Can 2014 Be The Next Big Step For Women In Film?

So in case you didn’t notice, 2013 was a big year for women at the movies. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was (in America) the highest-grossing movie of the year, with Frozen and Gravity also among the top 10 grossers. All of this would suggest that female-led movies- even action-adventure/genre ones- are fully capable of drawing a broad audience, despite the prevailing Hollywood “wisdom” to the contrary. Thankfully, 2014 is perfectly poised to build on these recent successes, and the end result should be more big movies with female heroes, and more female characters that are more than just pretty faces to be rescued. My reasons why after the jump:

There are plenty of movies coming out this year that will hopefully contribute to this movement, but these are the ones that I’m most excited about, and what about them I think will add most to the art form in terms of developed female characters. It should be noted, however, that the vast majority of these roles would be described as “Ass-Kicking” women, strong physically as much as mentally or emotionally, and are found in geek-friendly genre material as opposed to straight-up dramas. That’s partially a result of my own prejudices and tastes but primarily due to the lingering lack of well-developed protagonist roles for women in such movies. Now without further ado:

Veronica Mars: the return of one of the great modern TV heroines has been much anticipated and discussed, and the first trailer shows a solid neo-noir with a lot of added depth for people who have seen the show. But regardless of any preexisting knowledge of the show and its world, if VM The Movie lives up at all to VM The Show, it should provide moviegoers with a terrific female protagonist, who can take care of herself and hold her own in a fight, while still being a rounded and thoughtful and vulnerable character. Can’t wait to see Kristen Bell to return to her original Awesome Lady role (which is still her best, despite the greatness of Frozen).

Divergent: Another side effect of The Hunger Games’ success has been the proliferation of YA dystopias with female leads, with Divergent being the first prominent example to make it to the multiplex. And despite some ogling of Theo James’ abs in the trailer, this movie definitely seems to be following the mold of Katniss in terms of having active and driven protagonists (as opposed to that other YA “heroine” played by Kristen Stewart). And having Shailene Woodley play such a character only improves the chances that it’ll be a protagonist worth rooting for. Combine that with themes of teenage identity crisis (identifiable for people of both genders) and maybe Divergent can succeed where all of the non-Harry Potter/Hunger Games/That Other Book Series knockoffs have failed.

Neighbors: now this one might seem like a bit of a stretch, given that Neighbors mostly looks like an across-the-board bro-fest. But one element of the movie (as shown in the trailer) that excites me is the fact that Rose Byrne, playing Seth Rogen’s wife, seems to be completely involved in the action. I could easily imagine a version of this movie where Rogen teams up with Jonah Hill or Bill Hader to fight the frat boys and Rose Byrne plays the shrill, bitchy (ie rational and mature) wife that tells them not to engage in the fight. But here, Byrne seems to be playing the partner-in-crime mode, completely with Rogen in the war with the bros. And honestly I think that’s awesome.

Edge of Tomorrow: Yeah, it’s another solid actress playing second-fiddle to Tom Cruise. But unlike other examples over the last couple of years, Emily Blunt seems to be in total ass-kicking mode here, at least Cruise’s equal if not his better (after all, it looks like he goes to her for training, which in and of itself is a nice change). Honestly I’d like to see a movie that follows Blunt’s character instead of Cruise’s, as she looks a lot more dynamic. I guess I’ll have to settle for her stealing his thunder every chance she gets, which is a very likely possibility.

Tammy: One of the things I liked about Frozen was that it was built more on a relationship between sisters than on a romance. And the best thing about Bridesmaids was that it was really about (female) friendship and finding a direction in life, not about getting a guy. In the same vein, Tammy follows a female lead who, after being betrayed by her husband, reconnects with her grandmother while on a road trip of desperation. And while the cheating husband Inciting Incident might be a bit obvious, I still appreciate the different narrative focus, and that Melissa McCarthy herself is behind the creation of it. I’m looking forward to her and Susan Sarandon going at each other, two headstrong women fighting it out and growing together.

Jupiter Ascending: The Wachowskis have crafted their fair share of strong women over their career, and while the first trailer for Jupiter Ascending (which btw HOW AWESOME DOES THIS LOOK?!?!?) focuses a lot on Channing Tatum’s badassery, I highly doubt that Mila Kunis will spend the whole movie as some shrinking violet/Macguffin to be fought over. By the end of it I’m sure she’ll be kicking ass right alongside Tatum, and be right in line to inherit the mantle of Cool Space Heroine from Carrie Fisher.

Jane Got A Gun: While it’s unfortunate that Lynne Ramsay never got the chance to do this movie, we still have Natalie Portman playing a frontier housewife with a past who has to make some tough (and presumably violent) decisions to protect her family after her outlaw husband is betrayed by his gang. No matter who the director is, this should still make for a great story with a strong woman at it’s core. Especially considering the period in which the story is set, having a woman with a sinful past defending her home from a band of killers is exciting, and Portman should bring the proper amount of fight and vulnerability to it as well.

Serena: Directed by Susanne Bier, this sounds like a classic epic drama, featuring the barren wife (Jennifer Lawrence) of a timber baron (Bradley Cooper) and her efforts to build him up into a truly powerful man. While some people might be tired of the Lawrence and Cooper pairing, it’s refreshing to see a large-scale drama such as this that focuses on a woman and should be a more dynamic and less ass-kicking role for Lawrence to dig into. While I might be a little concerned that Serena’s major characteristics are defined by her (lack of) motherhood and her husband, I have faith that the role will be one of depth and intelligence.

Another huge turning point down the line (that could at least be announced this year) would be a movie based on the current Captain Marvel, aka Carol Danvers. Her comic book (written by the great Kelly Sue DeConnick) has been a breakout success, and inspired an equally (if not moreso) boundary-breaking Ms. Marvel series starring a young Pakistani-American girl. If Marvel Studios finally nuts up and gets on the Active Female Protagonist bandwagon, it could represent a major stepping stone in gaining some gender parity, particularly amongst “fanboy” franchises. Despite the prevalence of genre material on this list, the geek world could still use more gender balance, both for more distinctive movies and to (hopefully) combat the casual misogyny that lurks in the corridors of geek power.

However it should be noted that more than anything else, the real gender issue here is the lack of female creators (i.e. writers/directors) currently working in Hollywood. Even among the list of movies I just provided, less than half of them have women sharing screenplay credits, and only one of them is directed by a woman (I guess you could count Lana Wachowski as well, but she broke into the industry while still identifying as a man, and she shares credit with her brother Andy, so the point is still valid). Once the industry starts being more inclusive on a creative and developmental level with female filmmakers, I’m sure the amount of stories with well-developed women at their center would increase exponentially.

I’ve come to start considering all of this through a variety of influences, including my long-held appreciation of the works of Joss Whedon and Tina Fey, and the fact that my relationship (two years young in a week!) has made me more conscientious of a woman’s POV. But after last year, which contained not only the massive box office (and comic book) successes mentioned earlier, but indie successes like In A World…, it’s impossible to be ignorant of this situation, and to not think it’s ridiculous. And in considering all of that, I’m reminded of all the great female characters that I’ve rooted for in my pop culture history, and how great it would be to contribute to that legacy. As such, I’ve realized that it’s in the best interest both of my story and the art form to build active, well-rounded female characters that contribute to the story and don’t just sit on the sideline. I owe it to the women in my life, my fellow geeks be they with or without a Y chromosome, and to many of the storytellers who inspire me, to put as much effort and craft into the women in my story as I do the men. If we’re really lucky, maybe some actual filmmakers will come to the same realization and we can have some real change.

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