Doesn't make it not legit, straight-up feminist. If It isn't, what is?

Also, there is a fantastic collection of Bechdel Test graphs/charts on a Reddit post here. I love this stuff.

Excellent post, Nathaniel. I kind of freak out when you go all gender/age equality champion on us. Fight the power! ;)

March 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJesse

I am someone who generally liked the sentiment of Blanchett's speech, but it's a little...naive and not really intersectional in the way it looks at women in film. And I'm not putting this on Blanchett. I'm talking more about the response. We need more movies starring women, about women (they're not the same thing) also being written and directed by women. I'm all about that. 100%. And I would add to this that it would be great if we could add...Middle of Nowhere to this list or movies that don't necessarily star the Blanchetts and the Bullocks and the Lawrences and the Chastains and the Grace-Moretz's of this world, who are all (mostly) great and I like a lot of their movies. I'm not proposing an either/or. I'm proposing an "in addition to" where we expand our ideas about women in film not just to include one type of women. That we hand the reigns to women for parts that are not specifically female. That we hand the reigns to women of color for parts that are not necessarily explicitly written as such and see what happens. I agree with Cate that the world is round and our cinema, even the celebrate cinema about women, largely does not reflect that.

Erik: Um...when smart people say "chick flick" derisively they don't mean ALL films with a female character in the lead role, they mean "light, fluffy, frothy and SUBSTANCELESS movies that play exclusively into perceptions of the fantasies of women with no play for ANYTHING a guy might typically be into or criticism OF the fantasy." Think The Ugly Truth, The Bounty Hunter and Bride Wars for things that the term SHOULD be applied to. Under that definition, Gone with the Wind, Titanic, Pearl Harbour and The Hunger Games have too much action to qualify. (Remember, the term is SUPPOSED to apply to movies that have ZERO appeal to guys. What are action scenes again? Oh, yeah, DUDE SELLING POINT.) Twilight is too dark, moody and, well, creepy and can be enjoyed as accidental farcical horror-comedies. (Uh-oh, potential dude selling point alert!) Frozen openly criticizes the fantasy of easy romance too much and The Sound of Music has that tense change-up of a last act to draw in the dudes. So, yeah, you don't understand what the term "chick flick" means before throwing it out there as a descriptor to these movies.

March 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Volvagia: as opposed to the light, fluffy, frothy and SUBSTANCELESS movies that play exclusively into perceptions of the fantasies of men with no play for ANYTHING a girl might typically be into or criticism OF the fantasy? Just borrowing your words. I've definitely seen Gone With The Wind, Titanic, Pearl Harbor, etc be qualified as "chick flicks," (even by "smart people") just as The Avengers, Wolverine, 300, and GI Joe have been qualified as "dick flicks."

Honestly, I'd be more inclined to agree with your point about gendered audience-targeting if it wasn't full of troll-bait and UNNECESSARY CAPITAL LETTERS.

March 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

@Volvagia--Your comment absolutely made me LIVID, but I'm going to try to respond fairly because I don't think you realize how frustrating the sentiments you expressed might be. Why is it that you feel as though films which have no appeal to men deserve to be derided? Why is it that movies like Gone With The Wind and Titanic must be somehow justified to men through their action sequences? Why do you think "action" is solely the domain of men anyway? I could go on, but I don't want to write a novel.

March 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTB

@Anne Marie--Sing it sister.

March 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTB

@TB, @Anne Marie --

Fight that good fight. You too, Nathaniel.

March 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

"We need more movies starring women, about women (they're not the same thing) also being written and directed by women." TPKIA- Yes to this!

For those interested in this topic of gender inequity, the VIDA Count is another look at the world of literary publishing (male vs. female) for authors and reviewers. This is especially interesting if the majority of Hollywood products are based/adapted from literary source material.

