Women and film in 2014: some highs, many lows, and a lot of progress still to be made

It’s been an interesting year for women in film, with no prizes for predicting huge improvements in the margins and stagnation or backwards movement in the mainstream.

Criticism was exposed as a large part of the problem with female representation, as even critics with supposedly PC overtones revealed themselves to be tied to outdated methods of evaluation, and comic book films – films based on the 1950s/60s reading material of white American boys – or films that promoted a masculinised perspective were disproportionately praised.

However, there was at least some talk about why women struggle so much in film representation, particularly around the Bechdel Test – the cleverness of which lies in its simplicity and in its extraordinarily low bar.

As we became more aware of our bias around women and film, it becomes increasingly difficult to defend such an outdated position. More than any other year in film, the Bechdel Test has hit the mainstream, and films that pass its test have been scoring big bucks at the box office – just to disprove more of the mythology around women in film.

In the wake of these revelations, one of the hot topics of female representation in film for 2014 was the financial repercussions of making what has been termed “women-centric” films.

Unsurprisingly, as we focused on the financial gain and wielded the Bechdel Test as a simplistic yardstick, many discrepancies emerged with the industry’s relationship with its own data collection, and given the converging roles of advertising and film we were surprised to find that the research into money and the female audience was sparse. The lack of real data fosters mythology that leads to the very real problems of overpaid male actors, underpaid female actors and the decisions behind which films get funded at all. Perhaps the Bechdel Test’s greatest accomplishment has been to show us how little we know about who, what and why we go to the cinema from a commercial aspect.

One of the problems when discussing box office is the habitual practices of movie-goers. For example, hetero girlfriends may attend Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Bad Neighbours with their boyfriends, but may not expect the same generosity if she wants to see The Women or Tammy. This immediately inflates and distorts box office trends, and is instantly recognizable when analyzing the consistency between data that indicate men dislike “romance” films statistically, and yet female interest in “action/adventure” is almost equal to “romance” in their youth. Interest by women in these films greatly decreases in their more mature years, when no longer so easily swayed by male opinion (or more comfortable to attend cinema alone). Her choice of films with a female protagonist is greatly reduced, of course, and more often than not restricted to romance or drama stories. Men will attend and enjoy more “female perspective” films later in life, but without the drastic overall demographic changes women experience as they get older.

According to this study, it is possible that women will find a concept interesting regardless of its protagonist’s gender, whereas men are more likely to immediately reject a concept if it has a female lead. (Please note – I can’t find figures more recent in Australia than 2010. I’d be happy to be corrected on any of this with more recent, well researched papers.)

The problems here are obvious – the studio assumes, based on research, that it will make more money from Captain America than it will from Maleficent, and that is partially accurate, but proper analysis of why this is remains predictably thin. The astounding financial success of a girl-power film like Frozen (2013) reveals females will respond financially to a heroine they connect with, but these successes are ignored, or barely analysed still in 2014. (Frozen made $200 million more at the box office in 2013 than its top selling counterpart, Transformers: Age of Extinction did in 2014, not to mention the enormous sales it has and still generates outside of the box office.)

Critical analysis contributes problematically to this (and we had stark examples in 2014) by over-hyping films like Captain America (which features a racist and out of date hero) or X-Men: Days of Future Past (which had a dog’s breakfast of a plot) and reviewing them on “fun” terms, while over-analysing a film like Maleficent, slamming it for not being politically correct enough and judging the appropriate use of a “rape metaphor”. And I still strongly maintain cutting off wings is only a rape metaphor because it happened to a female body; on a male subject, it would have been a removal of power, and never seen as a rape metaphor. The obvious references in Maleficent to the goddess Nike and the winged victory of Samothrace were ignored, or worse, missed, and the film downgraded for assumed critical arguments, while many strong aspects of the film (that were actually in the film) were ignored.

If success happened for women in the audience in 2014, it was usually despite the critics. The Other Woman, while slammed by the critics, saw the male-fantasy-ripe Kate Upton refuse conditional male-bestowed privilege in preference for female solidarity, and again was a huge commercial success with great writing by Melissa Stack. Predictably it was called “shrill” repeatedly by critics, but I saw it commercially, in a room filled with women, who were obviously having a tremendous time. Thank god they are savvy enough to ignore reviews. Perhaps they know something the critics don’t? The film made slightly under five times its budget, a higher financial success than the 2014 versions of X-Men and Captain America, which are claimed to be greater box office successes despite bloated budgets.

