Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Two Cent Tuesday: The Female Mystery Explained

(OK, probably not the female mystery you're thinking of.  No man can ever have an answer for that.)

A month ago I watched the beginning of the Tanya Roberts movie Sheena (Queen of the Jungle) on cable and it finally occurred to me why movie studios especially are so challenged when it comes to making female superhero movies.  The problem it occurred to me is one of role reversal that leads to emasculation for the men involved.

Think of it this way, in the traditional male superhero movie the woman is always the love interest, the damsel-in-distress, and sometimes a helper, like a sidekick without a costume.  The point being that the woman is always secondary to the man.  The man still has the cool powers and gets to kick the bad guy's ass and save the world; at best the woman gets to say, "And I helped!"

At the worst the woman just whines and is used for bait by the bad guy, like in all three Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies.  Watching "Jack the Giant Slayer" it solidified in my mind that most of the time in action movies it's OK for a girl to be spunky enough to run off when her dad wants her to marry some rich douche, but when she actually runs afoul of anyone she needs some guys to bail her out.

So the problem is if we flip the script and the woman is the superhero, then what is the man?  Right, then the man is the love interest, dude in distress (what is the male version of a damsel?), and pseudo-sidekick.  The man is secondary to the woman.  If you want to see this principle in action, watch the not-very-good movie My Super Ex-Girlfriend where Luke Wilson is an ordinary schmuck whose ex-girlfriend happens to have all sorts of cool superpowers.  Luke Wilson gets so tired of her domination that he teams with her arch-enemy to strip her powers away.  You could make the case that this symbolizes us guys's greatest fears about female heroes and women in power in general.  But then you'd be way overthinking a crappy romantic comedy.

In the Tales of the Scarlet Knight series the male characters are definitely secondary.  Dan Dreyfus is pretty much just a love interest and a dupe since he never figures out what's going on with Emma.  The Sewer Rat becomes more like a sidekick and a love interest as the series goes on.  Tim Cooper gets introduced as a love interest (not for Emma) in the fourth book and in the 8th becomes more of a sidekick.  It's always Emma who's the main focus because it is Tales of the Scarlet Knight, not Tales of Guys Who Like and Sometimes Work With the Scarlet Knight.  Maybe that would sell better?

While we're a more open-minded country than 50 years ago about, we're still not that open-minded.  Especially not in Hollywood, where female directors are still about as rare as unicorns.  Has there been a big superhero movie directed by a woman yet?  I doubt it.

Especially in Hollywood, women are still generally perceived as a pair of boobs on legs.  Most actresses still don't have much of a career after age 30, when their looks start to fade and there are a bevy of other, younger girls coming in.  As they say in LA Confidential, "Who cares about this broad?  Tomorrow a dozen more just like her will come in on a bus."  Despite women's lib and all that, I don't think attitudes in Tinseltown have improved much since the 50s.  I'm sure directors are still largely casting based on cup size of an actress's talents more than her actual talent.  (Michael Bay springs to mind.)

A way to prove this is that we can have female superheroes in movies, just not as the main attraction.  Like X-Men with Storm, Rogue, Jean Grey and Mystique was OK because Wolverine was still most everyone's favorite character.  Or Fantastic Four with Sue Storm because there were still three other male heroes and most of us were just staring at Jessica Alba's breasts.  Or the Avengers where it wasn't threatening that Black Widow is a woman because the male heroes are the more important ones.  So basically as long as we still have men in equal or more-than-equal roles we can tolerate a woman's presence.

To do it otherwise emasculates the male characters and that's something that makes a lot of us uneasy.  I'm sure the last thing a lot of people (especially down south) want is a female president.  When Clinton was president people like Rush Limbaugh were always bitching that Hillary had too much power.  If Michelle Obama encourages kids to eat healthy you'd think she'd told kids to join the Communist Party or something from the uproar amongst conservatives.  Because women need to know their place is in the kitchen or the sewing room, right?  Someone linked to a game by a Republican group where Hillary gets slapped every time she speaks; that pretty much sums it all up right there.  On the news this morning they said it will take until 2058 for there to actually be pay equality between men and women.  So a woman just now entering the workforce would probably be retired before she could get the same pay as a man.  USA!  USA!

I think the only way to solve the problem is for a studio to have the guts to actually do a female superhero movie and for women especially to turn out in numbers large enough to make it a hit.  Because if there's one thing that can change attitudes in Hollywood real quick it's $$$$$.  Until then a Wonder Woman movie will be stuck in development hell and anything like a Supergirl or Batgirl movie will be completely unthinkable.  And a Scarlet Knight movie?  Yeah, right.  (But if any movie studio wants to adapt it, shoot me an email because I like money.)

NOTE:  There's a change for the Box Office Blitz winner in Week 11.  Prisoners has an actual weekend total of only $20.8M not $21.4M which means Chris Dilloway is closer by bidding $20M versus Andrew's $22M.  So he gets the 300 bonus points for winning the round.  Don't blame me, blame the studio for overinflating the numbers.  (Congrats if you paid attention up to this part.)


  1. I think pretty much all your points are spot-on with regard to the female superheroes. I liked the part of Iron Man 2 where Black Widow totally upstaged Tony's bodyguard in that fight, but I don't think audiences would have liked it if she upstaged Tony since he's the star of the show. Strong female characters can be successful, such as Ripley from Aliens or Buffy from the TV series, but they are still the minority. Look how long it has taken for females to get a successful "buddy comedy" movie, Bridesmaids, where the women aren't just there as rom-com fodder, but the main stars of the show. It really is too bad that there are not more strong female leads with the male roles more secondary. Maybe that new astronaut movie with Sandra Bullock will help out since she is pretty much the only character on screen for most of the movie and has to solve the problems herself (so I've read).

