A year including Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2, and Inside Out shows that female protagonists can be more original and compelling than their leaden male counterparts.
End-of-year summations can sometimes feel a bit unnecessary, trying to sew together a thematic thread where none actually exists.
The proposal that “this was the year that [insert apparent phenomena] became a thing” often ends up ignoring a lot of what came beforehand, as well as skipping over details that don’t quite suit.
So, to flip things on its head a bit, here are some arguments why the crux of this article – neatly summarised in italics at the top – doesn’t hold together:
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been a success primarily because it resurrects a well loved franchise. The newer characters were incidental compared to fan favourites from the original trilogy.
- Mad Max: Fury Road is a similar proposition, plus the name of its (male) protagonist is in the title, you bloody dolt.
- The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 is the finale to a series which began in 2012. Doesn’t really count as something that properly belongs to 2015, does it?
- Inside Out is a kid’s film for the sake of goodness, who’s taking that seriously?
And none of that is wrong, exactly. But it doesn’t negate the fact that 2015 should be seen as a real, positive turning point for the representation of females in blockbuster films – extravaganzas which because of their massive budgets are extremely risk adverse. (As Ridley Scott has previously discussed when defending the lack of diversity in 2014’s Exodus.)
Here are some responses to those points above, which hopefully should help explain why this year has been something at least a tinsy bit special.
And don’t worry, there will be NO SPOILERS.
1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Obviously there is a need to tread extremely carefully here, as to mention anything beyond the lightest of details could potentially enrage those after a “pure” viewing experience of the massively anticipated new Star Wars film.
So yes, the film is doing amazing well mostly because of past associations. That much is obvious.
But the reason that it has been received so euphorically is because the story contained within the film works. And it does so thanks to the new characters – including Daisy Ridley’s Rey – at its heart. She is at least as vital as anyone else in the film, and at no point is she treated as somebody less able because of her sex. To say anything more would give things away, but her arc is central to a skilfully constructed sequel which seems set to become the highest-grossing film of all time.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
Mad Max: Fury Road may bear the name of its central male character, but the glorious explosion of cinematic ecstasy – yes, I was a fan – revolved around Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who also provided the emotional centre.
Tom Hardy’s Max was pretty much literally along for the ride, while it was resourceful and determined Furiosa who defined and drove the plot, and helped see the rapturously received sequel/reboot hailed as a feminist masterpiece.
That wasn’t creator and director George Miller’s intention, and he himself has said it wasn’t a “conscious decision”. That in itself is a marvellous thing, for it means that there was no gimmickry involved – and that the decisions made felt normal.
“People keep saying ‘strong women’ but we are actually just women. We had a filmmaker that understood the truth of women is powerful enough and we don’t want to be put on pedestals or made to be unnaturally strong.
“What we are capable of doing is really interesting and informs a story like this.”
3. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2
The success of The Hunger Games three years ago probably helped some of these other films have females front and centre, rather than being damsels in distress who constantly need rescuing.
While Mockingjay, Part 2 didn’t do as well as some anticipated, it was still the sixth-biggest film in the US this year, which is still a pretty major achievement. Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen – and her iconic bow-and-arrow pose – was pretty much everything you wanted in a heroic lead, while feeling much more relatable and realistic than other blockbuster peers. As opposed to Twilight, the love triangle here revolved around a young woman able to make her own decisions, even when volunteering could end her life.
With the four Hunger Games films having made almost $3bn at the box office, who would worry about financing a multi-part female-centric franchise now?
4. Inside Out
Complex and beautiful, Inside Out provided the sort of emotional resonance that Pixar is renowned for, somehow taking the inner workings of an 11-year-old girl’s mind and transforming it into a story which was funny, melancholy, sweet, and wonderfully realised.
It managed to do so without being condescending to Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), and her main emotions Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) start as simple caricatures before deeper truths are revealed. Compared to the cruder understandings and depictions of yesteryear, to have blockbuster animation which deals with encouraging and understanding emotional and mental wellbeing is frankly pretty bloody awesome.
And that’s not to mention other efforts such as Tomorrowland. Sure, it may not have succeeded at the box office but it was actually a good film – nifty, engaging, and fun – just as you’d hope for from Brad Bird, the formidable talent behind the likes of The Incredibles/The Iron Giant.
Having Disney invest £190m in the telling of a story about a curious teenage female science geek going on a voyage of discovery… Well, that’s encouraging, even if it wasn’t a financial triumph.
By comparison to those main four films mentioned, what had been the most anticipated blockbusters – such as Avengers: Age of Ultron, which was infamously dominated by a quarrelling gang of super-powered alpha males – felt leaden and achingly predictable.
Of course, this all doesn’t point to some sort of seismic shift. It’s not as though any great battles have been won, and anything approaching true equality is still a long, long way off. (Let’s not hold our breaths until we have the first transgender lead in a blockbuster, for example.)
However, it does mean that things are improving, and that young girls watching these films will see being empowered as the norm, rather than something exceptional. That’s something to be celebrated – especially when it has helped make this year’s cinema a bit less dull and dreary.