The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit mannerI may be going off topic here, but with the new version of GHOSTBUSTERS coming out and facing some social media backlash because of its all female cast, I thought it might be interesting for me to write about the continual lack of good roles for women in main stream Hollywood films and my own personal theory as to why that happens.
In 1985, cartoonist Alison Bechdel wrote a strip in which two female friends discuss the 3 rules one of them has for seeing a movie: 1. There has to be at least two women in it. 2. They have to meet and have a conversation. 3. The subject of that conversation has to be something other than men.
These rules have come to be known as the Bechdel test, and it's truly surprising how many movies come out every year and fail to meet its standards. I will sheepishly admit that many of my favorite movies don't make the cut, but that's not really surprising; even a cursory glance of the list of best picture winners down through the years reveal many films that also wouldn't pass. Even 2008's THE HURT LOCKER, the first best picture winning film to have a female director, had practically no women in it.
Simply put, the idea of the male hero heading out on some kind of quest seems ingrained into not only modern story telling but story telling in general. When Joseph Campbell published his now famous survey of comparative world mythologies, THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, he found that most of the world's myths were created by men with male heroes.
When applied to tales of danger and adventure, this is not surprising; men being far more prone to violence than women also makes them more logical leads for stories about those topics (look at how many war films have virtually no women in them whatsoever). But it's not just violent films that men dominate, it's also comedies, dramas, bio pics, whatever. Part of this may also be that, along with being more violent, men also tend to take more risks than women do, which is often the basis for drama, even if it's not always such a good thing in real life.
But I think there is another issue, and that is the nature of empathy. Put simply, women on average experience empathy more easily and deeply than most men do. According to the journal of Neuroscience and Biobeheavioral Reviews, the difference in empathy between men and women begins at birth and increases with age. I think this difference translates into women being far more likely to be able to identify with and root for male characters than vice versa.
In my lifetime, I've met many women who have enjoyed films like 1982's THE THING and 1992's GLENGARRY GLENN ROSS, which have no female characters in them at all. But have I ever met a man who liked a movie with no male characters? Nope. In fact, even finding a movie with no male characters is tough (There's 1939's THE WOMEN, its 2008 remake, 2005's THE DESCENT, and, uh...).
The fact that there is the demeaning term chickflick aimed at any film that appeals to female audiences without any corresponding term for films aimed at male viewers seems to confirm this. So does box office analysis; the recent huge success, THE AVENGERS, a boy's adventure film if there was one, had an audience of around 40% women, whereas the SEX AND CITY films both had male attendance of around 10%. And it applies to children's films too: in 2010 Disney renamed RAPUNZEL to TANGLED and played up the role of the male character in the film's advertising to lure in boys. They did the same thing with FROZEN in 2013, creating ads that made the movie look more like a fun romp with a talking snow man than a princess themed story. Imagine the same studio playing down the roles of ALADDIN in his film or Simba in the LION KING.
|Note that the male lead ALADDIN had only one female character in the poster, whereas the female lead FROZEN still has more male characters|
So what do we do about this? Well, given that films are a business and young men continue to pay to see more movies than any other demographic, there's not a heck of a lot that can be done in mainstream films. Personally, I would encourage both men and women seeking out films with bigger and better roles for women to check out the latest foreign and independent films, where the roles for women both in front of and behind the camera tend to be more prominent. As an avid film goer myself I recently saw the French film THE INNOCENTS and the Japanese film OUR LITTLE SISTER, both of which have better parts for women than most films at the multiplex. Remember, the only way to really vote on the kind of movies studios make is by choosing to spend your money or not. Good movies with good roles for women can be found, it just may take some digging.
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