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Friday, October 26, 2007

No Girls Allowed

Recently Jeff Robinov, president of production at Warner Bros., issued a decree stating that the studio would “no longer [be] doing movies with women in the lead,” resulting, as one might imagine, in no small degree of controversy. A few days later salon.com responded by publishing a round table discussion involving 10 female filmmakers analyzing the various factors that contribute to making such a position an accepted (though unspoken) practice in Hollywood. If women make up roughly just over half the population, why is it that Hollywood studios cater almost exclusively to men?

Simply put, money is undoubtedly the overriding factor. There are about a dozen actors whose films consistently surpass the $100 million mark domestically, and rake in additional hundreds of millions of dollars overseas. There are no actresses who can claim this feat (once upon a time Julia Roberts would have been the exception, but she now works only sporadically and, outside of the Ocean’s films, hasn’t carried a film to the $100 million barrier since 2001’s America’s Sweethearts). One could argue that female centered films don’t become blockbuster successes because studios don’t put enough into the production and promotion of such films; but one could also argue that studios don’t go out of their way to produce and promote female centered films because the audience just doesn't show up for them.

Personally, I would argue that one of the major reasons why women don’t flock to see “women’s films” in the theater is because even those are skewed in some way to appeal to a male audience, and are often guided by a male sensibility (whether it belongs to the screenwriter, director or a producer) attempting to simulate a female perspective. Films written for women are, by and large, written for young women and promote standards of beauty to which the average woman has difficulty relating (in the romantic comedy genre especially, the leading female characters also tend to be overly neurotic in ways specifically designed to make their male counterparts seem more reasonable, which tends to make these characters even more unrelatable). When you consider that once actresses get too old to play the ingénue they begin to drift from leading roles to supporting ones, it seems only natural that we're less attached to them than we are to the leading men who litter the film landscape. Leading men are given decades to amass success amidst their failures (Bruce Willis' ratio of bombs to hits is probably about equal by now), but leading women are only given a handful of opportunities to carry films on their own and when their films bomb, they aren't easily forgiven for it.

There is no doubt that the contribution of women to film is devalued, especially the contribution of older women. At the risk of bogging you down in statistics, allow me to point out that the average age of the winners for the Oscar for Best Actor is 44. The average age of the Best Actress winners is 36, a number which is tilted slightly by the fact that Jessica Tandy won at 81, and Katherine Hepburn won three times between the ages of 60 and 74. 44 of the 80 winners for Best Actress were under the age of 35 when they won (and of those, only 16 were over the age of 30).

I’m often frustrated by the lack of decent roles for women – and the lack of films targetted towards women – at a time when there are so many wonderful actresses working, often in films that don't utilize them to their full potential and waste them in lackluster stories and roles. However, I think the issue at hand here is much larger than a simple battle of the sexes. It isn’t just that there are no parts for women, it’s that there is a surplus of roles for white men, and not a lot left over for everyone else. Aside from Will Smith and Denzel Washington, there aren’t any men of color who are regularly allowed to carry a major studio film on their own. To distil the issue down to gender politics misses the bigger picture. Hollywood has a very clear conception of their desired audience, and it is the desired audience of every industry with a product to sell: white men. And white men relate to white men, and white men comprise the majority of people working behind the cameras (directors, writers, producers, etc.), so it should come as now surprise that the stars who carry films are white men.

This isn’t merely a matter of there being a lack of good, leading roles for women, it is a matter of there being both a profound lack of roles for women (of any race) and for men of color, and a lack of people behind the scenes who are interested in catering to those demographics, and/or are among those demographics themselves. In this way Hollywood is basically in step with the world and industry at large, and until the dominant ideology changes drastically, I wouldn’t expect to see anyone outside the usual suspects (George, Brad, Bruce, Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise) carrying the major studio releases any time soon.

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