Films with great women’s roles aren’t always great films. Films with poor female representation aren’t necessarily bad films.
But poorly written female roles will always be a problem for cinema so long as they continue to persist.
The damsel in distress. Angel-whore. The token girl. Trophy wives. Mother, daughter, sister. The unconditional love interest. These are among the popular clichés most frequently applied to female characters as they’re written on the page. Some films are so desperate for conflict that they just keep going to the well without altering the mold.
Have women not earned the right by now to play more villains, complicated lovers, a-holes, The Best Friends, soldiers, comic reliefs or leads? Can a woman be sexy in a film and still have a great role? Yes. Give her agency. Can a woman support other characters but still have a great role? Yes. Keep her vital. We give awards for that.
The summer months are chock-full of popcorn flicks; it’s franchise season, a time to test out stars against the widest viewing public, to bring out the (literal) big guns and new toys and high action and broad laughs. It seems just as good a time as any for us to analyze the top releases for how they treat their, erm, lady parts – the women’s roles in the biggest movies of the year.
We went through the box-office winners so far of the summer, the 14 films (as of press time) that have grossed more than $80 million starting with Memorial Day weekend (which kicked off with "X-Men: Days of Future Past"). Six of the 14 were sequels. Ten total were led by a male, males, or male species (“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”). Four of the 14 were driven by female leads: “The Fault In Our Stars,” “Tammy,” “Lucy” and “Maleficent.” (And none were led by a person of color. Worth mentioning, and worth discussing again soon.)
In the following pages, we rank these 14 commercially successful films based on the strength and weakness of their female roles -- regardless of how critically well-received those movies were overall.
This concentration on the gender disparity in film is not intended to put white male leads down, but to celebrate robust female characters, and to call out crappy ones that draw up to the surface the offensive dichotomies, stereotypes and failings of females as often written in film.
Filmmakers resort to tired tropes maybe because they don’t know how to write women, and maybe they think audiences won’t notice; are used to it; or, at worst, “enjoy” the subjugation and diminishment of women.
But all lovers of cinema -- not just women -- should demand equal thought and development to females on screen, and should take insult to lazily written constructs.
Remember, these films are fictions. We shouldn’t accept that the imagination fails. Great roles are important because they help great cinema, no matter the gender. The poorly constructed ones will only hurt the art, and constrict our escape into the world. It can even harm those who absorb it.
Our loose ranking is based on some of these criteria:
Damsel: Were the female character or characters put into a victim role (or killed) in order to help forward the plotline of a male character?
Cheesecake: Did the film make gratuitous show or tell of the woman’s appearance, as a replacement for character or to undermine the woman’s agency?
Bechdel Test: Far from a perfect criteria, the Bechdel Test has three requirements: two or more women characters… talk to each other… about something other than a man.
Leading ladies: Who were the main women in the film? Were they the lead or support?
Here are the films we examine:
Transformers: Age of Extinction
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
How to Train Your Dragon 2
22 Jump Street
Amazing Spider-Man 2
X-men: Days of Future Past
Guardians of the Galaxy
Edge of Tomorrow
The Fault In Our Stars
2013 | Comedy | NRSummary: Insanely funny comedy show created by Amy Schumer, who stars in brilliantly funny sketches about sex, city living, dating, and friendship.Director: Daniel Powell, Amy Schumer (creators)
Cast: Amy Schumer, Kevin Kane, Mike Houston
1997 | Crime | RSummary: Quentin Tarantino adaptats an Elmore Leonard novel into this story of a few increasingly desperate people scraping to get by. It has deep soul, a wicked sense of humor, and Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, Pam Grier, and Robert Forster.Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster
1996 | Crime | RSummary: Jerry, a small-town Minnesota car salesman is bursting at the seams with debt... but he's got a plan. He's going to hire two thugs to kidnap his wife in a scheme to collect a hefty ransom from his wealthy father-in-law. It's going to be a snap and nobody's going to get hurt... until people start ...Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast: William H. Macy, Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare
1995 | Mystery | NRSummary: Denzel Washington plays an out of work WWII vet who takes the wrong job and is soon neck-deep in a mess of politics, murder, and jazz in '40s Los Angeles.Director: Carl Franklin
Cast: Denzel Washington, Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beals
2007 | Comedy | PGSummary: Newlyweds Nick (Ice Cube) and Suzanne (Long) decide to move to the suburbs to provide a better life for their two kids. But their idea of a dream home is disturbed by a contractor (McGinley) with a bizarre approach to business.Director: Steve Carr
Cast: John C. McGinley, Ice Cube, Nia Long, Aleisha Allen
1993 | Sports | PGSummary: Emotionally powerful sports classic featuring Sean Astin as a skinny high school kid with big football dreams and the determination to make his way towards his dream team at Notre Dame.Director: David Anspaugh
Cast: Sean Astin, Jon Favreau, Ned Beatty
2013 | Drama | RSummary: Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill have boundless energy in the story of a real-life commodities crook who earned millions through scummy small-time stock trades.Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie
2008 | Science Fiction | PGSummary: Animated series continues the story of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker as they battle the Emperor Palpatine, Count Dooku and General Grievous, but also takes time to explore other smaller characters in the Star Wars universe.Director: George Lucas (creator)
Cast: Tom Kane, Dee Bradley Baker, Matt Lanter
2013 | Thriller | RSummary: Based on the true story of Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) a Miami bodybuilder who wants to live the American dream. He would like to have the money that other people have. So he enlists the help of fellow bodybuilder Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and ex-convict, Christian bodybuilder Paul Doyle (D...Director: Michael Bay
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub
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