1 January 2013
This 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?
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.
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.
Living all the way up here at 42.27º N, it takes a while for spring to get sprung. Yesterday was the first day I could honestly say that 1) the leaves on the trees were mature enough to create actual shade, 2) I considered painting my toenails, 3) I lusted after the neighbors’ landscaping project, and 4) I became desirous of watching movies outside.
So we went to the drive-in. The last time I went to a real-life drive-in was probably 1984, and some of us hid in the trunk — only to learn they charge by the car, not by the head. The film this time was superior to anything I saw back then: the new Joss Whedon mega-wattage The Avengers.
Let’s confess right now that I am not the ideal viewer for The Avengers. I’d seen that first Iron Man movie but none of the other franchises; I’d never even heard of Hawkeye or Black Widow or Nick Fury. When presented with a list of names that includes Captain America, The Hulk, Thor, and Iron Man, I do not wonder to myself, “Which one would beat the others in hand-to-hand battle?” (The film answers that question anyway, and it was enlightening.)
But then, a drive-in is not the ideal place to see a film. I spent a goodly amount of time ruminating on the virtues of birth control, considering the family of screeching parents and seven rambunctious kids sitting next to us, till most of them passed out from exhaustion. All of which made me miss some early scenes and doubtless some subtlety. I’m being sarcastic about the subtlety.
Did I mention the bad guy wants to take away freedom itself from humanity?
I shouldn’t be so sarcastic, because I watched the film in a certain haze of beer and picnic food and still managed to discern that Mark Ruffalo as Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk and Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanov/Black Widow offered some welcome breaks from the testosterone fest. Granted, Johansson wasn’t given much to work with aside from that skin-tight black suit, but at least she wasn’t shafted the way Jeremy Renner/Hawkeye was (brainwashed by the bad guy in the first scene).
Long story short: tetchy crowd of super-strong dudes, each accustomed to working on his own, learns to work together to save the world.
Anywho. None of this is to say that it’s not worth your time — or even that my viewing conditions were optimal enough to have you trust my judgment. As super mega-budget dynamo flicks go, it’s got snappy dialogue, Big Fight Scenes, and lots of Robert Downey, Jr., and much of this made us laugh out loud at all the right points. I’m more than happy to grant that director Joss Whedon knows how to make a big-ass movie that you’ll totally enjoy even if you have no idea why you should care about Thor’s demi-god brother from another planet.
But I still left thinking about how easy it would be to forget absolutely everything that had transpired onscreen, and how much I would look forward to seeing a gloomy, low-budget independent film to cleanse my palate.