When Lucasfilm’s Rogue One hit theaters in 2016, the film’s lead, Felicity Jones, claimed that, “female action heroes are now the norm.” Upon the release of Rogue One, many, Jones included, cited Jennifer Lawrence’s lead role in The Hunger Games and Daisy Ridley’s in Star Wars as proof that women now rule action cinema. It was a natural assumption to make because the sad truth is, we have never seen so many female action heroes before. And yet, though we can now proudly add Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman (2017) to the list, as well as Brie Larson’s upcoming Captain Marvel (2019), the list remains curiously short of proving itself “a norm.”
Since 2016, Hollywood has arguably seen more developments in its gender politics than in the last ten years combined. This is largely due to the extraordinary turn of events that was the Weinstein scandal, and the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements that followed it, all of which led to intense scrutiny of the industry and its treatment of women, both on and offscreen. It finally felt like we were getting somewhere when Frances McDormand’s short acceptance speech for Best Actress at the Academy Awards provided yet another illuminating moment, apparently offering the best solution so far to Hollywood’s representation problems in the form of an “inclusion rider” (an amendment to a contract “that would require cast and crew on a film to meet a certain level of diversity”). However this “inclusion rider” sounds like a good idea, the idea of diversity mostly included women and people of color only, and still had a blind spot for trans folk or differently abled people. On top of that, the roaring success that was Wonder Woman (2017) seemed to officially put women on the map (of action franchises). So things have been looking good for female heroes ever since, but how much has really changed in the industry itself?
In light of all these big steps forward, Felicity Jones’ claim that female heroes are now the norm makes sense on the surface. However, Stacy L Smith, the woman behind the concept of “inclusion riders,” has been analysing the top 100 films of each year for the past decade and concludes that, contrary to popular assumption, roles for women are not actually increasing. It turns out, being able to cite Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games as proof of women’s newfound equal representation in action cinema, or Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, does in no way indicate a pattern. There may be more prominent females in films, but this does not translate to more roles for females. It remains to be seen whether inclusion riders will be as effective as they sound in theory in the future, but for now, Smith’s research proves that not only are female leads not the norm, but women in fact only constitute 31.8% of speaking characters as of 2017; a shocking number considering how much female heroes have been in the spotlight these past years. Here is a fun challenge: try naming as many female heroes who lead their own movies as you can off the top of your head. Now try again without counting Wonder Woman or Katniss Everdeen and we’ll see how far you get. (Perhaps most surprisingly, this number also reflects the lack of speaking roles for women even within traditionally “female genres” such as romantic comedies. Let that sink in; men still have more representation and better character development in an area historically considered “women’s property”.)
Now, you may ask, “How come female representation onscreen has remained at a paltry 31.8% despite all this major societal push towards feminism?” The answer, like most things in life, lies in money: top grossing films appear to have strategically placed single females to “lead” films (such as Daisy Ridley and Felicity Jones in Star Wars), and have been ostensibly content to leave it at that. After all, it is more financially viable to take one great female character and put her in a prominent role than to cast equal numbers of men and women on every level of the film. As a matter of fact, the BBC’s Mark Kermode suggested in The Business of Film that in the eyes of (mostly white male) film executives, any minority onscreen (such as women, apparently, not to mention people of colour and LGBTQ+ folk) is a financial risk. This would explain why it took Marvel a decade of fans begging to announce a solo film for Black Widow, despite Scarlett Johansson being one of their most bankable stars. Or why Marvel thought everyone would be happy, feminists included, if they gave us one impressive enough woman per film to distract from the severe lack of general female presence in terms of quantity. Katha Pollitt was really onto something when she coined the term, “the Smurfette Principle” back in 1991, which describes the phenomenon present in virtually every Hollywood movie wherein a single female character is the sole representative of her sex within a cast of multiple male characters.
This is not to say that no change has come at all to the action genre; The Last Jedi had a significantly higher amount of women than Rogue One and The Force Awakens, Black Panther managed to pass the Bechdel Test, and Wonder Woman broke a glass ceiling for women both onscreen and behind the camera. Furthermore, in September of 2018, Warner Bros. announced the launch of inclusion riders in a new company-wide policy that will include sister companies HBO and Turner, and we are already seeing the effects of it in their lineup of DC projects: not only is Wonder Woman 1984 in production, but Warner Bros. has fast-tracked a Birds of Prey film that will be written, directed, produced and starred by women (of different ethnicities and sexual orientations, including a differently abled heroine) and has Batgirl, Gotham City Sirens, Supergirl and a New Gods film directed by Ava Duvernay, as well as two more films led by Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, on their slate. It’s safe to say it’s a good time to be a fan of DC’s heroines, but that aside, it is important to remember that change is slow, frustratingly so, and it will be a while yet before the industry is ready to embrace true equality in terms of quality and quantity of characters. This is perhaps most glaringly reflected in the industry’s (and society at large) extreme reluctance to not just embrace trans women, but to simply represent them. There is a long way to go, but for now, we can continue to cheer for efforts such as Birds of Prey in the action genre (and Crazy Rich Asians in the romance genre) for their pursuit of fair representation for women and vow to not settle for the lone Smurfettes that Hollywood seems to favour.
Text: Sofia Jordan
Images: Hilly de Bruin