March 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPam

Anne Marie: Are blatant dude only media (300, Gears of War and the like) also, often, insulting? Yes. Oh, bleep they are. Sorry if you misconstrued that. But, you must hang out with some really stupid sexist people (I even know one: My brother) if they've actually argued that point on those ones I refuted. I'd question placing The Avengers as "dude only", personally, because, y'know, that's a gender transcending level of crafted dialogue. I'd unquestionably agree on the other three you cite as "dick flicks" though, especially Wolvie. In the comics, Wolverine is pretty much entirely a guy fantasy. In the movie's, that's SLIGHTLY redeemed because, well, they use showers to show off Hugh Jackman's shaved and muscled chest a bit. But in the comics, he's shorter, hairy and unhygenic and yet is as successful with women as they show in the movies. But he's still kind of a freaking psycho who manages that. So, y'know, still more of a dude fantasy than Tony Stark.
TB: Do films that have no appeal to the other gender deserve to be derided? The blander ones, like The Guilt Trip or Julie and Julia don't really earn it. They're harmless, even if they're slightly empty. Just as the blander dude only movies like, say, Gladiator or The Mummy aren't really worth bashing intently. But the term "chick flick" mostly comes up (at least in more intelligent conversations) in the discussion of sclock rom-coms of the Hudson-Heigl sort. As for the other point Um: Really? Action and thrills as a draw to lure the stereotypical guy demographic to the theatre or to check out a DVD that they'd otherwise skip over is an "insulting" tactic? I would think something (whether sterling dialogue or quality acting or, well, dude flesh (even the PG-13 version like in the X-Men movies will do) to entice females to see really good action or to have action setpiece stuff to entice males into period costume drama) that facilitates easier crossing of the gender divide is something to somewhat admire, not denigrate. There's always going to be some who don't want to cross it and hate that they got "tricked", sure, but those people are not really fully worth the time of intelligent society. And this certainly shouldn't EVER apply to the capital G "great" movies focused on either gender, even when there's some of the standard hooks for the perceived "norm" for the gender being pursued. Again, these are complicated issues that need more thought and rethinking from everyone, INCLUDING the studios.

March 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Mega-love for Blanchett's speech and Blue Jasmine's boxoffice/brilliance. I would love to see more stories about women both on the big and small screen.

But please don't let them be as cliched, flat and tackily acted as Top of the Lake. I adore Campion and Moss and Hunter (and Robyn Nevyn for that matter). But that series (and its array of accents) was as misguided as it was misconceived. Here in Australia at least it certainly didn't get much love, so I'm surprised it's proven so successful in the States.

March 11, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

@NathanielR--Having the same problem with pictures on my laptop. No issues on mobile.

March 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTB

I had no images for about 2 hours and then it cleared up.

March 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Didn't have images all day yesterday. But it's all fine now.

March 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

TOP OF THE LAKE SPOILER


I loved Top of The Lake, but I really hated the whole incest cop-out. It was very cheap thing to do: "Oh they're brothers!". "No they're not!"

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Siblings, I mean.

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Volvagia, I think I understand the point you're making, but it's getting lost behind your hostile and frankly patronizing tone.

If the point you're making is that the movie industry still makes and markets gendered films with the idea that boys love boobs and guns, and girls like romance and flowers, I agree with you. I agree that it's insulting as well, and I think it's far too simplistic.

If the point you're making is that people are idiots for falling into this gender-biased system, then I'd like to turn you to a favorite quote from The Lion in Winter: "There's no sense asking if the air's good when there's nothing else to breathe." I think you agree with me there, too, but I can't tell since you spend a lot of time insulting the things that you say are stereotypically female.

If the point you're making is that TB is an idiot for calling you out on your insulting language, then I have to disagree with you. I'm having the damnedest time getting through to *what* you're saying without being insulted by the *how.* We're all on the same team. Tone down the rhetoric, please.

If I'm wrong about any of the above points (except for the last one about TB), feel free to question my intelligence and personal beliefs again.

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Have you guys seen 300: Rise of the Empire? with all the half naked men, muscle display and action and blood, all I can think of is how incredible badass Eva Green was as the villain. Without her, this movie would have been so boring. Eva Green is very believable as the supreme warrior and she can fight as well as look feminine and strong. Everything felt so natural about her character.

I hope to see more of Eva Green and Hollywood making more memorable action characters played by women in the future

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterManuel

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