Last week, NPR’s Linda Holmes did the math on movies that were screening in the Washington, DC-area on Friday, and calculated that of the 617 movie showings on the calendar, 90 percent of them were for movies about men, and only one of the movies in theaters was directed by a woman. And this is in a major metropolitan area.
“I want to stress this again: In many, many parts of the country right now, if you want to go to see a movie in the theater and see a current movie about a woman — any story about any woman that isn’t a documentary or a cartoon — you can’t. You cannot,” Holmes wrote. “There are not any. You cannot take yourself to one, take your friend to one, take your daughter to one. There are not any.”
This is terrifying not just because of what it says about how limited the choices for consumers are, particularly in the dude-heavy summer blockbuster season, or about failures of the movie market that don’t seem to happen in, for example, book publishing. Holmes’ piece scared me not just because of what it says about how Hollywood studios and Hollywood filmmakers think about women, or because of what these numbers suggest about how the rise of the international film market is making female characters less valuable, though those things are depressing too. Actually, I think the idea of women literally fading from our movie screens like Hermione Granger from the photos in her parents house after she casts a spell on them to erase herself from their lives scares me most because it means we could waste an outrageously talented generation of young female actors on the rise.
What about Brie Larson, who played an open-hearted popular girl in 21 Jump Street, is a hilariously sullen teenager who turns out to be surprisingly perceptive in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s forthcoming directorial debut Don Jon, and whose turn as a social worker in Short Term 12 is supposed to be so good that it’s rivaling Pacific Rim and Elysium as my most-anticipated movie of the summer? What about The Hunger Games and Silver Linings Playbook star Jennifer Lawrence, who can shoot a bow, nail a dance competition, and has eyes that can alternately hide anything and reveal everything, even and especially emotions characters don’t want to see? What about Chloe Grace Moretz, who can be enchanting and kind, as she was in Hugo, or a literal or metaphorical monster, as she was in Let Me In and the Kick-Ass franchise? Or Abagail Breslin, who was so winningly un-self-conscious in Little Miss Sunshine, who ran away with Definitely, Maybe, snaffling it from Ryan Reynolds every time she was on screen, and who gets to be Valentine Wiggin, one of the better characters in young adult literature, next? How about Quvenzhané Wallis, Oscar-nominated for her performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild–what might she do in a more conventional Hollywood project like the remake of Annie, in which she’s meant to star?
Is the purpose of these girls and women to grow up to be kissable objects in stories about the self-actualization of men? Why, exactly, are we supposed to care more about self-fashioned superhero Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson) than the adventures of Hit-Girl (Moretz), raised to be a superhero by her father, after she becomes an orphan? Is Breslin fated to become the girl whose beauty is revealed once her glasses are removed and she’s subjected to a convenient makeover, rather than someone spiky and interesting enough to rock out on stage with her grandfather or to become an internationally influential blogger at twelve? As Lawrence moves beyond her early twenties, will we see her spending more time being the means by which damaged men heal themselves, as she was in Silver Linings Playbook, rather than as a superheroine who embraces radicalism, or the instrument of national liberation she plays in the Hunger Games franchise? Are we supposed to be satisfied if Wallis grows up to be a reasonably age-appropriate love interest for Jaden Smith? After dumping an eligible but dull boyfriend in The Help, is it progress for Emma Stone to get chucked off a bridge to further the necessary traumatization of Spider-Man?
None of this means I’ll stop praising a movie like Man of Steel for letting female characters keep their clothes on and giving them actual work to do. Movies about actual men shouldn’t be afraid to have actual women as characters, rather than pliant objects lingering in the wings, waiting to be noticed and bedded. But woman cannot go to the movies on Lois Lane alone, even if she boosts the number of female ticket-buyers who will turn out for a superhero flick. It would be an awful shame for a generation of tremendous young actresses to come of age, only to be slotted into a series of positions and functions that makes them the on-screen equivalent of fifties housewives, serving up support for male characters like a martini before Chicken Kiev.