Was 2012 a good year for women in the movies?

1 January 2013

brave-1024list of filmsThis is ultimately a glass-20%-full question.

I have now re-read A.O. Scott’s NY Times Magazine piece, “Topsy Turvy,” several times — a piece that leads with the subtitle, “this year, the traditional Hollywood hierarchy was overturned. Heroines ruled.” I want to know exactly how he came up with that subtitle, because I don’t think the article supports it. Nor does the evidence.

Now, I have seen a lot of really good films this year — films that feature terrific female leads, stress women’s experience in fresh ways, highlight gay/trans characters, and are sometimes directed by women. Just scanning over this list makes me feel encouraged. Scott particularly mentions some of these: Brave, The Hunger Games, and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Let us not forget, too, the box office success of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part II and Snow White and the Huntsman, two films that give me less encouragement but which nevertheless get women into the equation.

Four of those movies — four! — were among the 15 highest-grossing films of 2012. This is very good, for when Hollywood sees female-oriented or -directed films earning big bucks, it’s more likely to fund future projects.

But let’s not forget those other top-grossing films: the endless stream of supremely dudely fare like Ted, The Hobbit, and the superhero business in which women play the most conventional roles of all: The Avengers, Skyfall, Amazing Spider-Man, and so on. I give Anne Hathaway props for her role in The Dark Knight Rises but she remains only an interesting twist on the usual female suspects in such vehicles.

If I say this was a good year for women onscreen (and behind the camera), is that impression based solely on a perceived slight uptick from the usual — which is that women get fewer leads, fewer lines, a smaller range of interesting parts, and far less opportunities to write and direct than men? Is this glass 20% full, or 80% empty?botsw-image-3

When I look back at 2012 I see new levels of schizophrenia about women in public life. When Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls was released, she was attacked on all sides. Jennifer Lawrence was termed too fleshy for the role in The Hunger Games. But movies & TV were only the tip of the iceberg. Let’s not forget the public schizophrenia outside the world of film. Sandra Fluke’s public flogging at the hands of Rush Limbaugh; the massive troll campaign against cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, who sought to scrutinize gender in video games; the revival of anti-birth control measures; unnecessary trans-vaginal ultrasounds required of women seeking abortions in Texas and (almost) Virginia; the crazy anti-woman, anti-gay GOP platform during the 2012 election; the public whack-job discussion of rape by prominent Republicans running for office.

Of course, those two politicians lost. But ladies, you’re wrong if you think this is the end of efforts to ban abortion altogether or to humiliate women who seek sexual and political equality. Let’s not kid ourselves by thinking that Hollywood doesn’t reflect that schizophrenia, at least on some level.

Was this year better than last year for women in film? Tough call. Last year had Bridesmaids, The Help, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Bad Teacher (oh yeah, and another Twilight) all near the top of the list of highest-grossing films, plus all those amazing foreign and independent films that delighted me during my La Jefita Awards. And hello, The Iron Lady. Maybe I can say 2011 and 2012 were equally interesting years for those of us willing to seek out and draw attention to the topic.Hunger-Games_13

Most important is the question, do these two strong years indicate a change in emphasis in Hollywood? Well, no. Sure, Pixar finally gave us a female lead in Brave. Does that mean they’ll have another one soon? I doubt it. We’ll get more Hunger Games, but we’ll also get more superhero fare in which women are negligible and/or tokens. Will Cannes allow even one single female director into competition? It’s a crap shoot; that film festival didn’t have a single female director in 2012. It looks good that Kathryn Bigelow will get nominated for Best Director at this year’s Oscars. But is that really a sign of a shift?

The best I can hope for is that we have a third good year for women in a row. But when I say good, I don’t mean that opportunities for women/ gay/ trans peoples are improving in big ways. It’s a fragile thing, this good year designation. The ever reliable Stacy L. Smith of USC’s Annenberg School, who crunches these numbers all the time, simply terms women onscreen “sidelined, sexy, and subordinate” and doesn’t dicker with minute distinctions.

Let’s just say that we have little evidence to trumpet a “Hollywood hierarchy was overturned” narrative, Mr. Scott. But I’m hoping for a good year in 2013 anyway — and by good, I mean that it’ll look a teensy bit better than 2012.

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9 Responses to “Was 2012 a good year for women in the movies?”

  1. fitzg Says:

    I doubt the male/female balance will ever be resolved, in film, or in personal lives. (Speaking as a ’70s feminist, who was also determined to be economically independent from the age of six)

    It is, and always will be, conflicting. I admire testosterone, but much dislike Hollywood stuff (Clint for instance) On the oher hand, I dislike blatantly aggressive females in film (or lifE)On screen, I am drawn to “masculine” men. prefer not to see”assertive” women cutting throats, whatever, as that seeems to me patterning male behaviour, as opposed to finding a more effective measure around guns) etc.

    Oh shoot, No help for me… 😀

    no help here.:D

    • Didion Says:

      I agree that having women turn hyper-aggressive onscreen is a cheap solution to the problem. But then, I must say that there was something cathartic about having Gina Carano kick ass in Haywire. On the other hand, Vera Farmiga’s religious awakening/ evolution in Higher Ground was just beautiful and profound in a way that Haywire could never, ever achieve. I’m with you on the issue of having a huge diversity of experience displayed.

  2. Becky Says:

    We can rest occasionally, but we must be ever-vigilant. Women are just one of the groups that society likes to designate as inferior, but it’s *my* group, so I am watching, watching…………..

    • Didion Says:

      Yes. And although I’ve chosen this as my hobby-horse, I also see this as interconnected to other problems of race and sexual orientation onscreen.

  3. Sam Loy Says:

    I wonder how this year’s films went on the Bechdel Scale…?

    • Didion Says:

      Excellent question. I suspect it’s a mixed bag. (Does Twilight pass? doubtful.) But I’d still say that the diversity of roles — Beasts of the Southern Wild, all the way to Girls — makes me feel encouraged.

      The thing I love best about the Bechdel Test is how it measures the most ridiculous minimum of female appearance onscreen. It’s so utterly minimal a rule that you get furious when you realize how many films fail to pass it. I look forward to the day when we can add another criterion.

  4. Hattie Says:

    To me, Girls was the big breakthrough.


  5. […] Didion’s reaction to 2012 as a year for women in film. […]


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