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Column: Can Hollywood produce a female lead who's interesting in her own right?

The movie industry is beginning to cater for female audiences, but the likes of Bella Swan are no Ripley in terms of role models for women, writes Darren Mooney.

Darren Mooney

HERE’S A SOBERING thought: what if Bella Swan, the heroine of the Twilight saga, is our generation’s Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor?

Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part 2 was released on DVD and blu ray in March, but that must seem like something of a victory lap for the franchise. The five films in the franchise earned more than $1.3 billion at the US box office, with over $3.3 billion worldwide.

So, with the film series officially finished it feels like an appropriate time for reflection. The series is notable for being specifically aimed at the female demographic – 80 per cent of the opening weekend audience for New Moon was female.

While there have been other successful movies that skewed female, Twilight leaves them in the shade. Even the most successful film in the other major female-skewing franchise of the decade, Sex and the City, earned less than any of Twilight films.

Bella Swan – role model?

Love it or loathe it, there’s no denying that Twilight is a global box office phenomenon, and perhaps the most high-profile film series aimed at a female audience and anchored in a female lead character. Bella Swan, as portrayed by Kristen Stewart, is unique in that she’s a female character at the heart of a long-running blockbuster movie franchise, and perhaps one of the most high-profile female leads in modern memory.

Of course, for a female leading lady, Bella is fairly passive. Her sense of worth – both in terms of self-worth and worth as determined by the film series – is rooted in the men in her life. That’s why we have ”Team Jacob” and ”Team Edward”, competing for Bella as if she were some sort of sports prize. While Breaking Dawn, Part 2 joins Bella after she has married Edward, it’s hard to gloss over the abusive undertones of their relationship.

The courtship in Twilight saw Edward stalking Bella, creeping into her room at night to watch her sleep. He remained insanely possessive of her. When discussions are held about her fate throughout the film series, they seem to involve mostly Jacob and Edward. Bella is often present, if entirely disengaged. Breaking Dawn, Part 1 featured a debate over her reproductive rights (and a baby that seemed to be killing her) in which Edward was dictating the course of action.

Even when the pair finally married, Edward was so rough during their wedding night that Bella was knocked unconscious. Rather than treating this as an incredibly creepy and abusive dynamic, the films seemed to embrace the ”romance” – Bella is still head-over-heels in love with her boyfriend who is unable to make love to her without causing severe damage. There’s no ambiguity in the world of Twilight. Bella is portrayed as an idealised heroine. Edward is a restrained and tortured romantic lead.

Feminist tale for the twenty-first century

It’s hard to argue that Twilight is a feminist tale for the twenty-first century, and it’s immensely frustrating that one of the relatively few big-budget successful films aimed at young girls can’t produce a lead character who is interesting or engaging in her own right. Of course, therein lies the rub.

Critics and commentators are – understandably – quick to attack the sexism of the Twilight films, but that ignores a far more glaring problem with modern movies. Big budget cinema so rarely caters to female audiences, specifically young female audiences, so Bella becomes a focal point for debate by default.

While Bella is hardly an ideal female icon, surely part of the problem is that blockbuster cinema isn’t producing any real alternative? Indie films are packed with exciting and compelling female characters but such women can be very tough to find in the more high-profile releases of the year.

There have been historical exceptions. Ellen Ripley has become a cinematic legend, and Sigourney Weaver is one of those rare performers who has both genre and mainstream credibility. The director of Aliens, James Cameron, also gave us Sarah Connor in The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Sadly, these sorts of roles remain the exception rather than the rule.

Trophy-prize women

Michael Bay’s Transformers 3 treated Rosie Huntington-Whitely as a prize in a competition between Shia LaBeouf and Doctor McDreamy. Despite the fact that Marvel could spin four superhero franchises into The Avengers, not one of them featured a female lead. Scarlett Johansson might not have been able to leverage her own movie out of The Avengers, but she was the only one of the title group to face away from the audience in her character poster.

The Avengers is the most successful film of last year and has earned $1.5bn at the global box office. The director of the film, Joss Whedon, a director with considerable credibility, spent several years in the middle part of the last decade trying to get a Wonder Woman film made at Warner Brothers. If Whedon – the writer responsible for Buffy: The Vampire Slayer – can’t produce a movie about one of the most recognisable female icons on the planet, perhaps things are very wrong.

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Indeed, Anne Billson of The Guardian has argued that Twilight should be welcomed for demonstrating that movies starring and targeted at women can succeed.

Twilight caters to the sexual fantasies of teenage girls,” she suggests. “I’m not saying in a good way, but at least it caters to them, and there’s not a lot else at the cinema that does – not in a young adult fantasy genre that invariably reduces females to also-rans or decorative sidekicks while the Harry Potters and Lightning Thieves get on with their questing. In fact, I wish there were more films like Twilight, not fewer. There, I’ve said it. Because so long as supernatural fantasies aimed at teenage girls are raking in money, we’re likely to see more of them produced.

Successful franchise based on women

To a certain extent, that’s true. Already this year we’ve had both The Hunger Games and Haywire, two very different films with two very solid leading female characters. The Hunger Games, in particular, looks set to establish a successful franchise based around the character of Katniss Everdeen. The film earned $408 million at the US box office, for a total of $691 million worldwide. That is more than any of the individual Twilight films. The sequel - Catching Fire – is due for release in November.

It is perhaps a good sign that an actress of that calibre can anchor both blockbuster and indie fare. With two Oscar nominations, and one win, Lawrence has already established a dramatic credibility that actresses like Kristen Stewart find themselves chasing after franchise success.

Fresh from her role in Haywire, action star Gina Carano is putting together an as-yet-untitled female action ensemble piece. While it’s less than ideal that the film is unofficially known as “an all-female Expendables”, it does suggest that the film-makers realise that there’s a market for strong female characters in popcorn entertainment.

Then again, the recent release of Oz: The Great and Powerful demonstrates that we have a long way to go. While the 1939 version of Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz is regarded as an early example of feminist fantasy cinema, the prequel reduces two of the original film’s strong female characters to one-dimensional props who only exist in service of the dynamic male hero. Even in the world of fantasy, it seems, strong women are hard to come by.

Darren Mooney has a movie blog, them0vieblog.com . You can get in touch with Darren here. To read more articles by Darren for TheJournal.ie click here.

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