In the past year, film merchandising has become scrutinized for its habitual omission of female characters. Black Widow was overlooked in ‘Avengers 2’ products. The star of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ was absent from games and toy sets, spawning the hashtag #WheresRey. Back in October, Jennifer Lawrence ignited an industry-wide debate on the wage disparity between male and female actors. Just this past week, it emerged that Iron Man 3 director Shane Black was forced by a corporate executive to swap his originally female villain for a male one, because ‘male toys sell better’. As for the upcoming all-female ‘Ghostbusters’ remake, has there ever been a film that received nearly as much vitriol and concerted negativity before it was even in theatres? Is it, as many insist, based purely on indications of the film’s quality through its marketing, or does it shine a light on an underlying aggressiveness in patriarchal storytelling culture? Exactly what is it about the greater representation of women in film that ‘threatens’ this culture, that somehow menaces not only the future of the industry but also the nostalgic roots of its past? Sometimes to make progress towards answers, it pays to take a step back and look more broadly at the issue, but as I look over the behaviour and the responses of the industry to the recent renaissance of feminism, it all inspires another question, one far more worrying which nags at the back of my mind: is feminism in film being fixed to fail?
What strikes me most about the furore surrounding the ‘Ghostbusters’ remake isn’t so much the intense campaign of its detractors, but the seemingly near-total lack of defence from the industry itself. A simple Google search for the film’s critics produces swathes of petitions, YouTube videos and online editorials, all uncompromising in their conviction that the film either will fail, or should fail. It’s an outright assault on the profitability of just one film. A simple Google search for the production’s defenders lists just two big names: Paul Feig, its director, and Tom Rothman, head of Sony Pictures, which is producing it. Granted, objectively-speaking the trailer doesn’t promise a lot of great things, and even main actor Melissa McCarthy described it as “very confusing”. Respected filmmaker Kevin Smith insisted “it could’ve been all men with the same jokes, and it still would’ve sucked”, but doesn’t that seem to emphasise an astonishing lack of interest in this project from within the industry, especially during this day and age where cinema is so heavily dominated by remakes? What’s more, 2015 saw the runaway success of female action heroes in entrenched properties like ‘Mad Max’ and ‘Star Wars’, and what production had greater marketable value than an all-female ‘Ghostbusters’ to capitalize on today’s prevalently nostalgic, gender equality-conscious climate? The MPAA’s 2015 Theatrical Market Statistics found that, whilst the total amount of tickets sold was balanced equally between the genders, women comprised the majority of the total movie-going audience. Hollywood has never been one for missing potentially lucrative opportunities, so why does it seem to be ignoring this one?
Rumours have also been circulating recently of an all-female ‘Ocean’s 11’ remake, with big names like Jennifer Lawrence and Sandra Bullock linked to the project. This could poke a hole in my little conspiracy theory of an actively anti-feminist industry agenda, except it actually raises another pressing concern: feminism in film does not mean gender-swapping characters and narratives. Women in film do not need second-hand stories that have been tried and tested by men. Entertainment epicentres like Hollywood appear to be confusing quality and quantity here, oblivious as to the distinction between how many women are shown and how they are shown. Feminism in film means, for starters, more films which pass the Bechdel Test (whether at least two women in a fictional work talk to each other about something other than a man). It means allowing for female characterizations that aren’t confined to either the done-to-death damsel or the over-the-top hyper-sexualised kickass that seems to be the extent of many a studio’s imagination (I haven’t seen the film yet but does Olivia Munn actually do anything besides jump around in that scanty Psylocke costume in ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’? The marketing says no). It means balancing the risk-taking in the supremely risky business that is filmmaking, working towards executive decision-making that recognizes gender as irrelevant to a creator’s capacity to create.
Although progress is being made, and the advent of social media has increased pressure on the industry, the film business seems resistant to broader social consciousness, with works like an all-female ‘Ghostbusters’ coming across more as half-baked efforts to appease the socio-political climate than as a commitment to showcasing the talent of some of US comedy’s best and brightest through a beloved label, talent that just so happens to have a uterus. Could the industry be hedging its bets with these enterprises, pre-empting a box office disappointment that will provide grounds for studios to say ‘well here’s proof that people don’t really want women to carry these films after all’? It’s not inconceivable. The patriarchy is far more reliably profitable, after all.
“This is all me, all proud, all strong”, Emilia Clarke declared to Entertainment Weekly on whether she had used a body double for last week’s ‘Game of Thrones’, Daenerys Targeryan stepping out naked from a blazing inferno and bringing an entire Dothraki nation to its knees (literally). Her going naked was the farthest thing from the gratuitous ‘sexposition’ for which the show had become notorious (in its earlier seasons at least). It was the very definition of empowering. “I’m in control of it”, was Clarke’s unambiguous message. Television is enjoying an unprecedented period of recognizing, endorsing, and most importantly advocating for the complex characterization of women. From ‘Orange Is The New Black’ to ‘The Fall’ to ‘Agent Carter’ and ‘Jessica Jones’, the quality and quantity of well-written, female-led shows has skyrocketed. Considering hers is the most watched TV show in the world, Clarke’s message is an immensely powerful one, and it’s a message studio heads would do well to pay attention to.