We saw the same problems with Interstellar attracting lucid critique regarding its physics for Christopher Nolan, and Lucy being slammed for its biological statements, exhausting Luc Besson in his attempted “explanations” of the proper scientific neurological perspective he was taking, and the complex research he and his team had done, including consultation with numerous neuroscientists. The most banal criticisms were reserved for Lucy, while Interstellar was assumed to be complex and therefore investigated with more open minds.

Tammy was another women’s film out of step with critical analysis, with it having enormous female appeal at the box office (another women’s film to make more than five times its budget) while Melissa McCarthy is back-hand complimented for ‘being so much better than the film allows her to be’ despite the modest critical success for her obvious comedic talent in the past. It also happens to be the first film she wrote. Over and over we see talented women, who make a definite impact on female audiences, refused positive cultural status by critics.

However, there were successes that not even the critics could ignore in the mainstream cinema in 2014. Rose Byrne and Jillian Bell outshone their male co-stars in two of the years biggest comedies Bad Neighbours and 22 Jump Street, both being applauded by critics for carrying the films and out-funnying their male comedic super co-stars, Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill. Emily Blunt thrilled us with a female action hero that remembers the battle but forgets love in Edge of Tomorrow, The Hunger Games and Divergent contributed two new films to their pro-female franchises, and Angelina Jolie is directing one of the year’s most hotly anticipated Oscar-bait films with Unbroken. A crowdfunded Veronica Mars gave off great vibes and Rosamund Pike thrilled us with one of the most complicated female characters to ever hit the screen, as written by Gillian Flynn. While the problems for women in Hollywood remain, there are enough snippets to make us hungry for improvement.

The Bechdel Test has provided an obviously low, but impossible to ignore baseline for the bare minimum a film can get away with regarding female representation, and 2014 saw it hit the mainstream critical analysis with a vengeance. As I mentioned above, immediately it was a base for research into the economic value of test-passing films and came up trumps, with its ability to create a clear lucid standard for financial revenue regarding female representation and challenge accepted norms that had been ingrained as truths. It has provided a rational vehicle for an unambiguous conversation about female representation and 2014 saw it debunking many myths about women and film that supported the status quo, and more problematically, passed as facts. Criticisms are circulating about its use and its low standard, and all of this is important and relevant, but best of all, its exciting women to realize the political importance of their spent dollar. In the mainstream women are discussing with other women what they want from films, and questioning the money spent at the box office.

Outside of the mainstream there were tremendous films made by women and/or about women in 2014 and it is where the greatest successes lay. Just slightly off to the side, we have yet to see Selma in this country, but Ava Duvernay just won Best Director for her work by the African American Film Critics Association, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw won Best Actress for her outstanding work as the lead in Belle, which won director Amma Asante high praise in 2014 as well. Abuse of Weakness, made in 2013 but released here and in the United States in 2014, was a studied masterpiece by the always unsettling and underestimated Catherine Breillat. Australian film maker Jennifer Kent wowed the world with her written and directed horror film The Babadook, and the Soska twins (Jen and Sylvia) whose films I love, came out with See No Evil 2.

Same sex cinema stepped away from the traditional hetero-centric “coming out” narrative, to get into more complex representation of lesbians in film, including director Sophie Hyde’s fascinating 52 Tuesdays. Desiree Akhavan brought us Appropriate Behavior, a bi-sexual Persian woman’s very funny experiences trying to get her life back on track, and the underappreciated Regarding Susan Sontag examined Sontag’s lesbian relationships with depth and relation to her writing, and was a standout film of the year for me by Nancy Kates. Another great documentary some of us got to see was Kate Bornsetein is a Queer and Present Danger, about the LGBT icon who wrote the book of the same name and is surely one of the most interesting people alive. There were biopics about women like Violette Leduc and Elizabeth Bishop, as well as many documentaries focused on female musicians. While the mainstream constantly misunderstands its audiences, it seems as usual, the indies are right on the money.

It’s been an interesting year for women in film in 2014. Some highs, and many lows, but fortunately that depends on where you look. No matter how much we love our movies, it is one of the most conservative art forms due to its dependence on the image, and it seems to have gotten more so as the industry panics about internet film distribution, pirated films and the decline of the cinema.

But more women are making films than we’ve seen in a long time, and as audiences become more connected with their dollar, and films more accessible on the internet, we will see that audience making itself more visible and therefore making stronger demands. This can only be a good thing for women and film.

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