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