A drama critic once told me the difference between film and theater criticism. “If you tell people to see a bad movie, they'll still keep watching movies,” he explained. “But if you tell people to see a bad play, they might never go to the theater again.”
He was right, with a catch. In Hollywood, a few types of films suffer from the pressure to represent their entire genre: Musicals, Westerns, and the most befuddling “niche” of all, Female-Driven Flicks. When Chicago or Mamma Mia! is a hit, the wags exclaim that the musical is back. When Les Miserables underperforms, the musical is deader than Anne Hathaway's doomed prostitute. And the press' words have weight. Studios are superstitious gamblers, and if they hear the dice are loaded to their advantage, they're more likely to throw down some bucks to green-light a film—or conversely, to close their wallets and walk away.
This puts fans in a tricky position. Audiences vote with their dollars. As much as we grumble about boneheaded blockbusters, entertainment is a democracy. Producers don't spend seven-plus figures on a film without hoping to earn it back, and the reason big, terrible movies exist is because we keep buying tickets to see them.
Yet people who love movies that acknowledge that human females are interesting are in a double bind. Sure, it makes sense to support films that support our interests, like a dog trainer rewarding his mutt with a treat. But what about when those films are bad? I'd argue that by rewarding the wrong movies, we're making the problem worse.
Take Lucy, the Luc Besson psycho-thriller about a genius babe who wrecks revenge on the Taiwanese drug ring that used her as a mule. Lucy trounced the box office this weekend, raking in $43.9 million and besting The Rock's Hercules by $15 million. By the simplest measure, it's a feminist success: a female-driven picture that proves lead Scarlett Johansson can open a movie. (Besson certainly wasn't the draw—Lucy's his biggest hit by far, opening to over 2.5 times more than his runner-up, The Fifth Element.)
But before we pop champagne bottles to toast the ascendence of the female action hero, let's look at exactly what we're celebrating. Johansson's Lucy is what people wrongheadedly applaud as a Strong Female Character. The Strong Female Character is a patronizing red herring that mistakes triceps for depth. What makes a character strong isn't her ability to punch and kill. It's that the writing of that character is so firm, rich, and memorable that after the theater lights come up, you could pluck them out of the movie and imagine their response to a new situation.
You'd never call a male character a Strong Male Character. But replace female with male and the difference is clear: it's the gulf between Michael Corleone and any role played by Steven Seagal. Can't even tell Steven Seagal movies apart? That's why. And for actresses, it's the Grand Canyon between dimensional women like Mildred Pierce and the grim-faced Furies of modern Hollywood: Lucy, Maleficent, and even highbrow bores like Jessica Chastain's Maya in Zero Dark Thirty. (Not to mention the seventh-billed actresses forced to play The Badass Girl in disposable action flicks.) These female roles aren't well-rounded. They're linear machines, and instead of describing who they are, we can only describe what they want: to punish the bad guys, to crush the king, to destroy Al Qaeda. And they're not active—they're reactive, each existing only to get unsmiling revenge on the man or group of men who've done them wrong.
Affectless Lucy is no Terminator 2: Judgment Day's Sarah Connor, a woman with soul, anger, passion, and fragility. Lucy's not even the T-1000, who despite being a liquid metal assassin at least understood how to fake human emotions to manipulate his prey. Worse, she spends the second half of the film dashing around the globe tarted up like an '80s video vixen—her garb could only be more impractical if she'd chosen a full-mask scuba suit with flippers. The character is a flat male fantasy, a centerfold with a pistol, and it's no insult to Johansson to say her part could have played just as well by Miss November. It's an insult to Besson, who can and has written better female characters, though it's been a while.
Women bought 50 percent of the tickets to Lucy. They bought 60 percent of the tickets to Maleficent, a film which so distrusted its audience's emotional intelligence that it whitewashed the wickedness that made the original character worthwhile. And with that, we've rewarded Hollywood for lobotomizing the starlet and encouraged studios to do more of the same. If they continue to pass off glamorous drones as complicated women, then women are half to blame.
Shunning lousy female-driven movies is a risk. There's so few to begin with that the studios could assume that audiences don't want any at all. Imagine if all men had to pick from were four Rob Schneider flicks a year. But since money talks, that's the language we have to speak. Instead of settling for crumbs, we have to hold out for a proper seat at the table. If we don't, any hope of complex female characters will be squeezed out by lucrative Stepford battlebots. Maleficent is already hinting at a sequel.
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