According to an article written in the Los Angeles Times 2009, male roles far outweigh female roles and a storyteller’s sex affects what is depicted on screen. In a survey of the top 100 grossing movies of 2009 – including Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Harry Potter and the Half Blooded Prince and The Twilight Saga: New Moon – research found that 32.8% of the 4,342 characters were female and 67.2% were male, a percentage that was identical to the top grossing films of 2008.
The situation is no better behind the scenes with only 3.6% female directors and 13.5% female writers contributing to the top grossing films in 2009. If the situation has improved in the last two years, it is minimal. This staggering difference in percentages is attributed to more men working behind the scenes than women and consequently they are telling the stories that they know.
On the positive side, there are some films, directed and written by men that have changed the perception of women. The first major blockbuster film with a strong female protagonist was Ridley Scott’s science fiction horror Alien in 1979, written by Dan O’Bannon and starring Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, one of the most self-reliant females in cinema history.
Alien set the template for other women driven narratives such as Courage Under Fire, G.I Jane, Lara Croft and has influenced the way women can be centre stage in the creation of a story.
In June 2012 Pixar released Brave, which is the first of their films to centre on a female protagonist. The film made $66.7 million on its opening weekend and tells the tale of a raven-wild haired princess who becomes master of her own destiny. According to film website Rotten Tomatoes, 72% of female critics gave it positive reviews with an overwhelming 75% of male critics also giving it rave reviews.
However one women journalist, Kelly Schremph writing for Hollywood.com still has reservations. She points out that while Brave broke down the typical damsel in distress princess myth, it somehow fails to project a really strong feisty female lead. One of the tag lines reads: “Look pretty and be brave too.” She points to the fact that this issue revolves around the princess culture that has been instilled through films like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty etc. where there is a hyper feminine focus on beauty and where the heroine is not an empowered individual but still at the mercy of male forces. One wonders if this would still have been the case if the original director Brenda Chapman had not been replaced by Mark Andrews.
Cathy Schulman, President of Women in Film maintains that the depiction of women suffers “from the lack of female writers that are working, but also because of a lazy, cultural ennui where we do not challenge the stereotypes. I think Brave is a really good example of challenging the stereotypes and shows that the box office can be your friend when you do that.” She also points out that women are undermined when money becomes the ultimate objective in telling stories. Filmmakers or studio heads will do whatever movies they believe will get people to the box office. This means that sacrifices are made to the detriment of new ways at looking at things.
A recent film that to some extent broke down the stereotype of women as purely sexual objects is the science fiction adventure The Hunger Games, based on the novel of the same name by Suzanne Collins and starring Katniss Everdeen, It was directed by Gary Ross. In another 2012 release, the Ridley Scott film, Prometheus, Noomi Rapace plays Elizabeth Shaw who when confronted by changes becomes a brave warrior.
Interestingly, the Prometheus script was penned by two male writers, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof which suggests that it is not an imperative that women write or direct woman centered stories.
In 2009 Katherine Bigalow became the first female director to win the Academy Award for Best Picture for The Hurt Locker, a film that is so male driven that it begs the question of who changes perception? Sara Blecher’s Otelo Burning, has also received accolades around the world and is a story centered on young male surfers and was written by James Whyle.
These films serve to illustrate that the key to creative freedom is when filmmakers break with the past and tell fresh stories.