It’s a tired topic that periodically flirts with progress, but this past year did bring a few feminist cinematic landmarks to a screen near you. There’s talk of 2015 having been the ‘Year of Women’ in the film industry, and sure, it wasn’t a slump year for gender politics. As cinema-goers frustrated by relentlessly one-dimensional female characters and poorly administered romantic subplots (etcetera – the list of irresponsible female representations in film is long), we can look at filmmakers active in the last year and acknowledge that yeah, you did OK.
Peeking at the dossier of this year’s best-grossing films, women’s earnest insistence on equality in the cinematic sphere has made a few steps towards bridging the artistic gender gap. We’ve had more big-budget films featuring female leads bestowed with complexity, some even directed by women, and last month’s debut of Daisy Ridley’s portrayal of Rey in The Force Awakens champions how far the industry has come since its Slave-Leia-in-a-bikini days. The media’s recent treatment of Carrie Fisher is maddening, yes, but it’s unlikely that an unsexualized Star Wars heroine or a woman-loving-woman film like Carol would’ve gotten the positive attention it did in any year before 2015.
Promising statistics surface with a little research – more than a third of films streamed at Sundance 2015 were directed by women – but they come hand-in-hand with discouraging ones: a study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that women directors composed 9% of their peer group.
Cinema releases in 2015 were more female-focused than any year before it: the latest Mad Max instalment; The Force Awakens; Pitch Perfect 2; Cinderella; Fifty Shades of Grey; Mockingjay Part II. Female-driven comedy blossomed, giving us Trainwreck, Spy, Sisters. Clearly, the industry is taking note that the numbers of female viewers in cinemas has surged, but it hasn’t brushed off this justifying mentality where if a female-led film underperforms, it’s the gender of the protagonists that’s the go-to scapegoat before the debate turns to the project’s artistic merit. Female directors now have added anxiety about their work facing the same fate as Suffragette, which tried to get political but was scrutinized with analytical tools male-centric films aren’t subjected to.
At the risk of sounding too ‘Internet Responds In Typical Internet Fashion’, it needs to be highlighted that too many films still fall short of the Bechdel test’s infantile requirements, demeaning tropes still abound, plots too often rely too heavily on romantic elements, and radically problematized portrayals of women are still common. Few of the top-grossing films of the year were without issue, least of all Jurassic World, which protracted the franchise’s masculine bias and was called out as a “sexist mess” by the Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern.
Setting Claire Dearing aside, a side-effect of society’s manic efforts to distance ourselves from the archetypal damsel in distress that plagued cinematic representations reinforces the other polarization, the abstraction of a ‘strong’ woman. Basically, to paraphrase Sophia McDougall, male characterizations are composite, whereas women are often limited by this Amazonite reincarnation of a paradoxical feminized machismo. They’re propaganda for the conflation of romance and weakness but never really dominate the plot, and do little for progress, serving us a brand of heroine that’s an anodyne to throw off audiences who start to question the egalitarian authenticity of gender dynamics.
In reports of cinema’s treatment of women improving, we’re largely seeing an analysis drawn on films made for women, not necessarily by them. Most films directed by women aren’t studio productions; even fewer are released in heavy blockbuster seasons. This problem is tied up in obstacles to visibility: female-directed films tend to get smaller distribution deals, with female directors themselves put off by the industry’s “boy’s club” culture.
The state of the union in 2015 surpasses previous years, sure – a sampling of female-directed films that were box office successes last year boasts Pitch Perfect 2, Suffragette, Selma, Cinderella, Fifty Shades. But of these, the latter two are dubiously meritable of being called progressive, empowering depictions of women.
Progress falls short of institutionalization, but whether 2015 really deserves to be championed as a turning point for gender politics in cinema will be up to what 2016 follows up with. Kung Fu Panda 3, Money Monster, Bridget Jones’ Baby, and Underworld 5 fall all over the genre spectrum and are already slated for highly-anticipated releases this year, with the all-female Ghostbusters reboot, The Girl on the Train and The Huntsman: Winter’s War strengthening the presence of women on-screen. Maybe a few consecutive years of progress on one side of the gender politics die will make headway in correcting the imbalance, in on-screen arenas and off. So, filmmakers: you did OK, and it’s appreciated, but there’s still much room for improvement.