  2. This was really a very thoughtful and thought-provoking essay. Did someone do a guest post for you? BA DUM BUM.

    You are really on to something, but I think there's a bit more to it, and you touched on it in the end paragraphs: Women don't want superhero movies, or superhero movies with women in them.

    Which makes a larger point about Hollywood. All we ever hear are how the studios won't make movies by women about women for women, and what they mean is "by women about women for women" over 30. But part of that, and the part that doesn't get remarked on a lot, is that WOMEN are not going to see those movies, either.

    If people who gripe about why movies get made or not made bothered to look at statistics, as I did today, they'd see that:

    1 in 10 people (about) is a 'frequent' moviegoer, which means 1 or more movies PER MONTH. By contrast, I've seen about 3 this year, all picked by Sweetie. But those 13% of people account for 6 of every 10 tickets sold -- so people who love movies are the ones determining what does well.

    20% of frequent moviegoers are between 18-25, 15% are between 12-17. That's about equal to the 25-49 year olds, so frequent moviegoers are split evenly across demographics. What does that tell you? That older viewers like mindless action flicks also -- not surprising since those are best seen in the theaters.

    Women make up almost exactly 1/2 of the ticket-buying public, again, not surprising since many people go on dates to movies. You could say that the man is always picking the movie and dominating the woman, but that's a RELATIONSHIP problem, not a MOVIE problem: if a woman can't get a man to see a movie she wants to see, is that Hollywood's fault?

    I feel about Hollywood making women's movies the same way I feel about black quarterbacks in the NFL: no doubt there are those in the power structure who would prefer not to do it, but the bottom line is if it helps their business succeed, prejudices and sexism tend to fall away.

    So is there an anti-woman bias in the movies? Yes, but it's not (solely) because Hollywood doesn't want to make movies for women about women by women. It's because women, along with me, don't want to see those movies.

    I think an equal problem is akin to selection bias. There are plenty of crappy movies made-- PLENTY. But when a movie fails, they look for reasons/someone to blame. If you make a crappy movie, people might say the marketing failed or James Franco was oversaturated or something. But if the movie has a strong female lead, then the marketing will in part focus on that and then when it fails the story will be "Strong female lead movie fails." That's in part due to the lack of strong female leads -- nobody says "George Clooney movies are unpopular" when a George Clooney movie bombs.

    But it's also the part of the studio system: do the director, writer, actress, and producer want to say, when a movie fails "Well, we made a crappy movie." ? They do not. They say "People don't like movies with strong female leads."

    The key is to make good movies and not worry about whether it has a strong female lead or not. Bridesmaids would've been funny if it'd been called "Groomsmen," if the jokes and performances were still strong. "Superbad" could've been every bit as funny if it was "Superbad Chicks," I suppose.

  3. That's a good point Pat. I remember the old Wonder Woman show used this trope a lot since Trevor became a bumbling idiot so she could save him. It's interesting that Iron Man 3 flipped that by making Tony helpless at the end so she could save him. It's one of my favorite woman-saves-man scenes.

  4. I don't have anything relevant to add except to say it would be interesting to see a movie with a strong empowered female superhero, but I'm not sure your average male moviegoer could handle it.

  5. Bones does a good balancing act of keeping Booth masculine and Brennan feminine. I think the most emasculating thing for a man is when they have a baby in the story. That right there is a clincher. No man that I know of has managed to maintain their machismo with baby in hand, including Vin Diesel and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Baby in hand makes the story completely uninteresting and kind of stupid.

  6. I wrote Yoshimi in part because of things like Kill Bill and Alias, both of which featured strong female protagonists. The male lead in my story spends a lot of time not being a badass because it was important that he not upstage Yoshimi, and because it was very specifically her story.

    As a writer, I love having female leads. I don't even think twice. It's become very apparent that you're similar in that regard, to the point where you've tackled gender identity head-on. So it's no big surprise that you wrote a whole series of books featuring a female lead and also have such a hard time grasping why other people have a hard time grasping female action heroes.

    But then you write this. I think you nailed it, that it's a combination of the men in these movies not wanting to look weak, and also women themselves not making it a huge priority to watch movies staring their gender. I think most of them go to the movies to enjoy watching men in action movies. It's more about making men more comfortable watching the female action movies. And with things like the Hunger Games franchise, we're getting closer.

    What troubles me is that there's all these Avengers movies, and still not a solo Black Widow entry in sight. If anyone's qualified to do a Black Widow movie, it's Joss Whedon. But even in the Avengers movie itself she was still pretty well marginalized. I look at a performance like Anne Hathaway's Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises as a far more positive step in the process.

  7. @Michael: There's this great scene in Red Cliff where one of the guys needs to save a baby during the middle of a battle. It's pretty amazing.

    I think the problem with all of this comes in in that they do just try to flip the roles. That's what makes it not work, because men know that they are more competitive than that. The relationship between Mr. & Mrs. Incredible is more accurate in that sense. You don't have to make the male incompetent to pull off a strong female lead. You just need to have a situation in which the female, for whatever reason, takes the lead.



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