Even With $100 Million Weekends, Women Can’t Win in Showbiz
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 2 just made $101 million at the box office. At the same time that Katniss Everdeen racked up those numbers—below projections, but still an astronomical figure—Jessica Jones became a critical darling on Netflix. It was a great weekend to be a female badass. Unless, of course, you were a female badass who happened to work in Hollywood.
Why? Because this weekend was also the one in which The New York Times Magazine published a monster piece by Maureen Dowd eviscerating Tinsel Town for not taking female creators seriously. The TL;DR version? It sucks to be a woman in Hollywood. Still. Like, worse than in corporate America, or Congress, or Silicon Valley. Not only are successes few and hard-fought, but the memory for them is short.
“The world of movies is fascinating to me because everyone has amnesia all the time,” TV showrunner Shonda Rhimes told the Times. “Every time a female-driven project is made and succeeds, somehow it’s a fluke. Instead of just saying The Hunger Games is popular among young women, they say it only made money because Jennifer Lawrence was luminous and amazing. I mean, you go get yours, girl. But seriously, that’s ridiculous.”
Ridiculous, and also just the beginning. A few years ago, in the lead-up to the first Hunger Games movie, I wrote about Katniss Everdeen’s potential to prove that women could be bankable action heroes. It was a thesis born of hope: if Hunger Games had a good run, I thought, studios might green-light more projects headlined by women, and Katniss’s arrow could be the final blow to the cinematic glass ceiling Joss Whedon warned me still existed. “There is not a major studio that is out there that is trying to make a movie about a female superhero,” he’d said. “They’ll say, ‘This is guy stuff.’”
At the time, it was projected that the movie would make between $70 million and $100 million at the box office in its opening weekend. It made more than $150 million on its way to almost $700 million worldwide—more than the Man of Steel. And yet, three years later, progress has been slow. We’re getting a Wonder Woman movie, yes—it just started filming—and Jessica Jones is here and doing well (though some argue that the woman superhero’s place is, for now, on the TV, where it’s easier to take “risks“) but while the success of the Hunger Games franchise has led to a few more young adult book adaptations, it hasn’t really opened the door for a mass influx of heroines.
— Gal Gadot (@GalGadot) November 21, 2015
Granted, the New York Times piece isn’t about more female heroes. It’s about getting more women producing and directing movies. But the two things are symptoms of the same disease. Saying you don’t want female storytellers isn’t that different than saying you don’t want female-driven stories. In her piece, Dowd points to Jaws as the start of the problem, the moment “Hollywood got hooked on the cohort of 15-year-old boys.” This treehouse mentality is the same whether the women are in front of the camera or behind it.
“Female directors are not only not given a lot of opportunities, but they’re sort of blatantly disrespected on a regular basis,” Leslye Headland, the Sleeping with Other People writer/director who also figured in Dowd’s piece, told me during this year’s Sundance Film Festival. “They’re not given as many free passes. The stories they choose to tell can sometimes be very dismissed. Whereas, if I wrote a movie about a white guy going through a midlife crisis everyone would be like, ‘Wow, that’s just so insightful and so wonderful!’ It’s more of a social, cultural thing that I think is the problem.”
If you think that sounds like bitterness, consider this: A recent study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism looked at 107 films in 2014 and found that less than two percent were directed by women. The study also found that within those films, 11.2 percent had female writers and 18.9 percent had female producers. (It’s even worse for women who are racial minorities. “Our findings demonstrate that women appear very infrequently behind the camera, but women of color are nearly invisible,” researcher Katherine Pieper, one of the study’s authors, noted.) Silicon Valley catches flack for its lack of gender balance, but at 29 percent female it looks like freaking Paradise Island compared to Hollywood.
And the women who have made it in still face a severe pay gap. Jennifer Lawrence—again, the one who just made Lionsgate $101 million in one weekend—kicked up some dust on the topic when she wrote a recent piece for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter newsletter titled “Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co-Stars?” In it she detailed how the Sony hack revealed she made less than the men in American Hustle—a damn shame when, based on the marketing campaign, Lawrence’s magnetism drew in a lot more audiences than Christian Bale’s comb-over—and questioned whether she didn’t demand a better salary because she didn’t want to appear spoiled. “I’m over trying to find the ‘adorable’ way to state my opinion and still be likable!” she concluded. “Fuck that.” Indeed, Jennifer. If Hollywood is going to depend on women to sell its movies, it would only seem right that it cared about their input behind the camera as well. (I know; crazy, right?)
And Lawrence’s demands might actually help female filmmakers. Talking to Dowd for the NYT piece, Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy said that until she mentioned the issue in public, she “had not had one single phone call from a woman telling me that she really, really wants to direct a Star Wars movie.” But then again, maybe none of the women had someone with Kennedy’s number. “I had an agent pitching directors to me recently, and when he got done, I waited, and then I said, ‘So, do you represent any women?’” she told the Times. “He said, ‘Oh, mmmmm.’ I had to bring it up. I think you’ve got to put pressure on them.”
It’s unfortunate, but that pressure might have to come from the bottom up. As Guardians of the Galaxy writer Nicole Perlman told The Wrap recently, “television is just about to take more risks than film. … It’s unfortunate that having female lead on an action property is considered risky. It’s a slow change … and that will eventually filter into film.” (Hopefully she’s right. She is, after all, co-writing Marvel’s first female superhero movie Captain Marvel, which she is looking to turn into “a strong female superhero without making [her] Superman with boobs.”) And Headland, whose previous film Bachelorette had a great run on Netflix, agrees streaming services and VOD provide more avenues for women filmmakers and their stories. “If you want to make your stamp and get your voice out there, it’s the place to do that,” she says.
I didn’t think I would write this piece, honestly. While I was asking people like Headland and Hailee Steinfeld about these issues at Sundance last January, it became harder to believe anyone cared. Knowing that women’s perspectives are undervalued in every industry—let alone Hollywood—isn’t exactly news. Everyone knows it’s good to have boobs if you’re the one trying to sell a movie, but less so if you’re the one trying to make it. But as of today a franchise lead by a woman has made nearly $2.5 billion—within spitting distance of the Mission Impossible movies—and Hollywood still doesn’t see the heroes of Katniss Everdeen’s gender, so it seems worth bringing up.
Because again, something is going on right now. It’s been happening for ages, or what feels like ages, but it never hit top volume. Because if a female-led franchise can hit $101 million in the same weekend that The New York Times reported a Hollywood exec told Maureen Dowd to “call some chicks” when asked about the importance of women in the industry, and it doesn’t go down as the moment when the tide started to shift, then—in the words of Jennifer Lawrence—fuck that.
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