THE AVERAGE MAINSTREAM film seems to have the same attitude as a 1950s husband; preferring their women beautiful and silent.
Actresses are now mostly used as on-screen eye candy and rarely occupy the starring role. Films such as Twilight and The Hunger Games remain the exception, not the rule. A recent study from the University of South Carolina examined the roles of women in the top 500 grossing films of 2012 in the US. Results showed that speaking roles had reached a five-year low, with a meagre 28 per cent of speaking parts going to women.
The reasons for this can be seen as mostly fiscal. The reality is that film-lovers in the US and Europe now prefer to watch movies in the comfort of their own home, often “borrowed” from online sources, while our counterparts in the East still pay up for that outing to the cinema. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the foreign box office rescued the film industry in 2011. International ticket sales reaching $22.4 billion worldwide, while the U.S grossed a paltry $10.2 billion for the year.
Hollywood concentrates on making films with mass global appeal
The result of our stingy behaviour can now be seen at your local cinema. Hollywood now concentrates on making films with mass global appeal, which means inoffensive animation, big budget action or male orientated comedy; followed by an endless stream of sequels. As Despicable Me 2 gives way to Fast and the Furious 6, which gets shredded by The Wolverine, the more thoughtful cinema-goer would be forgiven for feeling neglected by Hollywood. Fight scenes and car crashes need no translation, nor does raucous comedy, like The Hangover Part 3 or 21 and Over.
Not only are women proving grossly underrepresented on screens, but when they do finally appear they are rarely depicted as creatures of great depth. Mostly they embody the role of token hot action-girl or some fleeting conquest from a night out. The majority of modern films now fail what is known as the Bechdel test, which has three simple requirements:
- The film must have at least two women in it.
- The women must talk to each another….
- …. about something besides men.
This simple test should be a no-brainer to pass, but it only takes a few minutes contemplation to realise how few movies fulfil any of these brief requirements, never mind all three.
Women appearing on the fringes
However, there is light at the end of this tunnel. The up-shot of women being pushed off center stage is that we are reappearing on the fringes, where there is less pressure to conform and have mass appeal. Evidence of this can be seen in a recent trend of wonderfully funny and off-beat works, such as the hit HBO show Girls and the film Frances Ha.
Girls, written by and starring Lena Dunham, could be interpreted as a modern version (or inversion) of 1990s hit show Sex and the City. In 2013, Jimmy Choos and cosmopolitans have been replaced with flip-flops and drinking cheap wine straight from the bottle. Now the question is not what outfit to wear to which fabulous party, but how to pursue your creative dreams while also paying your bills.
Carrie Bradshaw twirled about in her Manhattan apartment in designer clothes writing her weekly column. The main character in Girls, Hannah, eats ice-cream on her kitchen floor in her underwear while trying to write an entire e-book in three days. With the current global economic slump and high levels of youth unemployment, the second scenario is more relatable.
Expectation vs Reality
Our generation are the children of the Celtic Tiger, raised with the belief that, with some hard work, all your dreams can be achieved. The reality of this pursuit is often quiet different, as is reflected in Girls. In the opening episode, Hannah has been working an unpaid internship in a publishing house for a year. She finally works up the courage to confront her boss about her lack of pay, telling him that she is no longer able to work for free. His response is that he’ll be sorry to see her go. This is all too close to reality for those currently on the unpaid internship circuit, which rarely seems to lead to a job.
The grim portrayal of modern sex life in Girls is also a familiar scene. Young women now have to deal with a generation of men whose sexual expectations have been set to alarming new heights due to the saturation of pornography. This is played up to comedic effect in Girls. It takes a high quality of writing to make an audience laugh at these debasing sexual interludes while also recognising shades of their own behavior. Hannah’s sexual encounters reflect how, in some cases, women feel their main function in the bedroom is to facilitate men’s desires, often at the sacrifice of their own.
A breath of fresh air
The new film Frances Ha is co-written and starring new indie queen Greta Gerwig, who has confessed to taking inspiration from Lena Dunham’s Girls. As well as dealing with similar themes, there is another fresh angle to this movie. It’s very dialogue heavy, with mostly female characters and guess what they’re not talking about? Men! In TV and film, women are often portrayed as being overly concerned with getting a boyfriend. This is often the case in real life too – but is art imitating life or life imitating art? Either way, it seems relationships will be inevitably part of the female domain.
However, it’s still a breath of fresh air to see a movie with a mostly female cast for whom men are not a main concern. The main character, Frances, is charmingly immature and irresponsible. This is welcome break from women’sn are more often portrayed as the mature, relationship-hungry, nagging 50 per cent of the population. The most meaningful relationship is the one between Frances and her best friend Sophie. At the start of the movie, these two seem to have an idyllic life together in their Brooklyn apartment, smoking, talking and going to parties.
If anything this movie would seem to promote this lifestyle ahead of the stressful world of relationships. With all the ‘bromance’ movies out there, it’s refreshing to see a film about female friendship that doesn’t involve a) talking about men troubles constantly or b) end with them driving off the edge of a cliff.
Tackling meaningful themes
The 2011 movie Bridesmaids also focused on friendship between women, before making the inevitable detour into the will-she-get-the-guy love story. Upon its release Bridesmaids was lauded as a landmark film for female comedy. In my opinion, scenes involving shitting in a wedding dress or screaming that you’ve had your anus bleached was not the comedic revolution women had been waiting for. The makers of this film seemed to have presumed that to make comedy for women, you just need to replace male characters with females and have them make gross-out jokes.
Lena Dunham and Greta Gerwig have captured the current zeitgeist, showing how embarrassing one night stands, disappointing careers and awkward social encounters are still fertile ground for a more subtle brand of comedy. If these are types of modern themes women get to deal with while main stream cinema remains preoccupied with crashes and explosions, then I can live with being marginalised.
Deirdre Mc Mahon is a writer from Dublin who contributes to Film Ireland, State.ie and Ramp.ie. with articles focusing on film, books and popular culture.